by Sally Scott Moore
Alpine Ranger Alan Rae has a big job.
During a short hectic summer he is the primary monitor of the circuitous trail known as the Alpine Loop. Dependent on high altitude conditions, the gates allowing public access to Engineer and Cinnamon Passes usually open sometime in June and close with heavy snowfall in October.
During this window of opportunity thousands of jeepers, OHVs, motorcycles, hikers and alpine runners traverse the spectacular and bumpy miles of trails crisscrossing Lake City, Silverton, Ouray and beyond.
Rae patrols it all.
In the backcountry, well off the beaten track and far from the purview of traditional law enforcement or normal services, anything can and does happen. ATVs roll over, a distracted tourist loses control and drives off the cliff; hikers get lost, turn an ankle or find themselves at the mercy of a lightning storm with nowhere to hide.
Often it is the Alpine Ranger who is well positioned to offer immediate aid, or to organize additional efforts after assessing any given situation.
On a gorgeous fall day on the downhill slide of the 2017 season, this reporter took a day to ride along with the Alpine Ranger to see firsthand how the program works and what sorts of activities which he encounters. In deference to his ride along guest, we started late – at 8 a.m.
Wearing a white cowboy hat, Alan Rae is equal parts public relations ambassador, law enforcement officer, and part good ol’ boy-next-door, Rae covers a lot of literal and figurative territory.
As lone enforcement presence on these remote roads, Rae’s work days are full as he motors all over the hinterlands of Hinsdale and San Juan counties, prepared for anything he may encounter.
Safety is his main concern and he has plenty of stories from the frontlines to back up his concerns.
In addition to the high drama of wrecks, rollovers and injury situations sometimes encountered, Rae shares past stories of children driving ATVs. He has tales of young mothers breastfeeding infants while driving ATVs. He shared that recently he had encountered 19 family members of assorted sizes, crammed into just four OHVs.
According to Rae, the family was baffled, refusing to understand why such overcrowding was unsafe. With a shrug and an infectious grin, Rae speculates “perhaps it is the high altitude.” He notes that people who would never do nutty things at home, seem to set common sense aside when vacationing in these mountains.
Steep, rough and often wet conditions can be a recipe for disaster for travelers unfamiliar with the terrain. Hoping to prevent such accidents and injuries, Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Office pushed hard early in 2017 for enhanced OHV ordinances. Hard-to-miss signage has since been installed at various points along the loop giving all passersby a full reading of the new OHV regulations approved by Hinsdale County Commissioners.
Less about tickets or revenue, Rae’s mission is to educate those he meets on the loop. “This is an informative year for people to learn the new ordinances.” Requiring such basics as a driver’s license, helmets, lower speed limits and allowing only as many passengers as the vehicle is designed to hold are just a few of the enhanced safety regulations.
Rae hopes these permanent postings on the loop will go a long way toward telegraphing the regulations to those vacationing in the area.
Rae covers miles of bone rattling trails every day, often overnighting in Silverton and he does it pretty much by himself. “We are looking for two more Alpine Rangers,” Rae explains. He adds that recent BLM statistics cite counts of 200,000 people perambulating around the loop. “That’s a lot of traffic and I really can’t cover it all.”
Rae’s position is funded as a joint effort between San Juan and Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Departments. He notes that most of his day is spent in areas with zero cell phone availability. “I have the InReach GPS tracking system on board and a Satellite phone now, which really helps when I run up on an accident and need to call for more help.”
He adds, “We haven’t lost any lives this year” as he literally knocks on wood.
A new jeep was donated by an anonymous Good Samaritan at the Lake City Fourth of July festivities, specifically for the Alpine Ranger program. Needing specialization for this specialized mission, the vehicle is still being retrofitted with all the whiz-bang necessities for this hard working Alpine Ranger. Rae expects to have the new and improved Rubicon ready to roll for the 2018 season.
Citing the same shared two-county goal that passed matching OHV regulations this season, Rae states, “We just want to keep people safe. We want people on both sides of these mountains to enjoy themselves.”
This important point is clearly relayed to everyone Rae encounters.
On our long approach to the Cinnamon Pass entrance, Rae espies a couple waiting for friends beside their OHV and, pulling into the loading area on County Road 20, he engages them in friendly, early morning banter. Affable and easy going, Rae chats for a few minutes. They hale from Tulia, Texas, and Rae, who was raised in Dumas, also has some Tulia connections. In the course of a few minutes everyone is at ease, they outline their plans for the day, all-important trail conditions are imparted and new friends made. Handing them a copy of the new ordinances, Rae encourages them to be safe and wishes them a great day, after which we pull back onto the gravel road.
“We want people to enjoy themselves,” says Rae. He adds there is nothing like an accident to ruin a family vacation. Training for the Alpine Ranger post has fallen to the undersheriffs of both San Juan and Hinsdale counties. Quick to credit the expertise he has received from both San Juan County’s Steve Lowrance and Hinsdale County’s Justin Casey, Rae states, “Both undersheriffs have spent extra hours of their own time to train me with the program goal of keeping the people up here safe.”
To prepare for whatever life throws at him on the trails, Rae has benefitted from various related schools and seminars, in addition to extensive firearms training and first aid training. Noting the extremes encountered as one rolls from town to backcountry law enforcement, he notes “Sheriff Bruce sees to it that each of the Hinsdale County deputies travels with me at least once during the season.”
On this day, traffic was fairly light, indicating the waning of peak season and along with it the requisite mountain chaos. At a rest stop we encounter a family visiting from Ohio who are staying in Lake City. Pausing to get to know the friendly group, Rae, with a twinkle in his eye, receives shy smiles as he engages the kids like an old pro and hands out lollipops. This reporter is compelled to add “part Father Christmas” to his growing job description.
Further up the trail, a dusty dirt biker had dropped a satchel and, letting his compatriots go on ahead, he had returned to retrieve it. Rae stops to talk to him.
Visiting from Wisconsin, the biker reports he and his friends are staying in Lake City. “I love it here,” says the biker as he looks around at the changing foliage.
“I need to move here!” Rae finds out where “Wisconsin’s” group is going that day, warning him of some tricky conditions to be aware of, as well as a reminder of speed limits.
We part ways with a friendly wave.
Seeing a group of OHVs seriously consulting a map up ahead, Rae pulls alongside to see if they need help. This reporter snaps some photos as this crew asks him questions. They seem grateful for informed assistance and needed trail advice. The Alpine Ranger passes out much better, detailed maps to the caravan as he points them in the right direction to their off-the-loop excursion. This kindness is repeated many times with many small groups during the day.
During the bumpy ride, Rae shares that he likes the job because every day is totally different and he never knows what to expect. His point is soon illustrated as we arrive atop Cinnamon Pass and practically into the jaws of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Not precisely a scene from Jurassic Park, the big dancing dino proved to be an unconventional tourist in disguise. Taking a walk on the wild — and prehistoric — side was Ann Mays of Dallas, Texas. The delightful and slightly embarrassed sales person for Nichols Scales and Measurement Company offered no lucid reason for gallivanting around at high altitude in an inflatable dinosaur costume. Her amused boyfriend, Andrew Shutt, an engineer for Holt Caterpillar, stated they were vacationing for the week and staying at Woodlake RV Park at the base of Slumgullion Pass.
Dinosaur wrangling wasn’t on the list but may need to be included in Alans Rae’s list of pertinent Alpine Ranger duties and current experience.
Eventually arriving in Silverton, over lunch San Juan County Sheriff’s Department Undersheriff Steve Lowrance and Deputy Dean Mize offered their perspective on the Alpine Ranger program.
“San Juan County’s Sheriff Conrad is completely in support of the Alpine Ranger program,” states Lowrance. He adds, “If we save one life, it is worth it. But, having this program has already paid for itself.” Noting the miles of unpatrolled territory, the San Juan County Undersheriff states emphatically, “This program is going to grow. It’s not a question of if, but when.”
Rae notes that Silverton sees four trains a day arriving from Durango carrying some 2,000 visitors a day. Mize nods in agreement, “Having Alan Rae on the Loop allows us to focus on the crowds in town.”
Lowrance added, “There has been a significant drop in accidents and incidents this year. It really shows the effectiveness of this program.”
Rae’s operational patrols occur only during daylight hours but the drama doesn’t always stop when the sun goes down. The two San Juan County officers summarized their experiences the previous night during a search and rescue call which required helicopter extraction.
The emergency on the San Juan side of the Loop had keep them out in pitch black conditions until 4 a.m. Using InReach to plug in GPS coordinates, Lowrance states that he and his team were able to coordinate the search, locate the tipsy camper who had fallen 100 feet and had him flown out of the remote location for medical treatment.
“Never a dull moment,” Mize says with a philosophic shrug.
As discussion returned to the Alpine Ranger program and the importance of having even one roving law enforcement presence visible on the mountain, Under Sheriff Lowrance reiterated with a nod towards Rae.
“His job is critical. Without Alan Rae up there on that loop, I don’t know what our rate of accidents would be.”
A day in the life of the Alpine Ranger is never boring and never the same thing twice.
Steeped in beautiful scenery, surrounded by tricky and ever-changing conditions, his mission is multifaceted. Faced with increasing traffic of all kinds, Rae and those who will join him in this innovative ranger program are much more than ticket writing officers wielding a big stick, aiming to kill people’s summer fun.
The goal, defined by Rae, is to educate, build relationships and aid travelers in their pursuit of a rollicking outdoor experience; and keep them safe while they do it.
“People who have a great time, live to come back and do it all over again next year.”