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Gorge protector

For 47 years, Don Fig went to work every day in the Red River Gorge, a place where several hundred thousand people come each year to play.

Then he retired, giving us an opportunity, on Labor Day weekend, to pause and consider a career well spent.

Fig was the originator and leader of the Red River Gorge Search and Rescue Team. All too often, that meant he worked during the day, then was called out in the middle of the night to rescue some hapless camper who had stumbled off the edge of a cliff.

Fig took part in 1,660 rescues, a number that will probably never be equaled.

They included everything from finding someone who was lost, to helping someone with a twisted ankle, to retrieving a body from a deep ravine.

The tragic retrievals are seared in his mind, but so are some funny ones. There was, for example, the woman who frantically flagged him down because she had dropped her cell phone into a campsite toilet. (He fished it out.) Or the camper who rolled off the edge of a cliff in his sleeping bag and fell 30 feet. When he was brought to a parking lot to be put in an ambulance, he stood up, fished his car keys out of his pocket, thanked Fig and drove away.

Fig started working in law enforcement in the gorge, and that evolved into search and rescue.

He went out west to be trained at national forests there, but came back and developed a system of pulleys, ropes and litters that was suited to the unique topography of the gorge. The system is still in use.

Over his long career, Fig saw the gorge grow in popularity from a little-known getaway that might attract 50 cars over a weekend to a place where every parking space is taken.

The number of people coming to the gorge dramatically increased because of publicity over a 1970s effort to build a dam across the Red River. The publicity helped squelch the project, but the throngs it attracted "almost ruined" the delicate landscape, Fig said.

Fig laid out some of the trails in the gorge and hiked them all many times. He climbed most of the area's pinnacles — towers of rock with names like Haystack, Courthouse, Smokestack and Eagles Peak. He came to know the 29,000 acres of streams, cliffs, valleys and ridges as well as most people know their back yards.

"His great knowledge of the area was important when we needed to get to a victim, then get the person to the nearest road," said Kendel Culbertson, whom Fig trained in search and rescue.

Fig has always kept himself in top shape, lifting weights, jogging and hiking, and follows a mostly vegetarian diet (he admits to eating fish occasionally).

In the late 1980s, as Fig prepared to show a newspaper reporter and photographer around the rugged Clifty Wilderness Area, another forest ranger stopped by with a warning for the journalists: "I hope you like jogging uphill."

Keeping up with Fig in the woods was a task that taxed many.

"I chased him for 25 years, and I'm a lot younger than he is," Culbertson said.

He also became a role model for Culbertson, who once ran into a man who told him about coming back from a hike to find his car vandalized and his tires slashed. Fig, who had been called to investigate, gave the man a $100 bill.

"I later found out he did that kind of thing for a lot of people," Culbertson said.

Because the rescue squad was always needed more on the weekends, his days off were always in the middle of the week. But that didn't always mean he was home.

"He was so devoted that he would spend not only his working hours, but just about all his time in the gorge if they would let him," said Donnie Richardson, a retired district ranger who worked with Fig for 14 years.

Along the way, Fig became an official historian for the gorge and its people. His interests ran from the native Americans who lived thousands of years ago in the gorge's many rock shelters to the families who made a living on small farms before the federal government started buying up land for the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Fig started carrying a tape recorder to capture the stories of people who remembered the old times in the gorge, and collected photographs of pioneer families in front of log cabins.

Many of the stories he collected are in his several books, including Tales of the Red River Gorge, and So That Others Might Live, which is about search and rescue.

He also wrote about history that wasn't. A primitive cabin with "D. Boon" carved in a plank had drawn national attention as a possible residence of pioneer Daniel Boone.

Fig and archaeologist Cecil Ison found two men who admitted that they had carved the initials when they were boys.

Fig is credited with saving Gladie Cabin, a now-restored 1880s log structure that had been slated for demolition. It now is a focal point of the Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center in the gorge.

He also saved the Fitchburg Furnace, which was a high-tech producer of iron in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Fig managed to get the neglected furnace donated to the Forest Service, then designated as a natural historical site. It took him only 40 years.

Fig is so well known in the gorge that a 12-hour "adventure racing" event, in which teams run trails, bike and paddle, is called the Fig VI.

Fig grew up in Appalachia, Va. When he joined the Forest Service in 1960, he had no idea where he would be assigned. He was sent to the gorge.

The first time he saw it, he knew it was where he belonged.

"The arches, the great cathedrals of rock, they all made an impression on my young mind," he said.

He retired in January but hasn't really left.

Now 72, he's working on a book on the history of logging in the gorge and another on the bison that were kept at Gladie for a dozen years starting in 1992, Kentucky's bicentennial year.

He still comes to the Gladie Center most Sundays to volunteer. Although he declined a retirement party, he was back there last week to be given a plaque honoring his long service.

Before receiving the plaque, he sat down for a while and talked about his life among the arches, ridges and streams.

It was, he said, a great ride.

"The Forest Service was not just a job for me, it was a way of life," Fig said. "I don't regret any time I spent in it."