On the dark side of the park: a ranger's memoir

  Park ranger Jordan Fisher Smith dreamed of a career in Yosemite or Grand Teton, but fate led him to California’s Auburn State Recreation Area, a place he calls "the inverse of Yellowstone." During his 14 years as a ranger in the canyons of the American River, the long-planned Auburn Dam loomed over the place, always one step away from drowning the canyons for good. Protecting this doomed bit of nature took a heavy toll on Smith and his coworkers. Over the years, they dealt not only with dust and heat and substandard equipment but also with violent gold miners, drug dealers, a mountain lion attack, suicides and deadly accidents.

In a series of beautifully restrained essays, Smith describes the terror and the boredom of life in the canyons, and muses about the larger purpose of his work. "If you’re lucky, you get assigned to people who seem worth saving and land and waters whose situation is not hopeless," he writes. "If not, you save them anyway."

The Auburn State Recreation Area, he makes clear, is not easy to love. But he argues, with the credibility of long experience, that even the most damaged of natural places are still worth our close attention. "Even with our interventions, and now because of them, the world continues to be mysterious and accidental," he concludes. "In the end, much of what is seemingly known and tamed is in fact unknown and untamed."

Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the Sierra
Jordan Fisher Smith
224 pages, hardcover $24.
Houghton Mifflin, 2004.