Katy Nelson is Lead Wilderness Ranger for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Central Idaho. Her small crew of Rangers does valuable work throughout the SNRA which includes the Sawtooth Wilderness, White Clouds Wilderness and Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness.
From her cabin in the Sawtooth Valley, Nelson puts on her nametag and grabs "Shovey" the shovel before hitting the trail. With a backpack almost as big as her, there's no debating how fit you have to be to do this job.
Wilderness permits help guide and focus management efforts, provide Wilderness rules and regulations to visitors, and aid in both search and rescue and fire evacuation efforts. Permits are available for free at Wilderness boundaries within the Sawtooth Wilderness.
From the White Cloud Mountains, Nelson radios in to South Idaho Dispatch to give an update on her current location. When you spend your workweek in the mountains, a radio check-in to dispatch may be the only voice you hear all day. Although the quietude of this place is nothing less than magical, so is hearing a human voice now and again.
Carrying paperwork up the mountain and doing homework is all part of the job. Everything gets documented using GPS, photographs, and notes and is often compared or used in the field to analyze change over time.
It seems to always take a couple throws to get it right, and it's genuinely a fun daily challenge, but it's crucial to set up a bear hang to keep food out of reach from claws and jaws.
Water samples are taken in remote lakes to assess air quality. Each sample has to be taken in the exact location as previous years. Here, Rangers Chelsea Phillippe and Katy Nelson point at natural features and compare notes to their physical location for finding the correct sample site.
Long plastic gloves keep the sample from being contaminated and allow Nelson to collect the sample from the proper depth.
Phillippe holds on to Nelson while collecting a water sample from Ingeborg Lake. Under the Clean Air Act of 1977, Federal land management agencies are required to protect air-quality related values in Class 1 Wilderness Areas.
Water and air temperature, weather conditions and lake levels are all part of the water sampling process. Conditions in which the sample was extracted are important to the overall analysis.
Nelson and Phillippe work on making sure everything is labeled correctly based on a standard procedure and protocol. Air quality is extrapolated from the water samples through laboratory analysis of dissolved particulates present in the water.
Measuring human impact in Wilderness campsites takes a keen observer. Whether it's analyzing user created trails or the condition of the overall campsite, it takes experience to know what to look for.
The square footage of a tent pad is measured at a campsite at Island Lake. This information can be valuable in showing human impact over a period of time.
Light breaks through the clouds on the way to Island Lake. There's something about being in the White Clouds that can only be defined as special. Rugged beauty, shifting light and changing weather combine to create an absolute rawness.
Hiking off trail with a fully loaded pack is always a challenge. With many years of experience Nelson navigates and conquers terrain with ease.
Although wood signs aren't light to carry they do have to be replaced in the Wilderness. Signs are made by hand as needed and provide a limited amount of information to maintain the Wilderness character.
Removing fire rings is a regular part of the job. Fire is a major responsibility in wild places. Fire rings often cheapen the experience of users who want to be in a place that is completely natural.
Campfire rings are not allowed anywhere in the Sawtooth Wilderness. In some areas, campfires are allowed in fire pans or on a fire blankets, but never on the ground. Here, she turns up the scarred ground in a meadow after naturalizing the illegal fire ring. Turning the soil helps stimulate growth in the damaged area.
Nelson keeps a tally of every fire ring she dismantles. Sometimes she looks for the exact location in which the rocks were pulled from and puts them back to maintain the area's original character. She then naturalizes the site with small twigs, dry leaves, needles or forest duff to disguise the area.
Tin foil is the stuff of nightmares for Wilderness Rangers. Often used for easy cooking, It doesn't fully burn and is often left in fire rings. It all has to be hauled out by Rangers like Nelson.
It's not uncommon for a Ranger to haul out 10 pounds of trash each hitch. With an ever-growing trash bag, Nelson takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of the area after cleaning up several campsites.
Bryce Parker patrols the newly designated White Clouds Wilderness. On August 7, 2015 President Obama signed this new Wilderness into law which was big news for the State of Idaho and for Americans alike.
Parker installs a Wilderness boundary sign in the newly desiginated White Clouds Wilderness.
With these wild places seeing thousands of visitors per year, it's important to deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails.
Parker finds the perfect place to get radio reception near Castle Peak. Castle Peak is the tallest and most awe-inspiring mountain within the White Clouds Wilderness.
Rangers use topographic maps to help move throughout the mountains off trail. It's more efficient to access many of the locations this way, so being able to read the terrain is crucial to the job.
Nelson and Phillippe enjoy each others company during a lunch break in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Food and good company seem to be the most sought after items in a Ranger's life.
An alpine start is often needed to make the mileage and maintain the workload. The reward is watching the sun hit the peaks at first light.
In the most remote environments it's best to set up camp, go "light" and make the rounds. There's something about being in wild places with good, hard working people that just makes this work so special.
There are those times during the day where you have to take a second for yourself and appreciate what's around you. Nelson watches the sun go down over the surrounding peaks near the Big Boulder Lakes.
The amount of ground a Ranger covers is impressive. The work days are long and challenging but the payoff is something that is extremely personal and rewarding.
Another day in the life of a Wilderness Ranger in Central Idaho.