Park rangers recall their most dangerous encounters with nature

Daring tales from the field.

Horse ambulance Laura Breiling

park rangers
Whether you’re stuck in a snowy whiteout or an ashy blackout, weather can be kind of terrifying. Laura Breiling

Fly-fishing through a whiteout

Zach Behney, Former National Park Service Ranger, Katmai National Park

A big part of my job is simply getting familiar with the extreme terrain I patrol. So a few years ago, two friends and I skied Alaska’s Nelchina Glacier. On our eighth day out, a storm rose up. We hailed our boss on our satellite phone, and he told us the blast would last for days. Rather than risk getting marooned, we decided to ski down.

But we couldn’t outpace the weather. The clouds and snow grew so thick, it felt like we were trapped in a white pingpong ball. To avoid falling into a crevasse, we tethered to each other, tied a 30-foot-long green paracord to a ski pole, and threw it ahead into the whiteout, like we were fly-fishing. A compass guided us down the glacier, but the rope helped us see the ground we were stepping onto.

After hundreds of throws, we finally got below the storm. You never know when you might do a little fishing.

Trying to raft in volcanic ash

Katie Nicolato, U.S. Forest Service, formerly stationed at Katmai National Park

We’re trained to save people, but sometimes we have to save each other. That happened to three of us one summer when we rafted a remote river through a volcanic-ash field in Katmai. A pilot dropped us off, and we drifted for a day under clear skies. Then the next evening, 40-mile-per-hour winds whipped the ash into a haze. The river ­thickened into mud, so we slogged through it on foot—ash pelting our faces the whole way—until we found a sheltered bay.

Our scheduled boat pickup never showed, so we were stranded with a dead radio and a dwindling oatmeal supply. After two days of seeing boat mirages on the whitecapped lake, we finally heard an engine: A fellow ranger had flown in to save us. He landed and took off on the tiniest stretch of gravel, in fierce winds. I still don’t know how he managed to get us out of there.

Weather whatever

Here are a few things rangers use to brave nature’s worst:

1. Wool Everything: Wool pulls water away from skin, so you stay warm when things get soggy. Socks, shirt, long underwear, etc.

2. Lots of Chocolate: It’s the best trail-mix ingredient by far. And maybe it’ll distract you from the 40-mile-per-hour ash winds.

socks, incense, trowel, chocolate
Always be prepared. Laura Breiling

3. Poop Trowel: You gotta dig 6 inches down in the dirt for number two. Really. No one cares how cold you are. And pack out your dirty toilet paper.

4. Tent Incense: Sure, it smells groovy. But it’ll also help ward off pesky mosquitoes—and some rangers swear by its ability to “keep the funk out.”

These articles were originally published in the Extreme Weather issue of Popular Science, in the “Tales From The Field” section. Read more of them here.