October 30, 2012

The Kyoto Protocol

Recently on a shift change night at Sandwash Ranger Station my peers and I were talking shop around a fire. As river rangers
we regularly chat with boaters and try our skills during teachable moments. Sometimes the results of such talks have a beleaguering uncertainty. We speculated whether or not those talks ever did have an impact on folks. I said that I thought those moments did have an impact on folks even if it didn’t seem apparent at the time. I used the true story below to elaborate.

On a routine Desolation Canyon patrol I stopped to visit with a trip just upstream of Nefertiti, about 8 miles from the end of a week long rafting trip. The trip consisted of about 20 people and 8 or 10 boats. One of the boats had an elk antler they’d picked up near Three Canyon. Since collection of these objects was a violation of the trip stipulations I wanted to chat with them about the antler.
I was rowing our BLM patrol boat we named Maggie after a wilderness specialist in the Utah State Office who helped to obtain the money to purchase the gear hauler. After I was done quizzing the trip participants about their trip, the trip leader, from SLC, said he had a friend that had a problem with the BLM and that he wanted to ask me a question.
I was fairly new to BLM, in my first few years of rangering. I was nervous about what the question would be, but na├»ve enough to be stoic and confident as Eli paddled up to the patrol boat in his inflatable kayak. I was standing up on the ridged floor and my 6’2” immediately felt un-comfortable as I stood above Eli. I sat on the tube so as to not tower over Eli. Eli looked at me out of the side of his eyes and asked me in a heavy Eastern European accent the following:
“I would like for you: US Government to tell me how you: US Government can tell me to shit in groover, and put fire in firepan, but you: US Government will not sign Kyoto Protocol?”
It was a good thing I sat down because my heart about stopped! When I started working for BLM it never occurred to me that someday I’d have to represent the entire government, even the parts I disagreed with. The day was quiet and still, the boats squeaked together as they spun in the eddy. My mind raced and 20 people waited for an answer. I began babbling something; I think I was empathizing with Eli. After spitting out a few words the answer came to me and I spoke with the conviction that only belief in my subject could have delivered.
I told Eli that despite much of the terrible reality of the world, that he was finishing a week passing through a river corridor where he’d seen nary a telephone pole worth of civilization. I told Eli that his trip through Desolation Canyon was indeed no substitute for an environmental statement like our government not signing the Kyoto Protocol, but that he must hold the experience of his trip in both hands. I held up my two hands like I was trying to hold water. I told Eli that he must hold his experience close so that none of it slipped away, and to be encouraged that such places still exist where one can float for a week through the wilderness. Eli was still looking at me out the side of his eyes in a skeptical way. I smiled at Eli, thinking I'd given him a pretty good answer, but he was more stoic than I, glaring at me, as he turned his IK and paddled away. His trip followed and I sat by myself in the eddy wondering if I said the right thing.
I felt like a big nerd and was embarrassed to continue downstream until they were way out of sight. I tied the Maggie boat and swam in the tepid eddy water of mid-summer. I went over the interaction in my mind and determined that I was un-abashed about being a nerd. After all, rangers are supposed to be nerds.

The months turned to seasons and I forgot about my interaction with Eli until several years later. I was on duty at Sandwash Ranger Station when a boater knocked on the door. I went to the door and vaguely remembered the face, but couldn’t place from where. He said hello like we were old friends, and asked me to come down to the river to say hello to some people. I grabbed the satchel and wandered down to the river where the SLC trip leader re-introduced me to his friend Eli, from Bulgaria. Eli approached me saying he was very glad to see me, and that he remembered what I said, as he held his two hands cupped like he was holding water. He said he thought about what I said and that he agreed so he brought his sons to see this, holding his cupped hands up again. One at a time, with his head held high, Eli proudly introduced me to his three sons from Bulgaria who he escorted here to see Desolation Canyon. 

After Eli finished his introduction he left me speechless again. I told him the pleasure was all mine, but secretly my pleasure was standing witness to the full circle of change that this wild river canyon had just performed on one person. Through thick and thin, I have always known that my chosen work is for a good cause, but up until this point I hadn't witnessed the potential it could have first hand. After Eli's group floated away from Sandwash I went for a long walk to one of my favorite places to sit and think. I contemplated what I had just experienced. I was encouraged to know that even during times of beleaguering uncertainty that my work as a river ranger was good, in perhaps, more ways than I knew.

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