Why The National Parks Need To Scare Hell Out Of Its Visitors

The wilderness is wild. It will kill you if you aren’t trail smart.

That’s one of the things I try and teach son William, and daughter, Kate (above). That photo was taken on Kate’s first backpack this June, in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness area (just over the hill from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Bridgeport.)

There are wild things in the WILDerness just waiting for the unwary to think they have wandered into a Disney, imagineered animatronic exhibit. But the microbes, lions, and bears and other creatures are real. So are the cliffs that can kill you and white water that will snuff you out.

And rocks that can fall and avalanches that can sweep and bury. Lightning which can turn you into a crispy critter in a flash and wind that can do anything it wants with you.

Even if you are trail smart, some times it’s tempting to push on “just a few more minutes.” (See my recent, almost-dumb experience: Climbing Mt. Langley: Slow Ascent, Lightning Descent)

Severe cold can flash freeze you like a frozen brisket. Soft, sneaky cold can hypothermia you gently into the big sleep.

Heat can stroke and trees can topple over on you while you’re in your tent.

There are so many ways to die in the WILDerness.

And no matter how much you respect the WILD or how many decades you’re spent learning to stay safe, fate can happen. I’ve spent more than half a century backpacking and I am still amazed at just how “on your toes” you need to be.

But no more on your toes than a city dweller … who needs not to get hit by a bus, not to stumble in front of a subway. They learn to dodge the supersonic cab rocketing down Second Avenue and know not to wander cluelessly into sections of the metropolis known for drug dealing and drive-bys.

“Avoid the third rail!”

That’s a “well duh!” for city folk. But what if you come from most places without subways? The WILD has its own equally lethal equivalents of the third rail that must be learned and respected.

And of course, no matter how good you are in the city or the wilderness, weird shit does happen. But, for the most part, risk can be well managed by good street smarts … and trail smarts.

I am very sad when good, naive people step into the wild and die. These are headlines from last week:

Boy dies, brother missing in river in Yosemite

Yosemite tourist dies after contracting hantavirus

The park service can’t pad every rock or fence every foot of a trail or stream. If they did, it would look like the zoo and nobody would come.

BUT … The National Park Service could help visitors by scaring the hell out of them.

They should not let anybody in without being clear — graphically “you could die!” clear — that the WILDerness must be respected.

The Park Service must go farther. It must emphasize that WILD has neither heart nor compassion. And that people without trail smarts will almost always be the first to die.

My heart goes out to every one of those who die needlessly because no one told them to respect the wild or die. The parks must do their job even it scares some people away.

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