I have hiked the Grand Canyon twice, a fact of which I am proud because it was hard. My husband and I have friends who hike it at least twice a year, often more. They are a bit obsessed with it, but who can blame them. It is an awe inspiring place. I live in Arizona and we are lucky to live so close to one of the seven natural wonders of the world. And yet, even some of the people who have lived here their whole lives have never even looked over the rim of this great national treasure.
On a recent visit to the Canyon, we noticed on the gift shop book shelves this book: Ranger Confidential by Andrea Lankford. I was intrigued by the prospect of reading about the life of a park ranger and I'll admit that intrigue was elevated by the fact that the author was a woman. Now that I have read the book, I am embarrassed to admit that I previously thought that a park ranger was a caretaker of the park. I knew they carried guns, but that still didn't tip me off. A park ranger is not a litter picker or a trail clearer or a tour guide. A park ranger is a law enforcement officer and a life saver and a protector of our National Parks and the people who visit them. The park ranger credo: "Protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from themselves."
As the introduction says. "Even paradise has it's problems. Criminals go on vacation, too. In the US, a park ranger is more likely to be assaulted in the line of duty than is any other federal officer including Firearms (ATF); the Secret Service; and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). A park ranger is twelve times more likely to die on the job than is a special agent for the FBI."
This book was full of interesting stories from Lankford's experiences and from those of the friends she made during her twelve year ranger career. In one story she tells about her friend Mary Litell, a park visitor had asked Mary the type of squirrel he had just seen. Mary didn't know, but Lankford defends her by saying, "...rangers would have more time for studying the natural history of Yosemite squirrels if people would just stop falling off cliffs. But people will continue to fall off cliffs as long as leaves continue to fall off trees." One of the most dramatic falls that Mary encounters later in the book involves a base jumper protesting the prohibition against base jumping off of El Capitan, the granite monolith in Yosemite that stands 3,000 feet tall. This protester knew that she would be arrested once she reached the ground and her equipment seized. She did not want to relinquish her best equipment so she borrowed a chute from a friend. When jumping off a 3,000 foot cliff, it is advisable to use the best equipment available and with which you are familiar. The book describes Mary watching and counting the many long seconds as this jumper can't deploy her chute and plummets to her death. I'll spare you the details, but I will admit that I couldn't look away.
Lankford describes an incident where humans and bears cross paths. A large mama bear in Yosemite had discovered that not all hikers and campers were properly using the bear lockers for their food. One such hiker sleeping with food in his tent is rewarded with a bear paw slashing through his neck. He narrowly survived after forty stitches, but it meant that the bear would have to be euthanized. "In the memo authorizing the bear's euthanasia, the park superintendent signed this statement: 'There will always be conflicts that arise with four million visitors and approximately 400 to 500 bears in Yosemite. The sad fact is that the bears often end up paying the price with their lives.'" I have always found that frustrating. The people can't remember that they are in the bear's territory and so now the bear must die. This bear had three cubs who watched from a tree limb as two wildlife biologists buried their mother. A difficult decision then faced the biologists: do they do the humane thing and kill the three cubs right away knowing that the cubs will likely freeze to death or starve without their mother's guidance or do they allow the cubs to live and hope they make it? These were scientists who had dedicated their lives and careers to protecting the bears of Yosemite. A difficult decision, but the cubs were allowed to live and surprisingly survived the winter. In a newspaper article, one of the biologists told a reporter, "It's standard procedure when we euthanize a bear that we don't talk to one another for the rest of the day. We go home early and get drunk instead."
The descriptions of the Grand Canyon hikers that just aren't tough enough were rather amusing. Many people believe that if they attempt to hike the Canyon and can't make it, they will just take a helicopter out. Lankford lists all the ways people freak out when they realize it's so much harder than they expected. Some beg for a helicopter ride to the top, others attempt to bribe the ranger and others threaten. Some even try to blame the rangers: "You should have gates up to keep people like us from coming down here!" These kind of hikers are assigned the title Code W as in Wimp. "The park ranger secretly loathes the Code W. The ranger has seen eighty-year-olds, cancer survivors, and one-legged women hike out of the canyon without so much as a whimper."
At the beginning of the hiking trail are signs that are illustrated with a skull and crossbones that make it very clear that hiking the Grand Canyon is dangerous and can lead to injury or even death. "Every year, hundreds of people start their hikes by having their pictures taken with these signs. Watching a hiker do this...the ranger winces every time. Mocking that sign is a fool's amusement. Park rangers find portraits of hikers grinning in front of it when they develop rolls of film removed from the bodies of people who died on the trail." I must admit that I have taken that picture.
The many tales of rescues within the pages of Ranger Confidential are breathtaking. People get themselves into serious trouble in the wild and they are lucky that these rangers are out there to help them. In 1996, Grand Canyon Rangers responded to 482 rescue missions. That summer is on record as the deadliest hiking season in the park's history.
I was spellbound by the stories I read in this book. Having seen the walls of the Grand Canyon looming over me, I was easily able to imagine the landscape and the setting of the work these rangers do. I will see them in a whole different light the next time I visit a National Park. And I will be certain not to ask where is the best place to view the sunset. They have much more important things to do.