Outside with Charlie: Happy trails Roger

By June 7, 2011


Family, friends and colleagues gathered at Placerville’s Federated Church June 4 to honor Roger Chappell, who passed into eternal wilderness May 13. Those who knew him will appreciate “eternal wilderness.”

Born in Placerville, Chappell graduated from El Dorado High. Except for his time at college and his first teaching job in Cupertino, he spent his life here. He was of a different generation — born to teach and born to be in the forest.

Chappell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 22 years ago. Slowly but surely, the disease slowed him and finally stopped him at age 73. No one ever heard him complain. He was too busy living and doing all that he could every moment.

Chappell taught in the Pollock Pines School District more than 30 years. He was one of the best science teachers throughout those years. I taught kindergarten and had the privelege of counting Chappell as a friend first and as a colleague second. He had a steady hand, he was encouraging and he always looked for the best and was willing to work for it.

When at Pinewood and later Sierra Ridge, Chappell and John VanSant, Bill McGowan, Ron Parker and Bill Easley developed a “camping science” course. It was an amazing undertaking involving seventh- and eighth-graders. The only difference between that age and kindergartners is they weigh more. They are a wacky and wonderful and need the same care and guidance — maybe more — as my kindergartners.

The amazing part of the course was that the group actually took the middle school students into the forest to hike and camp overnight over quite a few miles. First the students learned to learn about the gear they needed and how to plan a menu for a few days in the woods. They studied the trails they would hike and packed and carried their own gear.

The hikes might start on Blue Lakes Road in Hope Valley and end in Markleeville — Chappell always came back with the same number of campers that started. There were trips to Loon Lake for snow camping and winter survival training, where the students would dig snow caves, cook on camp stoves and enjoy exploring the snowy forest.

Chappell, Parker and VanSant worked for the U.S. Forest Service during summer break, donning green uniforms and heading into the high country from mid-June until just before Labor Day to build, mark and maintain trails and restore habitat. They institututed educational programs for children and adults and served as forest rangers. The three were founding members of the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol, participating in rescues all year — sometimes pulled out of their classrooms to find a lost or injured hiker or skier.

Chappell’s influence in the Wrights Lake area is indelible. He was known as “Ranger Roger.” Children he met were introduced to Roger’s Rules, much like his classroom students were. He led hikes and taught about the trees, bushes, mountains and critters of the area. He helped build the information hut there and assisted people with just about any issue that came up.

Chappell transferred his love of learning and his exuberance about the forest to countless young people and the adults, both in the classroom and in the woods. Children lucky enough to  take his camping science developed their own love of hiking, camping and cross county skiing and fondly recall their adventures in the class.

Wrights Lake is one of our favorite places. My family and I canoe, kayak and hike all over the area. A few days camping at Wrights is about as good as it gets. A day in the Desolation Wilderness is awe-inspiring.

I have kayaked under and walked over the bridge built in his honor — Chappell Crossing. It’s located right where the canal pours into the lake. I quietly say “hi” and thank him whenever I’m there.

Small bells were passed out at the memorial. Ringing bells is a Chappell family tradition. My bell is now attached to my backpack to accompany me into the forest whenever I go.

Happy trails to you Roger.

Charlie Ferris

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