Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Highs and Lows of Ranger-ing

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” -Buddha-

The entrance to Fitton Cave
This past Sunday, I was blessed with the opportunity to go on an adventure of a lifetime. Recently, it came to the attention of park staff that a cave within Buffalo National River’s boundaries, Fitton Cave, had been breached. This cave is very unique in that it is 19 miles in length making it the longest cave in Arkansas. Once a popular attraction for tourists, locals, and passionate cavers alike, the cave has been closed to the public since 2009 because it had tested positive for White Nose Syndrome, a disease that primarily affects North American bat populations. Once it came to the park staff’s attention that the cave had been breached, a team was assembled to go on a caving expedition through the cave to ensure that nothing was disturbed within the cave itself. I was fortunate enough to be a part of this six-man team that was led by two expert cavers.

In the cave waterfall

A fellow ranger and I posing in the Chandelier Room
I have never had the opportunity to go caving before and for Fitton Cave, a cave that no one has stepped foot in for the last seven years and is notably one of the most unique and challenging caves to explore, to be my first caving experience was just amazing. The expedition took six hours and we covered a distance of seven and a half miles. We had to walk, climb, crawl, jump, and wriggle our way through the cave and it was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. While in the cave, we also had to take biological counts of any organisms we saw while in the cave and this included organisms such as, cave crickets, salamanders, frogs, and even bats (most of which were unfortunately deceased because of the White Nose Syndrome). We also came across come amazing geological structures and formations that words cannot describe such as, the Chandelier Room and even a waterfall!

The entire team post-expedition
All six of us exited the cave after our 6-hour trek exhausted. I was so sore the next day in places I did not even know muscles existed! While I was exhausted, I was so grateful for the experience and was in such a great mood afterward because of what I, and the rest of the team, had accomplished. We were all so happy afterward and on such a high, but as a ranger, things can turn without a moments notice.

As soon as we exited the cave and returned to the vehicles, I hear a call come over the radio. A canoe had overturned in the Upper District of the river, which was just a couple put-ins away from our location. All six of us were requested to report to the scene and assist in a search and rescue mission. We immediately decontaminated and reported to the scene. Multiple agencies were already on scene by the time we arrived and the party that was canoeing with the victim was on shore. It was a waiting game from there because a john boat was already on its way to the location of the overturned canoe that was caught in what is known as a strainer (debris that blocks part of the river). After a short while, the canoe and the victim were found and unfortunately the search and rescue turned into a fatality.

This was my first search and rescue mission and first fatality while at the park and it was a bitter end to what seemed to be a great day. An event such as this is just so sad and really hammers home the idea that the river is wild and not to be underestimated. Any situation can turn dangerous in a split second on a wild river. I have also learned that the job of a ranger has its highs and lows and you must be prepared for both because the truth is time is always limited.

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