Keeper of the Gorge
Don Fig, forest ranger and director of the Gladie Cultural and Environmental Learning Center, shares his life and love for the Red River Gorge
“When I was a young man, I wanted to climb every rock in the Gorge,” says Don Fig. “And I’ve climbed all the important ones.”
What does the Red River Gorge mean to Fig and its numerous visitors? “The Gorge has a mystique about it—the nature, the cliffs, all the different formations. It’s a celebration of life.
"People come here looking for spiritual renewal and they’re finding it,” says Fig.
After 44 years of service as a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service in the Gorge, he should know. A young 68, Fig now heads a new office as director of the Gladie Cultural and Environmental Learning Center. Opened in May 2004, the 10,200-square-foot, state-of-the-art resource is one of many visions he’s helped bring to fruition in this 26,000-acre natural gallery of “geological art”—rock bridges, houses, shelters, and caves—snug in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
With a twinkle in his eye and the upper body of a 25-year-old, Don, a 40-year vegetarian, has a repertoire of Gorge stories that can last as long as a listener has the time or Fig doesn’t get a call. Due to the sheer number of hats he wears, the latter is likely.
As a ranger, he’s charged with keeping one of the most diverse forest areas in the world environmentally sound. Called a “relic niche,” the Gorge is an unusual area hosting both northern and southern flora and fauna, with several endangered species.
“It’s what’s kept me here all these years,” Fig confides. “I’m always searching for something new. Eventually, I know I’ll find it.” In 1962, he discovered the white-haired goldenrod, a species growing only in four Kentucky counties and nowhere else on earth. And he’s found 40 Native American petroglyphs, rock drawings that could be 15,000 years old.
Unfortunately, modern-day Gorge visitors—250,000 per year—are “loving it to death” and have inadvertently or otherwise destroyed a number of the relics. Most sites are now off-limits.
“If you want to know anything about the Gorge, ask Don,” says Catherine Cloyd, Gladie Historic Site volunteer for the past 12 years with her husband, Bill, who tends its bison herd. “He has more in his mind than most of us will ever forget. He knows every rock, every tree…”
“He’s one of a kind all right,” Bill adds. “He’ll always go that extra mile for you.”
A case in point is that Fig is the founder and head of the Gorge’s crack Search and Rescue team, with 1,600 rescue missions to date. In 1968, controversy over the proposed damming of the Red River brought in a flood of new visitors. Accidents increased. Seeing a need, Fig got busy and rounded up an all-volunteer corps of EMTs.
Working out a system through years of “seat of the pants” experience, the current four- to six-man team rappels down to victims of falls, makes medical assessments, gives first aid, and hauls them out to a waiting ambulance. Alcohol often plays a part in accidents. Other victims may get up in the night while camping and wander over an edge on the Gorge’s 700-mile cliff line, a nirvana for rock climbers but a danger for others.
“Avoiding accidents is pretty simple,” Don says. “Just stay away from that edge. People are fascinated by the edge and want to get close to it. They’ll grab a tree and lean as far over it as they can. Lots of times that tree will give way or a branch will break.
“It’s ironic to find death and danger in a place that for so many people is a celebration of life and creation.”
On call day and night, he lifts weights three days a week to stay honed for the climbing and rope work. Though his wife, Susie, occasionally relays messages to him, most come via a local police 24-hour dispatch. And with them come stories, most with happy endings, some chuckles.
One day, a frantic woman flagged his truck down. Thinking someone was in trouble, Fig jumped out to help. Turns out she’d dropped her cell phone in a composting toilet. Ever the Good Samaritan, he pulled it out and gave it to her.
“Without wiping it off, she grabbed it to see if it still had a signal, then wanted to shake hands to thank me,” he laughs. “I did not shake her hand.”
The large corps of volunteers that lend a hand with river cleanups and trail and site maintenance are supervised by Fig, who, along with two other officers, provides law enforcement for the 63,000-acre Stanton Ranger District.
An insatiable curiosity stokes Fig’s passion for history, a spare-time pursuit that’s made him the official Red River Gorge historian. He is the author of books on Fitchburg’s iron furnace (in operation from 1869 to 1873, this solid mass of sandstone stands 60 feet high and is well-preserved), The Sociology of Search and Rescue, and Tales of Red River Gorge.
“There was no written area history when I came,” he says, “so I interviewed all the old-timers I could.” Thanks to the persistence of a man with no genealogical training, the new Gladie Center offers a raft of local legends that piece together its history.
After hearing about a log cabin under the clapboards of a Gladie farmhouse, he took off a few boards and spied the logs. With the help of 350 volunteers and restoration experts who gathered in 1988 in old-fashioned daylong “workings,” the mid-1880s cabin was uncovered, rebuilt, and stocked with period furnishings. Fittingly, Fig was named director of Gladie Historic Site.
“Gladie wouldn’t be here if not for Don,” says Juanita Hilton Sizemore, who interprets history at the cabin and Gladie Center, a job that, along with caring for the nearby buffalo, Fig filled for a number of years.
“That’s right,” says Hugh Catron, retired Nada resident who volunteered at Gladie for 10 years. “The Forest Service wanted to tear the house and cabin all down, but Don got higher-up help and started a little museum. Once he did that, everybody was all for it.
“He knows as much about this place—or more—than I do, and I’ve been here 81 years! ”
Both literally and figuratively, this ever-enthusiastic ranger, search and rescue commander, historian, volunteer coordinator, and explorer continues to create a legacy of stewardship that will endure for generations.
WHAT TO SEE AT RED RIVER GORGE
- National Geological Area
- National Natural Landmark
- National Register of Historic Places Archaeological District
- National Wild and Scenic River
- National Wilderness Area
- Kentucky Heritage Council Landmarks
- 1,000 species of native flowering plants
- 100 different kinds of trees and shrubs
October is one of the most scenic times to visit the Red River Gorge Geological Area, with its blazing fall colors. It is also a haven for rock climbers and hikers throughout the year.
The Gorge covers 25,630 acres in Powell, Menifee, and Wolfe counties. Access is located off the Mountain Parkway, at either Exit 33 or Exit 40.
The lower part of the Gorge, where Natural Bridge State Park is, at Exit 33, includes Raven Rock, Gladie Creek, Indian Stairway, and Indian Creek.
The upper part of the Gorge, at Exit 40, includes Rock Bridge, Chimney Rock, Sky Bridge, Moonshiners Arch, and the Clifty Wilderness.
For more information, call (606) 663-0095 or go online at www.redrivergorge.com.