The Kirschners' home is a national park. For a park ranger and his family, Mt. Rainier is a big backyard
Rick Kirschner kicks a little snow off his boots before entering his office. He has just driven down from Paradise, a few miles farther up the mountain. Thick snow can persist there long into summer. Rick settles behind his desk at Mt. Rainier National Park headquarters here. Desks and offices have become all too familiar to this nine-year veteran of the Park Service. Certainly he's had his share of walking trails and rescuing people -- the things usually associated with being a ranger. He once spent two days himself stranded at the bottom of a crevice in one of Rainier's many glaciers.
But paperwork has multiplied in recent years, as regulations governing law enforcement and safety inspections have tightened (a needed step, Rick admits) and cuts in the federal budget have decreased the park's staff.
The ratio of office work to outdoor work, formerly about ``50/50,'' is now more like ``80/20,'' he says. But it's a career he'd trade for no other. Its main compensation, he says, is ``just being in a park like this. I find it such a beautiful place.''
For Rick, the spectacular vistas and sparkling air of the Northwest's national parks have been the setting for major steps both personal and professional. He met his wife, Jan, at a 10,000-foot campground when she was serving as a seasonal ranger at Rainier. They were married at Crater Lake National Park after he got his first permanent ranger job.
The Kirschners and their two little girls, Kristin and Kimberly, occupy a comfortable cabin at Longmire that used to be quarters for the park superintendent. As we walk there from his office, Rick points out a deer grazing on a snow-laced patch of meadow nearby. Along with other wildlife, it is a frequent visitor, sometimes strolling right into the Kirschner backyard. One of the park's many trails can be picked up a few steps beyond that same backyard -- and the family makes a habit of taking hikes during snow-free months.
Such amenities more than make up for the lack of other things, such as clear television reception and nearby supermarkets. Little Kristin giggles, telling how she likes ``to go to the window'' to see the deer. Just about school age, she's even been on an eight-mile hike with her mom and dad -- though she didn't walk quite all that way, Rick adds with a wink.
Like a lot of people who chose this career, Rick spent a number of summers as a seasonal ranger, tending trails and helping out visitors, before entering the ``ranger intake program'' and getting the permanent post at Crater Lake in 1977. When a job opened up at Paradise, back at Mt. Rainier, Rick quickly applied. He and Jan stayed at that snowy but idyllic spot for a little over a year -- ``loving it,'' he says. But the energy crunch of the late '70s forced the Park Service to shut down the Paradise station in winter, and the Kirschners descended to Longmire. About that same time Rick's responsibilities grew to include a number of other areas in the park.
When Rick first worked at Rainier, there were 15 full-time rangers here. Now there are a dozen that take care of the 378-square-mile park. More than ever, seasonal help is crucial, since the numbers of visitors has ballooned to around 2 million a year, three-quarters of that from June to September. With that many people in the park, the summer helpers ``become our eyes and ears for so many things,'' Rick says. Crime in the park has also increased somewhat, with Rainier's rangers having to make four to eight arrests a year, he says. Most are people wanted for offenses committed elsewhere, but occasionally there are thefts or assaults within the park. This is nothing compared to a hugely popular park like Yosemite, notes Rick, ``where they arrest something like 600 people a year.''
The summer staff expansion also means a much enlivened social life at Longmire, with potlucks and barbecues -- something the Kirschners would miss if they, like a number of other ranger families, decide to move out of the park when their children get a little older.
The issue is being forced right now, since Kristin will be entering kindergarten next fall. Kimberly has another three years or so at home. That'll mean a long bus ride down to the Columbia Crest elementary school a few miles outside the park. Beyond that, ``children these days at Longmire are few and far between,'' says Jan. That leaves the girls with a dearth of playmates.
Jan feels they'll probably move, and in fact they've already bought some land outside the park. Still, ``we'll miss it,'' she says. ``It's nice to catch a trail right at the back door.''
To get their roomy cabin, the Kirschners put in a bid. Any ranger can bid on a place when it becomes available, Rick explains, though factors such as tenure and family size play a part in who gets it. They pay a rent gauged roughly to prevailing prices in comparable communities outside the park. The Park Service does, however, figure in the ``isolation factor'' in deducting from the market rate. All major maintenance on the house is handled by the government.
Life up here can be pretty isolated much of the year. Just how isolated became clear the night Rick had to rush Jan to the hospital with their first baby on the way. An ambulance took over at the park entrance. (Among his more unusual experiences, Rick once had to help deliver a baby himself, for a couple who got snowed in up at Paradise.)
Grocery shopping means weekly treks to larger towns such as Puyallup. When everybody's errands and appointments are figured in -- visits to the dentist and dancing lessons for Kristin, for example -- it's a day-long affair. Once every couple of months they make the 2-hour trip to Seattle to visit Rick's parents and spend some time at the aquarium, museums, and other big-city attractions.
Apart from the distance to get places, daily life for a ranger and his family also means the constant possibility of emergency. The short-wave radio in the Kirschners' cabin is on all the time. ``Have you told him about the two-in-the-morning calls?'' asks Jan.
They've opened their house to cold, hungry climbers just rescued from a cliff or glacier. Just two nights ago Rick had to hustle out to help right a car that had slid off the road and got stuck. Three nights earlier there'd been a fire alarm at 3 a.m.
But it all comes with the job, as do the magnificent forests of virgin firs and pine, the pink hue of the mountain at sunrise, and the views of deer, elk, and bear. Rick only hopes the paperwork will stay within bounds so he can keep ``in touch with the resources,'' and perhaps spot a cougar someday -- the most elusive of the park's many wild creatures and the only one he has yet to see.
In tomorrow's Travel section: America's national parks.