are we low priority?

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torpified
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are we low priority?

Post by torpified »

This is a question I didn't fold into my trip report, due to the sour note (radically incongruous with how I felt about the trip) it struck.


tl;dr: does anybody else feel like the NPS has begun blowing off IR backpackers?

in more detail: I'm wondering if others have the sense that, over the last few years, the park's NPS agents have become less focused on visitors who spend time in the backcountry, and more focussed on visitors (a growing demographic, thanks both to COVID and the uptick in interest in the parks keyed to their 100th anniversary and ancillary developments, like the awesome Ken Burns documentary) who are briefly tagging the park before moving on?

Let me make it abundantly clear that I celebrate visitors of both types! For instance, I *love* seeing the hordes of gawking ``tourists" glutting Yosemite Valley. That was me, age 7, and some of them are, thanks to what the glutting is enabling them to experience, future conservationists. And let me also make it abundantly clear that if IR has limited resources (which surely it does), it makes sense---for reasons easy to extract from the previous sentence---to expend them on the "taggers."

My question is whether that's what's going on. I didn't visit IR in 2020. My previous visits were characterized by concretely informative permitting interactions, and sincere-seeming debriefings by the rangers at the end points, where they asked about (and appeared to listen to answers concerning) trail conditions, wildlife encounters, and (for bookkeeping purposes) discrepancies between my original itinerary and what I'd actually done. Maybe this was brilliant customer service, but it also left me with the impression (that it would be brilliant customer service to cultivate) that my answers might inform what they told other hikers contemplating routes similar to mine, or even ongoing field research.

Last year and this year felt very different. On neither occasion did the person permitting me say anything specific about what to expect. (I had to figure out on my own, the hard way, that sometimes the route through beaver features is marked by tape.) On both occasions, the rangers at my end point were adamantly uninterested in hearing about what I'd seen---even though (although they couldn't possibly have known this, because they didn't ask) last year I'd walked both a little-travelled trail (the spur to Malone, where I wish I'd known about how the tape worked) and a heavily-trafficked one (the GRT), immediately after an epic storm that left a variety of damage they probably wanted to know about, and this year I was fresh off of an early season traverse of the Minong. In both cases, I was storing up elements of the set of things I wished someone had told me before I left. I had answers to the questions they weren't asking. But they weren't asking them.

This year and last, I also felt a heightened indifference (compared to previous years) to the matter of whether I'd stuck to the itinerary I'd been originally given. Last year it was impossible (without repeatedly exploiting spacetime wormholes) to stick to that itinerary. But when I reported to the ranger collecting my permit that my actual itinerary was very different from my projected one, which was extremely weird, he snatched my permit, and said something about it all coming out in the wash. He also refrained from asking followup questions about how many unexpected beaver dams I encountered. This year, I couldn't find anyone (interested in debriefing or not) to submit my permit to. In Windigo we'd been told that if we were finishing in Rock Harbor but taking the Voyageur back, we should turn our permits in to the Windigo rangers when the Voyageur called there. I thought this was implausible, and in the event, no one was let off the boat at Windigo (maybe because the Voyageur was trying to minimize our exposure to the 4 ft waves enhancing our return journey that fonixmunkee has descirbed). When I walked into Rock Harbor at the end of my hike, I encountered some rangers whom I sounded out both about the general question of whether our permits would really be collected at Windigo and about the specific question of whether they wanted to hear fascinating stories about my adventures. About my adventures they were adamantly uninterested (which I would say was fair enough, except for the fact that my past self---the one setting out---would have valued testimony, not conveyed when I got my permit, about what my present self had seen). About the actual permit, they insisted that I could either leave it in a drop box outside the RH visitor center, or submit it when I disembarked (which I didn't) in Windigo. (I wound up leaning out from the bow to inflict it on the backup Windigo ranger, who being an exceedingly good sport, professed to be grateful.)

And while I can't connect the dots, I feel like all of this is of a piece with the dreaded "How Wild Is It?" version of the orientation briefing, which seems better geared to bracing insagrammers for disappointment than backpackers for what they'll actually face. And I feel like it's also of a piece with the ludicrous instructions being issued about how to deal with campsite overcrowding: those who arrive so late that there's literally no space (including in front of shelters, an option that's new this year) in a campground to set up are supposed to retreat to cross country camping zones---even though many of the late arrivals, arriving late having bit off more than they can chew, are in no condition to seek and establish a cross country site

Maybe I've been unlucky/unduly judgemental. What are your reads on these questions?
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by backwoods doc »

A hard discussion. I've only been to the island three times, which of course, is enough to be completely hooked. Last summer, I was sad to see that a couple of really stellar rangers that I interacted with in 2018 and 2019 didn't survive the relative hiatus of 2020. Could it be that the park is in a period of rebuilding/training a new group of rangers?

I would suggest that you send your concerns directly to the park superintendent. It's early enough in the season that some of this could be corrected quickly and improve the experience for others this year.

Regarding campsite overcrowding, I think it's time to bite the bullet and institute a reservation system.
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by torpified »

backwoods doc wrote: Sun May 29, 2022 7:46 am
Regarding campsite overcrowding, I think it's time to bite the bullet and institute a reservation system.
while sacrificing the capacity to revise itineraries on the fly would be a crying shame, I agree!
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by odd man out »

To me, the most obvious explantion consistent with your observations is not that there is a concerted effort to dismiss the interests of the backpackers but rather a symptom of park rangers
having to make tough decisions due to understaffing across the NPS. My guess is they can pick out the experienced backpackers and knowing they can take care of themselves, istead focus their attention on the novices who are more likely to get themselves into trouble.

I can't speak to ISRO specifically as i haven't been there recently, but i did just get back from 5 days of backpacking in the Grand Canyon. On my hike out, i met a volunteer who was staffing the Santa Maria Springs rest hut. He said his job was to look out for people in trouble since the rangers cant be everywhere due to staffing shortages. He also said the Bright Angel trail is where the vast majority of problems occur, almost always with ill prepared day hikers (not experienced backpackers). I also met a backcountry ranger who was definitely interested in my hike and took notes on my input on some trails that needed better signage. Also chatted with a ranger on the biology team who told me about his research and answered a bunch of my questions. Of course this is a different park, but it seems the same issues are facing the whole NPS.
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by treeplanter »

Rangers come and go. Some rangers stay for years, others move on after one year.

And don't discount the dramatic increase in visitor numbers over the past fifteen years. Island visitation in 2007 was about 11,800 people. In 2021, it was 20,100 people. That's a huge increase that's having a definite impact on the Island.
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by Ingo »

torpified wrote: Sun May 29, 2022 8:16 am
backwoods doc wrote: Sun May 29, 2022 7:46 am
Regarding campsite overcrowding, I think it's time to bite the bullet and institute a reservation system.
while sacrificing the capacity to revise itineraries on the fly would be a crying shame, I agree!
For paddlers in particular, this would create some serious safety issues. As many times as not my trips have been altered by the weather and lake conditions in the interest of staying safe (and not dying). The pressure of making the next reserved campsite would certainly cause more folks to put themselves in harms way. Similarly for boaters. I'm not sure what the answer is, but this would be a inevitable and serious consequence of a reservation system.
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by backwoods doc »

Not necessarily. There could be exceptions for unanticipated health/safety/weather issues.
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by Bobcat1 »

There is not an exception for weather/injury at nearby Voyageurs NP which implemented reservations and campsite fees a few years ago. I do not know how strictly things are enforced.
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Re: are we low priority?

Post by Kelly »

Got off the island at Windigo yesterday. Some of what I'm about to say will end up in the trip report.

I ended up spending the last four nights at Washington Creek, so I had a chance to observe the rangers a bit more than usual. At first glance, I was disappointed that some long-time rangers were no longer there. Last year's head ranger in the west was moved to Rock Harbor after one year, so with the exception of perhaps one or two interns (aka Volunteer Rangers), everyone there I encountered is either new to ISRO or new to NPS (mostly the latter). This is on the interpretative side—no idea about the law enforcement rangers.

On my first full day in Windigo, I took in the guided nature trail hike, led by Ranger Caden, who is beginning his first season with NPS. At the end of the hike, he told us that it was his first nature trail hike. Later in the day, I attended his lighthouse presentation, and at the end of that, he admitted that was his first public presentation of that event as well. In both cases he acquitted himself well for a first-timer, and I'm sure he'll be totally rocking his presentations by the end of the month.

Ranger Caden was in the Visitor Center most times I went in. He was always helpful, and we threw him a couple of hardballs for someone who doesn't have a science-y background. He didn't claim to know things he didn't know and was usually able to find the answer or refer us to someone who did know.

I did learn from Ranger Caden that trail crew resources were diverted to cleaning up after the Horne Fire. By then I had already internally waxed philosophical about blowdowns on the Minong.

Ranger Luke is the new head interpretative ranger for the western end (or something of that sort—it's possible I've mangled his role). It's obviously not his first time with NPS, but it is his first season with ISRO. We had less interaction with him, and yet what we did have was impressive. He had the same attitude about things he didn't know that we found in Ranger Caden—which is something I find encouraging. I did report an interesting experience I had during permitting to Ranger Luke. Perhaps it will affect future permitting experiences. I turned in our permit well before the arrival of Voyageur, and Ranger Luke made adjustments on the permit based on our slightly complicated last few days. I didn't bother to report on trail conditions on the Minong, partly because it's probably the last place on the island that anything will get adjusted or cleaned up. And probably partly because it was going to sound like complaining or whining, and did I expect five-star accommodations? No. But I'll have something to say about that stream crossing later.

We interacted less with the others, and anything less than positive we experienced we usually chalked up to youth and inexperience. I overheard one ranger over-recommend moose-sighting locations, and I expect they will be doing less of that by the end of the season.

Anyway. All of that is to say a couple of things: ISRO could probably do with some more staffing, and I left the island with strongly positive thoughts about the young people of today.

More as the trip report unfolds!
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