Ask A Ranger
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
It was a sparkling summer morning on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, the location of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 354 foot Doric column erected to honor the sacrifice of men who gave their lives during the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, and to celebrate the lasting peace between the US, the UK and Canada. I served nine of my twelve seasons as a National Park Service ranger at that site.
The coast of Canada was clearly visible, a mere twenty miles away across the blue green waters of the lake. The fabled Lake Erie Islands dotted the surface like a string of pearls, stepping stones spanning an international border that has been characterized by peace and cooperation ever since the end of the ill conceived War of 1812. I was alone, manning the open air observation deck, 317 feet above the granite plaza.
Because it was tourist season, visitation was constant that morning. Two young couples approached me and asked me for the names of the islands, a common question. Well into my explanation, I pointed to tiny Middle Island, seven miles to the northeast, a forty-acre bird sanctuary on the Canadian side of the border. I explained that Middle Island was the southernmost point in all of Canada, and was about to share the islet’s history of rum-running and other forms of misbehavior during the Prohibition Era of the Roaring Twenties. One of the young men said to his three companions, “Hey, Guys! That little island is in Canada.”
His blond female companion responded, “Canada! I thought it was much bigger than that!”
The other three members of her party were as flabbergasted as I was by her assumption that all of Canada, from the US border to the North Pole, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver, including such teeming cities as Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Windsor, Winnipeg and Vancouver were by some miracle located on what was obviously a tiny islet in Lake Erie.
A few days later, on an equally clear morning, a middle aged lady asked me in all seriousness if she would be permitted to drive her car to the other islands. A fellow ranger asked if she saw any bridges stretching across the waters to the other islands, which, of course, she did not.
Still, she persisted, demanding to know whether she could drive a car to the other islands, at which point her husband strode around the corner shaking his head in dismay. I looked at my fellow ranger and mumbled, “Just think, that poor guy has to live with that.”
National Park Service rangers are routinely asked questions so peculiar as to defy any attempt at a sober response. One ranger whom I knew well had worked for a season at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he was continually asked, “How much of this cavern hasn’t been discovered yet?”
After repeatedly failing to convince his interrogators that no one could possibly know how much had not been discovered because it hadn’t been discovered, he finally began to respond, “About 37 ½ miles,” which seemed to suffice.
While working at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, we were asked, “How old do the deer have to be before they turn into elk,” and on another occasion, “What time do the elk bugle, and where do we go to hear them?”
I wanted to say that the elk appreciated gratuities and would bugle an encore performance if the applause was sufficient.
I have been told by rangers who serve at Civil War parks and monuments that they are frequently asked, “Why were so many battles fought in national parks?”
Perhaps the most dumbfounding of all silly questions has been asked of rangers serving at Grand Canyon, “Is the mule train air conditioned?”
At times, the naivete of park visitors takes on a more chilling aspect. A ranger I once served with had worked at Yellowstone National Park a few years earlier and told of a tourist sitting his small child on the back of a wild bison in order to photograph her.
That incident was mirrored a few years later when I was working at Big Cypress Preserve and rangers at Everglades National Park next door charged a man with child endangerment after he sat his two-year-old daughter on the back of a wild alligator.
I was never above adding a bit of levity to my daily tasks. One summer afternoon, I was conducting live black powder firing demonstrations with my fellow ranger Craig. When the order to fire was given, my own .69 caliber Charlesville musket barked as it was supposed to, sending a cloud of blue smoke into the air and bits and pieces of paper cartridge flying every which way.
Craig’s musket, on the contrary, balked. He followed standard procedures, holding steady to the count of ten before attempting to clear his musket. Put-in-Bay, Ohio is notorious as one of the Midwest’s favored watering troughs, as is made evident by one establishment’s boast of possessing the world’s longest bar. The moment Craig shouted, “Misfire!” I mumbled, “Hey, Craig. Isn’t Miss Fire a stripper in one of the saloons downtown?”
He nearly choked to death attempting to suppress his laughter while explaining misfire procedures to an audience of more than a hundred park visitors.
Weddings often take place on the island. One summer day, as I trudged toward my firing position, attired in my 1812 infantry regalia, toting my musket, I found myself amid a small crowd of people that included a bride in her white gown, a groom in his tuxedo, a minister attired in his vestments, and a large crowd of friends and family. They all looked at me as though I had just emerged from the portals of a time machine, and someone shouted out, “Hey—a shotgun wedding!”
One summer evening, as I patrolled the observation deck, a young woman in her twenties approached and stood at one corner, looking out over the lake, seemingly just enjoying the view. I halted and stood nearby in case she had any questions. A sudden breeze buffeted the deck, sending her frilly skirt up to her waist, revealing that she was wearing nothing underneath. “Oh, my God,” she shrieked. “Forget what you just saw!”
“Well,” I answered, “You have nothing to hide from the National Park Service. At least, not anymore.”
One hot, steamy August morning, the cannon crew at Perry was conducting firing demonstrations with our War of 1812 era 32-pounder carronade, the type of weapon used by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in his bloody confrontation with the British fleet. I was serving as one of the safety officers along the sea wall, to prevent visitors from straying onto the firing range. On that occasion, I was able to use the time for a brief history lesson, explaining the battle, the weaponry and the issues at stake to a nice lady and her little boy.
After the second round had shaken the ground we were standing on and set eardrums to reverberating, I said, “Just imagine, fifteen warships firing those things for four and a half hours. It’s no wonder that some members of the crew were deafened.
Unaware that we only used blank cartridges in the carronade, she responded, “The only thing I don’t understand is where the cannonball went.”
I pointed out over the vacant surface of Lake Erie and said, “Do you see that fishing boat right out there?”
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com