Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement Ride-Along

I recently got the opportunity to do a Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement ride-along.

Michelle had sent the Law Enforcement Patrol Captain an email asking if I could ride with them. She did it as a surprise for my 39th birthday last August. They said yes. They did a quick background check. I was approved to do the ride-along.

It turned out to be more than I expected.

I wasn’t approved to make a video on my experience due to the red tape of the federal government. Maybe one day we can arrange something like that, but it will take more time and planning, I’m sure.

But I was permitted to write this article and give you a gonzo journalist view into my experience during the Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement ride-along.

I hope you enjoy reading this article.

A Little About the Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement

There are barely four of them.

I say barely because one of them is over three different National Forest management areas. The Patrol Captain is over the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana, and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Chicago.

Aside from the Patrol Captain, there are three Law Enforcement Officers charged with covering nearly 300,000 acres of spread-out and chopped-up Shawnee National Forest land. One is tasked with the western side of the forest, the other gets the middle, and then one has the far eastern side of the forest.

It is my opinion, as someone looking in, that they need more officers on the Shawnee. I feel that three additional officers could help the department not be so overwhelmed. There is a lot on one officer’s plate for a forest with nearly 300,000 acres of scattered tracts.

These men and women are federally sworn law enforcement officers. They’ve undergone federal law enforcement training and are well-trained in their craft.

They not only patrol the National Forest, but they investigate criminal acts, respond to emergencies, and even assist counties and communities around the Shawnee that need additional law enforcement coverage.

I rode along with them on a day that wasn’t as busy, but we stayed busy for the entire 7 hours that I was with them.

Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement Ride-Along

I wanted to be in Law Enforcement.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to do the Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement ride-along program was that I once wanted to get into law enforcement.

I don’t talk about this much, but I have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. I also have a master’s degree in Homeland Security, and it concentrated a lot on foreign terrorism and counterintelligence.

The goal after I received my degree was to move to a large city (like New York City) that has a high threat of terrorism and then join the ranks of a law enforcement agency that deals with that sort of area, such as NYPD Intelligence or something along those lines.

However, while I was in college, I started hiking and biking for better health.

And then, I discovered the Shawnee National Forest. I fell in love with it. And I knew I could never leave it. I still can’t leave it.

I essentially had hoped to eventually get on a sheriff’s office or larger police department somewhere in southern Illinois. But what stopped me from doing it was getting higher-paying jobs and getting comfortable with them.

I simply got too old. I’m 39. I’m too old to be a police officer.

So, this ride-along allowed me to see what I basically missed out on. It was bitter-sweet for me but more sweet than bitter. I really enjoyed it and gained a new friend out of it. I have a greater respect for the folks who are a part of the Shawnee Law Enforcement Team.

This allowed me to take part in a field of occupation that I wanted to be in once upon a time. I really enjoyed the opportunity.


The Ghosts of the Shawnee National Forest

The Law Enforcement in the Shawnee National Forest were ghosts to me.

I rarely saw them, but I always knew they were out there.

Now, if you don’t know my hiking style, let me tell you about it. I’ve hiked some of the most rugged and remote sections of the Shawnee. I’ve struggled climbing over the steepest ridgelines just to see what was in the middle of them.

I go to trailless areas of the Shawnee that most people never go to – not even the most dedicated game hunters.

And still… I don’t typically run into law enforcement. But they’ve told me they’ve seen my truck parked around these places.

They’re like the Pinkertons – Always watching!

When I did the Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement ride-along, I got a first-hand experience of what they do in a shift.

They definitely patrol. They go to all the places the crowds go to. We checked out Garden of the Gods, Bell Smith Springs, Millstone Bluff, and many popular places in between. We checked for vehicle violations, searched for a stolen jeep reported by Jackson County, and even stopped to answer visitor questions.

We also went and checked out an area that had to get special attention due to a special circumstance that I’ll cover later in this article.

When we drove by trails that crossed the roads, we looked down them to make sure everything was good.

We even drove through the campgrounds and waved at everything we went by. Many of them smiled and waved back.

We worked for sure!


LEOs are like Swiss Army Knives

I say Swiss Army Knives because of the multiple purposes they serve.

They wear a lot of hats.

They’re not just law enforcement officers. They also have to know about trail work and recreation. They have to be trained in Fire in order to be able to investigate fires. They’re trained in first aid and emergency medical situations. They have to be able to enforce forest regulations and also give visitors information on where to go for a hike.

The Forest Service has many different departments dedicated to a specific role. There is a Recreation department dedicated to maintaining recreation areas. There is a Trails department dedicated to the trails. There is a wilderness department dedicated to the wilderness areas. Fire is dedicated to all wildfire and prescribed burning operations. And then there is law enforcement who’s dedicated to all of the above plus being a law enforcer.

Some officers get to be agents for short periods. Agents act in a “plain-clothed” status and deal with ongoing investigations, special work, and undercover operations.

Being a Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer means doing many things at once, and they deserve a lot of respect for being able to do that.


6 Up

The most exciting part of my Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement ride-along experience was our interaction with members of the Rainbow Family.

The Rainbow Family (often called Rainbow Gathering) is a counterculture of the 1970s hippie culture, living a “nomadic lifestyle” of a family-like approach to life without a leader. They put on annual gatherings where they relocate to different spots within public land to celebrate their beliefs around the hippie-love-peace movement that we saw in the 70s.

However, there are many different sub-groups of these Rainbow gatherers. Some still practice the almost-religious ceremonies of their hippie counterparts. But some are in it to simply party. I say party loosely. Their party typically consists of alcohol and illegal narcotic use. As years pass, some drug use changes. Some members partake in commonly seen drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl. Others may just use marijuana and mushrooms.

Marijuana is legal in Illinois, though, right? It is, but it’s not legal on federally managed public land because it isn’t federally legal yet. Also, Illinois codes state that users cannot use it in public outside of their homes. Most state parks even display signage restricting it.

On the ride along, we patrolled an area of the Shawnee National Forest where members of the Rainbow Family were temporarily residing. They had 14 days to stay, and then they would have to vacate per Forest Service regulations. That applies to you and me, too.

We were polite upon arrival. An officer had to issue a citation for a regulation violation that occurred. I cannot legally discuss the situation, but it was not related to the activity of the members of the gathering. The cited subject was a local passing through the area.

But still – members of the Rainbow Family didn’t like the officer doing his job. Since plain-clothed officers were also present, they likely assumed that I was also an “undercover” officer. We all were called “pigs,” and one member said he hoped that “our brakes failed.”

We remained polite and friendly as we were from the start.

The member of the Rainbow Group was the instigator and one who attempted to cause drama.

Aside from that, no further incident occurred.

Before we went in, the officer I was with transmitted a message (by radio) to Pope County Sheriff’s Office dispatch that we (all four of us) were going to see the Rainbow Family. Forest Service Law Enforcement has good working relationships with local law enforcement agencies around the Shawnee National Forest.

I labeled this section “6 up” because that’s what the Rainbow Family members yelled as we approached in the cruiser. 6 up is slang for “Law Enforcement Approaching.” It is used mainly by criminals to warn other criminals that law enforcement is nearby. It’s the same as saying “po-po” or “5-0.”


My Conclusion

I had the time of my life on my Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement ride-along.

I rode with an officer that has been newly assigned to the Shawnee National Forest. Already, he knows a lot about areas of the forest, and I gave him some tips about more areas.

He was polite friendly, and answered all my questions. He also enjoyed the company. I got to enjoy the experience, and I made a new friend at the same time. I hope he stays in the Shawnee for a while because he fits here perfectly.

My conclusion is that I’d love to have the chance to ride with all the officers at some point. Many of them have been here for a long time. They’ve kept the forest safe longer than I’ve hiked it. Oh, the stories that they can probably tell.

If you’re interested in doing a ride-along, you can contact the Shawnee National Forest in Harrisburg and request information about it.

And lastly, Law Enforcement needs your help! If you see or suspect something suspicious is occurring, please report it to 618-201-3364. You can call or text. You can also remain anonymous. Help them help you have a safe and enjoyable visit to your Shawnee National Forest.


Thank you for reading my article about my Shawnee National Forest Law Enforcement ride-along experience. I welcome you to share it with others. Be sure to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter for more Shawnee National Forest tips, resources, and upcoming events.

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Thanks again for checking out another one of my articles and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!

Shawn Gossman

Shawn Gossman

Founder, Hiking with Shawn

Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman

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