Front and Back, PART 1: Life for rangers on the front lines and in the backcountry of national parks
ZION NATIONAL PARK - Although he spends most of his patrol alone, National Park Service ranger Kean Mihata rarely gets lonely.
At any point during his shift, the law enforcement officer could be called on to assist an injured climber dangling from a cliff wall, wrap a Band-Aid on a youngster's finger, quiet rowdy campers or chase poachers.
Some nights, he might be required to do all of those.
"It keeps things interesting," says Mihata, who spent four years as an interpretative ranger with the National Park Service before spending the last four with law enforcement. His career has included stints in California and Alaska. "The diversity here is amazing. I get to see folks from everywhere in the world. I can't think of a job I would love as much as this one."
More often than not, Mihata is answering questions, like "When is the next shuttle?" He often hands out speeding tickets and escorts oversized vehicles through the tight confines of the Mount Carmel Highway tunnel.
Such is life for a ranger at Utah's most visited national park. Mihata, originally from Oregon, recently offered a glimpse into his job during a ride-along on late-spring evening in this majestic southern Utah park that drew nearly 2.6 million visitors last year.
Mihata's first call of the shift came from dispatch about a vehicle on the closed portion of the scenic drive above the Zion Lodge.
Knowing there was nowhere for the car to go on the dead-end road, Mihata didn't rush in for a chase. As he approached the lodge, a vehicle matching the car's description pulled into the lot. Mihata pulled up behind it and approached the driver.
"I know, I know," says the driver, a woman visiting from Japan. "Somebody told me I should not be driving there, but somebody else told me I could at certain times."
Mihata made sure the visitor understood vehicles were only allowed in that part of Zion during certain times of the year - not certain times of the day.
At dusk, Mihata decided to make a loop drive through the housing area for the park concessionaire employees.
He chatted with some of the employees, one asking if the rangers might be up for playing a basketball game against the concessionaires.
The discussion was light, but visits here are not always so cordial. Law enforcement rangers at national parks across the country agree the people paid to clean rooms in the lodges, serve guests in the dinning halls and sell souvenirs make up the majority of crime cases.
"They keep us in business," says Zion chief ranger Chuck Passek. "There are many issues, but they typically center around drugs, alcohol and domestic things."
Leaving the lodge, Mihata passed through the tunnel and headed for the east side of the park - also known as the quiet side. He checked cars for permits at the East Rim Trailhead.
One of the four in the parking lot lacked a permit. The ranger peeked inside.
"See those books in the back seat? This looks like literature one of our seasonals might be reading," Mihata says.
Back in his patrol car, Mihata drove back through the Checkerboard Mesa, ever alert for something that did not seem right.
Everything has been routine so far, but that's not always the case.
Mihata told the story of a search and rescue for a climber he was involved in on Angels Landing, which had the ranger hanging on the cliff wall 500 feet from the top and 900 from the bottom from 7 a.m. one day to 3 a.m. the next.
Search-and-rescue calls provide a lot of adrenaline, but Mihata says sprained ankles are by far the most common injury at Zion.
Heart attacks, dehydration and heat stroke also happen, but not nearly as often as at Grand Canyon National Park.
"We are set up a little differently here. Visitors there go down first and then have to climb out once they get in trouble," Passek says. "Here, they start from the bottom and head up. If they get in trouble they turn around and it is downhill back to the trailhead."
As the moon rose above the canyon, Mihata decided to patrol the South and Watchman campgrounds. On his way, dispatch called with a report of an alarm going off at a Watchman check-in station.
Mihata and fellow ranger Keith Winslow arrived at the same time. A campground host showed up soon afterward, saying he was at fault for the alarm but unable to stop it.
The campgrounds stayed relatively quiet on this night, but rangers are frequently called by campground hosts to deal with rowdy and unruly campers.
"Vacations are a stressful time. Families spend four days in a car together and then cram into a tent and the little things come up," Passek says. "Complete strangers are in close proximity and some of them want to go to bed at 8 p.m. and others want to stay up till 3 in the morning. People get a little testy sometimes."
Mihata, like all national park rangers who carry guns, spent nearly three months at the federal law enforcement training center in Georgia.
He learned how to use his weapon, how to interview witnesses and possible criminals, how to handle bomb threats and other various policing skills.
But the one thing he didn't learn was how to talk to a 3-year-old boy from Japan. One day last summer, a shuttle operator called dispatch to report a Japanese tourist possibly having a severe reaction to an insect bite.
Mihata arrived on the scene, checked the boy's vital signs and set about trying to determine what kind of bug had bitten the boy.
The youngster did not speak English and his parents spoke very little.
"We spent about 15 minutes just trying to communicate what kind of insect it was. By that time the bite wasn't even visible anymore so we gave up," Mihata says. "Language issues come up all the time."
Mihata's patrol ended without any major incidences and that's the way he likes it, but should the need arise he'll be ready for anything.
A ranger's backcountry job in one of Utah's most vast and remote parks