When you have little to no contact with nature on its own terms, with wild nature, it’s quite easy to get yourself into trouble. Carnage, injuries, and even death can follow as a result. GPS devices, smart and mobile phones, and all the technological gear you have at hand may not be enough to save your ass or get help when you most need it.
You can also be incredibly experienced and familiar with wild places, and end up that same proverbial creek without a paddle. None of us escapes from having lapses in judgment in life-sometimes we survive them; sometimes we don’t.
Whether we live in large cities, sprawling suburban areas, or rural places closer to wild places, it’s nearly universally rewarding to have spent time in nature, then arrive safely back home elated and re-charged, eager to share stories from our most recent adventures.
This summer, though, far too many adventurers to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, have already experienced tragedy and death in the wild..
A few weeks ago Yellowstone had its first thermal feature death in nearly 16 years after a young man wandered off trail with his sister in the Norris Geyser Basin area. Since 1890 there have been at least 22 such deaths in the park, and the two-volume book series, Death In Yellowstone by Lee Whittlesey, continues to educate and warn readers of the myriad unforgiving perils that accompany the remarkable beauty and wildness of this majestic place. No amount of signage, guard rails, or messaging will ever eradicate the real possibility that the park can kill, still.
There were 4,100,000 visitors to Yellowstone in 2015, and current trends indicate that that number may be surpassed this year as well. Since April 2016, at least two other people have experienced thermal burns in the park. In another incident, a Canadian film crew, operating without a commercial permit, deliberately walked and filmed being illegally off trail on fragile crust overlying near-boiling temperature waters near Grand Prismatic Spring.
Well-intentioned visitors removed a lone bison calf from the wild and placed it in their car, concerned about its fate. Later, park officials had to euthanize the calf., as it was no longer accepted by other bison due to being handled by humans. Outside the park, a similar incident occurred when people happened upon a newborn pronghorn antelope..
It’s hard to restrain ourselves when we see a young and apparently helpless animal. We’re used to exciting rescues, miraculous reunions, and happy endings in the media, but nature plays no favorites. Visiting a national park and other wild places begs for more restraint than we may be used to exercising at home. It also begs for being more thoughtful and prepared, and for being more kind and considerate to others who live and visit there, resident wildlife included..
It’s akin to spending time in another culture or country. Before we visit, it’s wise to learn about the customs, manners. nuances and challenges that may be different there than they are at home. National parks and other wild settings are some of the last places where animals such as grizzly bears and wolves can still roam, make a living, and call home. In many ways, we are visiting someone else’s home.
Indeed, despite your own advance preparations, or after having read up on park rules and regulations, you may still see others off trail in thermal areas, or crowding an adult bison (which is always a bad idea) to get a better photo. In another sad incident this spring, someone was struck by a car as she tried to cross the road between Madison and West Yellowstone, near where bald eagles have historically nested. Videos and selfies were also posted on line of folks posing with their backs to bison (another really bad idea), and others of people getting way too close to elk in the park.
It is heartbreaking to hear of people who are killed or seriously injured in a place they very likely have loved from afar and have wanted to visit for a long time. Accidents can and do happen. But please don’t leave your brain at the gate, or join the crowd doing something that will either result in harm to themselves or others. You’re a long ways from a hospital in any direction, and may need a life flight to get urgent medical care and treatment.
Be prepared, and remember that human drivers are far more dangerous statistically than grizzly bears and bison, both in and outside the park.. Where it gets tricky is when and where to intervene with others, and how to be kind and firm if you decide to do so.
It may be tempting to embarrass, ridicule and rapidly judge people who may be behaving in an unsafe manner, whether that’s in Yellowstone or somewhere else they have come to enjoy and experience the natural world. It takes some diplomacy to let them know it’s unsafe without calling into question their intelligence, but again, we all have lapses in judgment, and the goal is to help that person decide to change their behavior so they no longer endanger themselves or others.
I get it that maybe folks just want to contact a ranger to deal with people doing unsafe things in national parks and other public places. People are understandably fearful of an escalating confrontation, plus with national parks allowing people to have firearms within their boundaries (a really really bad idea) that makes many visitors even less likely to speak out when something is awry.
Just like in the natural world itself, there are no easy answers for how to resolve this challenge. It’s so easy to get in deeper than our own comfort zone, but paradoxically that’s where huge learning, discoveries and breakthroughs often occur, if we survive the moment or experience..
Consider that at one time, there were less than 30 remaining wild bison, period, and where their numbers are today. Consider the phenomenal rebound of wolves in Greater Yellowstone after they were extirpated by the 1930s. Until about 1970, people were feeding bears in Yellowstone, and leaving garbage strewn around to attract them for photo opportunities. Collectively and individually, we’ve changed our mindset and ways of relating to nature over time, and hopefully that will continue to evolve.
It’s also easy to believe that our actions don’t matter or are harmless when visiting wild places, but it’s super sad to see a lone petrified tree encased by an iron fence to keep out souvenir collectors in Yellowstone, or people’s initials carved into bacterial and algae mats in many thermal areas.
Being in a crowd and being fairly anonymous drives some folks to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. For some people, they may genuinely not know that something is harmful, or they may not have read the regulations and rules, or they saw someone else do something and decided to follow suit.
For others, they seem to be suffering from a bad case of “No one can tell me what to do,” “You’re trampling on my freedom to do what I want on government land,” or they loathe government entities entrusted with preserving and protecting lands belonging to all Americans..
The National Park Service’s mission, as stated in the U.S. Organic Act of 1916. reads as follows:
The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.
Some generations later, the National Park Service’s Centennial Goal is to
“Connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates.”
The number of park visitors will almost certainly continue to grow, prompting some hard conversations about how we can truly protect places and leave them unimpaired for future generations. Connecting with and growing the next generation of park supporters and advocates is also crucial.
That hinges on simultaneously educating people that their actions and inactions do make a difference in the integrity and future of wild places, no matter where their feet are, whether you actually and physically visit a place, or are enjoying and exploring it from afar.
Wild places can be great teachers. Yet they also command respect, restraint and humility, as an excerpt from a 1970 Billings Gazette editorial stressed following the death of a park visitor to Yellowstone that year:
Death is a frequent visitor in raw nature. And Yellowstone National Park, despite the cabins and roads, is raw nature. The Park is the untamed and unfenced wildlife and the amoral energy of thermal wonders. It cannot be treated lightly; when it is it erupts in death…The park is not Disneyland, Rocky Mountain version. Nor is it a zoo with moats and fences separating the wild and the domesticated. For all the trappings of men, it is wilderness. And the man who fails to accept it as such dies.
Travel safely, and travel well this summer!