Editor's note: To bring you an additional perspective to life in the National Park System, we're happy to welcome occasional musings and insights from PJ Ryan to the Traveler. Though he's retired from a 30-year Park Service career that landed him assignments at places such as Jewel Cave National Monument, Joshua Tree National Park, and even the Washington, D.C., headquarters, PJ hasn't lost interest in observing the world of the national parks. For a more regular dose of his observations, be sure to read Thunderbear.
All considered, Roger Siglin has had an interesting career in the National Park Service. At one time or another, he has been chief ranger of Yellowstone National Park, superintendent of Gates of Arctic, and was top cop of what was then the Southwest Region of the National Park Service.
During and after all this official adventure, Siglin logged some 20,000 miles of Arctic travel on snow machines through Arctic Alaska and Canada. He climbed Argentina’s 22,841-foot Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, and, while doing so, handily saved the life of Butch Farabee (At least that’s what Farabee, another venerable park ranger, now retired, told me)
Has Siglin mellowed in retirement? Not enough to notice, at least as far as I could tell.
Planning Another Adventure
Joan and I stopped by the Siglin’s mountain headquarters (I hesitate to call it a retirement home) in the mountains south of Alpine, Texas, on our way to California.
Although Roger spent much of his career in Alaska, he started his NPS career in Big Bend National Park, and like many a retiree, has a soft spot for his first park, and the Big Bend Country; there are worse places to end up.
Roger greeted us where his front lawn would be if lawns were practical in West Texas.
“Time for a beer, PJ” he asked/commanded.
I agreed that it was.
Siglin looked well. People and races age differently. American Indians do aging best of all, but Roger was not doing half bad for a White man. He was 76 and still an ambitious wilderness adventurer and mountaineer.
We went inside the Siglin’s magnificently low-key New Mexican style ranch house and Roger outlined his plans over that aforementioned beer.
This winter he would close a chapter in his life. He and some friends would go above the Arctic Circle at Kotzebue in Alaska, and pick up some snow machines that Roger had stashed there, drive them to Fairbanks and sell them. “I’m getting too old for this 40-degree below zero stuff anymore!” he said regretfully.
At one time, Roger had planned to complete John Ledyard’s failed 1786 attempt to explore the North America the hard way; by traveling from St. Petersburg, Russia, across Siberia and the ice of the Bering Strait, across Alaska and down through Canada and pick up the Missouri River drainage and continue on to Monticello, Virginia to shake hands with the ghost of Thomas Jefferson.
“Somebody else can do that!” Siglin laughed. “There’s always something to do if you only take the time to look.”
Roger was not exactly fading away into the sunset. This May, he and Jackie would go down to Ecuador, where he would do a recon in preparation for climbing 19,347-foot Cotopaxi Volcano, the second highest active volcano in the world. The view is said to be spectacular (I have always felt one could hire an airplane for the same result at less effort).
There's Cold, And Then There's Arctic Cold
In like vein, I have often wondered why people would risk digits and life itself in the winter high Arctic at 70 below. So I asked Siglin.
“It’s the beauty,” he replied simply. “The colder its gets, the more beautiful, the more sharply defined the landscape becomes. You seem to see and hear everything with a special clarity. The Arctic pulls you in; it is addictive.”
I asked him about the popular saying that, “After the temperature hits 40 below, that it really doesn’t matter how cold its gets after that and you really can’t tell the difference.”
“That is not true,” Roger said “For every degree drop after 40 below, there is some part of some piece of equipment, usually vital, that suddenly becomes prone to malfunction; plastic that is supposed to be flexible becomes brittle as a light bulb, fuel refuses to vaporize, and everything is in slow motion and it takes two or three times as long to do everything.”
Wryly, Siglin recalled going into a home in Allakaket, Alaska, and preparing to leave with temperatures approaching 65 below. The Athabaskan Indian owner noticed that they were wearing moleskin dressing on their noses and cheeks, he politely inquired about the reason for moleskin. Siglin responded, “To avoid frostbite.”
“Interesting.” Commented the Indian. “Of course, we don’t have that problem.”
“Really what to do you do?” asked Roger, hoping to learn Native American Survival Skills.
“We don’t go outside when it gets this cold!” deadpanned the Indian”
Avoiding Foolish Adventures
According to Roger, he tried not to have adventures on his Arctic travels. Just staying alive was adventure enough, and quoted the veteran Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Steffanson, “Only the ignorant and foolish have adventures.” (Although Roger admitted to driving a snow machine over a cliff at least one time more than necessary.)
Siglin also plays other dangerous games in his Golden Years. He is a practicing liberal in West Texas; a sure route to stimulating dialog with the locals. He casually remarked that he would be unavailable for a hike on Friday as that was his Protest Day.
Every Friday Roger joins like-minded friends in Alpine and they put up signs and stand on a busy corner denouncing the various wars America has become involved in, the Jurassic Age ideas of the present governor of Texas, and hysterical border policies.
“It can get interesting “ Roger said with his trademark understatement.
We watched the Alpenglow of southwest Texas set fire to Cathedral Peak on the horizon about 13 miles away.
“You’ve climbed it a time or two?” I asked.
“Nope! Too dangerous!,” said the man who would soon climb Cotopaxi volcano.
“How so?" I asked.
“Private property. Permission to trespass is never granted. You’d have to outlaw climb.”
Siglin was right. Trespass in Texas is punishable by death (Your kindly editor exaggerates, but not by much; your survival depends on how many .30 caliber Winchester carbine slugs you feel you can safely absorb if you trespass.)
The most dangerous games; I could see Roger was thinking.
“PJ, you’ll be coming back through here in the spring, do you suppose…
“Roger! I don’t want to even think about it!”
(Author’s note: I Googled up the 6,808-foot Cathedral Peak on the Peakery website where they suggest you comment on the climb. Ominously, there were no comments for Cathedral Peak).