I have heard many year-round Yellowstone Rangers proclaim the same thing " I endure the summer in Yellowstone so that I can experience the Autumn & Winter". I couldn't understand it at first. That was until July arrived with a heat wave and a monsoon of people, and now I find myself counting down the days till September, when a cool breeze will fill the air and the roads will not be a sea of vehicles.
July is the busiest month in Yellowstone National Park. Visitors from all over the world clutter the roads, fill the boardwalks and crowd into visitor centers. Verbal bets were placed by the staff as to what date Old Faithful Visitor Education Center would surpass 10,000 people in one day. This is the month that we have all been preparing for both mentally and physically. And although we all knew it was coming, it seems that this July has been one that none of us will readily forget.
Cautions, warnings and park regulations seem to have been thrown out the window for many visitors this July despite to concerted effort of the park staff. Safety information is given to visitors as they enter the park, cautions are given at the visitors centers, and dotting every trail in the park are warning & regulation signs. But much to my dismay I still find visitors standing along the edge of Black Pool- a hot spring that averages 200'F and can cause 3rd degree burns in just 15 seconds. Just last week I had strategically place "stay on boardwalk" universal signs throughout West Thumb Geyser Basin yet I was amazed to discover that at least 100 or more visitors per day ignore them. While walking the basin recently, I watched as a father told his young teenage daughter to step off the boardwalk and sit along the edge of Black Pool so that he could get the perfect picture. Horrified, I ran down the boardwalk shouting at her to get back on the boardwalk and away from the steaming hot pool. I tried to explain the risk involved in what she had done- carefully pointing out that the area she had been walking on was unstable and constantly changing. Thus, what appeared to be solid ground was not, and potentially she could have cracked the surface crust and fallen into the hot spring. After my well articulated speech, they nodded their heads up and down with big smiles on their face- a clear sign that they were not computing a word I was saying. Maybe I needed to be more blunt: People have died in these hot springs, YOU MUST STAY ON BOARDWALKS AT ALL TIMES. The sudden change in my tone and hand gestures brought forth an "Oh, I am sorry". I walked away in dismay knowing that they will likely do the same thing at the next geyser basin.
Completing my walk around the basin I headed towards the parking lot and noticed a large amount of people congregating along the edge of the meadow. This had been a re-occurring event this past week and I knew it was either a Bear or Elk. As I approached the meadow I looked off a ways to find that some visitors were standing 15 feet away from an Elk with her calf. I asked the visitors to back up immediately. They back up 10 feet and began to snap more pictures. My tone became a little more forceful and I made my request slightly more direct "Folks, I need you to immediately back up to where I am, park regulations mandate that you stay 25 yards away from Elk and other large animals." Before I could even finish my sentence another responsible visitor chimed in. "Is that photo worth risking your life". Then a second, "You guys need to get away from those Elk". When the group had made their way back to where I was they explained that the "Elk seemed friendly, and were not bothered by them at all". I am continually perplexed by this idea that "wild animals seem friendly". Are there not enough reality TV shows where animals routinely attack? Are we so disconnected from nature that we as humans cannot distinguish between a wild setting and a domesticated farm?
Visitors are injured daily in Yellowstone despite all the warnings and signage. In our nightly "ranger discussions" it is amazing what is witnessed in just one day. One ranger watched a man holding his hand painfully through West Thumb- apparently he had decided to stick his whole hand into Black pool to see how hot it was. Well, he quickly discovered that it is hot enough to cause 3rd degree burns in 15 seconds. Another ranger described how she watch a mom and dad put grass into their 5 year old's hand and pushed the child toward an Elk and her calf.
Walking through the campground the other night a mother ran up to me and asked if I knew about the Bear in Mammoth. Not knowing what she was talking about she described how her family had been happily watching a Grizzly Bear meander along the edge of the road. From their car they took pictures and were genuinely elated. That was until a car racing around the corner hit the Bear dead center. The Bear, stunned for a quick second by what happened, suddenly jumped up and ran into the woods. The family wanted to know if the bear survived or if it ran off into the woods and died. The mother explained that her children were upset for the rest of the day over what they had witnessed.
But the lack of responsible drivers doesn't end there. Car accidents occur daily in the Park.This week, in the Grant area, a speeding truck decided to pass someone on a double solid only to come around the corner and smash into the back of another vehicle. At least one person was emergency helicoptered to the nearest ER for cranial damage. Early in the season the sound of the helicopter would startle me since Yellowstone is a normally a NO-FLY zone. But lately the sound of the ambulance, fire truck and helicopter are a re-occurring daily event, and sadly most of the incidents that are occurring are completely due to those who clearly ignore the Park regulations and the continual ranger warnings.
So how do you escape in the Nation's first National Park in July? Well, unlike the winter when I regularly ski and snowmobile throughout the park, I find myself staying closer to home. I avoid the roads at all costs and I try to hike the trails which are close to home.I wake up early in the morning and enjoy the park when most visitors are groggily waking up in the sold out campgrounds and hotels. I don't ever stop at Bear Jams, Wolf Jams or Uinta Ground Squirrel Jams! And I count down the days, because I know that while most Americans are enjoying their beautiful National Park with over 1 million other people in July, I get to enjoy it year-round. It is one of the many benefits of being a Yellowstone Ranger: I can enjoy the park any day...and I'll do that, preferably, during quieter times!