Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Driving Park Ranger Style

Under normal winter conditions it is always a challenge to drive in the mountains. Then you add the factors of having to drive at higher elevations than most state roads in areas that are not plowed and the need to respond in emergencies, driving for National Park Rangers can produce many challenges.

In 1981 when I first moved to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina the park had no four wheel drive vehicles. The administration felt that this was an extravagance that the park could not afford. The problem was that when it snowed or iced up it seemed like everyone else in the world had a four by four and wanted to try it out on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We would then have to put chains on our sedans and try to get to these folks out of trouble when they got stuck or slid off the road.

We had gates to close the road when it became to dangerous for vehicle traffic. We could not close these gates until the road actually got snow covered. The result was that Rangers had to go out in hazardous weather and driving conditions to get the gates locked before visitors drove in the unplowed and dangerous sections. This process could take from a few hours to all night depending on how hard it would be to get around.

One night I was out in my AMC Matador sedan (seen in the photo above) to get the gates closed in the area of Doughton Park on the Parkway. The snow was coming down so hard and blowing sideways producing white out conditions. I literally could not see where I was going and finally stopped and got out of the car to get my bearings. I discovered that I was not even on the road, but about fifty feet out in a field near the concession facilities at the top of the mountain. I could briefly make out the building through the pulsating waves of snow. I was able to get back onto the road, but had to stop and get out periodically to check on my location.

In 1982 freezing rain was coming down covering every surface. Icicles were already hanging from trees and signs when I had to go out and close the roads. Before I could finish the ice started to develop on the road surfaces creating "black ice", one of the most dangerous challenges for vehicle traction. I parked my car up hill within a gate I had to close. As I exited the car my first foot slid out from under me and I caught myself on the door frame preventing a flat out fall to the road. Holding on to the car I slid my way to the rear bumper and then inched my way to the gate. I had just closed one side of the heavy metal gate when a strong gust of wind came up the hollow almost knocking me over. The wind gust also broke the delicate traction that my car had with the icy surface. I looked up hanging on to the gate to stay trying to stay vertical when I noticed my car was slowly sliding, the wheels locked not rolling, back toward me and the gate. My feet began to spin like a cartoon character's on the icy surface trying to get the gate arm out of the way of the car as it came at me. Everything was in slow motion, except my flying feet. I was just able to get the gate out of the way as the car slowly slid by. It traveled about ten feet past the gate when one or two wheels hit a spot of dry pavement and the care stopped. Unbelievable, there was no damage other than my panting and pounding heart. I then spent an hour trying to get the chains on my car (one of the top ten things I hate to do) as the freezing rain formed my clothes into what felt like pieces of stiff plywood.

Next time I will tell you about another instance when I slid on the ice and over the side of the mountain and share some Park Ranger winter mountain driving tips.

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