Sunday, 30 October 2016

Yellowstone National Park: a near near death experience

No, that’s not a clerical error. All will be revealed shortly. But let’s set the scene first.

Yellowstone National Park is dangerous. An unwary visitor could be eaten by a bear. Or fatally gored by a bison. There are plenty of opportunities to plunge to inadvertent doom from high places, such as the lava terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs or the cliff edges at the Park’s own Grand Canyon. And of course there is the option for a scorcher of a demise via the endless supply of boiling water and steam from the geysers, not forgetting the volcanic hot spots lurking beneath the surface.

But it would be a travesty to think of Yellowstone as Beelzebub’s Backyard in all but name. For the thousands of sensible visitors who take the trouble to make the journey to the far north west corner of Wyoming, it’s a sightseeing spectacular. Few would need to be told that it is inadvisable to step too close to a wild animal or a steep drop. And for anyone not quite tuned into the risks involved in straying off limits on a geyser basin, where the danger is sometimes more latent than visible, the boardwalks and their signs ought to bring the point home beyond all reasonable doubt.

Or so we thought…

It did not take long to realise, on our first full day in the park, that the “selfie” craze had arrived on an industrial scale. I will simply observe that the vast majority of its perpetrators were tourists for whom English would not have been their first language, and leave it at that. What made it so bizarre in a place like Yellowstone, as they poured off the coaches and homed in on the viewpoints with their weapons of mass observation primed for attack, is the plentiful supply of scenery that surely cries out for silent admiration and the occasional well judged photo to preserve the memory. Ideally, with as little human presence in the frame as possible. How much true enjoyment of an adventurous holiday destination can seriously be preserved in hundreds of grinning face smartphone shots is one of those impossible conundrums. “This is one of me, my other half, and a few more of my friends at Yellowstone National Park – no idea what that steamy thing is behind me…”

So there we were in the Upper Geyser Basin, heading off on a late afternoon walk that began on the boardwalks reaching out from the Old Faithful Inn, hoping to reach Morning Glory Pool and return before the daylight ran out. On the far side of the Firehole River, looking back towards the Inn and the eponymous geyser, the photo opportunities are plentiful. A point that had clearly not been lost on the group of overseas visitors whom we walked past, as they continued their quest to crowd as much human flesh as possible into their smartphone screens without completely losing all of the grey mist and the rocky thermal crust. What was that feature in their immediate foreground, with the Inn and the most famous of the geysers distantly visible? Oh yes, Dragon Spring, how very…

But what on earth? Is that really one of them marching out over the crust, smartphone in hand, towards a crater that has the unmistakable look of a geyser outlet or a thermal pool? Is he seriously glancing back to make sure his companions are framing him in a good shot? And are they making moves to step off the boardwalk too? Yes, yes and yes…

What happened next is something of a blur. I can just about recall that after the first few seconds of utter disbelief, we combined frenzied gestures and forceful exhortations to stop them in their tracks and persuade them to get back on the boardwalk with a degree of considerable alacrity. Whatever damage their feet may have inflicted on thousand year old fragile thermal crust in the process, they made it. In a later Facebook post, I noted that “DANGEROUS!” ought now to have become part of the main culprit’s limited knowledge of the English language. My wife had the last word: “Dangerous wasn’t the only thing you shouted.”

Following a few nods and mutterings that we took to be thanks, we left it at that and decided to put as much distance between us and them as possible. Had there been a convenient “Report A Blissfully Ignorant Suicidal Moron” hotline to the Park Rangers within easy reach, we would have made full use. But with a citizens’ arrest not being a sensible option (is this available on US soil for one foreign visitor to carry out on another?), we had little choice other than to draw a line under our near near death experience – now you’ll get it – and move on. It was at least well worth then making the trek out to Morning Glory Pool before the blizzards set to work on the way back to the Inn.

To conclude on a sober note and dispel any suggestion of exaggeration, here’s a link to a June 2016 fatality at the Norris Geyser Basin, another thermal wonderland not far from Old Faithful. Key sentence: “Efforts to recover the body…..were suspended…..after rangers determined there were no remains left in the hot spring.”

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