IN PHOTOS: Lake Mead’s park rangers
– In the right moment, one could easily be convinced that Elizabeth Dietzen and Preshant Lotwala have the best jobs in the world. And in the right moment, they would probably agree.
The National Park Service Rangers spend a large part of their workday patrolling the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, inarguably one of the most stunningly surreal pseudo-natural environments on the planet, a vast cobalt plane hemmed by the craggy, barren Mojave desert landscape. A place of impossible incongruity, a physical yin and yang that offers subtle shifts in identity throughout each day and each season, even as it dwindles from prolonged drought and the insatiable thirst of western states’ populations.
“Do you ever get jaded,” I ask them. “About being out here in this?”
“Sure, it’s still beautiful to me,” Lotwala says. “I wake up saying, ‘let’s go to work.'”
It is a Sunday afternoon. The 20 foot National Park Service power boat bobs in the gentle ripple along the surface of Lake Mead as the mellow heat that signals the end of summer keeps us warm despite the misting we have just gotten from swiftly moving from Cottonwood Cove to Boulder Beach.
It is tranquil. Contemplative. Impossibly gorgeous. And then there are the other moments.
“The winds were 60 miles an hour, the waves were just unbelievable,” Lotwala remembers of an early experience with an emergency call from boaters in danger of capsizing in the midst of a sudden summer storm. “I was hanging over, timing the waves trying to pull people out,” he says.
“I really thought I was going to die that day. We managed to get everybody and make it to a cove until the storm died down. And it was my second month here. I figured this is what it’s like all the time and was thinking, ‘what did I get myself into’.”
Lotwala is a supervisory ranger who collaborated on developing the service’s Operational Leadership Program in 2007. He is a native of Newark, New Jersey which he still misses after decades away, especially the quality and section of the area’s restaurants.
He transferred to a Park Service position in the Florida panhandle a month after our meeting. The Lake Mead post is perfect to become a better ranger, he says, due to the range of daily challenges faced on patrol.
“Lake Mead sees more action on a regular basis than any other park in the nation,” he tells me.”What we get in a couple of days, other places don’t see that in a year. And it also allows you to use a full range of skills on a regular basis: EMT, search and rescue, all of it. And dealing with the public, the way to do that. You learn verbal Judo pretty fast, it’s very important.”
“How many boats patrol this part of the lake typically on a summer weekend?” I ask.
“Sometimes two, but today it is just us,” Lotwala tells me.
In an isolated cove just beyond the mouth of Hoover Dam, we pull beside a commercial powerboat offering waterskiing trips. Dietzen handles the verbal Judo on this occasion – a routine license check – as Lotwala tethers us to the vessel. The operator is compliant, but exaggerates his annoyance so that it will not be lost on the officers. “Every week one of you guys does this,” the man says as his customers ignore us and use the break to snack on packed sandwiches and chips. “You’d think you’d have more important things to do.” Dietzen remains polite, but firm.
Dietzen, a native of North Carolina, had never operated a boat prior to her post at Lake Mead only a few months before our meeting (in September 2014). “I’m getting used to it,” she says and a few moments later she has us skimming across the lake again toward the concentration of activity on Boulder Beach.
“What have you found the most difficult part of the job?” I ask Dietzen. “Dealing with the accidents pretty regularly — and the families – how have you been able to handle that?”
“Really, the hardest part for me is the elements sometimes,” she tells me. “When it gets 117 degrees, you don’t really get used to that. The deaths, dealing with families, you can block that out, keep it separate from your life. Except with kids… especially if you have kids yourself, that can be hard.”
Billowing charcoal storm clouds have moved in from the southern horizon, kicking up swirls of dust that sends beachgoers scurrying for cover.
Conditions can change fast out here, which create serious dangers. I am told of a recent case in which a woman drowned because she was in an inflatable raft that was pushed deep into the lake by sudden winds just like this.
Dietzen cuts the engine and lets the boat drift beside a young man on a jet ski several hundred yards offshore. He is not wearing a floatation device. Lotwala warns him that the impending storm could abruptly produce dangerous waves.
“But it’s legal for me to stay out here?”
“Oh yeah, it’s legal,” Lotwala tells him.
“OK then,” the man tells. “Good, good to know.” The jet ski roars away.
“He cares if it’s legal, doesn’t care if it’s smart,” Lotwala says. “That’s so common an attitude. There are a lot of good boaters out here, too. They are the ones we love. They make out jobs easy. The other ones….” Lotwala’s mood noticeably sinks when describing some of the calls he has responded to, many of which have ended with loss of life.
“The way people seem to react to you… the stuff they keep doing that’s just stupid and maybe dangerous,” I comment. “You seem pretty frustrated by it all.”
He cares if it’s legal, doesn’t care if it’s smart . . . Things will keep happening until people lose the idea that ‘it will never happen to me.’ That’s what’s a killer.
“Oh absolutely,” he says. “Because most of this is preventable with common sense and a few precautions. But, the thing is, we can talk about life vests, the dangers of floaties, about boater safety — and we do, all the time — but things will keep happening until people lose this idea that ‘it will never happen to me’.
“That’s what’s a killer. ‘I’m a strong swimmer.’ Great, but you don’t know your body. You don’t know if you’re going to have a heart attack, or if your muscles will cramp up. Just wear a life vest, very simple. But people will always think it won’t happen to them.”
Both rangers have witnessed the penalty for poor choices and poor fortune that an environment as unforgiving as this can impose. Search and rescue. Body recovery. The aftermath of the sudden death of a loved one.
“One thing you see a lot is a boat operator jump in the water and get in trouble, but nobody else on board knows how to operate the boat,” says Lotwala.
“It happened just a few weeks ago. A family watched a man drown because they could operate the boat. It’s very important to teach other people on board, in case of an emergency.”
Another factor, predictably, is alcohol consumption. “Alcohol is involved in many of the incidents, and most of the fatalities too,” says Lotwala. “We see it all the time.”
“Feels like futility sometimes?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Sometimes. But I don’t think looking at the number of deaths is a good way to gauge what park rangers are doing. Because a lot of the work is educating people and you’ll never know the benefits of that because it will prevent these things from ever happening. It’s impossible to quantify.”
He squints in the setting sun which has slipped beneath clouds as thunder faintly rumbles from the desert behind us.
The beach is nearly empty now, and no vessels can be seen on the glistening lake surface. Another summer weekend is passing. And everyone is alive. | iH
Photography by Buford Davis
This article was featured on page 21of the August2015 issue of Inside Henderson Magazine.