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Ranger Rick: Tales From a Former YNP Ranger
I was teaching at Venado Middle School in Irvine, California when I got a call from Ranger Roger Rudolph. At first, the school secretary thought it was a practical joke but got a hold of me anyway to take the call.
“Hello. This is Rick Gale.”
“Hello Rick. I’m Ranger Roger Rudolph calling from Yellowstone National Park and I’d like to offer you a seasonal position as a park ranger. If you take the position, you’ll be rangering out of one of the most scenic duty stations in the country.”
It was during the spring of 1978 when I took that call. A few weeks later, I reported in for duty at Lake Ranger Station beginning some of the most incredible experiences over the next 22 summers one could ever imagine.
Over the years, family and friends have listened to stories about my summers in Yellowstone as a Park Ranger.
“Come on now, you’re just making these stories up.”
“No I’m not. That’s what really happened.”
“If they’re true, start writing.”
“Ok then. I will.”
Elk from the Sky
It’s early morning, the sun is rising, and you’re driving into Yellowstone National Park for the first time with your family. As you come around a sharp curve near Sedge Bay on Yellowstone Lake, you see flashing lights and a park ranger standing in the road in front of his patrol car. He’s holding a gun and motioning at you to keep moving. Your two kids in the back seat are pressing their faces against the side window of the minivan.
“Daddy, is that ranger going to shoot the deer?”
Yes. It’s true. That was me standing there getting ready to pull the trigger. Summer after summer, I managed to avoid striking wildlife along Yellowstone’s narrow winding roads but not that morning. Going on duty, I reminded the dispatcher to give me the easy calls. After all, it was my last day on duty for the summer. A fisherman with a hook caught in his ear would do just fine.
After checking the trailhead at 9 mile for over-due hikers, I was headed back to Lake Ranger Station on the East Entrance Road when an elk dropped from the sky and into my windshield. For a brief moment, I couldn’t see the road in front of me with this 1500-pound elk lying across the hood of the car.
When I got stopped, the elk managed to get itself off the hood and landed on the road about 10 feet in front of the car. Its front legs appeared to be broken. I knew I would have to put the animal down, and out of its misery.
And that’s when the family in the minivan pulled up behind me to see Ranger Rick’s road kill. I didn’t pull the trigger until the minivan was around the next curve in the road and out of sight and earshot. Once again, it was the voice of 611 Gale, with a few simple requests.
“700. 611 Gale.”
“This is 700. Go ahead with your radio traffic.”
“700. I’ll need a supervisor, accident investigator, tow truck, front loader, and probably an ambulance for me.”
Hours later, I was looking up at the ceiling of an emergency room, like a deer in headlights, while two Lake Hospital nurses removed shattered pieces of windshield glass from my forehead.
“Rick, your hairline is really starting to recede. Have you ever thought about getting a hair transplant?”
“I’m good. I’ll just keep my head covered with a Smokey Bear hat.”
After being released from Lake Hospital, I spent the next two hours at Lake Ranger Station completing government forms about the accident, discharging a firearm, and justifying major damage to a new patrol car.
And the question that always had to be asked by the Yellowstone National Park Safety Officer, “What could you have done to prevent this kind of accident?”
“Hmnmm. Let me think about that for a minute. Aren’t there dozens of roadkills like this every year in Yellowstone?”
“Just answer the question Ranger Rick.”
“Dad! Dad! He’s right behind you!”
Trapping bears in Yellowstone is usually an after-hours operation that requires rangers who are a little smarter than the average bear if you get the reference to Ranger Smith.
And I’m quite certain that one particular ursus arctos horribilis would agree with that observation. There I was. Standing along the roadway, pointing a radio-tracking device toward Bridge Bay Campground. I was trying to locate a very large grizzly bear who was making nightly strolls through the campground loops looking for food.
My 11-year-old son, Chip, was sitting in a park service pick-up when he spotted the grizzly bear before I did. I was so busy adjusting the antenna and frequency of the device, I didn’t notice the most ferocious and dangerous mammal in North America walk up on me. I immediately froze and tried to stop breathing. As he walked by me, he turned his large massive head toward me and smiled. Not really.
Earlier that day, we had set up two bear traps in two of the campground loops hoping to capture this grizzly before he hurt someone during these nightly visits that were getting more frequent and brazen. Slices of freshly cut cantaloupe were scattered on the ground just outside the bear trap and inside the steel culvert. Once he entered the culvert trap, there would be more for him to feast on inside a bucket that was spring loaded to drop the steel door. Keep in mind, this guy was a repeat offender.
The grizzly bear made his way to one of the bear traps in I Loop and devoured all of the bait on the ground. He wanted nothing to do with the contents of the bear trap and no plans on entering the culvert for more delicious cantaloupe. Instead, he climbed on top of the bear trap and jumped up and down which immediately triggered the steel door.
The sound of the cage door dropping down startled him. He jumped off the culvert on wheels and came rushing toward me and stopped dead in his tracks in front of the front bumper of my patrol car. He stood there looking over the hood and through the windshield at me. And then, he walked off and disappeared into the woods again.
I called for additional rangers to respond to Bridge Bay Campground to drive up and down the loops and warn campers about the grizzly bear. When I thought it was safe for me to get out of the car, I pushed the release button for the shotgun rack, grabbed the shotgun, and chambered a slug round. I had to follow this guy and see where he was headed.
I hadn’t walked 10 feet when two women campers in their early twenties appeared out of nowhere. Seeing me, they seemed to have real inquisitive looks on their faces. It’s not every day you come across a park rangersneaking through the woods with a shotgun.
“What’s going on here? Is there a bad guy out there running around or something?”
“Listen to me. There’s a grizzly bear just a short distance off in the woods from us. I want you to get inside the bathroom right over there, lock the door, and stay there until it’s safe.”
I didn’t have to say it twice. They both scurried off to the safety of the park service comfort station (bathroom) and slammed the door behind them.
I resumed my tracking. I moved cautiously and quietly through the upper loops of Bridge Bay Campground.
After hours of walking through the campground, I decided it was time to call it a night. I was pretty confident our grizzly bear had moved on and was no longer in the campground.
I went home to my residence in Fishing Bridge Village and told my wife about another exciting day at the office. Early the next morning, I drove to Lake Ranger Station to complete an incident report for the bear management team. As soon as I stepped in the doorway, the day-shift supervisor informed me about a visitor complaint.
“Rick. Is it true you told some visitors to get into a bathroom last night, lock the door behind them, and stay there until it was safe to come out?”
“Well. That’s exactly what they did. The only problem is they thought you’d come back to let them know it was safe to come out. Turns out, they spent most of the night in the bathroom waiting for you.”
“Whoops. You think I should drive over to Bridge Bay Campground and apologize?”
“Probably a good idea Ranger Rick.”
And that’s what I did.
Please look for more entertaining tales from Ranger Rick Gale in the upcoming issues of Bozeman magazine.