Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Nature deficit disorder in nature

Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire that Delicate Arch has “the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit.” I can only imagine how startled Abbey’s senses would have been if he’d seen the teenaged boy on a sunset visit who dropped his pants, urinated on the arch, and hollered, “Look, I’m making a waterfall!” None of the shocked onlookers threatened to strap him to a spire on the Primitive Loop for his behavior, but they probably should have.

We make tracks for places like Arches National Park to get away from people and into nature. The reasons underlying our need for escape range from the obvious (noisy, crowded cities) to the subtle (we are part of nature, too). The wilderness draws us to solitude, even though we are naturally social animals. But what I don’t understand are the people who get into the wilderness and then proceed to act like socially dysfunctional jackasses. And I still haven’t figured out exactly how to deal with them.

We’ve all seen them. They ignore the signs, feed the animals, urinate on arches. They sleep through backcountry orientation or think they’re above the rules. It makes me want to whap 'em upside the head with an organic carrot. Or at least force them to listen to a lengthy diatribe about the consequences of their behavior. We can’t beat them with carrots, so lecture is our best alternative.

Yet it’s tough to get up the gumption at the critical moment. I once saw a mother and her young son hiking on a trail in Banff National Park in Canada. As I watched, horrified, the mother, anxious for a good picture, pushed her child within one foot of a nursing elk cow with her calf. At every trailhead, park signs warned about the dire consequences of approaching these animals, especially females with young. But this mother seemed to think her child’s life was worth a good photo opportunity. Strangely, I hesitated to say anything, somehow unwilling to correct this grown woman’s behavior. Thankfully, the elk cow exhibited more common sense than the humans and walked away. 

An incident in the Grand Canyon showed that others also hesitate to step up to the soapbox. If you know how much water to carry, per person, per day on a hiking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, raise your hand. If you answered “at least one gallon,” you know a lot more than the two fellows who found themselves stuck midway down the Hermit’s Trail on a blazing July day.

They’d already drunk the single quart of water they’d brought for their overnight trip. Their reasoning? They mistakenly believed there’d be plenty of water along the way. People charitably shared some of their own water with the parched pair. Maybe the two even learned a lesson. But they should have paid attention when the ranger said, “You need a lot of water. You’ll die without water. We don’t want to have to come after you because you didn’t take enough water.” The cost of rescuing them could have run into the thousands. But according to reports, no lectures accompanied the water handouts that may have saved their lives. 

Every year, the most popular parks spend thousands of dollars rescuing foolish people from foolish situations and remediating the damage caused by thoughtless hooligans, from the woman walking her four dogs on the Alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park to the fellow who repeatedly has to be rescued off of a Rocky Mountain cliff face because he's too inexperienced but keeps going back. My radical idea? Everyone should have to swear an oath to verbally pummel anyone they catch breaking the rules. Authorizing officiousness in the backcountry could save sensitive habitat and human lives—and your lectures to the foolish would have government backing.

But even keeping the rabble in their cars and off the trails might not be enough. The worst incident I’ve witnessed in a national park occurred early one summer at Yellowstone. Bison grazed in the fading sunlight, about 100 yards from where my husband and I stood watching them. As we peered through the trees, we saw something that to this day I have trouble believing.

A car with New Jersey plates and carrying three young men drove several hundred feet into the meadow straight up to one of the bison. The driver flashed his brights on and off and honked the horn repeatedly, trying to get a rise out of the impassive beast. As the bison blinked wearily at the commotion, one of the passengers filmed the actionless excitement with a hand-held camera.

Anyone who’s ever been to Yellowstone has seen the signs that depict a bison catapulting a park visitor 50 feet in the air. Never mind the signs that tell visitors to keep their cars on the roads. As I stood in the trees watching this spectacle, I kept imagining these poor bison suddenly losing it and charging the car. Over and over, I played the scene of several of the herd closing in on the small vehicle and one by one, plucking out each young man and hurling him into the air. But it didn’t happen. The bison moved away, and the stupid young men sped off across the meadow. 

We escape into the backcountry hoping to get away from people like that. But they’ll find you out there, where they will build illegal fires, feed dried apricots to chipmunks, and use streams instead of chemical toilets. Many of us—including me—might find it hard to speak out and lecture people who look like adults, but act like children. But we should share our common sense with the backcountry Homo sapiens who lack it, for their safety and to preserve the outdoor experience. Or we could hope that they pick up some tips from other species. The elk cow in Banff walked away. The Yellowstone bison didn’t charge the car. And even a jackass knows how to behave at the Grand Canyon.


  1. Nice post. I've seen things akin to this referred to as the Disneyfication of nature... where people have come to assume there will be plenty of water and electricity, wild animals are docile as dairy cows, and cars are meant to drive so, why walk!?! Also, slippery rocks near really high waterfalls are okay to climb barefoot (Signs?! What signs?!?!) while cell phone reception is distributed evenly across this blessed country like an afghan spread across a well-worn easy chair. Why are people so dense and why do we (the righteous ones!) hesitate to call them on it when the time comes?

  2. Grrr. I can unfortunately relate.

    I see this kind of behavior too often. However, I'm b!tchy enough to speak up usually.

    We have property in the Catskill Park of upstate NY. It's 70 acres of private property with a cabin on it, bordering thousands of undeveloped/forever wild state land. The driveway requires 4 wheel drive, plenty of posted signs saying private property. There's no cell phone reception, no electricity, no internet (not even dial up).

    We go there to escape and the idiots find us.

    There was the day in late fall (during hunting season) when my sister and I heard a sneeze, turned to each other and said, "God bless you." When we realized neither one of us had sneezed we realized we had company.

    Hiking up our driveway in shorts and T-shirts at 4pm on a cool late-fall day, was a mom, dad, and 4 or 5 year old kid.

    We approached them and asked if they knew they were on private property- they did not, despite the signs. We asked where they were trying to go- the Giant Ledge trail head 2 miles up the main road. We asked if they knew it was hunting season- they did not. We asked if they knew that the hike to Giant Ledge (from the trail head, not our driveway) was at least 4 hours if they were quick- they did not. We asked if they realized it would be dark soon- they seemed not to care.

    We had to repeatedly ask them NOT to attempt to walk the 2 miles further up the road and attempt the hike late in the day with a little kid, during hunting season.

    Seeing as how we didn't hear search helicopters later that night, we're guessing they heeded our advice.

  3. Something like half of all National Parks visitors are below average.