Jim Burnett collected so many humorous tales during his 30 years as a ranger with the National Park Service that he couldn't resist the prospect of collecting them in a book.
In Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor & Misadventure from America's National Parks, Burnett regales readers with anecdotes of park visitors and their run-ins with skunks, struggles with the seeming ease of camping, and the travails of navigating tranquil rivers. He also tosses in a few of the not-so-glorious tasks that confront rangers on a daily basis, such as fishing thousands of chickens out of the Buffalo National River.
While there are plenty of books that detail the fine line between life and death in the parks, Burnett shares a glimpse of a side of life in our national parks that draws a chuckle, not a grimace.
Burnett's book is best read aloud at night around a campfire, for his presentation comes across pretty much like a ranger giving a campfire talk. In a career that took him through eight national park service units, including the Grand Canyon, Glacier, Buffalo River, Lake Mead and Big Thicket, Burnett saw park visitors at their best, and their worst.
Take the couple that was camping with their dog at Buffalo National River in Arkansas. Their first mistake, which they fully admitted to Burnett early one summer morning when they called him for help, was feeding skunks. Their second was storing their food inside their tent and tying their dog to one of the tent's poles. Sure enough, it didn't take long for a skunk to join the couple.
"A little while ago, this skunk showed up and must have wanted to get in the other end of the tent to get to the food," the camper told Burnett. "To make a long story short, the dog and the skunk got into a fight, and the dog pulled the tent down on top of himself, the skunk and us. We all ended up in a great big pile, and now we all smell like skunk."
Now, once the couple managed to untangle themselves, their dog and the skunk from the tent, they decided they had best head to the shower house to clean up. Wouldn't you know it, Burnett tells us, the skunk got there first and bedded down for some rest in the men's room.
Naturally, it fell on Burnett to flush out the skunk, and how he does it makes this story even better.
Another story that stands out in Burnett's book is the day a truck loaded to the rafters with live chickens tried to take a curve on U.S. 65 50 feet above the Buffalo River a tad too fast. While the driver somehow managed to leap from the cab before the crash, the cargo went flying over the bridge and into the river.
Burnett and a fellow ranger got the task of retrieving the chickens and quickly headed up river in a flat-bottom boat. What they soon discovered was that plucking chickens out of the river was not quite as easy as you might assume.
"We quickly learned some ... basic principles about chickens: (1) they are apparently terrible swimmers; (2) even if they could swim, they have a dismally low survival rate when placed into a cage that is then dropped into a river from a 50-foot-high bridge; and (3) therefore, based on principles number one and two, these chickens were absolutely no help to us whatsoever in our efforts to rescue them from the river, especially since their cages had broken open upon reaching the river, and the birds were all taking their own individual paths to the great chicken house in the sky."
Other lessons Burnett and his partner soon learned was that "due to some previously unknown law of chicken aerodynamics, a submerged chicken in a moving river will always assume a posture resembling a white torpedo that will always zoom along exactly twelve inches off the river bottom." And, he adds a minute later, "we added to the world's store of knowledge by quickly confirming the following scientific principle: 'A dead, wet chicken is a whole lot heavier than a live, dry chicken,' and its corollary, 'A dead, wet chicken takes up a whole lot less space than a live dry dry chicken.' The application of that principle is that a boatload of the wet variety weighs a lot more than you'd think, so you have to be careful not to overload your craft the next time you go fishing for chickens."
Other stories that found their way into Burnett's book included one that examined the predicament two young teens had when they decided to show off their prowess to a couple of young lasses by trying to rappel off a cliff at Buffalo National River...only to discover their rope was too short, and another that revolves around a telephone threat to blow up the Hoover Dam and the task Burnett faced in evacuating a campground downstream.
Having spent so much time as a ranger, Burnett couldn't finish the book without adding a chapter on what not to do during your national park vacation.
If there's a weakness in Hey Ranger! , it's that not enough stories revolving around park visitors made it into Burnett's book. He's mastered the difficult task of writing in a conversational tone, but I'd love to see a few more tales involving park visitor misadventures, for as those that made it into the book prove, there is a wonderful lighter side to life being carried out in our parks.
I had a permanent smile on my face as I read "Hey Ranger: True Tales of Humor & Misadventure from America's National Parks". It was just a fun book to read. The book is written by a former park ranger. The stories are told in the first person, as if a friend were telling you in confidence about these sometimes remarkable tales. We follow the action as the author Jim Burnett's career takes him from Lake Mead National Recreation Area to Buffalo National River to Glacier National Park to Grand Canyon National Park and more over a 30 year career in the National Park Service. All told, there may be over 100 tales in this book. Some are very short (maybe two paragraphs at most), but others consume a whole chapter.
I found that I learned quite a bit about the parks as travel destinations through these stories. The punch line to many of the stories is dependent on the reader's understanding of some of the unique features of particular parks. There is a lot of set-up to each story where we as readers learn things like geology, human history, prevailing weather patterns, animal behavior, and aspects of regional economies, all of which play into the stories that are told in this book.
- What was your favorite story?
- Did you like the 1st person narrative?
There were three stories from the book that have stuck with me since finishing the book. I won't give away the punch-lines here, but if you've read the book you'll remember these funny ones. The story of the two fisherman in Lake Mead National Rec. Area that had a chance encounter with a beaver I found really funny. It is easy to imagine the confusion that Burnett had listening to these two men complain about these extra aggressive creatures. Another story I really enjoyed was the adventure that a group of Afghanis had canoing down a stretch of the Buffalo National River. That particular story was funny from the moment the group enters the campground to its end when the group heads home. I also found the story of keeping fresh water pipes from freezing during the winters in Glacier National Park very amusing.
I thought the first person narrative really worked for this book. I don't think these type of stories could be told any other way. It had been a long time since reading a book in this voice and it took me a couple chapters to get used to its style. Because of the punchline nature of a lot of these stories, they need to be told in a way that you can be prepared with a set-up. Over the course of the book you begin to understand the authors style and can anticipate the direction of the humorous story.
If you didn't have an opportunity to read Hey Ranger for the Park Remark book club, it may be one you would enjoy reading this summer as you travel to our nation's parks. The book will give you insight into the sometimes crazy world of Park Service law enforcement, and if nothing else, the book will leave you with a smile. Would you agree?