No More Mr. Ranger, sir Police: Rangers still lead nature walks and canoe trips, but they're also police, with guns and full arrest powers.

July 22, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Ranger Jerry Kirkwood slowly treads a wooded trail until he's close -- but not too close. Ignoring the mosquitoes, he stands still and silent. Watching. Sniffing.

And then moving. He scampers across boulders that line the Big Gunpowder Falls to arrest three people passing a marijuana joint -- and turns a popularly held image on its side.

"The majority of people, when they think of a park ranger, they think of Yogi Bear," Kirkwood says. "They don't think of saving lives or arresting folks."

The drug bust may not be a scene out of Jellystone Park, but it's the reality of a steamy summer Sunday in Gunpowder Falls State Park.

Sure, rangers lead nature walks and canoe trips, but they're also police, with guns and full arrest powers. And they contend with more than purloined picnic baskets -- a cooler of beer is more likely to spawn problems.

Kirkwood, a boyish-looking 32-year-old, has been a ranger for six years, and has plenty of stories to show for it. Like the 5-year-old girl who suffered brain damage after nearly drowning. Or the man who stopped his car along Harford Road and shot a deer from the window.

Or the drunk who passed out in the river, wearing only his underwear and with little more than his nose above water. Roused by the ranger, the man reached for another pull of vodka and slurred, "Wanna fight?"

Kirkwood tells this story as he drives a Bronco from one swatch of the park -- Maryland's largest -- to another. His beat is the park's "central area," 10,000 acres lining miles of river from Sweet Air in Baltimore County to the bay.

It's a blue-collar Riviera, where folks clad in cutoffs, from places such as Essex, Dundalk and Highlandtown, kick back and cool off.

"This," says Kirkwood, "is their country club."

On this July Sunday, a contingent from Baltimore's Greektown swims in the Big Gunpowder Falls under an old Baltimore and Ohio Railway Co. bridge near U.S. 40. A husband and wife from East Baltimore, sporting body piercings, raft the falls near Harford Road. Nearby, a ponytailed man from Hamilton casts a fishing line.

As he makes his rounds, Kirkwood comes across a group from southeastern Baltimore County. They are on the shore of the Little Gunpowder Falls at the Franklinville Road bridge, an off-limits area, and have beer in a no-alcohol zone. There's another problem: Jack Walden, 40, has a gashed forehead and nose, and his chin sports a bloody, horizontal cleft. His friends say he accidentally dove face-first into a submerged rock.

Kirkwood writes five, $50 tickets for possession of alcohol, and calls an ambulance for Walden. He also orders Gorden Tegges, 43, of Bowleys Quarters to sober up for an hour before driving off.

"We were wrong," Tegges says. "We brought a few chillies. We were just going to sit around the water and go home. I guess you can't do it anymore."

His friend, Earl Katzenberg, 39, adds, "All we did was come here to have some fun, enjoy the country." But he acknowledges, "We had an idea we shouldn't bring the beer down here. We just wanted to go swimming."

With the temperature approaching 90 degrees, it certainly is a day for swimming. From the park's Hammerman area at the mouth of the Gunpowder to the roadside swimming holes along the Big and Little Falls, everyone is looking for a way to stay cool.

Gunpowder covers nearly 18,000 acres in Baltimore and Harford counties. It includes picnic grounds and swimming; more than 100 miles of hiking and biking trails, including the Northern Central Railroad Trail; and blue-ribbon trout streams.

It is patrolled year-round by 17 rangers who last year issued 249 citations for illegal hunting or fishing and other park violations. The rangers also made 42 arrests, mostly for drug charges, and seized 20 guns.

State rangers trace their heritage back three centuries, to militiamen who patrolled Maryland's frontier. After the Civil War, the rangers shifted their focus from military campaigns to forest preservation and park management.

In addition to patrolling, rangers maintain the park and plan programs. During the winter, Kirkwood might set the bid specifications for roofing repairs to houses on park property. In the spring, he may lead a nature walk.

He also represents the agency at events such as the Maryland State Fair. Not long ago, he paddled a canoe with Gov. Parris N. Glendening during the dedication of a newly protected "wildlands" area of the park.

Kirkwood began his park career as a maintenance worker at Susquehanna State Park in Harford County. A former member of Bel Air High's ecology club, he's a county farm boy whose idea of fun is to hunt mule deer and elk in the Colorado highlands. He clearly relishes the hunt -- even when the species he tracks is Homo sapiens.

"When I'm hunting a poacher, it's no different than hunting anything else," he says. "I use the same skills."

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