Updated: Oct 2
Though small in number, their influence is large. Many and long are the duties heaped upon their shoulders. If a trail is to be blazed, it is “send a ranger.” If an animal is floundering in the snow, a ranger is sent to pull him out; if a bear is in the hotel, if a fire threatens a forest, if someone is to be saved, it is “send a ranger.”
—Stephen T. Mather, Director of the National Park Service, 1928, in Oh, Ranger!
Life as a National Park Service ranger
It was evening when the radio in my ranger cabin sounded, “502 402.” It was the Windigo ranger calling me, the Malone Bay ranger. I answered. 402 continued, “Request you be here first light to assist on a SAR.” I acknowledged and the radio went quiet.
There are different types of NPS rangers and I served as a “protection ranger.” Early in my NPS career, a fellow ranger told me you best be good at not getting yourself in a situation that you could not get myself out of. I must admit, I relished the challenge of providing the services of law enforcement (LE), emergency medical services (EMS), wildland firefighting (WFF), and search and rescue (SAR) in the wilderness. In my fourteen seasons as an NPS ranger, I would serve at three marine wilderness parks, but it was Isle Royale where I would cut my teeth. It is said your first love of something always holds a special place. For me, that’s Isle Royale.
Isle Royale National Park (ISRO) the most remote national park in the contiguous U. S.
Having switched uniforms from blue over grey to grey over green, I soon realized one thing the Michigan State Police (MSP) and the National Park Service (NPS) had in common was that it was rare that either was fully staffed. It was my third season at Isle Royale National Park (ISRO), considered by many as the most remote national park in the contiguous U. S. It was rare that each of the four ranger stations would enjoy its allocation of two rangers. More often than not, one or more were drawn away for this or that: be it wildland fire fighting at another resource, training, transfer, or whatever. Unlike the MSP, being ISRO was an island, situated catawampus in the northwest portion of Lake Superior, closer to Canada than the US, there was no one else to call for backup; we rangers were it. At least no one who could arrive before the exigent need had ended. So, when the eight allocated rangers got subtracted from, rangers were juggled to best keep a presence of public safety. When the need arose, it usually required at least two rangers, so the primary would arrange and plan while another responded via Lake Superior, that is as long as Lake Superior, the ruling force at Isle Royale, allowed it.
“ … those who have never seen Superior get an inadequate idea by hearing of it
spoken of as a lake …though its waters are fresh and crystal, Superior is a sea.
It breeds storms and rain and fog like the sea…It is wild, masterful, and dreaded.”
Reverend George Grant – Sanford Fleming Expedition 1872
Fond memories of protecting national parks
I have fond memories of that chapter of my life. Looking back, I cannot believe it will soon be ten years since I left the NPS, meaning the statute of limitations has expired on what I am about to tell you. While the memories were still fresh, I spent the immediate two years following my NPS resignation to pen “Protecting National Parks.” The venue for that composition was in contrast to where the events occurred. I wrote on the 13th floor of a high-rise apartment building in downtown Milwaukee, where I relived the adventures as I pecked away at my computer on the dining room table. You might ask how it was I ended up there. Let me say it might have had something to do with a woman, and leave it at that. The apartment’s redeeming grace was an outstanding view of Lake Michigan that sometimes included a rainbow.
It was there I wrote the book “Protecting National Parks,” In it, I share the training and then a sampling of missions involving the four primary ranger disciplines (LE/EMS/WFF/SAR) in three marine wilderness parks. In this blog, I will share the story of a SAR that was not included in the book as it was a prohibited rescue. With the stage now set, I will move on to the subject matter.
Home of the longest predator-prey study in the world
One of Isle Royale’s claim to fame is that it hosts the longest predator-prey study in the world; that being between the wolf and moose. Earth Watch is a volunteer group that supports this study with boots on the ground. The members of this group volunteer to come to Isle Royale and scour assigned wilderness areas in search of moose sheds and bones. During these assignments, they often camp in the backcountry. When remains are found, they photograph the scene, document the location of the find, and collect the evidence, which they then deliver to the leader of the project. At that time it was Rolf Peterson, who would later examine the findings to better assess the health of these animals.
To be expected, these strangers come together to volunteer for an intense time and they don’t always get along. It was evening when the Earth Watch group returned to Windigo from being in the field for multiple days. Their leader contacted Jason, the then-lone ranger at Windigo, and advised the group had returned short one person. Jason then interviewed members of the group. He learned that the missing person was a middle-aged man from Illinois who was dealing with some personal issues and had not meshed well with the other volunteers.
With darkness nearing, Ranger Josh arranged to initiate a search come morning and I was summoned from the Malone Bay Ranger Station. If you look at the above map, you can see Windigo. On the map, the Malone Bay Ranger Station is located very near where the letter “k” in the word park is. At dawn the next morning, with the seas fairly calm, I would depart my station in the old girl nearing retirement known as the “Siskiwit,” a 1976 Bertram I/O motor vessel, and boated to Windigo.
There I would be partnered with a leader of Earth Watch, an able-bodied middle-aged man whom I will name Steve. With Ranger Jason at the helm, the three of us boarded the motor vessel “Raven,” a new 23” center console SAFE boat, and motored out of Washington Harbor, to get as close as possible by water to where the group had last camped.
Ranger Jason carefully beached the Raven on the rocky shore and, with Steve holding the lines of the Raven, Ranger Jason and I hiked in. We had not walked far when we spotted a blue tent. Curious and hopeful, we approached it cautiously. Finding nobody in it, we breathed a sigh of relief as suicide is common in national parks. Several times we shouted into the silence, “Hello Mike, we are looking for you.” Silence returned, followed by our return to the boat.
Having limited resources, it was decided to boat around the peninsula to McGinty Cove where Steve and I would be inserted with our day packs to search, as best we could, and then hike back to Windigo. Looking at the above-inserted map, the red curved arrow gives you an idea of where we were in the world. (For those readers having a Topo we would traverse sections 25, 36, and 30 and then get on the West Huginnin Cove Trail which we hiked back to Windigo.) It was days like this that I was reminded why the ranger job description says the applicant should be prepared for “arduous duty.”
Lathering ourselves with mosquito repellent, Steve and I began our search, traversing wilderness where man seldom trekked. To preserve our voices, we took turns shouting “Hello Mike, we are looking for you.” From bogs to hills, we made our way, using our compass to avoid walking in a circle. Then we heard what I would describe as a bellowing. We paused to listen carefully, hoping to determine what direction it came from. When we did, we again shouted “Hello Mike, we are looking for you.” Only silence followed.
Having taken a compass bearing toward the bellowing, we now followed it. As we neared, we observed something hiding in the muck. We crept forward to discover a moose calf stuck in what I called Isle Royale quicksand. The fur of a calf is much lighter in color than that of an adult moose. Where was its mother? Had our approach scared her away? Looking at the calf, we knew its situation was hopeless. Unless we intervened, this calf would soon be food for a wolf or a raven, or both. Nothing is wasted in the wilderness.
"In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught." ~ Baba Dioum
Witnessing nature in all its grandeur
Witnessing nature in all its grandeur, words from the Wilderness Act of 1964 came to mind, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Steve spoke to me, “You know we are supposed to let nature take its course.” With a grimace, I reluctantly nodded my head. Steve continued, “If you won’t tell, I won’t and the calf can’t talk.” With a smile, I shook my head. Before wading into the muck, we took this picture.
With Steve managing the head and shoulders, I grabbed the rear quarters. I will always remember how this calf’s fur felt, just like velvet. We tugged and pulled and muddied ourselves until success. As the calf trotted away, Steve snapped another picture.
We continued our search for Mike which proved futile. It was late afternoon when we trudged back into Windigo. There we learned that Mike had hiked into Windigo early that afternoon. He denied ever being lost. His denial reminded me of a Daniel Boone quote, “Never was lost but I was once a bit bewildered for three weeks.”
In this case, all is well that ends well. For me, I will never forget the velvety feel of the moose calf fur. Prohibited rescue? Although things have changed since Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, made the quote that this blog begins with, I like to think he too was smiling when the calf trotted away.
"National Parks, the best idea we ever had." ~Wallace Stegner