SAFETY SPECIALIST'S LOFTY CAREER TOUCHES DOWN SAFELY
As Jasper National Park interviews candidates to replace the field unit’s top public safety specialist, the man who’s occupied the position for the past 16 years talked to The Jasper Local about finally putting down the pager.
Steve Blake wasn’t born in the backcountry. He didn’t grow up skiing, nor was he wearing climbing shoes in the womb. At 21-years-old, he was as awestruck as any other Ontarian when he first laid eyes on the Rockies.
Yet after that initial introduction to the mountains, Blake quickly found his footing, spending summer nights at the crag and learning to ski while working trail crew at Lake Louise.
“You get centred over your skis pretty quickly carrying 100-foot rolls of slat fence,” he said.
Six years later, when Blake applied to be a park warden for a six-month stint in Jasper, it was his volunteer patrol work that gave him an edge. After he was recommended for technical alpine training despite not having put in his time in the trenches (campgrounds), Blake showed his mentors they made the right choice when, with darkness threatening, he commanded a smooth lead up the north face of Mt.Edith Cavell.
Blake was making the most out of his opportunities, which, in the rescue business, are often fraught with tragedy. When a public safety position opened up, it was occasionally because a friend and teammate had been struck down. Indeed, during the formative years of Blake’s career, the warden service suffered heavy losses. “I count myself pretty lucky,” Blake reflected. “I know I did things that were risky, by all means.”
As Parks Canada and the wider Rockies communities were grappling with the idea that highly-skilled technicians could be vulnerable to accidents in the mountains, Blake continued with his development program, eventually earning his full mountain guide’s certification from the ACMG. In the meantime, he performed his public safety functions for Parks Canada, often taking part in routine overdue hiker searches but occasionally leading high-stakes, dramatic rescues, such as the helicopter-sling evacuation from the top of Mount Robson which earned he and pilot Dale Brady a Governor General’s medal of bravery.
“That was a situation where I felt I had a clear vision of how it should go,” he said.
Still, it was a precarious rescue at the top of the world. The margin of error was razor thin. To deal with the stress of search and rescue work, Blake said he learned to detach himself from the emotions which could have affected the task at hand. He considered his ability to disengage an attribute. Eventually, however, that tactic caught up with him. By 1994 Blake had a wife and two children. His approach to work didn’t always translate to family life.
“It was tough. You work at a high level of intensity…that’s not an approach that works for kids,” he said.
And so, just as he committed to being a more versatile warden, Blake committed to rounding out his home life skills. Today, Blake is proud that his children are following in the footsteps of he and his wife, “but in their own way.” Jordan, 26, is studying environmental sciences and geography (Steve’s 1985 major). Quin, meanwhile, is a 22-year-old heavy duty mechanic who did a two-year stint on ski patrol (which is where Angie started in Jasper before becoming a nurse).
Blake donned the brown Stetson straddling two different eras of the warden service. Holding onto the traditions of the past were the old boys—the wrasslers, the cowboys and the trad climbers—while rising through the ranks were the new recruits—the scientists, the administrators and the sport climbers, many of whom were female. Technology, too, was constantly disrupting the industry as its leaders worked to improve safety protocols and procedures. Blake remembers his first helicopter sling rescue underneath a 206 Jet Ranger—a less powerful machine than the aircraft typically employed for rescues at high altitude today. Free falling off the face of Mount Andromeda to gain adequate air speed was exciting, Blake recalls, but he’ll take the herculean lift power of a Bell Long Ranger—Parks Canada’s go-to rescue bird—any day.
“The pilot said ‘I didn’t have the onions to get you up,’” Blake recalled with a laugh. “I was thinking ‘This is super cool.’”
Slinging climbers from mountain tops, hauling river runners from canyons, hoisting skiers from crevasses…of course not every rescue Blake performed during his two-decade career involved high drama, but suffice to say the visitor safety job had no shortage of adrenaline. What outsiders might forget about the public safety business, however, is the by-product of those intense moments: camaraderie.
“The typical layers people bring to present themselves go away when you get into those situations,” he said. “You tend to see people a little more purely.”
As the rescue season in Jasper gets underway, Blake knows that the buzz of a helicopter will always cause him to look skyward. He’ll likely wonder where his colleagues are going and how much drama they’ll encounter.
What he won’t wonder about, as he considers the candidates to replace him, is whether or not the public is in good hands. “We did a lot of good [during my career], he said. “How well we got through those situations as a team is a testament to our organization.”