For the second time in seven days, Rebecca Roland found herself at Mount Rainier National Park, fighting back tears.
On Jan. 1, the ranger helped calm frightened families during a lockdown of the Jackson Visitor Center following the shooting death of law enforcement ranger Margaret Anderson.
Saturday morning, she sat on a leather couch in the same building, explaining why she chose to work rather than take time off to mourn the death of her friend.
“I want to honor her,” Roland said. And she doesn’t want any part of the iconic mountain to become a symbol of last week’s horrific events.
“It’s time to take back our park,” she said, “and remember it for being a place of peace and solace.”
Skiers, snowshoers and snowball-tossing kids returned Saturday as the park reopened for the first time since Anderson’s death and the ensuing 24-hour manhunt that ended with her killer found dead Monday, drowned in Paradise Creek.
Memorials with pictures, flowers and a guest book were set up at the Nisqually Entrance, Longmire and Paradise.
Larry Smith of Puyallup was back on the mountain Saturday. He was snowshoeing with his wife, Jackie, and daughter, Grace, on Jan. 1 at Reflection Lakes as part of a trip organized by Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
When the trio exited the trail at Narada Falls last week, they were told to enter the parking lot one at a time by law enforcement officers who had their weapons drawn. Grace said she was even pulled aside and asked if her father was “suspicious.”
“It was shocking,” Smith said. “That’s not something you expect to happen on a bright morning. Or at a place like this.”
Saturday they were back on another JBLM trip, one they expected would have a happier ending.
HELP FROM AFAR
With many employees not emotionally ready to return to work, the park relied on help from workers around the country to open Saturday.
National Park Service workers from as far away as Georgia helped run the park, and local volunteers chipped in.
Tacoma Mountain Rescue stationed two climbers at Camp Muir and another team in Longmire to respond to search-and-rescue situations.
“This place is sacred to a lot of people,” said Scott Schissel, a Tacoma Mountain Rescue volunteer headed to Camp Muir. “It doesn’t matter if you are a climber, a hiker or just somebody who wants to visit a national park; it’s pretty devastating to think something like this could happen in such a pristine and hallowed place.”
Josh McLean, an Alaska native, was on loan from Olympic National Park and visiting Rainier for the first time.
“(Paradise) is pretty spectacular,” said McLean, who leads snowshoe tours at Hurricane Ridge and is in his second year at Olympic National Park. “… It’s about the same elevation as Hurricane Ridge, but here it just keeps going up.”
McLean was preparing Saturday morning by learning the snowshoe tour route in case he needed to cover a shift for a ranger.
PROTECTING THE PARK
The park has received some complaints that the 51/2-day closure was too long, said park spokesman Kevin Bacher.
“That’s natural,” Bacher said. “It is the people’s park. I understand that people want it open. But we have responsibilities as protectors of this place – and protectors of people who visit this place – to manage it responsibly and to be able to provide the basic services and the basic protections that are necessary.
“We just haven’t had the staff to open it safely.”
Bacher said the National Park Service does not have a rule requiring it to offer a certain number of bereavement days when a co-worker is killed. “Decisions are made situation-to-situation,” he said.
The Park Service compiled an advisory booklet for dealing with situations such as this one after ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed while pursuing members of a Mexican drug cartel at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 2002 near the Arizona-Mexico border.
Bacher said the booklet has been a tremendous resource, but determining how much time off to give employees is “intuitive.”
“I think, overwhelmingly, it’s been supportive,” Bacher said of public feedback about the park.
While the park didn’t have enough staff to open the snowplay area – and a reopening date has not been established – visitors did receive one perk Saturday: free access.
The $15-per-vehicle entrance fee was waived because the park didn’t have enough rangers on duty who were authorized to handle money, Bacher said. During the time when the park is short-staffed, officials will determine daily if it can charge the entry fee, Bacher said.
‘COMFORT AND PEACE’
Saturday morning at the Jackson Visitor Center, the interpretive staff members seemed to gravitate toward one another near the help desk as they waited for the doors to open.
Roland said park staff had been leaning on one another all week. “It has been so difficult,” she said
Last Sunday, she was grateful as, one by one, her friends in the field were accounted for. At one point, when some close friends arrived to help at the visitor center – “Run a tactical maneuver to get diapers and Disney movies from the cars in the parking lot,” Roland said – she and a few rangers excused themselves to a back room to cry.
“She was well-loved,” Roland said. “Everybody liked Margaret. She was extremely dedicated and very professional.”
Roland believes by stopping the shooter before he reached Paradise, Anderson might have saved her life.
“I think we all feel that way,” Roland said. “We heard he really wanted to get up here. And she stopped him.”
Covered in snow, Paradise seemed as tranquil as ever Saturday. Just the way Anderson liked it, her colleagues said.
“I’m very, very sad for Margaret and her family,” Roland said as a tear ran down her cheek and landed on her sleeve. “But this place doesn’t upset me. This place actually provides comfort and peace.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 firstname.lastname@example.org
See more photos of the Mount Rainier opening at thenewstribune.com.