On the trail with Arkansas Park Rangers
For those who love the outdoors there's no better playground than Arkansas' State Parks.
"It's hands down," says Kansas-born Arkansas Park Ranger Josh Baker, "the best system I've ever seen."
The state's parks offer unique experiences in remarkable settings: From world class rapids in the Cossatot River State Park in Wickes to searching for precious stones at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro. And at each one of Arkansas' 52 natural wonders State Park Rangers are standing guard, preserving their park's natural beauty and resources for future generations of Arkansans.
"I'm here to protect this park, but it belongs to them, says Assistant Superintendent of Pinnacle Mountain State Park Cale Davenport. "And someday it'll be their kids. And so if I can help make that connection any chance I get, that's great."
Like all Rangers, Davenport lives on site at Pinnacle Mountain State Park - one of the most highly visited and heavily used parks in the system. He's responsible for all of the park's 2,600 acres.
"You'll never hear me say, 'That's not my job.' If it's a stopped toilet, if it's a felony traffic stop, if it's an overflowing trash can, or if it's a lost visitor that's my job," he says.
Indeed, there is no one way to describe an Arkansas Park Ranger. Their duties include everything from fire control to wildlife protection, to overseeing visitors and their use of the parks.
Rangers are also responsible for law enforcement and search and rescue operations. They literally save lives.
Harding University junior Blake Smith found that out in 2016.
"One of them was telling me 'Just stay calm. Everything's going to be OK,'" Smith told KATV. "Just that voice in your ear you need to hear at a time like that."
Hiking with friends through Petit Jean State Park, Blake slipped on wet rocks and wound up tumbling over the edge of Cedar Falls - plunging 100 feet to the pool below.
"I remember seeing straight down," he said. "And then I blacked out on the way down."
Park Ranger Josh Baker was the first emergency responder to reach Blake. He hiked to the falls, more than a mile on foot.
"We don't have a shortcut to get down to the waterfall," Blake says. "We have to go down the same trail everyone else is going down."
While Josh walked in, Blake could not walk out. He was in shock, suffering from a punctured lung, a concussion, and a fractured eye socket. As other Park Rangers arrived they realized they had one option.
"They put me on a board and actually hiked me out," Smith told KATV. "Manually carried me."
"It doesn't take a big person," Baker added, "to make that strenuous for multiple people."
But the Rangers made it happen. They carried Blake, first to a waiting side-by-side and then to an ambulance. He was eventually airlifted to a hospital.
"They were very professional. The Rangers were very professional," Smith recalls, "and they saved my life."
For Josh and his fellow Rangers it was just another day at their 3,200 acre office.
"We train a lot," Baker says. "And we take a lot of pride in what we do. It's just a great group of guys."
Training is essential for Arkansas Park Rangers - especially when it comes to law enforcement.
"As law enforcement officers we do have statewide jurisdiction," Ranger Davenport told KATV. "And so our law enforcement capacity isn't limited to just the park."
Whether assisting county deputies, or affecting arrests on their own the Rangers are up for a challenge. During two annual training sessions they test their skills in real life scenarios, armed with weapons that fire wax tipped bullets. And that training has proved invaluable.
When a car belonging to a missing woman was discovered in Pinnacle Mountain State Park in August of last year it was Park Rangers who placed the scene under surveillance, leading to the arrest of David Houston-Harvey as he came off a hiking trail. He eventually pleaded guilty to disposing of the woman's body.
"Our Rangers are fully certified state officers," adds ASP's Emergency Services Manager Terry Rutledge, "that will react to whatever they need to react to."
But for all the daring rescues and dramatic arrests, Park Rangers will tell you they most love what they do for one reason: Their love of Arkansas' great outdoors and all it has to offer.
From the spectacular views to the wildlife, their jobs keep them in a natural state of mind.
"Yeah, you get to come here for work everyday," Ranger Baker says. "And as a kid growing up this job kinda fits everything you wanted to do."
And they pass that love along to the next generation.