As a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in northern Minnesota, Tim McKenzie is a jack of all trades and master of every one. The diverse nature of his responsibilities spans from fighting fires to enforcing wilderness regulations to digging latrines.
His commute to the office includes a 17-mile paddle to a remote ranger cabin on Lac La Croix where he typically works with a partner for eight consecutive days. Among their to-do list: clear windfalls, maintain campsites, reroute portages, help lost travelers, and assist medical evacuations.
McKenzie, 61, was born in Duluth and grew up in Hoyt Lakes. He didn't wait to enter this work. In 1975, the Forest Service was hiring temporary labor to fight a wildfire at Kekekabic Lake. He literally jumped in, spent several days at a base camp, and returned with enough time to shower before his high school graduation.
He once described a huge bull moose gliding into the woods like a shadow and vanishing without a sound. His work is like that. Rangers go in, do their work, and depart without much fanfare.
After 34 years of service time, and counting, for the Kawishiwi Ranger District in Ely and the LaCroix District in Cook, McKenzie has compiled many memories. Here are some edited excerpts from a recent conversation.
On the range of work
When you're working wilderness, as soon as you leave the parking lot, you're basically on until you drive back into the parking lot.
We use to do a lot more motor patrols on the lake than we do now. Some of those would get kind of hairy now and then. I've had chases and boats try to ram my boat. I was pulled off the lake a time or two by the Forest Service because I was threatened.
When I go into camps and check wilderness permits, I also go over the rules and why. A lot of people aren't aware of why cans and bottles aren't allowed. If every campsite in the Boundary Waters would burn off, it would show so much trash you'd be amazed.
Especially before the opener or early season, I could easily haul out 10 or 15 large trash bags. Some of it might have been from late in the previous year and we couldn't make a last go-round. But in the last 15 years, it seems like there's less.
On human interaction
The wildlife has never been a problem. But I'll run into people who have guns on. I'm not interested in carrying a weapon. It introduces an element into my interaction that I don't want to have. Some people view it as a veiled threat, other people don't even see it.
I love talking to people in their camps and telling them area history or stories. They're on vacation and most are in good spirits. I sit down and have a cup of coffee with them sometimes.
You can kind of tell by the arrangement of their camp and how they comport themselves, if they're someone that you're going to deal with. I've gone into camps by myself and written tickets to biker dudes. Couldn't have been nicer guys. Wrote them up for having cans of beer. With others, you go into their camp and they kind of look like your old math professor. But they're following you around with a sharp fishing knife and bitching at you.
You can also tell by paddling up to a campsite how much experience someone has just by the nature of their gear, what they decided to bring and how they use it. Do they have tight tarps? Is their camp tidy? What does their fire look like?
On moose encounters
Once in the middle of the night, another Forest Service crew leader and I went outside the cabin. There was a moose cow and her calf in the yard with the bull down by the dock. The guy was a pretty good caller, so he started making some whimpering calf sounds. That bull came trotting up into the yard and both of us went through the door at the same time. The moose ended up hitting something out in the yard and gave us an extra second to get in the door.
There would also be times I'd be doing reports by window light at the table and the window would go dark. There was a moose a foot away outside blocking the light.
On outdoors for work and play
You can't BS the outdoors. It's real. It doesn't care if you're ready for a sunshiny day or a rainy one.
Usually at the end of the day being in a canoe, I'm not really that interested in getting back in and going out again. But there are some areas where I know the fishing is very good and I will plan my day to finish over a good spot. I've done pretty well, almost to the point that when the lake trout are hitting, it's hard to get one small enough to eat.
Ever lonely or bored?
Oh, my goodness, no.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.