They keep a low profile, but if you hiked into Hidden Lakes between 2001-2007 or out of Harts Pass since 2008, you’ve seen the handiwork of U.S. Forest Service volunteers Bill and Patti Karro.
The idea for volunteering in the wilderness came from Bill’s brother, who was a ranger in the Pasayten for 30 years. Ten years before Bill retired from IBM (“Stands for ‘I’ve Been Moved,’” Bill says, of the job that frequently relocated him to different parts of the country), Bill’s brother told him, “When you retire, I’ve got the place for you.” Little did he know Bill’s volunteer stint in the Pasayten would likely last as long as his own professional career in that wilderness.
That first summer at Hidden Lakes, the Karros hiked into a mouse-infested cabin, trailed by a summer’s worth of supplies on a couple of Aaron Lee Burkhart’s mules. “We spent three weeks in, one week out in those days,” Bill says. The Karros’ only contact with other people during those three weeks in were the daily radio check-ins with the Forest Service and the occasional hiking party that would pass by. “We’d often go weeks without seeing a soul,” the Karros say.
With communication so limited, it was through a roundabout way that on Sept. 11, 2001, the Karros learned what had happened earlier that morning in New York City and Washington, D.C., where two of their sons lived. The legendary fire lookout Mort Banasky radioed and said “Your sons are OK.” The Karros had no idea what she was talking about, and got scant additional information since the radio channels were busy for days and access to official information was inadequate. “We eventually filled in the story from hikers who passed through, one piece of information at a time,” Patti says.
In August of 2002 upon returning to their Hidden Lakes cabin after a few days off, the Karros decided to approach via Harts Pass instead of the Chewuch, but when they reached the now-defunct Pasayten Airstrip they got a radio call to “Stay there.” The Quartz Mountain fire had ignited, and their Hidden Lakes cabin was wrapped in Mylar fire protection. The Karros spent five weeks at the ranger cabin near the airstrip, while the fire eventually burned 11,000 acres.
In 2008, the Karros relocated their volunteer service to Harts Pass, where for the past 13 years they have been answering questions, checking backcountry permit information, collecting user numbers, and dealing with any number of user requests and emergencies, including people lighting campfires in fire pits that have a laminated sign zip-tied to them saying “No Fires Allowed.”
They also see a lot of people, especially this summer. “It’s been crazy busy this year,” Bill says. “We see more people on a slow a day at Harts Pass than we did all summer at Hidden Lakes.”
While Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker numbers seem to be down a bit this year, most likely due to the pandemic, there are still thousands of people completing the roughly 2,600-mile trail, which ends (or starts) not too far from Harts Pass, at the Canadian border. Some thru-hikers arrange to get dropped off or picked up in British Columbia (back in the days when BC allowed tourists to freely scamper back and forth across the border), but many end (or begin) their trip at Harts Pass. Either way, the border tagging involves starting at Harts Pass, hiking 30 miles north, taking a photo at the northern terminus of the PCT, and then hiking back to Harts Pass.
For those continuing south, leaving a stash of food at Harts Pass is appealing, so as to avoid carrying it for an additional 60 miles. “Quite a few years ago we started seeing food bags hanging in trees,” Bill says, “like piñatas.” All that food was an attractive nuisance for bears and other wildlife, Patti explains, so she and Bill helped find alternative storage for food bags while hikers tagged the border.
But some years, Patti says, large groups of southbound PCT thru-hikers start their trek early in the season, before the Karros are staffing the ranger station. “When we arrive those years,” Patti says, “there are 35 or 40 food bags piled in our outhouse, and bear canisters of food stacked on the floor.”
For the Karros, the official volunteer season ends when the high hunt ends, in late September. But for the past few years, they have remained at their post into mid-October, to be there for the thru-hikers. “Once the snow flies,” Bill says, “it’s really a slog to the border. They get wet and cold. We give them something hot to drink, help them warm up.”
With the pandemic still in full force, the Karros won’t be welcoming any shivering hikers into their ranger cabin this fall, but they’ll still be up at Harts Pass for a while, celebrating 20 years of helping people enjoy wild places.