Oh, Ranger!
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"Oh, Ranger!"

"OH, Ranger, can I take your picture with a bear?"

"Just a minute, ma'am, until I show this gentleman where to go fishing."

"Where's a bear, now?"

"Well ma'am, there was one in these woods an hour ago. Maybe we can find him."

Five minutes devoted to the finding of a wild bear.


"Oh, Ranger, that's a lovely bear! Stand closer to him, won't you? Would you mind putting your arm around him? It would make a peachy picture. We'd just love it."

"Sorry, ma'am, but it's against regulations to hug the bears."

"Oh, pshaw! Why do they have such foolish regulations? Well, just pretend to be feeding him something."

Knowing the ways of bears, the ranger declined to "pretend." He produced some molasses chews and actually tossed the food to the bear. It is dangerous business to try to fool a bear about food, and he should never be fed from the hand.

Click! Click! Click!

Another ranger was immortalized in picture, for the ninetieth time that day.

"It's all in the day's work," explained the ranger.

"What else do you do?"

"Well, show folks where to camp, and how to keep on the right road, and answer questions, and see that people don't tease the animals, and keep things orderly, and put out forest fires, and give lectures on Nature, and rescue Dudes in danger, and 'most anything anybody wants done around here."

"All in a day's work." That whimsical line was written at the top of a report turned in one day by Ranger John Wegner, now Chief Ranger of Sequoia, which read as follows:


"I got phone orders at Tuolumne Meadows to pack up and come in over Sunrise Trail. Started at sunset. Everything haywire, including cranky pack horse which kept getting off trail. Phoned in at Vernal Falls station. Ordered to hurry down, help catch two auto thieves which broke jail just after breakfast. Assigned to guard Coulterville Road. Only transportation was Chief's personal auto which I could have if I could find man who borrowed it from Chief. Chief didn't know who that was. Guarded Coulterville Road until 3:00 A.M., when ordered to Valley to beat brush by the river with flashlight to locate thieves. Found one thief and captured him just before dawn. Somebody else assigned to guard him. Before I turned in, got orders to meet carload of trout fry at El Portal and help plant them in streams. Met fish O.K., but coming up El Portal Road, Quad truck slipped over side of road, but was saved from going down cliff by being caught in tree. Cans of fish lashed to truck, so we saved them. Job was complicated by necessity of keeping water aerated in cans setting by roadside while we rushed more water in small bucket from stream quarter of mile away. Fish all saved. Phoned for help, and kept water cans moving until truck dragged back on road and fish cans reloaded. Relieved of duty, with nothing to do but walk nine miles and go to bed."


"All in a day's work" can be almost anything for a national park ranger. One day, at the end of a long battle for control of a forest fire, former Superintendent "Dusty" Lewis of Yosemite was making a final inspection before telling the last ranger on the job to go to his cabin and turn in for much-needed sleep. Every blaze was out except a small flicker in an old tree trunk, dead but still standing. It looked safe enough, but the rangers hesitated to leave before it was entirely out, for fear that a sudden breeze might rekindle the forest fire. The blaze was too high to reach with wet sacks or dirt thrown by a shovel, or by water thrown from a bucket. The tree was too large to be cut down without help, and Lewis hesitated to call back his already exhausted rangers. He scratched his head and puzzled over the engineering problem of snuffing out that small blaze, well out of reach. Then he and the ranger scouted for a spring. Finding one, they made a lot of mud balls and carried them in their hats to a point near the burning tree. Both had been baseball players in their younger days, and as Lewis afterward said, "The old soup-bones were still in fair shape." Cheering each other's pitching, they heaved mud balls and plastered the tree trunk until the last "strike" smacked out the last flickering blaze.

To the four million visitors who enjoy the national parks each year, everyone in the olive drab uniform is a ranger. "Oh, Ranger!" is the almost universal greeting preliminary to asking questions about the park and its life. But within the ranger service there are various designations, ranging from Superintendents down to Ninety-Day-Wonders. In a broad, general way, all rangers are divided into two groups: Old-Timers and Ninety-Day-Wonders. The Old-Timers are the permanent rangers, serving the year around, year in and year out. The Ninety-Day-Wonders are temporary rangers, signed on for the summer rush period of three or four months, when the travel to the national parks nears the seven-million mark.

The Old-Timers are, of course, the backbone of the ranger service. In the summer months, they are in command at the various ranger stations, assisted by the Ninety-Day-Wonders in the task of registering visitors, directing them to camps and lodges, helping them find fishing holes, or campsites, or wood, or what not, and in answering the millions of questions about the parks. The Ninety-Day-Wonders are mostly college men, with enough love for the out-of-doors to enlist for a summer of hard work in the national parks. They are a keen and resourceful group of men and what they don't know about the great open spaces after a week in a national park they manage to hide behind an air of great sagacity. The majority of these lads return to college work at the end of summer, but a few of them succumb to the spell of the mountains and eventually become permanent rangers.


The Old-Timers, particularly the veterans in the ranger service, were born men of the mountains, gifted with a working knowledge of woodcraft, of trail-blazing, of the ways of wild life, and with sufficient instinctive resourcefulness in the mountains and the forest to be able to take care of themselves and others under any circumstances. They were practical naturalists, and knew enough practical psychology to handle people in numbers. They served as guides, philosophers, and friends. That seems like an imposing list of qualifications, yet the Old-Timers measured up to them. The younger generation of permanent rangers are largely college men, attracted to the Parks by summer work. After serving first as Ninety-Day-Wonders, they graduated to the status of Old-Timers. Most of them have developed the self-sufficiency of the typical Old-Timers. The mountains put their mark on men. It shows in their faces, in their actions. The mountains make men able to stand solitude—it takes an unusual character for a man to be good company for himself in a lonely ranger station, banked high with snow, for months on end during the winter. Just try living alone for a hundred days at a stretch!

Strangely enough, these are the months that the rangers like best. Out near the mountain tops, with snow piled from five to forty feet in drifts, they lead their lone existence, patrolling their vast domains as large almost as some eastern states, traveling on skis and snowshoes, repairing telephone lines, protecting wild animals from poachers, maintaining the peace of the wilderness through storm and blizzard. For as long as six months at a time, winter holds certain of the national parks in her icy grip, with weather below zero, with freezing winds, blizzards, and snowstorms alternating around the tiny log fortresses, the cabins, from which the rangers make their patrols. During those long, cold winter months, the higher levels of the parks are closed to travel, and the ranger's job is to see that his charges in the great wild-life sanctuary are protected, both from humans and from the elements. It takes men of great courage, stamina, and endurance for this most difficult work.

On winter patrol, the Old-Timers must be able to endure such privation as was faced by Ranger Liek, who was lost for twenty hours in a raging blizzard while returning on snowshoes from Upper Yellowstone. For hours on end the storm raged, destroying every sign by which the ranger could find his trail. Only by keeping on doggedly could he avoid freezing to death. It was, of course, impossible to build a fire in the blizzard. He crossed his own tracks many times, and was hopelessly lost when he came finally to a shoreline which he recognized as Yellowstone Lake. He must have traveled at least forty miles in covering a distance of twelve miles, before he reached an emergency ranger station. A man of less rugged character and physique would have succumbed to the elements in that struggle.

"It's all in the day's work," says the ranger.

Whenever possible, two rangers patrol together in the deep snow country, so that if one is hurt or taken ill, the other can render aid or go for help. In the northern national parks, great precautions must be taken to protect the rangers during the winter. The ranger stations are about twenty miles apart; in no case more than thirty miles apart. Between each station, there are snowshoe cabins, which are rationed in the fall and are equipped with bedding and wood and kindling. Sometimes these cabins are completely obliterated beneath the snow. To provide landmarks by which to locate the cabins, the rangers often put up many extra feet of stovepipe or hang a shovel in a tree top nearby. One time, looking over a report of a ranger's patrol, a park superintendent noticed this item: "Ate lunch on top of a telephone pole just east of Sylvan Pass."


The snow must have been more than twenty feet deep up there and the tip of the pole was probably the only place he could sit down to lunch. There are times when the snow is forty feet deep in Sylvan Pass, and not even the telephone poles nor the tree tops are visible in places. It is hard for the summer-time visitor, who sees Yellowstone or Glacier or the other parks only in the height of the season when the summer is balmy and the roads are good, to picture the complete isolation of the ranger stations in dead of winter when the snowdrifts hide even the two-storied cabins. It takes genuine devotion to the mountains to prompt men to make these lonely cabins their homes during the long winter months.


Ranger Joe Douglas was crossing Yellowstone Lake on skis in the dead of winter. He came to a place where the snow was blown off the ice. Skis are of no use on the ice, so Doug unstrapped them and carried them over his shoulders while he walked across the ice. In an unwary moment, he plunged through an air-hole into the icy water. The skis bridged the hole and undoubtedly saved his life. Clinging to them, Doug cautiously pulled himself from the water and trudged on, his wet clothes frozen stiff about his body. Reaching the shore, he dug through four feet of snow, located some wood, built a fire, undressed, and stood there naked while his clothes dried by the blaze.

"It's a wonder you didn't freeze, Doug," someone said, when the ranger told his story.

"Naw, it wasn't cold," he retorted. "It was one of the warmest days of the winter—only 'bout seven below zero!"

To the public, the ranger is one of the most romantic figures in life. The name "ranger" probably originated in England. In Colonial Virginia rangers were authorized by the House of Burgesses to protect the early settlements. In the French and Indian War, Roger's Rangers were a fiercely effective body of hardy New England fighters. Later in the West there were other rangers, always on the frontier, and of these the Texas Rangers are still active. In the midst of World War II, we trained the Army Rangers who were the American version of the British Commandos. Then, of course, we have the New York Rangers hockey team and the radio "Lone Ranger" who always fights on the side of right and justice.

The first national park ranger, so far as is known, was old Harry Yount, government gamekeeper, who remained all winter long in Yellowstone Park in 1880, to keep poachers from the territory. He was the first man to weather a winter in Yellowstone. After that first winter alone, with only the geysers, the elk and the other animals for company, Harry Yount pointed out in a report that it was impossible for one man to patrol the park. He urged the formation of a protective force, large enough to cover this vast region. So Harry Yount is credited with being the father of the ranger service.

In the public mind, there is little difference between national forest rangers and national park rangers. The two groups do have much in common, such as protection of the forests from fire, construction of trails and telephone lines, planting of fish in lakes and streams, and preservation of the wilderness under their charge. The differences in their duties arise out of the fact that they are employed by different bureaus in different departments of the federal government. The park rangers are employed by the Department of the Interior, the forest rangers by the Department of Agriculture.

The national forest rangers are intrusted with the administration of a vast area of forest land, a territory fifteen times as great as that of all the national parks together. Their duty is to see that timber is not cut until it is fully grown, that slashings are burned, and that new forest growths are protected. They have under their charge much grazing land on which livestock is pastured under permit from the government. The national forest areas include many reservoir and power sites and the forest rangers supervise their utilization under the Federal Power Commission's authority. In brief, the forest ranger is charged with administration of an area which must produce the best possible crop of timber, grass, and water power. The national forests are maintained partially at least for commercial reasons, and the forest ranger must look at them from an economic point of view, though they are also sanctuaries of wild life and open to the public for recreation, as a secondary consideration.

The national parks, on the other hand, were set aside to preserve the natural wonders in them, and the rangers' duty is to protect the features and resources of the parks in their natural state, and see that they are accessible to the public. The only economic developments allowed in the national parks are those for the convenience and service of visitors. No hunting is allowed in the parks. The national park ranger is custodian of a great natural museum through which he must guide tens of thousands of visitors each year. He must tell them about the parks, see that facilities are provided for their comfort, pleasure, and entertainment. The national park ranger must be more than a skilled mountaineer and woodsman; he must have the ability to establish and maintain close contacts with the public, during the summer months at least, and then must turn to his task of protecting the wild life during the wintertime.

In old Harry Yount's day it was enough if a ranger could maintain order in the park and protect the wild life. Today that is but the beginning of his job. The ranger must be a guide and an interpreter of the mountains and their moods and mysteries. He must be a practical naturalist, and a friend and counselor to visitors. He may be entertaining a reigning prince one day and fighting a forest fire the next. He must be tactful, courteous, and ever patient, even when ridiculous and foolish situations are provoked by visitors.

Ranger Martindale was giving an informal talk to a group of delegates to a religious convention, gathered about the cone of Old Faithful Geyser. The ranger had just explained how the cone had been formed over a long period of years by deposits from the hot water when he was interrupted peremptorily.

"Ranger, how long did you say it took to make this cone?"

"About forty thousand years," Martindale told the questioner.

"Young man, do you ever read your Bible?"

"Yes, sometimes."

"Then you know that the world is not yet forty thousand years old, nor a half, nor a quarter of that."

"But we have measured the annual deposit on this cone and we can calculate how long it took to build it up as it is," said the ranger.

"Well, if you had read your Bible more carefully, you would know that it took the Lord only six days to make the whole world," asserted the visitor decisively. "If He wanted to, I guess He could make ten Yellowstones in ten minutes!"

With that the visitor strode off.

Sometimes a joke will save the day. Sometimes, though, the wise-crack makes trouble. There was the old lady who asked a driver why the great piles of wood were stacked along the road near Old Faithful.

"That's to heat the water for the geysers," he said, with out batting an eye.

The old lady came in to see the superintendent when she reached Mammoth, where the office is located, to protest against deceiving people about the geysers. It was with difficulty that he persuaded her that the wood was cut to heat water for the hotel boilers.

The rangers have learned that the public takes the wonders of Nature so seriously that it is not good policy to joke about them. It is hard enough to persuade people to believe the truth. There is a pine tree growing in a cleft in the side of El Capitan, a massive rock rising sheer for more than half a mile above the floor of Yosemite Valley. The height of El Capitan itself is difficult for people to grasp. This tree, perched on a shelf about a third of the way up, is eighty feet tall. It looks to be about eight feet high, at the most. The superintendent of Yosemite has had to bring out surveyors' calculations more than once to prove to visitors that they are not being deceived by rangers or guides.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap1.htm — 06-Sep-2004