Restore Default

Claude Wagner: A Life Outdoors

Download PDF Version

At 97 years old, Claude Wagner still sings the forestry summer-camp song from memory: "A doc or law I'm not going to be, I'm going to study forestry." A 1933 graduate of the School of Forestry, Wagner stuck to the song's promise and joined the Forest Service-about what you'd expect from someone whose favorite course was silviculture (the art and practice of forestry management).

Wagner remembers his time at Berkeley as his "golden years." Born and raised in San Francisco, he didn't have to travel far to find academic bliss. Tuition was $25 a semester, and in exchange for meals he worked at a fraternity serving dinner. He spent his summers at forestry camp, a rite of passage for generations of Cal Foresters that came after him. He and 25 other students--young men only, naturally--lived in a handful of platform tents and learned to cruise timber. Saturday nights, they'd go into the nearby town of Quincy for the weekly dance.

After his education at Cal, Wagner spent the next eight years in the U.S. Forest Service. "I was appointed as a junior park naturalist at Yosemite National Park," Wagner recounts. While there, he made the acquaintance of photographer Ansel Adams, who was living in the park and shooting some of America's most famous landscape photos. From there, Wagner went on to the Grand Canyon, where he worked on vegetative type mapping, plotting "what was growing where" on the south and north rims of the canyon. It was during this project, in 1935, that Wagner made what he calls the most exciting discovery of his career.

Out in the field, while scanning canyon walls near Point Sublime, Wagner noticed something strange through his binoculars. Just under the rim of the canyon, a series of square cuts stood out on the canyon wall. Baffled by what he saw, Wagner recalls thinking, "God doesn't make square holes." After scaling the canyon wall and scrambling up a tree, he found himself standing in an ancient Anasazi ruin-the square holes he'd spotted were granaries once used for storing corn and pine nuts; the ruin dated to 1200 A.D. In his journal, Wagner recorded the day's unusual events with a touch of humor: "We claimed the pictographs said 'Jr. Chamber of Commerce and Lion's Club Meet Wednesdays at 11 a.m.'"

When the type mapping was finished, Wagner moved on to other forestry work. In 1942, married and raising a family, he returned to California, expecting to join the armed forces fighting World War II. Shortly after arriving in his home state, however, Wagner contracted polio and was unable to enlist. He had taken a job at Norris Industries and remained there, earning his engineering degree through night school at Cal Tech. Weekends and vacations were spent outdoors, fishing with the kids or packing in to the wilderness of the high Sierra. In 1971, after a long career at Norris, Wagner retired as Chief Engineer and spent his newfound free time back in the forest.

"I just wanted to be in the woods," he shrugs. Spoken like a true forester.

-Aimee Kelley

comments

Dad turned 98 recently and is still trucking on. He will have a retrospective of his carvings and painting on Dec. 7 at The Lodge in The Woods (near Little River, CA) where he now lives. Hope I can do as well.

posted by Larry Wagner | 2008-11-25 20:48:20

Bru, as the foresters called him, turned 100 years old on Oct 18, 2010. He's still up in Little River CA, as his daughter, Bonnie, reports from Gardnerville NV where she recently moved after retiring.

posted by Laura Oftedahl | 2010-12-13 10:50:57

post a comment