Park rangers still use hats to raffle coveted backcountry spots — a tradition that might end soon

Park rangers still use hats to raffle coveted backcountry spots — a tradition that might end soon

Hoping that she would finally score a backcountry permit to camp at Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park this summer after years of trying in vain, Longmont librarian Helen Robbins got up at 5:30 a.m. Sunday and drove to the park’s Wilderness Office to be there when permits went on sale shortly after 8 a.m.

More than 30 people packed into a small room in a rustic park cabin at 7:30 a.m., and the number swelled to 71 (plus two dozen representatives of commercial outfitters) before random draws were held to determine the order by which those assembled would apply for prime backpacking spots. There were so many people — about twice the normal crowd on the annual day when backcountry permits go on sale — that the draws were held outside.

“Wow, what the heck?” ranger Barry Sweet said when he came outside for the draw and saw the size of the throng.

There is a different reservation process for the park’s traditional campgrounds, and those reservations have been available for weeks. But Sunday was the first day of sales for backcountry camping permits. There are only 267 backcountry sites in 120 designated areas in the park, so competition for prime spots is fierce. Permits can be purchased online, but those who came to the park Sunday hoped to get an advantage.

“Since I don’t have to miss work, I figured I would try doing it in person,” said Robbins, who went the online route in previous years. “I’ve been trying to get the elusive Glacier Gorge backcountry site for eight years. I’m hoping this is my lucky year. Wish me luck.”

At 8:03 a.m., Sweet welcomed everyone to the drawing.

“The word ranger comes from a 14th century English term, which means keepers of the royal lands,” Sweet said. “That’s all we do today, just simply keep the royal lands for all people. I want to thank all of you that have come here this morning, because you’re going to bring future senators to this place this summer — little boys and girls — and it’s going to change their lives. That’s why we’re here, because this is worth protecting.”

Slips of paper with arrowheads printed on them to foil cheaters were passed around along with pencils. Two ranger hats would be passed around, one for individuals, the other for outfitters.

“You’ll put your name in a hat, we’ll pull you out,” Sweet said. “Here’s where you cross your fingers or pray to your God, and then you hope something good happens. … Yeah, there’s competition today, but it is about all of us being colleagues, helping people fall in love with wilderness. So enjoy each other.”

At 8:20 a.m., rangers began pulling lucky names as online sales commenced simultaneously. Park officials insist those who were there in person got no head start.

“We didn’t start doing anything online until the first person walked up to the computer here,” Sweet said.

In fact, Sweet had warned everyone that it won’t be long before permits will be sold online only — not necessarily next year, but soon.

“This meeting is going to go away,” Sweet said to a chorus of moans. “I want to make sure you all know that, and that you’re prepared for when it happens.”

It took four hours for park personnel to serve everyone at the draw. Alas, Robbins drew No. 68 out of the 71 and decided not to wait around, heading for home to apply online later. She knew Glacier Gorge would be long gone if she waited around for her turn.

“The truth is, there’s still a million terrific sites there,” Robbins said. “I mean, I really wanted Glacier Gorge and someday I’ll get it, but somehow, whatever’s meant to be, it will work out. One of these years, I’ll get it.”

It was clear Sweet felt he had presided over a sacred endeavor.

“These are the people that care about the park almost like rangers do,” Sweet said. “They are here sharing their love of wilderness. I used to work at the (park entrance) when I started here in 1987. I would watch people go through the gate with their dull gray eyes from their busy, stressed-out lives. I was careful to watch the outgoing lane at the end of the day, because they all had that sparkle back in their eyes, that twinkle. Something magic happens in there and it transforms us. We’re the gatekeepers to magic.”

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