THE BEAR WHO CAME TO LUNCH
—and other adventures from my life as a Park Ranger
By Lorin Swinehart
“Bear!” my wife LaVon shouted as we sat down to lunch. There, standing erect and peering through the window at us was a huge black bear. I grabbed the camera and ran outside to steal a photo of our ursine visitor, but he fled at my approach, galloping across the meadow toward the NPS firefighters’ loop and off into his forest home, leaving me standing in a state of wonder, awe, stupefaction.
This may have been the supreme wilderness experience of our seventh season as National Park Service rangers, occurring during our five month term at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Our previous seasons had been spent at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, near a War of 1812 battle site on South Bass Island in Lake Erie.
My career as a ranger began in June 2000. For me, a small town high school teacher, this was to become my most exciting adventure. I went from being king of my classroom to becoming a member of a highly functioning, mutually supportive team. Fellow rangers were teachers, retired military, college students, writers and social workers. They held degrees in history, biology, business administration, criminal justice, art, music, accounting. They hailed from teeming cities, the deep woods of West Virginia, from Texas and California and small towns in Michigan and Ohio. I was to meet my future wife, a fellow ranger, there and form many enduring friendships.
One hundred years ago, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the bill establishing the National Park Service. Prior to its inception, parks had been patrolled by the army, often by buffalo soldiers, who fought forest fires, dealt with poachers, vandals and those who illegally grazed livestock or harvested timber on public lands. Lacking enforcement powers, they had to devise creative ways of dealing with offenders. It was not a perfect system.
If a child is lost, if a bear appears near a campsite, if an elderly visitor appears to be having a heart attack, if a pregnant woman is becoming “awfully uncomfortable” during a severe thunderstorm, if a telltale puff of smoke causes concerns about a possible forest fire, if a camper has locked himself out of his trailer, if someone is behaving irresponsibly in close quarters with a bull elk, if a baby bird has fallen from its nest, “Call a Ranger!”
For a ranger, no two days are alike.
The first rangers were all males, between the ages of 21-40, rugged Ranger Rick/Mark Trail types. The NPS insisted upon men of good character and sound physique, those who could be tactful in dealing with the public. Rangers were expected to be skilled horsemen, to handle firearms competently, to possess wilderness survival skills. The work included building trails and fighting forest fires. The hours were long, and there was no overtime pay. Rangers earned $1000 a year, with which to pay all their expenses, including $45 for their uniforms. A ranger was expected to love the work.
Each year, I have found myself covering my badge with black tape to honor the memory of a ranger who has died in the line of duty. During one season, a young ranger at Organ Pipe in Arizona was ambushed and killed by drug smugglers. That same week, another was killed by a hit and run driver at a roadblock in Maryland. The following year, while fighting a forest fire in Idaho, a ranger was killed by a falling tree. Later, another was killed by a rockslide in Hawaii.
To become a ranger, applicants must now pass a thorough Homeland Security background check. Four years of college or equivalent experience helps, as does law enforcement, fire fighting or wilderness first responder training.
Each park presents its own set of challenges, requiring the ranger to learn new skill sets. At Fort Raleigh, North Carolina, the site of the fabled “Lost Colony”, our first aid training included treatment for the bites of copperheads, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow and brown recluse spiders. At Perry’s Victory, I learned to conduct black powder firing demonstrations and see to the safety of visitors atop a 317-foot open air observation deck. At Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve, I did off-road vehicle inspections and issued backcountry permits. At Rocky Mountain National Park, we struggled to prevent a mother bear and her cubs from becoming addicted to food items left behind by careless campers, requiring that they be put down. We saved the bear and her children.
Our stories are many. A herd of javelina would meet us on the trail at Fort Bowie, Arizona each morning, wishing to have their bristly ears scratched and become pets. One afternoon on Loop Road in Big Cypress, we observed a huge, sinister Burmese python stretched across our right of way. One morning in Colorado, a buck mule deer sped across a meadow outside our bedroom window, his antlers aimed at the posterior of a fleeing coyote.
LaVon tells friends and family, “This man has dragged me all over the country,” to which I reply, “But, look at all the interesting ‘people’ you have met: Wild bears, wolves, coyotes, gators, dolphins, eagles, ravens, a badger, a Florida panther, javelina, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, deer, elk, hawks.”
My career with the park service may have ended where it began, back at Perry’s Victory last year. After nearly five years of complete retirement, I was consumed by the urge to serve just one more season. Whether or not, at 74, I have hung up my flat hat for the last time, I will always have fond memories of my years as a ranger.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com