Thirteen miles of two-lane blacktop connect the fir-and-cedar forests of Longmire, Mount Rainier National Park’s ranger headquarters, to Paradise, the mountain’s 5,400-foot subalpine playground. Technically, it’s a section of Washington’s State Route 706, but locals know it as the Paradise road. Beautiful and treacherous, the road winds its way up the mountain’s lower flanks, offering visitors views of misty waterfalls and glacial river valleys—and, when the clouds part, a spooky glimpse of Rainier’s 14,410-foot ice-clad summit.
January 1, 2012, looked like it would be a busy day at the mountain. The holiday always draws a crowd to the park, and the Paradise snow-play area, with its long, rolling sled runs, would finally open for the season.
Margaret Anderson, a 34-year-old park ranger, crossed into Rainier a few minutes after 7 a.m. The forest around her was still night dim and frozen. It hadn’t been easy to rise in the winter darkness and leave her husband, Eric, and their sleeping girls—one nearly four and the other 18 months—at home in Eatonville, a charming burg 22 miles west of the park. But Eric, also a ranger at Rainier, would be working the second shift. He’d be coming on at 11. Maybe she’d see him.
In the meantime, she had a lot to manage—she’d hired four new seasonals, and this was their first day working the sledding hill. Anderson was a law-enforcement (LE) ranger. By custom, National Park Service rangers are jacks-of-all-trades, but today they follow several distinct career tracks: law-enforcement ranger, interpretation ranger, or, in mountain parks like Rainier and Yosemite, climbing ranger. Interpretive rangers are often wildlife specialists or cultural-resource experts, while climbing rangers rescue stranded mountaineers. LE rangers undergo extensive training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, but with budgets tight they are tasked with a growing list of handyman chores. Anderson drove patrol, organized the park’s EMT training, and dug road signs out of the snow when necessary.
Anderson passed by Longmire, where the two other LE rangers on the early shift, Dan Camiccia and Kraig Snure, were stationed. The road to Paradise had iced overnight, so Camiccia was setting up a tire-chain checkpoint. Anderson continued on up to Paradise.
She had spent New Year’s Eve with her family. After they put the girls to bed, she and Eric talked about the coming year. The couple had met in 2002 at Bryce Canyon National Park—two young seasonals working the rim roads of southern Utah—but it wasn’t until they left for other postings that they realized they’d fallen in love. Since then, Eric had punched his ticket at four parks, Margaret at two. Finding openings for a married couple at any national park is rare, so when two positions came up at Mount Rainier in late 2008, the Andersons jumped at them.
Now, three years later, they were talking about getting out. The burdens of a two-child, two-ranger family were heavy. The couple played tag-team with their shifts, and they often saw each other only on weekends. Margaret was working toward her nursing degree. Eric, who had been a firefighter before joining the Park Service full-time, loved being a cop, but an LE ranger’s day can often feel like only 51 percent law enforcement—or less. He wanted more LE in his LE ranger’s job. Margaret, who had a master’s in biology, enjoyed the resource-management aspects of her work, but she shared some of Eric’s frustrations.
The Andersons were looking at 2012 as their last year at Mount Rainier National Park. The girls’ grandparents lived back east. It was time for a change.