One day soon, hikers on the Glacier Basin Trail will cross an unnamed creek about halfway up the path with hardly a second thought about the short wooden bridge under their boots.
Such is the case with most of Carl Fabiani’s projects. You might not know his name, but if you’ve hiked in Mount Rainier National Park in the last 45 years, you know his work.
Whether chopping through downed trees or bureaucratic red tape, Fabiani has been building and repairing trails in the park since he graduated from Buckley’s White River High School in 1965.
But at the end of this month, the 63-year-old trail foreman will retire from a job he says is a dream.
“I often thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this,’ ” Fabiani said.
See him in action, however, and it’s evident he’s doing a job not just anybody could love. On a mid-September afternoon, one of his last days in the field, Fabiani found himself halfway up the Carbon Basin Trail standing in the unnamed creek, water flowing over his boots as he stabbed the muddy earth with a long iron rod.
He was there to help his crew pick the best way to get the trail, which was washed out by the 2006 flood, to cross the creek. Crew member Tom Caples thought putting in a series of culverts might be best, but after talking to Fabiani, they agreed one culvert and a short bridge would be the most enduring and least invasive solution.
“A lot of our volunteers think this is a fun job until they get up here and start working,” said 10-year crew member James Montgomery. “Then they realize it’s really hard work.”
But being outside, even on the rainy days, and working hard is something Fabiani has always loved. The fact that he gets to work at Mount Rainier is a bonus.
“He’d do anything for the park and the trails and to keep them open so people can enjoy them,” said Fabiani’s wife, Dinni.
A LIFE OUTDOORS
Fabiani was born to be outside. He grew up in Wilkeson, where he and Dinni still live, and can’t remember a time when he wasn’t hiking, exploring or climbing at Mount Rainier.
As soon as he turned 18, the minimum age to be hired by the park, Fabiani took a summer job on a Rainier trail crew.
“I don’t think I planned for it to be a career,” Fabiani said. “It just worked out that way.”
At one point he tinkered with the idea of going to college, but later decided he’d rather be working with a shovel in the rain than sitting in classroom.
In fact, he couldn’t imagine a better job. The pay was adequate and as a seasonal employee, he only worked six months of the year, leaving him the rest of the time to explore.
In 1976, Dinni said some friends of her parents “decided to play matchmaker and introduced us.” Clearly they knew what they were doing because six months after they met, Carl and Dinni were married and off to explore Rainier and the world together.
“We were made for each other,” Dinni said. “We both love the outdoors.”
They traveled together to Nepal and South Africa and built a cabin in Alaska. When their son, Forrest, was born in 1985, they passed on their love for the outdoors to him.
While Fabiani worked the trails, Dinni and Forrest hiked. When Forrest was 6, he and Dinni hiked the 93-mile Wonderland Trail together.
Along the way, they’d stop to visit Fabiani wherever he was working and he’d meet them along the way to deliver fresh supplies. The trip went so well, Dinni and Forrest did it again when he turned 7 and 8.
In 1995, after 30 years on the trail, Fabiani was asked if he wanted to be in charge of Rainier’s trails. The trail foreman job would come with increased pay and a full year of responsibility. However, it also came with a desk and less free time to travel.
Fabiani embraced the challenge.
THE ART OF TRAILS
If making a trail is an art form – and those who know trails say it definitely is – Fabiani is Rainier’s Picasso.
“When you build a trail there are a lot of choices that go into it,” said Alan Carter Mortimer of the Washington Trails Association. “Those choices result in a trail people will either remember or they won’t.”
When Fabiani reroutes trails such as the new Glacier Basin Trail, he says he follows an old-school standard set by the Civilian Conservation Corps when they originally built many of the trails in the park.
This means the trails are typically wider and climb at a more comfortable grade than you’ll find around the rest of the Northwest. Fabiani says he tries to spare as many trees as possible when he reroutes paths.
“I can’t ever remember a time when he couldn’t find a solution without much of a headache,” said Julie Okita, who has worked on the trail crew since 1987.
Because working in the backcountry almost always requires the use of handsaws instead of chain saws and shovels instead of bulldozers, the work is often grueling. “It’s like the Flintstones,” Okita said.
“Seeing Carl with an axe or a saw in his hand is like watching a great athlete,” said Jack Voigt, the trail crew leader in Rainier’s Carbon River area. “He has great hand-eye coordination and great skill.”
“I never once saw him get the saw stuck,” Okita said.
But it wasn’t just his work on the trails that impressed those he worked with. His ability to round up approval and funding for projects and to provide volunteers with a memorable experience has made him popular with those outside the park too.
“Based on the relationship we’ve had with him the last three years, I wish he wasn’t retiring,” Mortimer said. “It’s hard when somebody so good decides to leave. It’s been a real pleasure working with him.”
His crew agrees.
“Mount Rainier is losing a great one,” Okita said. “It’s the end of an era.”
LEGENDARY WORK ETHIC
When his coworkers call Fabiani driven, they mean that in more ways than one.
“His work ethic is incredible,” Voigt said. “He always works later than he is scheduled. When I was younger, I always feared him and respected him, so I was more willing to work longer. So when he left (the Carbon River area to work at Longmire), I was a little relieved I didn’t have to be so willing to work those extra 15 minutes each day.”
Even on his days off, Fabiani works.
“He’ll hike out there to check on projects,” Dinni said. “He doesn’t get paid for this and nobody knows he does it, but he just needs to know how things are going.”
But when they call Fabiani driven, they mean this literally too.
“Every time I talk about the kind of workers we have, and the passion they have, I use Carl as an example,” said Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga. “He drives all the way from Wilkeson every morning and he does it with a huge smile on his mouth.
“And he gets in before his crew and he’s the last one to go home.”
It’s about 140 miles and three hours round-trip from Fabiani’s house in Wilkeson to his office at the park’s operations base at Longmire. Fabiani has made the drive on the dark, tree-lined highways four times per week for the last 15 years.
He wakes up each morning at 3:30 and is on the road by 4. He listens to NPR and occasionally stops for a donut and a cup of coffee. He tries to be home by 6:30 p.m. and is almost always in bed by 8 p.m.
He never considered moving to Ashford – “Wilkeson will always be home,” he said – but for a time he tried spending weeknights living at the employee campground in Longmire. He found this arrangement made it too hard to separate work and family life, so he decided to commute.
In 15 years he’s only hit one deer, and while he occasionally battles heavy eyelids, he’s never fallen asleep at the wheel.
The commute has always made Dinni nervous, but Carl always responds to her concern the same way: “Don’t worry. The truck knows the way home.”
There are few jobs more suited for a guy with a super-charged work ethic than the Mount Rainier trail crew.
The job is never done.
Just when you think you are catching up, a flood wipes out trails or a windstorm covers the paths with large trees. “I’ve seen a lot of hard work go down the river,” Fabiani said.
The trail system still hasn’t recovered from the 2006 flood and Okita says it’ll likely be another decade until the crews can catch up. By then, another flood is bound to deliver them more work.
Voigt knows the agony of having to rebuild trails over and over. He’s the crew leader at the Carbon River entrance to the park, where the road and trails are regularly washed out. Voigt says his crew is working on its fourth reroute of the Carbon River Road in the last 24 years.
“It gets old,” Voigt said.
But he’s always been impressed with the way Fabiani handles the give-and-take with Mother Nature. “I’ve never seen him down,” Voigt said. “Even when it’s pouring rain, Carl is happy.”
Fabiani isn’t the type to leave a job undone, even a never-ending job. So when he retires, don’t expect him to vanish.
Sure, he’ll spend more time working on the new home he’s building in Wilkeson, and he’ll take more trips to Alaska and, as he says, “there are lots of place still to explore.”
But when the volunteer crews start showing up at Rainier to work on the trails next spring, Fabiani is sure to be there.
“Oh, he’ll always be out there,” Dinni said. “It’s his passion.”
FABIANI FAVORITE 5
Carl Fabiani will retire later this month after 45 years working on the trails at Mount Rainier National Park. He says, “There are no bad hikes at Rainier.” We recently put him on the spot and asked him for his favorite five.
Carbon Glacier Trail: “Losing the Carbon River Road, it’s a much longer hike now, but it was a real nice hike. One where you can run up there in an afternoon. It’s a whole different world.”
Spray Park area: “I really enjoy exploring around that area. Echo Rock and Observation Point are fun places to go.”
Grand Park: “A fun area. Really, really pretty.”
Moraine Park: “This has always been one of my favorites. For views of the mountain, it’s pretty dramatic.”
Indian Bar: “This is a really beautiful place.”
For information on hiking in these areas and others at Mount Rainier National Park, go to wwwb.thenewstribune.com/hikes