Backcountry Caretaking: Do not go gentle into that good night

July 18, 2016

Rachel Pifer, 2016 Guyot Caretaker

Rachel Pifer, 2016 Guyot Caretaker

Do not go gentle into that good night.

People always ask me: “What makes a good caretaker?”

I can teach someone to put rocks into the ground, but I can’t teach them about the intrinsic value of protecting the resource, the top soil, the water quality, the wildlife. That’s something they must discover within themselves.
The job is too multifaceted to really answer that question in one word, but I’ll try: Commitment.

To put it simply, a caretaker needs to be committed, committed to the cause when odds seem against you. Because it’s more than job. In a job, you clock in and out. You go home at the end of the day. You take holidays off. You put on clean clothes every morning. You shower.

Caretaking is more than that. Caretaking is an experience.

As a caretaker you always have to be “on.” On for that hiker who comes stumbling down the trail well passed dark looking for flat ground. On for educating the hiker who’s picking alpine flowers. On when the misinformed camper is trying to light a fire to cook his hot dogs. On in the rain. On in the cold. On in the wind. On with no one else to turn to.

Sitting on your sofa wearing dry socks and clean underwear, you might think to yourself, “Hey, living in the woods for a few months doesn’t seem so bad… I think I might like to do that.”

But, no matter whom you are, or what level experience you have in the backcountry, being an AMC Backcountry Caretaker will bring challenges you didn’t foresee sitting on that sofa. Every caretaker faces their own set of challenges each season. Add cold weather, a little bit of rain, and a splash of loneliness, and we have a little bit of an adventure on our hands.

In training we do the best we can to prepare new caretakers for what to expect, physically and mentally. But we can only do oh-so-much. Each caretaker must find it within themselves to face these challenges, and, in doing so, they learn lessons they will carry with them for the rest of their lives: lessons about customer service high up on a mountain ridge, lessons about handling problems alone, lessons that build confidence and perspective.
So what makes caretakers keep coming back? What makes them lace up their boots after three nights off just to go back into the woods for another ten nights? We’ve come full circle, the answer is simple: Commitment.


Commitment to the cause. Each caretaker must believe in what they are doing. And, each caretaker must realize that not all the rewards of the job are tangible. When you set a rock step to prevent erosion on the trail, you can step back, take a deep breath, and see what you’ve done. When you spend 8 hours emptying the compost bin, you can look at the empty collector with great satisfaction, a well-earned smile. But, then there are other things we do that are more difficult to measure or see. It’s difficult to appreciate the effectiveness of your re-vegetation projects–transplanting young 12’’ balsam fir trees to more impacted areas. It takes decades for re-vegetation projects to branch out and reclaim once impacted forest. You might find yourself asking if your trees will even survive the shock of transplant. When you remind a hiker that they should refrain from picking the alpine flowers so others can enjoy them, it’s not immediately apparent whether or not your message made it through to them.

However, continuing to do this sometimes thankless work is what being an AMC Backcountry Caretaker is all about. Though we might not actually get to see the effects of the important work we’re doing, for instance, the alpine flowers that will bloom come springtime next year, we can rest assured that we at least gave them a shot.

Michelle Lambert, 2016 Imp Caretkaer

Michelle Lambert, 2016 Imp Caretaker

Our job is never over. We will never win the fight on erosion. We will never pick up our last piece of micro-trash. There will always be more human waste to compost. There will always be hikers in need of a little education. There will always be alpine vegetation to protect and blowdowns to clear.

As long as there are trees in our forest, a resource to protect, you will find people like us taking care of it. True stewards of the land. Committed. We will never finish our work. And, we will never give up. We will not go gentle into that good night.

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Joe Roman

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.