Olympic National Park

Follow the Park Ranger (On a Bear Hunt)

The smokey the bear hat leads us on a real-life bear hunt.

By Allison Williams July 22, 2011 Published in the August 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Andrew Waits

"IF WE GET IN A FIREFIGHT, you take the big gun," instructs Susannah "Sanny" Lustig, Olympic National Park ranger. She’s kidding—thankfully—but there actually is an M16 rifle in the cab of her extended-cab pickup, along with a shotgun and the 9mm sidearm strapped to her waist. It’s a lot of firepower for someone who is sporting what she calls a "Smokey the Bear hat" over her curly two-tone hair. Not to mention that Lustig began her 17-year career knowing no more about firearms than "there are ‘longie’ guns and ‘shortie’ guns."

Today the guns are for shooting bears—nonlethally, that is, hazing them away from humans with beanbags (like riot cops use on protestors) and noisy cracker rounds. Being a national park ranger isn’t all campfires and nature hikes; Lustig is as much a cop, an EMT, and a community ambassador as she is a forest guardian. Based out of Olympic National Park headquarters in Port Angeles, she often patrols the narrow 17-mile road that leads to Hurricane Ridge, the park’s most popular destination. Today she’ll do the loop at least seven times, rarely straying far from the blacktop.

Despite her stint at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Lustig doesn’t need her sidearm (or Taser, or handcuffs, or baton) to exert authority. Midafternoon, she lectures the driver of a silver Mustang that blew past the park’s fee station without paying. Though delivered with a smile, the chat is effective: Later, the tollbooth operator tells us that the Mustang driver apologized no fewer than three times for her transgression. Lustig shrugs: "People don’t take themselves down a one-way road if they want to do criminal activity," she says.

When she isn’t scanning the roadside for bears, Lustig is chatting with tourists in the Hurricane Ridge parking lot. Though it’s drizzly in Port Angeles, the air clears into a bracingly clear day up top, and visitors are dazzled by the wild frontier. She knows differently; as a former backcountry ranger and current search-and-rescue leader, Lustig sees a park that has been entirely searched at one time or another. "Human eyes have seen every inch of it," she says. "There is no undiscovered wilderness left in the lower 48. That’s sad; people want the unknown wilds."

Lustig’s unknowns can be animals—she won’t meet any bears today, but last year rangers put down a mountain goat that killed a hiker and this year they put down an elk that had become too brazen around campers. Or she might be grappling with the complex histories of the park’s neighbors; as the sole ranger at Lake Ozette for six years, Lustig carefully liaised with the Makah tribe next door, even attending their whale hunt potlatch in 1999.

One mantle she doesn’t have to wear every day is that of searcher and rescuer. "People can get lost for a few days or forever," she says. Being in charge can mean deciding when to call in the helicopter cavalry and when to haul out a hiker over several days by mule. And sometimes it means being under the copter full of rescuers that crashes during a foggy search—it’s the worst tragedy she’s endured yet as a ranger.

Lustig still finds ways to be entertained by the same stretch of blacktop she wears down all day. About a mile from the summit, the road swings around to present a postcard-perfect vista, a cornice of snow-covered peaks and lush river valleys. Seeing it every 30 minutes has hardly made her jaded; at each rounding of the corner, she takes a moment to enjoy the view. "I forget that it’s that amazing," says Lustig. "Every time I come around the road and see it, there’s a shock wave."

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