As a Park Ranger, I had to be ready for just about anything. It could be a minor discussion about camping fees or involve a serious criminal act.
I was working at a lake near Kansas City, so we got a great many visitors from the metro area. In this type of work you learn early that people bring all their issues, good and bad, with them from home. If they get drunk and beat up their girlfriend at home, then they go to the lake and do the same thing.
The campgrounds and day-use areas I worked had a reputation for being a little on the rough side. All the ills of the big city found their way to the lake and its recreation areas.
One issue we dealt with was that sometimes members of different gangs would come out and cause trouble. There were serious crimes on a regular basis. If it was a quiet week, you might only have a small fight or a party that got out of hand.
The Rangers who worked the first shift, generally got to see the remnants from the previous nights activities. They’d have to clean up the mess that was left.
As they made their first morning patrol through the parks they would discover people who snuck in without paying the camping fees or maybe picnic tables that were thrown on a campfire. Sometimes they would discover persons who’d been left without a ride home or possibly the victim of a crime. You just never knew what the early morning would bring.
I normally worked the evening shift, but on this particular weekend I was covering a shift and patrolling on an early Sunday morning. As I passed each campsite I would give it a once-over for signs of trouble.
I was in a park that was along the side of a heavily wooded hill and looked more like the Ozarks of southern Missouri than northeast Kansas. The road wound it’s way around sharp turns and steep drop-offs, to the lake below. The dense foliage and steep hills meant that you couldn’t see very far ahead.
I drove slowly with one ear on the law enforcement radio and the other to the sounds outside the patrol truck. I rounded a sharp bend and came upon a campsite. At first glance it appeared normal.
The nylon tent was set up and a little smoke was still whisping from a campfire that had long ago run out of fuel. There were food items scattered on the picnic table and the ground around it. There were food wrappers ripped open and strewn between the tent and the car. This in itself wasn’t suspicious because many people are not very tidy. Many folks would leave stuff scattered all about their campsite.
I didn’t notice a camping permit attached to the tent or vehicle, so I pulled over to see if they needed to obtain one.
That is when things took an odd turn into left field. I stopped about two car lengths away and realized that a lady and three kids were in the car. They slowly looked up and reacted to my presence. It looked like they’d been sleeping in the car. This wasn’t unusual, especially if there had been a thunderstorm the night before, but in this case the weather had been clear.
I put on my wide brimmed ranger hat and got out of the truck. As soon as they saw that distinctive hat, they knew I was a Park Ranger and I could see them all light up with big smiles.
As I walked up, they piled out of the car and ran up to me with smiles and gigles of joy. The mom said loudly, “Thank god you’re here, we’re finally safe! We were so scared that they’d get us. There was a whole group of them and they came into our campsite.” She said they began taking all the food and throwing things all over the campsite! ” We were so scared of them that we got into our car and locked the doors.” She was so excited that I couldn’t get a word in edgwise.
At this point I thought a group of gang members or a rough group of bikers had shown up and took over their campsite while they were drunk or high. Apparently this was a crime scene. I was thinking that we had a serious incident and that the woman and her three kids were lucky these people hadn’t done anything to them physically.
Things really got strange when they described how the people had milled around the car with the family inside. They had then jumped on the car and were walking all over the car hood and roof while looking at them, menacingly, through the windows!
Wow, these guys must have been taking a lot of drugs to act like this. These poor people. Terrorized all night long while locked in their car. What kind of terrible people climb all over the car and scare you through the windows? We’re talking about some very twisted people!
I asked them to describe the perpetrators. One of the kids said that they stared at them through the car windows. She also said that they were showing their teeth and snarling.
I tried to imagine a stoned lowlife perched on the hood of the car snarling at the family through the window.
If I wasn’t talking to a mom and three young kids, I might have thought they were the ones who were stoned and imagining things.
The entire group kept excitedly talking at the same time. Their relief at being saved was overwhelming them with adrenaline and emotion. I just had to figure out who I’d saved them from. There could be a group of very bad people still in the area.
Before I called for reinforcements I walked over to the campsite and their car. As I looked at the car hood I could finally identify the drugged out gang of thugs who had so severely traumatized this young family.
The hood, roof, and trunk of the car were covered with their foot prints.
I slowly turned to the family and asked them to stop talking for a moment. They quieted down and I asked….
“You were attacked……by………Racoons??”
“YEEEEES!”….came an exasperated group answer. “They were vicious and kept trying to attack us!” “They forced us to get in the car to save ourselves and kept looking at us through the windows and showing their teeth viciously!”
The mom explained that they had gotten in late from Kansas City and that they had no idea about how dangerous the racoons were out here. She excitedly told me that we should take steps to get these dangerous animals under control and to warn people about them.
I felt like I was on some sort of Park Ranger Candid Camera show. Surely, someone with a camera was going to jump out at any moment and yell “Gotcha!”
As it turned out, the family was for real and truly believed they had narrowly survived a near death experience with a gang of wild racoons who cornered them in their car all night.
After all the drama I didn’t want to make them feel silly, so I played along. I told them that the racoons in the area were very bold and accustomed to humans, so they weren’t shy. This part was true.
The racoons saw the food in the campsite and thought it was a feast. Then when the scared humans got in the car they just hung around and looked at them through the windows. Racoons have been known to show their teeth, but not necessarily as a sign of aggression. They probably hoped the people in the car had more food.
I walked around the area and into the woods around the campsite. I knew the racoons were long gone and not a threat, but I wanted the family to know that I had fully checked the area. I wanted them to feel secure.
There were racoon tracks and various food wrappers scattered about the area. The “gang” had apparently enjoyed the food which was provided by the family. It even looked like they went into the tent after the family had retreated to the car.
I reassured the family that the racoons were probably back in their home and fast asleep after all the food and night of activity. I told them I would search the park to make sure they weren’t still in the area. I would maintain a close watch and keep the marauding racoon gang from attacking again.
I also assured them that I would notify the other rangers. They would also keep any eye on things. After I left, I just giggled to myself. These people from the city had gotten an upfront wildlife experience and lived to tell the tale. For the remainder of their stay they would wave wildly at me and yell as I drove by on patrol. Apparently, I had become their hero.
To this day, that is probably one of their great family stories about how the Park Ranger saved them from a marauding gang of snarling racoons.
There were many days that I would spot that same gang running across a campsite or away from a garbage can. They’d just give me the stare of a hardend gang member and their leader would show his teeth in an attempt to intimidate me. They’d then scurry into the woods where they planned for their next victims……….Yes, these were the mean streets of a neighborhood run by a gang!