- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - He goes where most people can’t.

He sees what most people don’t.

A dog’s paw print in the mud. The flap of a gray wing in the trees. A bullfrog tadpole idling over a rock.

Joe Dreimiller’s job is to keep an eye on the local drinking water supply, a task that covers 90 square miles of massive pipelines, hiking trails, dams and deep backcountry. As a watershed patrolman for the city of Everett, he deals with both nature and mankind, and each has a destructive side. He patrols city, county, state and federal lands, all with different rules to enforce.

Dreimiller, 55, replaces the locks people cut, fixes the barbed wire they snip and mends the gates they break through. He photographs native plants, pulls noxious weeds and stops his Ford F-150 on a gravel road to let a garter snake glide past unharmed.

After all, he wanted a job where he could wear shorts.

NOT THE FEARFUL TYPE

They’re green, those shorts, worn with a khaki shirt, long black socks and hiking shoes. He owns rain pants, too. Spada Lake, about 13 miles north of Sultan, gets roughly double the rainfall that Everett does. Its normal elevation reaches 1,450 feet when there isn’t a drought.

He manages plants and animals over two watersheds - Spada Lake, which is open to the public, and Lake Chaplain, which is not. Together, the two lakes provide the drinking water for much of Snohomish County.

Dreimiller is one of two patrolmen. He drives up to 100 miles in the watersheds each day, not including his commute from Mukilteo. He walks a lot on the job, kayaks, and in the winter, cross-country skis. He often finds cougar tracks that cross his own.

Originally from New York, Dreimiller started at Spada Lake in 2003, after nearly seven years as a park ranger in Everett. He also spent more than a decade with the National Park Service, mostly at Mount Rainier. He carries handcuffs and can detain people and forward information to prosecutors, though he can’t make arrests or write tickets.

People will walk for miles to trespass at Lake Chaplain, maybe 10 trespassers a year. It used to be that many a week, before the barbed wire was strung, he said.

He looks for tracks left by bicycles and motorbikes. Along the way he spots owls, bobcats, osprey, cougars and black bears, and an occasional golden eagle. In July and August there were fledgling owls, barred and great horned.

He’s not the fearful type, but he knows when to stay in the truck.

“There are bears at Spada that won’t run away from you,” he said. “They’re big, 300, 400 pounds, and they know they’re the king.”

CREATIVE MISCHIEF, PEACEFUL QUIET

Chlorine fumes sting the eyes as they mix with water inside a concrete bunker buried in a hillside. It eats through the stainless steel doors, which need to be replaced every few years. Checking the bunker is part of Dreimiller’s routine.

The blue water in the tanks is headed to town, he explains. He stops the truck on the way to Lost Lake. A fleeting gray wing. It disappears.

“Second tree on the left, about 20 feet up,” he said. An owl.

Dreimiller runs a photography business on the side, selling prints, with one book published about Mount Rainier and another in the works. He’s got an idea for a children’s story: the march of the ants up that mountain. As the years go on, the ants find the higher elevations more hospitable, he said. Maybe that’s something he can understand.

Lost Lake, south of Lake Chaplain, is a hidden paradise with a murky bottom. For most people it can be reached by a long, lonesome walk accompanied by a fishing pole.

Swimming? “If you like leeches, swim away,” he said.

People find all kinds of ways to make mischief.

A creaky dock is sinking on one side of Lost Lake. A while back, kids swiped the bolts from the wood. They carve their initials into its planks. The traps for invasive species - certain kinds of snails and freshwater mussels - get stolen, too. A sign warns them to stay off the floating bog. There are hollows within its depths.

“You can be walking on the bog on the edges and just pop through and disappear,” he said.

Biologists have been trying to rid the lake of bullfrog tadpoles. He pointed to a lumpy specimen, hovering over a rock.

“Quiet place. Benefit of working in the outdoors, I guess,” he said.

NOT JUST THE HIKERS

Dreimiller relies on shortcuts between Lake Chaplain and Spada Lake. On Aug. 19, his route took him past blackberry pickers, locals taking long walks with their dogs and secret spots where people pan for gold.

For the public, Spada Lake is a 13-mile drive north from U.S. 2 on Sultan Basin Road, with the last house about halfway up. The rest of the trip is as much without cellphone service as it is without pavement.

In the winter, the patrolmen try to stay ahead of storms by locking the gates in advance. If they call it wrong, and it’s too late, they face an icy, snowy drive into the forest to do the job.

They get beat there anyway, finding the tracks in the snow from “boys in town who have five-foot wheels on their Jeeps,” Dreimiller said.

Last year, there was a problem with graffiti. This summer, they found too many fires built from wood pallets despite the burn bans.

Shooting’s another concern, along with garbage. There are plenty of places on his beat where shooting is allowed, and plenty of places where it’s not. It can take 10 minutes to get a deputy dispatched for lawbreakers and the savvy ones carry police scanners to know when to run.

“They bring in couches so they can sit while they shoot,” he said.

Federal rules require agencies to collect visitor data. People hiking at Spada Lake are supposed to register at the kiosk at the end of the road. Many don’t.

Anyone caught swimming in Spada Lake gets kicked out. It’s not personal. Dreimiller doesn’t want urine in the drinking water - neither do the nearly 600,000 customers who receive it.

Around noon on Aug. 19, Dreimiller collected registration slips from the kiosk. All the slips were marked Aug. 18, a day old. No overnight camping is allowed, so “there should be nobody in the watershed right now,” he said. “We’ll see how true that is.”

Moments later, he found an empty black Audi parked in a lot overlooking the lake. Dreimiller left a registration slip on the windshield, a not-so-subtle hint.

Next it was on to what Dreimiller calls the best hike in the watershed, beyond Culmback Dam, which provides power to Snohomish County. The truck ambled up a service road criss-crossed by spur roads that wash away with time. The land is always moving.

The bumpy path opens out over the lake, crystal-blue and surrounded by granite peaks. Next June the native wildflowers he planted here will bloom.

He pointed to a hazy view of 5,334-foot Prospect Peak.

“I come up here every day,” he said.

AMID THE DROUGHT

Every once in a while Dreimiller searches the Internet for keywords: motorcycling, shooting, Spada Lake. He finds rule breakers’ videos and passes them along.

They always post videos. “Someone will film it,” he said. “They film everything now.”

Along Spada Lake’s south shore a forest of abandoned gray-brown stumps usually remains hidden under water, with spiky bits stretching skyward - one of the main reasons inflatables aren’t allowed, even at high water. Dog paw prints run across cracked mud flats slick with red algae. As a new ranger, Dreimiller once photographed that slickness. He reported it as an oil spill. Nope. He learned.

When the water comes rushing back here, “this gunk will go rushing back out,” he said.

On the way back, he slowed down where two beavers have been hanging out. He keeps an eye on them, too. The wild is a busy place, noisy in its own way for those who listen. Dreimiller listens, and he pays a heck of a lot of attention.

Later in his day there is a rusty door to shoulder into, to check on a lower dam. And that snipped barbed wire to repair. And then it’s back to the office, an industrial plant where that precious water rushes through charcoal filtering and down the pipeline toward “town” - Everett. From up here, Everett’s a long way off.

___

Information from: The Daily Herald, https://www.heraldnet.com

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