At our Fort Abercrombie staff meeting last week, District Ranger Wayne Biessel started us off by saying, "This can be a fun job--We do good things for people." I thought that statement was a telling one, because it indicated something about the Park staff's outlook and their mission of trying to provide a high-quality experience for visitors to the Park. Fort Abercrombie is a bit unusual in that it's immediately adjacent to town. It has heavier use by the local population than by visitors to the Island, a situation I found mildly surprising during my first year here.
The Park does have its attractions, including some of the best views on the island, and some very pleasant easy walking trails. It's a great place to take the kids tidepooling and one of the finest locations to see the Island's wildflowers. The Wildflower Trail has been upgraded over the past year and more clearly marked for park visitors. (And on the subject of wildflowers-they'll distract me every time-the Nootka roses in the meadow exploded into pink bloom last week, brilliant white and fragrant spires of bog candles now protrude up through the wild geraniums, and yellow splashes of arnica and elegant goldenrod are working themselves into the meadow's color pattern.) Lake Gertrude is Kodiak's swimming hole in nice weather, and the Group Recreation Area is a fine place for birthday parties or organization picnics. There are some surreal compromises resulting from Fort Abercrombie's close proximity to the town and its heavy local use: division of the Park into on-leash and off-leash areas for dogs, and actually having loaner leashes handed out at the Visitor Center.
The rangers get especially busy, and occasionally challenged, trying to provide that high-quality experience during "crazy behavior weather." That's when the sun comes out and the wind dies down for several days at a stretch. The rangers are keeping it safe, but they still feel like spoilsports as they get into the business of unstringing zipwires and rope swings at Lake Gertrude. Dust billows on the road to Miller Point, and drivers seem to forget all about the 10mph speed limit. Litter cleanup becomes a bigger part of the job in nice weather, and attempts to provide the quality outdoor experience take on some attributes of primate house management. One ranger, faced with an especially unsavory mixture of disposable diapers and beer cans, wanted nothing more than to get the message to the departed campsite occupants: "I realize you're raging against the machine and all...but I live here too, and have to clean all of this up."
How far the Park should go in protecting the public also requires some careful consideration. Still, there is what I think of as a healthy difference in attitude between our Park and similar ones in the lower 48. While there are some newly placed or repaired safety ropes and rails along some of Fort Abercrombie's more heavily traveled cliff edges, there's also a welcome dependence on common sense to protect people from sheer drops into the ocean. If Fort Abercrombie were located further south, I suspect that the perimeter of Miller Point would be outlined by a secure metal chain-and-post barricade. We've had the occasional running leashless dog do the Miller Point Plummet, but so far, no people.
A conversation with a proprietor of one of Kodiak's remote lodges nicely summarized the dilemma associated with differences in expected levels of protection. When I offered to tell friends back in Michigan about his place, he said, "Don't tell more American tourists about the lodge. Send me some Germans. They're the ones who will wander alone outside just to shout, 'Jack London, I am here!' They want to help chop wood--if they lose a fingertip they'll show the injury back in Bremen, and say proudly,'Yes, I lost this in Alaska.' An American loses a fingertip and he just sues you."
Come out to Fort Abercrombie for a common-sense-safe and high-quality experience in an extraordinary setting. It's the goal of the Park staff, too.