The Life of a River Ranger

The call came in at 6am.  I was standing in line at the Patagonia outlet store for one of their big sales.  “Hey, can you try to find me some size 33 olive shorts at the sale?”  James hesitated.  “And I know it is a long shot, but some olive swim trunks would be awesome.”

I’m always for hooking up a buddy.  “I’ll look, but you know how crazy it is.  Do they have to be olive?”

“Yeah, Forest Service olive green, wish I was there, the shorts I was issued are ridiculous.  They’re super short, I’m afraid of exposing myself if I sit down”

“Forest Service issued olive colored plum smugglers.”


Sometimes something snaps when a person clips on a shiny metal badge.  I wondered what would happen to my friend James.  Would he start quoting regulation and citing people for sport?  Would he un-ironically don super short khakis and a big brown hat?

James had been a co-worker and friend for several years.  We had adventured, traveled, and worked together before he moved to a resort town near Jackson Hole.  For the summer he picked up a job with the Forest Service as a river ranger.

James has always been extremely mellow, well liked and easy to get along with. I had a hard time imagining him walking around with a ticket book and a felt hat citing church groups for illegal outfitting.  But my experience with the Forest Service at this ramp had been mixed.

In 2006 I pulled up to the launch ramp with three vans, two trailers, and 33 kids.  To the kids this was graduation.  The teens had all been handpicked by school resource officers and placed in a summer program to teach them all of the usual soft skills:  self confidence, communication, team work and responsibility.  It was also a good way for the kids to get to know the police officers better.  Learning that the guy with the badge is trying to help was a big underlying theme.

The final activity of the summer was a two day rafting and camping trip.  I was the trip leader and had a plan.  Everyone had a job and if the job got done they were to find a job not being done quickly and join in.  Each team was headed by an adult, usually a cop.  This was not our first rodeo.

The vans parked and the trailers pulled up to the ramps, the groups sprang into action.  We took up exactly one ramp lane and had the boats lined up and gear unloaded within 3 minutes.  That’s why I was surprised when the lady with the badge came over to yell at the kids, and me.  She laid in “You really need to get these vehicles out of here, it gets really busy and you are jamming up the system.”

I looked around.  It was 9am on a Wednesday and we were the first launch of the day.  No other groups were even in the parking lot.  We had even beaten the ranger to the ramp.  The main thing holding us up was the lack of access to the electric pump the rangers still had locked up.

“We’re unloaded and as soon as we’re done talking I can pull the trailer off of the ramp.”  I said

“Well you need to hurry up.  It gets busy.”  The ranger seemed to believe I wasn’t listening when in fact she wasn’t listening.

“We’ve been here less than 5 minutes.”

“You need to get your boats rigged and get them in the water as soon as possible and move them down the shoreline to make room.”

“Um, OK” was all I could manage.  This was not a conversation, but more like a recording.

This wasn’t what I wanted for the kids.  The person with the badge needlessly harassing them and me despite what I thought was a spectacular team effort; a well oiled machine.  I thought to myself ‘lady chill out.  We’re doing everything right, we’re alone.  Just relax.’

According to the forest service website this section of river sees 200,000 visitors per year.  I can see how that would be maddening.  Being the law is a tough job, it tends to change your view of the world.


How would the parade of gapers change James?

I saw him in June when he came home to do some training.  Ironically the training was basically ‘how to write tickets’.

I met him at a disc golf course with some of his cohorts from the class.  They all seemed nice enough, though James was probably the odd man out.  They talked about work, the training, and made jokes about writing tickets.  James talked about the river, surfing and disc golf.

He confided that the job wasn’t exactly what he expected.   He’d been a full time river guide for 2 years on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and worked in the outdoor industry for many more.  Switching to the regulatory side of things was an awakening.

“Apparently you don’t need any river experience to be a ranger.  I’m the only kayaker. Most of these guys don’t know how to raft or anything, I don’t really even have anyone to get on the river with” He lamented.

“I’ll come and visit and we can do some kayaking, maybe a big surf session.”

James answered with his signature reply:  “Sweet.”

Another friend and I finally made the drive in July when boating season was in full swing.  I picked up James at 7:30; we had to finish a run before 10 when he had to work.  The ramp was empty when we launched, the river was deserted and we had a chance to surf, paddle, goof off and talk.

I asked James how many tickets he had written, half joking half curious.

“None, I’m the only person that hasn’t written a ticket.  I suppose I could have but I prefer to educate and correct.  I’m nice to people and they’re nice back and it doesn’t escalate into a ticket. ”

I asked what it would take to get him to write a ticket

“It’s going to happen, I’m sure.  I’ve just been lucky so far, I don’t want to be lied to.”  He had clearly given this some thought.  “If you say your group has 15 people, the limit, and I see 30 people getting off the river together I’m going to write a ticket.  Or if you look me in the eye and drop a cigarette butt, you’re getting cited for littering.”

Later that day I had a glimpse into his world.  I sat at the takeout ramp drying clothes and watching the boats while James took care of the shuttle.  I was standing next to his ranger clothes and the first group off the river rolled by.

They yelled from the river. “Where are we?  Is this the takeout?”

They looked like the classic scout troop.  20 bored teenage boys, 5 adults, rented rafts.

“Yeah, this is the takeout” I yelled. “Eddy out or you’ll miss it”

“Where was Lunchbag rapid?”

“It isn’t in at this level”

“Oh, that went too fast maybe they’ll let us do another launch.  Can we launch again, ranger guy?”

“I’m not a ranger, but I doubt it.”


They expressed some disappointment and proceeded to spread across the entire boat ramp.  I had no idea 25 people with 3 boats could take up so much room.  All of the kids flopped down on the blacktop in the middle of the road and each boat occupied a ramp and a half with gear strewn in between.

Half an hour later they were still spread across the entire ramp when a parade of vehicles came down the road, despite the multitude of giant signs clearly proclaiming “Trailers only, no passenger pick up”.

The group eventually took off and other groups started to arrive.  Every single group seemed more incompetent than the last.  After only an hour I was ready to pull on a dimpled hat and write some tickets.

I asked James about the competency of groups.

“We get all kinds; a lot of groups don’t have a clue what to do on a river.”

In just 8 miles the river claims about one life per year.  He’d been a part of a close call already.  Being a ranger is about more than dealing with gapers, you also have to deal with the fallout.

James was at the launch.  The river was flowing high and the weather was cold and rainy.  A church group showed up from several hours away, and intended to launch.  The group seemed ill prepared for high flows and bad weather.  Nobody was properly dressed, there was a lot of cotton and nobody knew about the unique high water dangers on this stretch.

The group was over the size their permit allowed and they made a decision to split the group and launch a boat alone.  James attempted to convince them to skip rafting, they insisted that someone in the group had been down several times and they were OK.

James showed them the commercial groups going out in full wetsuits and splash gear, the guides in dry gear.  The group ignored the advice and launched boats of inexperienced people, ill prepared, poorly dressed and under informed.

James headed to the takeout for the second part of his shift.  The short version is that James was right.  Boats flipped, people were lost for hours and through divine providence, and the intercession of commercial operators, nobody got severely injured or killed.  James said “The group had people spread up and down the far side of the bank and the leader stayed with the boat and got pinned in a log jam on miles down the river”

“They completely ignored common sense and almost got killed.  There was nothing I could do; I couldn’t stop them from launching”

I called James recently to check on him and his family.  “I’ve got some crazy stories for you” is how he answered the phone.

James was on duty when a man tragically lost his life this year while attempting to help his son swim to shore after going for a swim through a well known rapid.  He wasn’t wearing a PFD.

“It just puts a damper on everything.  It mellows out the river for days.  The tragedy is that it could easily have been avoided.”

“When you swim a rapid on purpose: wear your life jacket.  I had to radio in to dispatch, the mom and family was right there, it was messed up.”

Despite the stress of the job there are certain perks.  James does get paid to kayak occasionally.  “We have to check certain things, make sure the AED’s are working and just check on the river.  Since I’m the only river runner I get that job every time, those are good days.”

Then there are the fun groups “One day I was at the takeout and 3 guys come around the bend on one of those Aire inflatable couches, that was sweet.”

I don’t envy James and his job in the middle of summer, but I wouldn’t mind the occasional paid surf session either.  Just don’t give me a ticket book, or I will abuse it.

One Response to “The Life of a River Ranger”




Leave a Reply