The wide variety of duties performed by park rangers is part of the job's appeal, but some tasks are clearly less desirable than others. Responding to a hazardous materials spill falls into the "negative" category, but in rural America, the definition of "haz mat" can include some pretty bizarre substances.
A good example occurred some years ago at the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas. The park features a beautiful and often rugged landscape, and there are only four highway crossings over the Buffalo as the river winds it way from west to east across 150 miles of the Ozarks.
One of those crossings is on Arkansas Highway 21, a two-lane scenic delight which twists and turns around a series of sharp bends as it drops toward Boxley Valley before crossing the cool, clear waters of the Buffalo River. The headwaters of the river are not far to the west, up in the rocky slopes below Turner Ward Knob and Devil’s Den Canyon.
The mountain roads in the region offer more than nice scenery, however, and those tight curves and steep grades provide a challenge for truckers. During my five years at the park, rangers coped with truck accidents that spilled gasoline, diesel, and millions of tiny plastic beads destined for a nearby boat manufacturing plant.
We also handled wrecks involving loads of charcoal, lumber, and furniture legs, and a truck en route to a fish hatchery overturned and dumped hundreds of live catfish on the road. We saw spilled loads of frozen chickens, live chickens, and chicken feed. I thought we’d seen all of the weird cargoes associated with chickens, but on a rainy, early winter day, we were in for a surprise.
I got the call from the Upper Buffalo District—at the opposite end of the park from my duty station—late in the morning. A truck driver had either lost his brakes or taken one of those curves too fast for the rainy conditions. The initial report from a passerby included both good news and bad news.
The driver was reported to be okay, but a tanker truck was said to be on its side in the ditch and leaking an unknown substance from the ruptured tank. Worse yet, the accident site was near the top of a short, steep ravine that led directly down to the river, and the combination of gravity and a steady rain would help carry the spill down to the water.
The nearest ranger was headed up the mountain to investigate. In the meantime, two of us from the Lower Buffalo District were requested to load up our hazmat gear and “expedite” our response. In this rural area twenty years ago, local volunteer fire departments were short on staff and equipment, and it could take hours for commercial haz mat crews to arrive on-scene, so the park maintained a supply of "first-response" gear to help contain spills.
The first ranger to reach the scene radioed an update as we were en route, advising that we could "back off" on our speed as we continued our response. Yes, he confirmed, the leaking material was headed downhill toward the river, but it was moving very slowly.
The reason behind that small bit of good news didn't bode well for the rest of our day: liquefied chicken fat becomes decidedly less "liquid" when the air temperature is 35º. The truck had been carrying several thousand gallons of the stuff, very little of which was still in the tank.
The chicken processing industry has apparently copied a page from their counterparts in the pork business, which is said to use “everything except the oink.” Chicken fat is a by-product of chicken processing, and the substance is liquefied by a process probably classified Top Secret by the industry. This allows it to be piped into tanker trucks and hauled away to points unknown, where it is used for a variety of purposes. (Don’t ponder this information too deeply, unless you and your cats intend to become vegetarians.)
My partner and I arrived at the scene, made a hopeful but unsuccessful scan of the area for a commercial clean-up crew, and reported to the Incident Commander, in this case the local District Ranger. His instructions were pretty simple: use whatever means we had available to keep that “stuff ” contained as close to the road as possible. Above all, keep it out of the river!
Our hazmat supplies consisted primarily of pads that resembled oversized pampers and some six-foot-long, sausage-like booms of the same material. Both are made from a special fabric designed specifically to absorb petroleum products.
Well, if they would work on gasoline and diesel, they were worth a try for chicken fat. Plan number one was to deploy some pads and booms in front of the advancing ooze and contain it until the pros arrived to take over.
Actually, the idea wasn’t a bad one, but the ravine was filled with a thick layer of leaves, and the goop had a strange tendency to run under and through the leaves instead of on top of the duff. That meant that we had to rake and shovel a lot of leaves and twigs out of the way before we could place the pads and booms. It would be slow going, and we had to be careful not to spread the "stuff" around in the process of raking and shoveling.
Plan number two, building some low earthen dams in the ravine to contain the flow sounded great, but it, too, was quickly discarded. There’s a good reason there aren’t many farms on these rocky Ozark slopes: dirt is a very scarce commodity in these parts, whether you want it for a garden or for damming up a gully to contain advancing chicken fat. There was no shortage of rocks, but dikes made of those materials were too porous.
The solution proved to be a combination of low rock dams lined with sheets of plastic and absorbent pads, but the weather wasn't much help. The rain had increased steadily, and the runoff was carrying our adversary down the hill, although thankfully rather slowly. Whatever process is used to liquefy chicken fat apparently prefers an ambient temperature considerably higher than 35º.
One other quality of the substance soon became very obvious, and here's an insider business tip: If you're looking for a path to fame and fortune, just devise a process to turn partially-liquefied chicken fat into industrial-strength adhesive. I can personally verify that under the conditions described above, the stuff will absolutely stick with great persistence to almost anything, with a decided preference for boots and pants legs.
Somewhat to our surprise, the cold temperature did little to reduce the aromatic qualities of the substance, so a distinctive odor hung heavily in the damp air. In due time sheer persistence triumphed over evil, we contained the enemy, saved the Buffalo and turned the rest of the cleanup job over to pros.
It was almost dark when I arrived home, cold, wet and suspecting that I was hungry, but not entirely sure. I'd already changed clothes back at the ranger station, consigning my uniform for the day to a well-sealed trash bag and wondering whether it was worth washing. I won’t blame you for thinking the end of this story is too good to be true, but it is.
I had asked that a message about my delayed arrival be relayed to my family, but their information was limited to the basics: I'd been working a truck wreck and might be a little late getting home. I opened the door to be greeted by a loving wife, who welcomed me home with the cheerful news that she knew I’d be ready for a nice supper, so she had prepared a great meal. It was just coming off the stove, so all I had to do was wash up and sit down at the table.
Yep, you guessed it—fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and cream gravy made right from those tasty chicken drippings! My spouse was a really good sport when she found out why I said I’d just wait outside until the smell of freshly cooked chicken was aired out as much as possible, and for once the rest of the family didn’t have to try to beat Dad to the best pieces!
Time eventually restored my appetite for a nice, crispy drumstick, and chicken is now back on the menu for our household, but there are times when chicken soup just isn't good for a ranger's soul.
This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America's National Parks. © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.