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It Must be Spring at Big Bend National Park—Multiple Incidents Challenge the Park Staff

Sunrise at the Basin in Big Bend NP.

Sunrise at the Basin in Big Bend National Park. Photo by sean_mcgee via Creative Commons and Flickr.

Poets tell us where young men's thoughts turn in the spring, but the staff at Big Bend National Park knows the arrival of warmer weather means life in that park is going to get crazy. Big Bend's busy season is here, and a spate of recent incidents proves it must be spring in the desert.

Late February may still be winter in much of the country, but it's already looking like spring in far West Texas, and that brings the busiest season of the year for this park. If you've ever wondered what rangers find to do in a remote location like Big Bend, here's a sampling from a park report covering a recent five day stretch—and this didn't even include a weekend.

On Monday, February 22, park dispatch received a request for help following a motorcycle accident on Old Ore Road, part of the park's extensive network of primitive dirt roads. Rangers Phil Basak and Rob Dean responded and transported a 63-year-old man with a broken clavicle to the regional hospital, a round trip of over 200 miles.

Did you catch the length of that trip to the hospital? Accidents are never convenient, but this is definitely a place where it pays to be safe.

On Tuesday, February 24 Rangers Mark Franklin, Rick Roberts, Phil Basak, Sean Marick, David Yim and John Craig responded to a vehicle rollover on Route 14. The driver of the vehicle was subsequently cited for failure to maintain control and possession of a controlled substance. The road was temporarily closed as the road crew performed clean up and the vehicle was towed from the scene.

The following day, "park dispatch received a satellite phone call from a school group hiking on the Marufo Vega trail, located in a very remote section of the park. A 14-year-old girl was reported to be suffering from dehydration. The party was unsure of the group’s location, so park pilot Curtis Cebulski took to the air to find them. He was successful in locating them and directed horse patrol rangers Joe Roberts, Sean Marick and David Yim to her location. The victim was treated and transported back to the trailhead on horseback."

Dehydration is a serious problem in this dry climate, and the park website offers some excellent advice on a page with an appropriate title: "How NOT to die in the desert".

Thursday, February 26 — Rangers Keith Gray, Rick Roberts, Jost Zwiebel, Manuel Uribe, John Craig and Phil Basak responded to a report of a serious motorcycle accident near the midpoint of the remote River Road, a dirt road near the Mexican border that traverses the length of the park. A 73-year-old man had sustained multiple serious injuries in the accident, and was airlifted by Carestar helicopter to Fort Stockton, Texas.

TGIF doesn’t apply if you work in a busy park. On February 27, dispatch was notified of a pair of incidents: a motorcycle accident at Castolon and a separate single vehicle rollover at the remote Black Dike backcountry campsite. Rangers Keith Gray, Phil Basak and Jost Zwiebel responded to the calls. The driver of the motorcycle was treated and released; the driver of the vehicle was not injured but the vehicle had to be trailered from the scene.

A recent article in theTraveler mentioned some of the delights of Big Bend, and spring can be a wonderful time to visit this park. The wide range of elevation in the area, from the desert canyons along the Rio Grande to the mountains around the Basin, means the park has a lot of variation in the weather.

In his report of the above incidents, the park's chief ranger also noted the area "experienced both warm sunny days and an accumulating snowfall at midweek." If your spring trip to Big Bend is still coming up, just be prepared for plenty of variety in the weather—and expect some company when you get there.

The park website offers the following reminder for anyone planning a last-minute trip to the area:

Spring Break (March 6-20, 2010) is here! Be advised that almost all Chisos Mountains Lodge rooms, all reservable campsites, and RV hookup sites have been filled during this time. There may be cancellations but do not count on finding overnight accommodations in the park. Due to the rush of visitors, backcountry roadside and backpacking sites will also likely be full. Have a backup plan and expect to stay outside the park during this busy period.


Wow..that school group story really bothers me. How can they take a group of kids camping and not know where they are? That could have been life threatening! I hope they've learned an important lesson about always being aware of your surroundings and carrying a map or GPS.

The school group takes a sat phone along because they know they can just call in a rescue by the park service and have the taxpayers pay for it. Just another example of how technology lets the unprepared get in WAY over their heads. What about a map and compass, a GPS, salty snacks, light cotton clothes and LOTS and LOTS of water? I've sponsored a hiking and outdoor club at the hight school I teach at in Arizona. I've done this for 20 years and hydration is something that requires constant monitoring and you have to force kids to carry and drink enough water. They complain about the extra weight, especially if they end up getting to a campsite with an extra undrunk liter. They will then want to leave water out for the next day's hike.

I find it hard to swallow that they had a Satellite phone, but didn't have all the other items listed above by AZ Hiker - almost like they wanted to get as lost as they could without anything but a phone and see if they could all come out alive. Perhaps I'm being cynnical, but I've been going to Big Bend NP for over 25 years - this is not the place where you want to take school kids, especially not those led by a teacher / assistant / bus driver. When I was a kid there were a lot more boyscouts than there are now it seems - a sad and notable loss.

Anywho - every thing in the desert is sharp, poisonous or both - some places worse than others. Don't get me wrong, I love BBNP - it is quite a bit different in more than a couple of ways (that would be another article topic by itself). I'm sure that if the Ranger's were contacted and informed that the kids were coming they would have had activities geared toward the right age group planned out as well as a Ranger to take the group on a nature hike. I've seen this happen frequently.

Sounds to me like a group people (kids and adults) went out into the REAL rough and tumble wilderness where you can get killed if you are not accustomed to the environment / uninformed in the case of the kiddos - instead of... Let's say.... Fort Richardson state park. I'd love to have every kid share my unwavering loyalty and love for the Big Bend region, really, but there's a time and place for everything. You don't go over 100 miles away from the nearest medical facility if there's a good chance of an accident happening - and with kids - accidents happen.

My recommendation would be to keep the kiddies interested by going to more juvinile friendly parks and not having a 'crisis' (i.e. plan for the even in detail, covering all bases of preventative care and lectures). A crisis will cause life long mental and sometimes physical issues, and they can be avoided. Ease them into something like Big Bend National Park, Mount McKinley NP, Death Valley NP and some of the other more 'rigorous' parks by making sure they are at least mentally 12 years old and capable of being truly responsible before taking them there, in everyone's best interest. Make sure they have prevous experience and are in good enough physical condition to be exposed to the harsh elements.

The hikers should be required to buy an insurance policy with a deductible. Otherwise, they pay their own rescue costs. The taxpayers should not be required to pay the rescue fees.

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