I’ve been a volunteer for the National Park Service for some time now, and, while out there, patrolling the trails, I have collected a few stories I like to tell my friends when they want to hear about my experiences. Some of them are funny, some of them are sad, some of them are infuriating, but they all make the ‘job’ well worth it. I can’t, understandably, share every one of them, but here’s a selection of the few I can.
It was at the end of a long day. I was coming back towards the headquarters on the Bear Valley Trail, and the forest was quiet and tranquil, filled with the golden light of a sun that’s on its way to bed. Here and there, a bird would call out, having noticed me, probably the last person to still be there that day.
Only when I got a little closer to the trailhead did I start meeting visitors; a few people here and there, mostly locals, getting in their last stroll at the end of the day. I engage in short conversations with them, answer questions they ask me about the trails, the flora, the fauna, and anything else, wish them a good evening and a good walk, and continue on my way.
And then I meet him: a guy who has a parrot walking on the ground, marching forward as if it owned the place and was conducting an inspection. Its breast is proudly shifted forward, its talons are leaving tiny prints in the dust, and its look is directed at me, staring at it as if I was in a dream. And honestly, I thought I was, for a few moments.
On most trails in Point Reyes, dogs aren’t allowed, and Bear Valley is one of them. One of my responsibilities as a trail patrol is to politely ask people to turn around and walk back to their car if they bring a dog on a trail where it doesn’t belong.
I didn’t know what the policy was for exotic birds. Partially because there is no policy about exotic birds. Partially because, you guessed it, nobody even thought about making a policy about exotic birds. Because who takes a bird on a walk?!
We exchange ‘good evening’s and ‘how are you doing’s with the man and I’m wondering how to address the bird when he introduces it and calls it on his shoulder. The bird stops staring me down to fly and half hide in the man’s hair (slash beard).
“We’re just takin’ a walk, he won’t fly ‘way,” the man tells me, probably having had a conversation about the bird with a ranger before. “Look’ he’s on a leash now.” The man reveals a thin silvery chain clipped into a loop on the bird’s talon.
“Well, look out for mountain lions,” I say, wish him a good evening and a good night, and he gives me goodbyes with a wide smile.
“Thank you for your service here,” he calls out when he turns to continue on the trail, whistling. The bird joins in with the song. They disappear in the golden light of the late afternoon filtering through the trees, the song still hanging in the air, the only reminder they’ve ever been there.
I never called the bird in because A) it was past 7 pm and only the emergency personnel was on dispatch and B) the whole situation was a little surreal and I couldn’t bring myself to believing it really happened.
The Guys Who Tried to Become One With the Ocean
Alamere Falls is a beautiful place. A waterfall pours over a cliff and lands on the beach — or, when the surf is high, right in the ocean. There are days when the water seemingly magically just disappears in the sand, and there are days when it carves its way towards the waves, biting away at the sand and making it collapse into the very temporary river. When the high tide comes, it erases the carvings and the water can start all over again.
Whenever you visit, you’re guaranteed to see the place as no one has ever seen it before and no one ever will after.
It’s a little bit of a walk to get to this one, and people often underestimate it, getting dehydrated on their way back, or having to finish their hike in the dark without headlamps. It’s not unusual for me to meet visitors on their way back from the waterfall, asking with slight disbelief how much further the trailhead is and complaining that it was shorter to get to the waterfall than to get back to their cars (it’s an out-and-back hike).
However, no amount of unpreparedness and not-so-clever decisions I’ve seen play out on the trails could have prepared me for what I encountered one day when I visited the waterfall.
The surf was high; there was a storm far out on the ocean that our visitors didn’t know about, and the waves that were attacking the coast were more furious, unforgiving, and dangerous than what you’d usually see on a pretty day like that one. I scrambled down the cliff onto the beach and crossed the stream that was carved out by the water that day. Visitors were all near the cliff, and the waves were reaching so far that only a strip of the beach was available for semi-safe passage.
It wasn’t the best day to be on the beach; one rogue wave and we all could have been swept into the ocean. (A high-surf warning was issued for that day but not everybody checks the forecast and warnings, let’s be honest. This beach is quite far out, and unfortunately, it’s not easily possible to monitor the visitors’ access there, since the trails used to get there are crucial to the passage to other parts of the park, so we can’t just close them.)
I was about to take a short break and then head back out when I heard distant whooping coming from further down the beach, and further out towards the ocean than what would be comfortable. I trained my eyes in the direction it came from, and there they were; a band of guys swimming and jumping in the water, near where I know from previous visits giant sharp boulders are waiting under the waves, ready to crack some skulls like walnut shells.
I immediately headed in that direction, getting my own shoes drenched when a particularly high wave washed onto the beach, chasing away a few visitors who scattered towards the only way up the cliffs. I didn’t want to be there; I still had some leftovers of self-preservation instincts and, more importantly, brains to tell me it was a bad idea to be on a beach you can’t easily run from, let alone swim in the waves that could pull you under faster than you can blink.
I started to wave frantically at the guys. Luckily, they noticed pretty fast. My uniform isn’t the most eye-catching thing out there (thank god), but it’s still quite recognizable, even from further away. They made their way back to the shore while I was clutching my radio in my hand, ready to call for help the moment it looked like they weren’t going to make it. After some struggling and with a TON of luck, they made it back safely.
I can’t make people feel dumb when I try to tell them something they’re doing isn’t exactly the best idea, given they want to stay alive longer. But those grown men, all taller and definitely more buff than me, all looked like puppies who knew they did something incredibly stupid when I politely asked them not to do it again and told them about the high surf warning and the dangerous boulders waiting under the waves. They packed up their things pretty fast after that and left the beach together with me.
By the time we scrambled up the rocks, everyone was gone and the waves were high up, washing up against the cliff itself. One of their argument for taking a dip in those definitely not swimming-friendly conditions was that they wanted to “become one with the ocean.” Well, have I not interrupted this attempt, they very well could have been — forever.
Thanks to their spiritual journey and me having to put a stop to it, I had to hike over 11 miles to the headquarters in completely drenched shoes, which, yes, I’m still bitter about.
Wood fires are prohibited in campgrounds. Transportation of organic material isn’t good either, as it helps spread diseases and invasive species. (You should clean your shoes before backpacking and make sure there’s no organic matter on or in your tent.)
That being said, many who book a campsite in the park don’t necessarily read the rules before signing their names on their permits or decide to ignore them because “one time won’t break it.” (Sure, just like the “one-time” gender reveal didn’t set fire to half of California.)
Look. I get it. It’s nice to have a little wooden fire when camping, and it sucks when you can’t do it. But there are real reasons for why you can’t, and there are also alternatives. You can carry in charcoal and cook food on that. Yes, it isn’t as pretty as a wood fire, but it’ll warm your hands up just as well. Or you can have a wood fire on the beach, with a permit. Coast Camp is great for that.
(For more information on fire rules in Point Reyes, click HERE.)
I’m hiking in the southern part of Point Reyes when I see a group of five backpackers heading towards me. We exchange ‘hello’s and ‘how are you doing’s and they show me their camping permits even before I have the chance to mention them. Beautiful. (Back then I was still a little shy and engaging in a conversation didn’t come so naturally to me, therefore this gesture was a welcome one.)
I see the name of the campground they’re headed for and am about to wish them a good weekend and a good night when I notice one of their friends carry an armful of sticks and wood, very clearly collected during their hike.
“Um, I’m sorry, but wood fires and wood collection aren’t allowed here,” I say, trying to sound somewhat confident.
“Oh. Sorry, we didn’t know that,” he says and holds onto the sticks. I stay silent for a few seconds, waiting to see whether he figures it out and puts the stick back down or no.
“I’m going to have to ask you to put the wood down and leave it here,” I say.
“Oh.” He reluctantly puts it down, looking like a child whom I just took a toy away from. “Why can’t we have fires?” he asks.
I go on and explain the thing about fires and how they like to burn down stuff, suggest alternatives for the next time, and tell them about invasive species and diseases. They all seem to be listening, actually engaged in the conversation and asking questions.
Everyone except this one guy. We say goodbyes, I wish them a good night, return their permit and adjust my planned loop to cross paths again on a trail closer to the campground. (Something told me he wasn’t going to be a happy camper and I could probably see him trying to set fire to something sooner or later.)
Lo and behold, a few miles later, I’m heading down the trail when I see two of the group walking towards me. The moment they see me, they pause, look back, look back at me, then look back again. Immediately, it’s clear what I’m going to see when I meet the rest of the group and that guy again.
I tip my hat to them and continue down the path as if I haven’t noticed their struggle trying to decide whether to turn around and warn their mate or just hope nothing too bad will happen to him. It’s a little comical.
Not even half a mile later, I see the guy, sticks sticking out from his backpack and piled in his arms, and his two other friends striding towards me, laughing loudly, completely unaware of my presence until they basically bump into me. When he finally looks ahead and sees me, the extra miles I have and will have to hike are instantly worth it.
He stops dead in his tracks. The smile freezes on his face. He looks at the wood in his arms and back at me, waiting for me to say something. I actually don’t know what to say because my social skills suddenly left me alone, so I just stare at him, unintentionally, arms folded.
It’s getting a little awkward and the part of me that houses my social anxiety is starting to freak out, but I’m sure he’s freaking out as well, so I just stay quiet until I can think of something to say. His friends just stand there, too, looking at us looking at each other.
The stare-down doesn’t last long. He clears his throat and puts all his sticks on the side of the trail, then takes the ones out of his backpack and puts them down, too. Without a single word, he starts walking past me, while I smile at him sweetly. He’s almost past me when I say, “You know there are rangers who sometimes check the campgrounds at night, right?”
“Really?” He sounds genuinely surprised.
“Maybe don’t have a fire tonight, okay?”
“Have a good night!” I wave, he waves back, looking a little confused, and heads towards the campground.
“Thank you,” one of his friends mutters.
The sticks are still where he dropped them when I hike on that trail the next weekend.
More from Point Reyes:
Photo: Laguna and Coast Loop (this one is old, from long before I was a trail patrol)
More story-time posts: