Tuesday, August 2, 2016

People of Big Creek - Ranger Heath Soehn

As an introduction of sorts, I'm posting pictures I have taken over the years of people we met in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These are the "characters" in my book, Big Creek - A Closer Look at a National Park, in order of appearance.

Actually, we met his wife Dana first.  She and their son Garrett had been swimming at the Midnight Hole when a park visitor got hurt. She came down the trail to call for help. I had met her by phone even before we got to Big Creek.  Dana was the park's volunteer coordinator and recommended Big Creek when I called.  Later, she moved to the Public Information Officer position and was named the park's 2014 Employee of the Year.

Heath brought us the car battery jumper/compressor to use with park visitors with car problems.  He and Andy opened the package and studied the instructions intently.

He studied every page of the manual before playing with the machine.

I did convince him to look up and smile for the camera.

We had a cookout at the end of our stay in 2011 so our daughter Jennifer and her husband George could meet Ranger Tim and his wife Kendra.  Ranger Heath came in and crashed the party with his ranger truck lights flashing.  If the picture is not clear enough for you to see, here Heath has two marshmallows on the skewer stuck into his holster with the gun.

Heath and Tim transformed into eight-year-olds toasting marshmallows and eating S'mores.

Always thoughtful, Heath never forgot Andy's monthly birthday cake.  His favorite was Key Lime Cake, but as you can see, he also enjoyed Fudgey Chocolate Cake.

He almost always stopped in to say hello when he was in Big Creek and let us know how much he appreciated us as volunteers.  When I say park rangers are the Park Service version of Boy Scouts, this is what I'm talking about:

The values and virtues we all admire and strive for, are wrapped up in a great big National Park Ranger package.  You are not likely to meet many people who love their job as much as Heath does. Nearing 50 now, he still approaches his job with the enthusiasm of a kid.

One day, on his day off, Heath brought his son Garrett to swim in the Midnight Hole. They posed for a picture before heading up the trail. Note that Heath is wearing a Boy Scout t-shirt.

One day, after responding to a missing hiker incident on Big Creek Trail, Heath leaned against the trailhead sign while chatting with us.

I told him that we call him Rescue Ranger Heath because we heard him on the radio so often participating in rescue missions.  I also told him that my other name for him is Dudley Do-Right. Here is a picture of Dudley in case you missed the Rocky and Bullwinkle show in the 1960s.

So Heath struck his Dudley Do-Right pose for us.

Heath had to go up to one of the backcountry campsites on Mt. Cammerer to close the campsite due to bear activity. I heard him asking some other rangers for a ride back to his truck in Cosby when he was done.  I got on the radio and volunteered to take Heath back, rather than have two rangers waiting around for him to come off the trail.  He accepted that offer and the other two rangers headed back to their area of the park.

Of course, there was a monsoon rain falling that night. I had a pot of coffee ready. Heath arrived about 11:00 p.m. soaking wet. I put a towel on the sofa and there was still a river of water flowing across the floor.  His boots were full. Here he is with Walt, one of the campers he had evicted from the backcountry site. We put him in the group site for the night with the gracious campers already there. It was a rainy, foggy drive back to Cosby where we dropped Heath off at the trailhead. Then, it was 1:00 a.m. before we got back to Big Creek.

Heath lives in Gatlinburg and very close to the Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant we love. One evening, shortly before we left the park for the year, Andy and I drove to his house for pizza. His son Garrett had made a cherry pie with the cherries from a tree in their yard. Heath's mother lives next door and came over to supervise the crust making. Heath made sure to let us know that he was the one who pitted all the cherries.

 This was the first time we got the opportunity to talk with Dana at length.  She is the go-to person if you want to know something about the park. We had a wonderful evening with the delightful family. Looking at the photo now, I think Garrett got his father's smile and his mother's hair.

I don't remember when this picture was taken, but it is representative.  It's Grandma Dorothy's blueberry cobbler recipe.  Heath told me to thank her for giving me the recipe, which I passed on to him.  When I told him that Grandma Dorothy had been dead for years, he responded with, "Then I'll thank her myself when I get to heaven". He does love her cobbler.

 And, if you can't tell by now, I love Heath. From my sampling of park rangers, it is safe to say that there are probably dozens more rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park who are just as lovable if I met them.  And there are hundreds more in the rest of the park system just as competent, charming, and lovable as he is.  But Heath is the one we know and love the best.


  1. A lovely memoir and wonderful photos. With all the trials and tribulations you have had, It sounds like you are loving it. :o)

  2. Yes, seeing a national park close up, like we did as campground hosts in the Smokies, was amazing and a real eye-opener. We love it and keep going back for more.