The idea of setting a novel set at Mount Rainier National Park has been a dream of mine ever since I started my writing journey. I spent two years working as a ranger there in my younger days, so I know the park pretty well. I can still close my eyes remember the details, right down to the scent of decomposing fir needles on the forest floor.
One problem—I write historical fiction. I needed to know about Mount Rainier in 1927. What was a ranger’s life like in that era?
After sending several emails back and forth with park curator, Brooke Childrey, I scheduled an appointment at the park archives in Ashford, Washington. This simple little building houses a remarkable collection of treasures that park visitors rarely see. Government documents, photographs, old signs, artwork—you name it—it’s catalogued and stored. I was in park-history-geek heaven.
She handed me a pair of dainty white gloves and off we went. Hours later, I had perused photos from the 1920s, read through annual reports written by the Chief Ranger of the time, and taken reams of notes. Each new question I had for Brooke, she either had an answer, or she knew whom to ask. Several times, she grabbed the telephone and called other park staff. There’s nothing like having a research expert who’s enthusiastic to help you find the answers you need.
Here are a few interesting things I learned about ranger-life in the 1920s.
- Rangers (even high-ranking ones) spent an excessive amount of time fixing telephone lines. I can’t imagine district rangers doing this type of work today.
“District Rangers were only able to repair about 30 miles of telephone lines due to the late melting of snow.” Chief Ranger Monthly report, May 1927.
“At times it was necessary for all available rangers to assist the linemen in locating and repairing breaks.” Chief Ranger Monthly report, January 1927.
- They also spent a lot of time pulling automobiles out of ditches and repairing roadways.
“Due to the unsettled condition of the slopes, banks, shoulders, etc. ditches and culverts were filled by frequent slides. This condition has to be watched very carefully in order to prevent serious damage from washing of the roadway during periods of heavy rainfall.” (December 1927).
- The workload for an average ranger was quite different than today.
“One temporary ranger is located at Lake George to regulate fishing, maintain telephone lines and trails from his district to Sunset Park [essentially the entire western side of the mountain]. 637 miles of trail were patrolled by this ranger during the year.” (August 1927)
- In 1927, Rainier had 8 permanent rangers and 17 seasonal employees.
In 2016, there were 110 permanent and career-seasonals (furloughed in winter) and 175 true seasonals. Even though this is a massive change, you must consider that the park service now uses the term “ranger” to include more jobs than it did in the past, plus there has obviously been a massive increase in visitation in subsequent years.
- In the early days of the park service, rangers were expected to shoot or trap certain predators “in the interest of game protection.”
- The hero of my book, Ford Brayden, works as the park’s chief ranger. In a bizarre coincidence, the man who actually held that job in 1927 has the same last name as me—Barnett. As far as I can tell, we’re not related. [See photos].
One thing significant thing hasn’t changed. Just like today, park visitors are sometimes clueless about the hazards they might face—a fact that shows up in The Road to Paradise. Today we have problems with people trying to snap selfies with wild animals (http://wapo.st/1FcPnBz?tid=ss_tw) and others trying to rescue “cold” bison calves (See article: http://wapo.st/1XfN1YY?tid=ss_tw). In the 1920s at Mount Rainier, campers insisted on feeding bears and ignoring warning signs:
“All animals are in excellent condition. Bears have been more numerous this year than usual around the camps and hotel kitchens. Some of them have become entirely too friendly for the piece [sic] of mind of campers and some of our park residents. Those that have become more or less tame and unafraid of people are quite a problem. Inexperienced visitors will insist on feeding them from their hands and often in a spirit of fun tease them, which invariably results in the animal becoming angry and retaliating. Warnings signs have been posted at the places where bears frequent but, as with other signs, the public pays very little attention to this caution.” (August 1927).
Much of what I learned in the Rainier archives made its way into The Road to Paradise, mixed together with my own memories of what it was like to work and live in the park. I can’t wait for readers to experience Mount Rainier through my characters’ eyes.
This past summer I took a trip to Yosemite National Park to begin research on the second of my Vintage National Parks novels. After visiting some of the iconic locations in the park, you can guess what my next stop included. You guessed it—the park archives. Because our national parks aren’t just rich in scenery and wildlife—they’re also loaded with history.
Karen Barnett, award-winning author of Mistaken and The Golden Gate Chronicles, lives in the Albany, Oregon with her husband, two teenagers, and three mischievous dachshunds. When she’s not writing, Karen enjoys photography, hiking, public speaking, decorating crazy birthday cakes, and dragging her family through dusty history museums. Website Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Road to Paradise
About the Book
An ideal sanctuary and a dream come true–that’s what Margaret Lane feels as she takes in God’s gorgeous handiwork in Mount Rainer National Park. It’s 1927 and the National Park Service is in its youth when Margie, an avid naturalist, lands a coveted position alongside the park rangers living and working in the unrivaled splendor of Mount Rainier’s long shadow.
But Chief Ranger Ford Brayden knows too well how awe-inspiring nature can quickly turn deadly. Ford is still haunted by his father’s death on the mountain, and the ranger takes his work managing the park and its growing crowd of visitors seriously. The job of watching over an idealistic Senator’s daughter with few practical survival skills seems a waste of resources.
When Margie’s former fiancé sets his mind on developing the Paradise Inn and its surroundings into a tourist playground, the plans might put more than the park’s pristine beauty in danger. What will Margie and Ford sacrifice to preserve the splendor and simplicity of the wilderness they both love?