As humans, we can be dilettantes by nature, sifting through life by discarding difficulty and glamorizing what seems to be a simpler path. It’s not our fault – the world is too complex to completely understand, and shortcuts like this help our tiny brains operate and avoid pain. One of the ascendant thoughts that some keyboard warriors may cling to on Sunday nights (in the pre-work “scaries”) is the perceived freedom of being a park ranger. In the aptly-titled This Wild Land: Two Decades of Adventure as a Park Ranger in the Shadow of Katahdin by Andrew Vietze (AMC Books, 2021), the author, who is a former editor at Down East magazine, explores such a transition, relating stories from his time as a park ranger at Maine’s Baxter State Park.
Vietze skillfully cycles through stories over his twenty-year career involving the various and legendary animals at Baxter State Park, relating stories and history about deer (the original “Bambi”), moose, bear, beaver, the various blood-sucking insects, and their collective futures. The winter tick and habitat challenges facing the moose are particularly compelling. Baxter State Park is different in many ways from other state and national parks, due to the unique nature of its charter: as Vietze says, “Here, wildlife has dominion,” making recreation secondary to conservation. Vietze explores the essence of being the referee between human and wilderness, with the predictable ranges of experience and attitude on the human side. These are the most resonant and interesting of his stories, casting careless thru-hikers or overmatched tourists against the uncaring monolith of Maine’s North Woods. The takeaways? Be humble, carry water, and maybe go for a walk or two before you try Maine’s highest, most remote mountain. According to Vietze, fatigue is considered “causative” in 66 percent of the park’s medical calls.
The book dives into the history of park rangers, Baxter State Park, and the Appalachian Trail. The uneven relationship between the Park and the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who view it as their finish line is the subject of several anecdotes, including a (tongue-in-cheek) “Navy SEAL” operation by rangers nabbing thru-hikers camping illegally.
My sole critique is one of expectation – not the author’s fault. When a journalist investigates a topic, it is dispassion which can make the writing true and clear. Norman Maclean’s father in A River Runs Through It encouraged him to write fiction, saying, “Only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” Vietze, currently a ranger, clearly loves and respects his co-workers at Baxter State Park, so the “inside scoop” about working at the park is elusive. This is forgivable, and by the end of the book, endearing. His critiques are mostly self-effacing. But there were likely very good stories and insights left on the cutting room floor due to kindness, loyalty, and discretion.
Vietze also explores the family dynamics of being a park ranger, and the inherent sacrifice of living in the wilderness in public service makes Vietze’s accounts of interactions with his sons and wife more poignant, as well as clarifying the shared bond between park rangers. In a nod to the current understanding regarding the stress on first responders, the book ties in the stories about death and near-death encounters with those of training and debriefs to help rangers cope with loss.
This Wild Land contains enough variety of experience to sustain multiple books, with each story existing as a vignette that could be otherwise examined from vectors of conservation and psychology. Written during the “Year of Covid,” this book reminds us why we cherish the wilderness, why it must be protected, and is a gift to anyone who enjoys Baxter State Park and the North Maine Woods.
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