Ranger Fran is an Honest Man

Barred owls like this one work the night shift at Congaree National Park. NPS photo by Amy Leist.

"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18)

To say that Ranger Fran's Friday night Owl Prowl tours at Congaree National Park are popular is to hugely understate the case. The available slots -- 35 per tour -- are typically filled so quickly that many applicants get a slot for one of the two-hour tours only by being persistent or lucky.

Before leading each tour group into the forest for their nocturnal adventure, Ranger Fran provides a thorough orientation. This is where we will go and what we will do. Here are the do's and dont's. That sort of thing.

Ranger Fran explains that he will be calling to owls, which are likely to answer if they are within hearing distance. He demonstrates his trademark barred owl call, which sounds something like: "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?" Expertly delivered, the loud calls reverberate through the forest, echoing from the trees, inviting the park's owls to join the chorus.

No one who takes an Owl Prowl ever forgets how to do this owl call. And you never know where you might hear it, either. A Florida guy who went on an Owl Prowl while visiting South Carolina returned to Florida, went out to eat, had a little too much to drink, and started owl-hooting right there in the restaurant. An answering call came from six tables away. There sat another Owl Prowl veteran, grinning like a Cheshire cat. True story.

Ranger Fran is mindful of his responsibilities, which go way beyond the execution of a perfect owl hoot. He will lead three dozen people into the dark night, and they will trust their lives and well-being to him. He must not let harm befall them. A preacher who took an Owl Prowl sermonized afterward about this solemn obligation, likening Ranger Fran to a shepherd who tends to his flock with a vigilant eye and fierce determination. "You have to have faith in the ranger," he told them.

It warms a guy's heart to know that he has this sort of reputation. It's something to be cherished, and maybe even bragged about a little bit. And so it was that Ranger Fran got into the habit of adding a little something to his Owl Prowl orientation: "I've been doing this for a long time," he would say,"and I've never lost anybody on an Owl Prowl."

One evening after Fran delivered this reassuring information a hand shot up in the back of the group. It belonged to a diminutive woman who informed Ranger Fran that what he had just said was, well, not quite true. "I went on an Owl Prowl with you three years ago," she said, "And you lost me."

Three years before, the railing on the elevated boardwalk had not yet been upgraded. It still lacked a horizontal board close to the deck, which made it fairly easy for a child -- or a woman of slight stature -- to fall through. While bringing up the rear in an Owl Prowl group, this particular lady had done just that. Too embarrassed to call for help, she had just hung by her fingertips for a while and then dropped silently to the forest floor, landing unharmed.

There she was, alone in the quickly darkening forest as the group walked on without her. She hadn't been missed. In fact, her absence remained undetected when the tour ended at 10:00 p.m. back at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Ranger Fran left the park, and so did everybody in the Owl Prowl entourage. Everybody, that is, but this poor lady.

Fortunately, relatives quickly realized that she was AWOL, and before 11:00 rolled around Lost Lady was retrieved from the park. When they located her, she had already made her way back onto the elevated boardwalk and was trudging out. She was OK, and as far as she was concerned, that was all there was to it. All's well that ends well.

For three long years, Ranger Fran remained blissfully ignorant of Lost Lady's travails. And then came that fateful evening when her hand shot up and the awful truth came spilling out.

Ranger Fran is an honest man. Even though his bring-'em-back record lay in smoking ruins, his moral anchor remained firmly attached. He resolved to develop a zero-defects approach to the counting of noses before and after his Owl Prowls, and so he has. He has also revised the bring-'em-back claim in his introductory spiel, which now goes like this:

"It's likely you'll return from this Owl Prowl alive and well. So far I've lost less than one percent of my visitors."

Postscript: The Ranger Fran in this tale is a fictional character. Any resemblance to a living person, such as my good friend Fran Rametta, is purely coincidental.