Not a lot appears to faze Sarah Bulford, who this week spent time scaling the side of a 700m granite dome and the week prior backcountry skied the slopes of towering coastal mountains. This month, she’ll return for her sixth season as a British Columbian park ranger.
Sarah, 26, has spent her past ranger seasons working beside the iridescent waters and mountainous terrain of BC’s Garibaldi, Callaghan, Birkenhead and Joffre Lakes. Her passion for the outdoors stemmed from a childhood spent on an acreage in the Kootenays. “I grew up in a family of eight and we were pretty rowdy kids, just constantly on the move.” Holidays meant piling into a van big enough to sleep six siblings then rolling into small towns to trek through forests and camp.
“We all loved the outdoors and animals, we had horses, rabbits, dogs, frogs– even iguanas at one point.” Her mum would often sit the lizards on the staircase to scare her brothers’ friends, Sarah recalls. “I think our family became more comedy-based because we went through a tragedy early on. One of my brothers passed away in a car accident when he was 18. That made us all crazy close, and I guess we adapted a ‘not taking life so seriously’ approach.”
A remote Canal Flats camp was home in summer during her teenage years, where she worked as a camp leader. Days were spent canoeing, hiking, and having splash wars in the lake. “I always wanted a job like summer camp, but one I could pay rent with.” Sitting in the camp office one night, she googled (with dial-up speed) ‘somewhere on the coast with mountains’. It didn’t take long for a 17-year-old Sarah to pack a tiny trailer and move to Squamish on BC’s coast. The town’s proximity to ski hills, rock climbing possibilities and the ocean were enough to draw her in.
A career as a park ranger wasn’t initially on Sarah’s radar, but joining Squamish’s Search and Rescue team as a volunteer– the youngest at the time– led to the idea. She was inspired by two fellow female volunteers who worked seasonally as rangers. “There was one woman called Katy who was my biggest inspiration to want to work in parks. She was so independent; she was living on her own, she’d be up a tree with a chainsaw, and then taking solo hiking trips.”
Sarah signed up for two law enforcement-based courses required to become a park ranger, and with first aid training and her background in Search and Rescue, was hired by age 20.
On shift, Sarah heads to her designated park and hikes in, doing some clean up on the trail on the way up. In between keeping hikers safe, she’ll tackle projects like fixing railings, mending bridges and putting in new trails. Typically her pack weighs about 20 pounds, but there are times she’s lugged 50 pounds-worth of concrete mending sections of the popular Joffre Lakes hike.
Working in a job predominantly viewed as a male’s role naturally comes with stigma being a female, Sarah says. “People are often thrown off by the idea of a female working alone. I get a lot of funny feedback from women because they freak out that I’m by myself. But I’ve taught myself over time to have the confidence to be alone, and I try to use it as an education time and share that with them.”
Male commentary differs. “Guys usually want to help me. All spring we’re cutting windfall with chainsaws, and guys will be like, ‘Woah you’re crazy, do you need help with that chainsaw?’ Or if I’m with a male park ranger I’ve had comments like, ‘Is he going to let you use that?’”
Sarah says their comments used to make her angry, until she realised it was a bigger issue. “Our society doesn’t see women in this capacity enough, so I’ve learned to use it as a time to prod people on why they think like that. I try to put more energy into women though, because the only way society will ever change is if we make jobs like this something other females can see themselves doing.”
Training year-round outside of her work as a ranger is a passion of Sarah’s. Immersed in Squamish’s sporting culture, Sarah regularly weight trains, trail runs, climbs and backcountry skis. It feels good to be strong and capable, she says. “I’ve had to work on my body image, and change my mindset from growing up thinking females need to be dainty and skinny– now I want to be as strong as I can to do as much as I can.”
Her passion for nature has grown in her ranger role, too. Even during chaotic holiday seasons where thousands of hikers hit trails, Sarah takes time to appreciate her environment. “I’ve learned to slow down and look around me, to spot plants and moss growing and listen to birds chirping. It’s about taking in my surroundings and letting them have an affect on my soul.”
Things slow down at dusk in the mountains, where Sarah sets up camp on her overnight shifts. Fellow campers pitch their tents, birds sing their evening songs and the glacial lakes are often still as glass. The mosquitoes may or may not be swarming. A curious bear might press his nose against Sarah’s tent. “Everyday is different out here,” she says, “but that’s what keeps me coming back.”
Find Sarah: instagram.com/mountaindarlin