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During my career as a National Park Ranger while working with local law enforcement and emergency services agencies I was asked on numerous occasions, "Is it always this busy in the park?" The honest answer is, it depends. Winters and off season months can be downright boring at times. Then all of a sudden you get a report of a vehicle crash, or someone takes a fall and you're off and running. The calls never stop even in the off season but they do slow down. During the off season rangers generally divert their attention to resource management, safety, training or other administrative tasks that they haven't had a chance to get to during the main visitor season. In the normal visitor season the call volume generally stays pretty steady; emergency calls or law enforcement incidents come fairly frequently. There are times however, that it gets pretty slow even during the main visitor season. That's when you have to watch out because it's like the calm before the storm and all of a sudden things can get crazy. During the Memorial Weekend, 4th of July weekend, and Labor Day Weekend rangers really earn their pay.
To give you an idea of what it can be like at times look at this example of a typical Memorial Day weekend at New River Gorge National River in 1998. The weekend started off with a "bang" on Friday evening. Rangers in the Grandview area received a report of gunshots fired in the Glade Creek Campground. The initial report was that a vehicle had driven through the campground and fired several gunshots from a moving vehicle. Shooting incidents in the park were relatively frequent, and because of the danger and unpredictability involved in these violent incidents we usually brought lots of help. Several rangers, WV State Troopers, and Raleigh County Sheriff Deputies responded to the area to investigate the report. When we arrived on scene there was no longer any vehicle activity in the area, and the campground was quiet so we went to the campsite where the person reporting the shooting was located. Initially the reporting party (RP) said he wasn't sure who, or why the shots were fired. However, after repeated questioning of the RP and other campers in the campground we learned that there had been a very rowdy party in the campsite of the RP. Witnesses said that there had been loud arguing and what sounded like a violent fight in the campsite. They heard a vehicle speed away from the campsite and then heard several gunshots come from the vicinity of the vehicle as it was speeding away. No one in the campground was able, or more likely was willing, to give any information on the persons that had fired the shots or a description of the vehicle involved.
After it was apparent that the threat had left the area, the troopers and deputies left the area, leaving the investigation to the rangers. It was apparent from the witness statements that there probably had been shots fired in the area, but since it was dark and the shots had probably gone off into the woods there was no physical evidence, at least at this point. We had witnesses saying that shots were fired from a vehicle, but no names or description of the suspects or of the vehicle, and no physical evidence to confirm the report. We had spent about two and one half hours investigating the incident, and this is one that was going to take some follow-up over the next few days or weeks before the case could be resolved. The saving grace in the incident was no one was injured.
Saturday morning started out fairly slow. Since the commercial river outfitters usually book rafting trips heavy on these weekends they get started early at the put-in areas, especially on Saturday and Sunday. The Cunard Launch Area is one of the main put-ins because it's the beginning of the lower section through the "gorge" and the beginning of the class IV+ whitewater section (using the International Grading System for whitewater, Class I is the easiest with gentle rapids or ripples, and Class VI is the most difficult and dangerous). There is normally a tremendous amount of commercial river traffic trying to squeeze into a relatively tiny space along the river, so rangers spent the morning managing the put-in operation. At the time there were twenty three commercial outfitters on this section of the river, and as the locals like to say "it's a class six bus ride down the Cunard Road, to run a class five river". The saying is pretty darn accurate, even though the road had been improved some since my arrival at New River in 1985. At that time it was a very steep, narrow, winding, unpaved, and rutted mud hole. Each of the twenty three outfitters would generally have several forty to sixty passenger buses going into and out of the two mile section of the Cunard Access Road, disgorging rafts and passengers at the river access at the bottom. The buses were typically old retired school buses that had be pressed back into service and many were held together with not much more than baling wire and duct tape. It wasn't unusual to see buses broken down on the side of the road with brake problems, engine failure, and broken axles.
Going down the narrow, winding, rutted, rocky and very steep road was an accident waiting to happen; we always prayed it wouldn't happen, but at the same time we stayed prepared. Not only was the road treacherous, but it was too narrow for two buses going in the opposite direction to pass in most of the two mile stretch. There was a lot of backing up, followed by cursing and sometimes fights. To help remedy this most outfitters equipped the buses with CB radios to communicate their location on the road, and on busy days sometimes a person was positioned at the top and bottom to act as traffic controllers.
Not only was the bus traffic on the road a problem, but on these busy weekends it was utter chaos at the launch area. Imagine twenty three commercial outfitters; all putting on at least ten rafts with eight to ten passengers in each. Some of the larger companies were putting on as many as fifty or more rafts. On a busy day there would be over two thousand boaters launching at Cunard. Not much fun for the rangers that had to manage the put-in operation, then pull up stakes and do the same thing at the take-out at Fayette Station. We would normally try to put several rangers at Cunard early in the morning to help get a handle on things, and then they would move out into other areas of the park. The section of the New River within the park boundaries is fifty two miles long, and to get from one area to another you had to leave the park and travel on County and State roads. Besides the New River the park also manages the Gauley River NRA, Meadow River NSR, and Bluestone NSR; it could be a daunting and challenging task at times with the limited number of rangers. Sometimes having extra rangers in one area worked to our advantage, sometimes it didn't work out quite so well. This Saturday started out slow with the normal chaos of managing the put-in, and then the calls began to come in. And all of a sudden it jumped up a notch, like WORP speed.
On Saturday morning the launch operation was going pretty well at Cunard. There were some testy times trying to keep the outfitters who were competing for the launch ramp to "play nice". It was almost 11:00am and for the most part all was going pretty smoothly (now remember what I said about the "quiet before the storm"?). All of a sudden the "river drums began to beat" loudly. That means that the outfitter telegraph kicked in, bus drivers were shouting on the radio that there was a "BUS OVER THE SIDE OF THE ROAD" near the top of Cunard Road. They immediately passed the report on to the rangers at the launch area and rangers began to respond. I had just left Cunard about twenty minutes before the report came in and was only about five miles away. I turned around and headed back to the accident scene. When I arrived about fifteen minutes later I found that a sixty passenger bus had rolled over the non-existent shoulder and was on its side about eight feet down the steep embankment. Luckily large trees had caught the bus before it continued over the embankment or it would have continued down the steep embankment another fifty to sixty feet; the trees had saved lives. Everyone was already off of the bus when I arrived. The bus seemed fairly stable for now. I interviewed the driver and found out that he had just unloaded a full load of passengers at the put-in and was traveling out the road when the accident occurred. According to the driver he had been forced off the road by speeding vehicles moving downhill on a very narrow section of the road. Luckily the only people on board were the driver and a driver trainee and there were no injuries.
Now we had to deal with the congestion caused by the accident. There were about eight buses still at the Cunard bottom that were trying to get out and they had passengers to pick up at the take out at Fayette Station. The outfitters were panicking, and since the launch "window" had not yet ended there were buses stacking up at the top of the road trying to get down to the put-in at Cunard. The end of the overturned bus was sticking out into the road, blocking buses from getting up or down the road - a real stalemate. It may have been possible to barely squeeze a bus through the gap, but it would have been really close, and the consequences would have been severe. If a bus tried to pass it may have hit the bus, pushing the bus further over the hill and caused it to roll, or the passing bus could have gotten lodged between the rolled bus and the trees on the opposite side of the road. We closed the road until we could see if the tow truck could remove the bus.
The tow truck, a large one designed to haul buses and semi rigs, arrived about one hour later. The tow operator made numerous attempts to remove the bus, but was still unable to tow it out. It was now over five hours after the accident, traffic was stranded at the bottom of the road and others were screaming to get down the road.
Aside from all of the pressure from outfitters and other river users to get up and down the Cunard Road, there was another influence to "wrap it up" and open the road. At about 3:45pm and over five hours after the bus accident, we received a report from a river outfitter that had just launched from Cunard; they had "found a dead body along the New River just downstream from Cunard". The outfitter had gotten on the river late because of the volume of river traffic, so the trip leader decided to pull the group over earlier than normal and provide the picnic lunch to their customers. One of the customers had walked downstream about thirty yards and had found the body. The trip leader used his portable radio to call their base, who in turn called the NPS dispatch to make the report. The outfitter decided it was best to take body. They radioed in the general location as being one mile downriver from Cunard, and then paddled down the river.
The response to the "body found" call was delayed while we waited for the tow truck winch cables to be cleared from across the road. During the attempts to remove the bus the tow operator had moved it a few feet, allowing other buses to safely get past. So I made a decision to halt the towing operation. I had the tow operator secure the bus with blocks and chains to prevent from rolling any further, and had the tow truck moved out of the road so it could be opened to traffic. Of course we had to station a ranger on the site to direct traffic to prevent other accidents at this site. We had the tow operator return to the area on Sunday and this time he brought a second tow truck and operator. With the two trucks working together the bus was removed fairly quickly and without any further problems.
We had a raft and two rangers at the top of Cunard Road ready to do a river patrol "sweep", so after clearing the road we sent them downriver to do a hasty search for the body. I also sent two other rangers downriver on foot to search the area along the river bank in the general area. It wasn't until about 11:00pm when we finally located the badly decomposed body. It was about 1.5 miles downstream from Cunard along the river bank, one half mile further than what the outfitter had reported.
The advanced decomposition of the body indicated that it had been in this location for at least a week and had been exposed to high water from the rising river. Since it was dark we weren't going to do a very good job of processing the scene until daylight. So we left a ranger on the area overnight to protect the scene, a necessity for evidentiary purposes, and came back the following morning.
Most of the park is concurrent jurisdiction, meaning that the Feds and State share jurisdiction, so we quickly got the Fayette County Sheriff and the WV Medical Examiners Office involved in the investigation. The next day we processed the scene with the joint investigative team. It appeared that the body may have washed down from upstream and came to rest at its present location and with the washing from the river there wasn't much physical evidence left at the site of the body. About all we had to go on was the clothing on the corpse and the corpse itself. So, it was up the WV Medical Examiners Office to give us some leads to work with. The Medical Examiners Office determined that the body was a black male and had been dead approximately two to three weeks before he was found on the riverbank. Nothing was conclusive at the time, and even though it could have been an accidental death, there was evidence obtained in the autopsy that gave us cause to believe that it could have also been a homicide. So, we treated it as a homicide, and placed in it in the hands of the park's Special Agent for follow-up investigation. I won't give the punch line away at this time, but will say that when the investigation was concluded about a year later this one turned out to be material for a dime store mystery novel - but then, that's another story.
While we were dealing with the "body" call, we received another emergency report. This time it was in the Arbuckle Creek area of the park, about five miles upstream from Cunard. Acting as the overall Incident Commander for the park I knew that it was time to "triage calls". A woman had fallen off of a horse and taken a six foot fall causing head injury and lacerations around her eyes. She had fallen from the horse onto the trail, so there was not any technical rope rescue involved. Since we had other major incidents going on, and because we didn't have anyone that could break away and get to the area in time to help, I decided that we had to let the local Fire Dept. and EMS providers handle this incident. A private EMS company was dispatched to the area along with the local VFD. After the victim was stabilized at the scene she was evacuated about one half mile out the trail by an ATV to the waiting ambulance. The ambulance transported her to a helicopter landing zone where she was loaded into a medical helicopter and flown to Charleston, WV for emergency treatment. She was treated for a concussion, glass was removed from her eyes from her broken eyeglasses, and she was released on Sunday.
While we were dealing with these three incidents we received another emergency call. The report was a domestic violence incident at the Stonecliff Beach Camping Area near Thurmond. Rangers arrived and found one of the persons involved had left the area and the incident was now defused. The rangers interviewed two intoxicated women at the campsite. From the interview with the women and other campers the rangers determined that a local man, his niece and sister were drinking heavily all day around the campsite. They had gotten into a loud argument that eventually broke into an all out brawl between the man and two women. There were bruises and abrasions on the women's face and arms that they said were made by the man during the fight. It was a typical domestic violence case that was all too familiar to the rangers in that area; the rangers would try to locate the man in a follow-up investigation. Assault and disorderly conduct charges were pending on the conclusion of the investigation.
While rangers were dealing with the disorderly conduct at Stonecliff another complaint was received at the Gauley Tailwaters Campground on the Gauley River NRA. The report was for disorderly conduct and larceny. Two rangers arrived and found the campers in a heated argument. In order to sort things out and to get a clear picture of what had occurred they had to separate the campers. After getting things calmed down the story finally began to come into focus. As it worked out it was another all night drinking party in the campground; campers from the two sites were involved in the "partying" all night when things went sour. An argument started over something, but now no one really remembered what it was, and escalated into a pushing, shoving, rolling on the ground, and punch throwing fracas. One of the persons "violated" in the assault huff ed off and allegedly came back later and stole some camping gear from the other camp. No one was hurt in the incident except a couple of scraped and bruised egos. The rangers, doing their part as good moderators cited both parties with disorderly conduct and evicted them from the campground. The larceny could not be confirmed at the time, that would take some follow-up investigation.
On Saturday afternoon rangers were called to a motor vehicle accident on Royal Road near Grandview Sandbar. They found that the car had been traveling at a high rate of speed on the narrow, windy road. It had missed a curve, left the road, and rolled over a fifteen foot high men in the car walked away without any injuries. The driver was cited for reckless driving. A wrecker was called to pull the car back on the road and tow it away, and the rangers found rides for the three persons involved in the wreck before clearing the incident.
Excerpted from RANGER UP! by Richard E. (Rick) Brown Copyright © 2010 by Richard E. (Rick) Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 10, 2011
As a young professional undergoing a career change to a NPS ranger I found Rick's book extremely entertaining & insightful! The author provides great advice for anyone to follow when entering a national park. It's a great read, hard to put down and would recommend to any outdoor enthusiast!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 10, 2010
There seem to be several new books on US National Park Rangers, but "Ranger Up" does the best job of providing a look into the various other disciplines Rangers work in. Besides law enforcement, Rangers also work as firefighters, Search and Rescue members, and EMT's. Rick Brown's book does an excellent job of describing these duties, and the text is well organized and clearly written.
I would recommend "Ranger Up" for anyone interested in National Parks or the ranger profession. I found the book to be an immense help while working as a ranger in the Northwest, and I found its pages to be motivating and insightful.
Posted November 6, 2010
I really enjoyed this book. It is an easy read for everyone, which I think is good as some other ranger related books seem to be very technical and make sense only to those in the field. I felt the book gives a great overview of what a park ranger does and the things you are likely to encounter. Enjoyable for the ranger, the want to to be ranger, and the romantic business worker who wishes they had become a ranger.
For the comment that it is too censored:I appreciate that acutal names are not used as a member of the profession. Names do not mean anything to you unless you know the person and the people I know in this book are easily reconizable by their descriptions. With some of the rangers in the book still active law enforcement professionals I think it is professional not to name them by name.
A great read and recommended for all.
Posted September 15, 2010
As a young boy, I always wanted to be a Park Ranger. Although I never did reach this goal, I did become a wildland firefighter so I guess that was close. Having said that, this book was a means for me to see what it is really like to be a Park Ranger! Talk about having to wear many hats! Reading all about Mr. Browns exciting career made me wish I had taken my goal more seriously. I had a hard time putting this book down as it went from one adventure to another. Not only was it adventursome, it took the reader into a unique understanding of how and why NPS rangers deal with the challenges they face. This should be required reading for young people who are interested in the outdoors and jobs that are out there. Mr. Brown clearly had a remarkable career and served his country well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 24, 2010
This is a great depiction of what a real life Ranger does, and the types of activities he is exposed to on a normal day. Its a great read, you won't be disappointed.
I have often dreamed about being a Ranger, but never realized Rangers were exposed so many different types of dangers and thrills. I now know that there different types of rangers, Protection Ranger are the way to go!