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Archive for June, 2009

The first night after summer solstice, I went on an undercover garbage collecting mission along my street in Missoula. I picked up, then tossed away, one blue workman’s glove, a McDonald’s milkshake container, and a foul concoction of chewing tobacco swirling within a clear plastic container, no longer the enticing color or flavor of the “energy water” the drink label promised its consumer.*

TWO WEEKS EARLIER…

“That bird’s back on our picnic table!” a sandy-haired boy shouted from a neighboring campsite. He apparently wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular-the only audible responses were a raven’s squawks, occasionally punctuated by the thud of sailing rocks striking the ground.

“What are you doing!?” the boy’s mother yelled. “Stop throwing rocks at that raven!”

The boy’s father interrupted her. “That stupid bird’s stealing people’s food. Go ahead, son!”

“Stop. Now. Both of you” the mother replied.  “This is a national park. All wildlife is protected here, even that thieving raven.”

“Oh,” sighed the father. Their heads lowered, the father and son quickly headed off to purchase firewood for the evening.

The following night I returned late to my campsite in the heart of Yellowstone after an epic evening of wildlife viewing. I had seen two black bears, a grizzly bear, a wolf, several pronghorn antelope, a bighorn sheep ram, and numerous cow elk with newborn calves along the park’s Northern Range, plus  a few bull bison lounging by a lush meadow bordering the Norris Campground.

I briefly wondered whether the raven-raving father and son would also unwittingly attract and then harass a wild “pest”, “intruder” or “thief” if it weighed 2,000 pounds, and ran faster than they could. But I really didn’t want to find out.

The father and another older male family member stayed up late that night, cracking open swift and successive numbers of beers and talking loudly until 11:30 p.m. Unable to sleep, and being well past the “quiet hour” of 10:00 p.m., I called out to my temporary neighbors, asking them to politely shut down their party. Afterwards, I continued standing outside my tent for several minutes, looking at a night sky so brilliantly studded with stars, into space that seemed so vast, untarnished, clear and quiet.

I got up at six the next morning, astonished to see a yard sale of food and other items left out by the fire pit and picnic table where the two men had been partying. Water and food containers. Silverware and cooking utensils. Dishwashing liquid and a sponge. Beer cans. Dinner remnants left out overnight on the picnic table, likely covering a laminated sign, plastered park-wide, warning visitors to store and secure virtually everything when not in use, for the safety of both wildlife and people, and for future visitors utilizing these areas.

THE SERMON BEGINS…

Perhaps my campground neighbors never saw or read these signs, or other warnings and notices regarding bear country protocols posted in all “developed areas” and park entrances, as well as in visitor newspapers. Garbage may be merely unattractive and a nuisance at home in Missoula, but in wilder places such as Yellowstone, it’s potentially deadly for all who visit or live there.

Bears don’t enjoy being in close company with humans, or vice-versa. Come to think of it, most species we share the planet with, as well as ourselves, prefer clear and consistent boundaries, and ideally, have others respect them.

People openly feeding bears, coupled with laxly enforced littering and garbage containment laws in Yellowstone, didnt’ really end en masse until the 1970s. These policies never did work so swell for keeping humans safe, or grizzly and black bears wild and wary. Neither does ignoring or disrespecting current park laws and regulations. With over three million visitors a year, Yellowstone needs more rangers, both the law enforcement and the interpretive kind, to keep the peace between critters and humans, and to educate folks as to what is at stake here, for everyone’s safety and sake.

It’s hard to say whether any of this missive would have found a receptive audience in my still dozing and perhaps hungover neighbors. I’d like to think that the mother would have set things right upon learning how potentially dangerous unsecured items were for her family, her neighbors, and ultimately, any wildlife in search of an easy, attractive meal. The father, on the other hand, did not seem interested in teaching his son how to reduce and resolve conflicts with others in Yellowstone, and perhaps closer to home as well.

IF BEARS COULD TALK…

I am no longer a Yellowstone National Park Service ranger, but will always be one at heart. I find it hard, especially here, in the world’s first national park, not to lead and teach by example, not to share what I am learning with others, not to speak up when I can, and most importantly, not to take responsibility for the choices that I do make, and the consequences that follow. Hopefully, the majority of my choices will be conscious ones.

It seems much harder being an engaged and committed citizen compared to being a consumer*, not only when we visit wild places, but also wherever we make our homes, forge our lives, and build our communities. Imagine if six billion of us did our best to do so anyway. We’d have less garbage, perhaps a few more bears, and more peace in the woods. After all, isn’t that why we go there in the first place?

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*Consumer. One that consumes or one who acquires goods and services; a buyer.

Consume. To eat or drink up; ingest; to expend (fuel, for example); to waste, squander; to destroy, to level; to absorb, engross. Intransitive verb-to be destroyed, expended or wasted.

Definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition.

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After two back-to-back journeys to Yellowstone in less than that many weeks, this week is proving to be one for digesting and reflecting upon these experiences, with the aim of posting something new here by June 25. Stay tuned, and please check back then. In the meantime, happy solstice!

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Yellowstone was awesome, as always, with so many highlights to note in my three days spent in “the park” from May 31-June 2. Last Sunday night was especially amazing in the Old Faithful Upper Geyser Basin, with the following night being pretty spectacular as well.

Late afternoon last Sunday, I  stopped by to visit Midway Geyser Basin, home to Grand Prismatic Spring, Turquoise Pool, and other unworldly thermal features. My friend Virgia, who is now an interpretive park ranger in the Old Faithful area, had mentioned seeing grizzly bear tracks in some of the outflow channels there, and it was cool to see so many of them, so close to the boardwalk, and wonder how grizzlies and other wild critters navigate these places without getting scalded or killed. Every year, some undoubtedly do, though. In many years the same goes for people who illegally venture off area trails and boardwalks over thin and geologically unstable surfaces.

Later that night I saw an indelible sunset while waiting for Old Faithful Geyser to erupt. Billowy banks of marshmallow-shaped clouds piled atop each other, maroon, silver, creamy white, auburn, dreamsicle orange and darker colors all shifting as the sun’s last rays dipped and then vanished over the northwestern horizon. When the geyser erupted, its sunstruck waters blended with the multi-hued sky, its steam phase following, dark and swirling in the dusk, lurking like a funnel cloud does as it touches down to earth.

The following night I had overheard a geyser gazer talking excitedly while galloping at full speed along the boardwalk on the far side of the Firehole River. Beehive Geyser was about to erupt, he said, and he encouraged me to get there fast if I were to catch its eruption. Geyser gazers, or “geyser geeks” as they are sometimes called, are enthusiastic fans of thermal features. Most are long-term seasonal volunteers who share their observations with National Park Service interpretive rangers, while providing a visible and vital presence to discourage vandalism and other maltreatment of the park’s vulnerable natural resources.

I never saw Beehive erupt that night, as I was too cold from standing around in the persistent rain waiting for it to go, but from that vantage point I saw Castle Geyser erupt for over twenty minutes, followed by its wildly voluminous steam phase. Several minutes after Castle got going, Grand Geyser, the tallest predictable geyser in the park, erupted in the distance, and not too soon afterwards, Old Faithful went again.

Beehive is one of my favorites, and I was bummed that I wasn’t more prepared to wait for it to erupt on its own terms and timetable. But that’s what I like about Yellowstone the most. We don’t come first, even with three million of us visiting the park in most years. The land,  its non-human inhabitants, and its ecological and geological processes do here instead.

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