“These animals that are just running around out here, … they couldn’t be wild, could they?”
“These animals that are just running around out here, … they couldn’t be wild, could they?”

Casper – Retailers have the expression that you “open your doors and the public comes in.” That’s equally true for the National Park Service and certainly for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. A range of humanity drives, walks, bikes or snowmobiles into our national parks and they bring with them all of society’s strengths and weaknesses.

Visitors prove themselves, again and again, capable of great courtesy, kindness and understanding, as well as folly and foolishness.

That’s seen very clearly in three books by two different National Park rangers. Jim Burnett’s “Hey Ranger!” and “Hey Ranger 2” are compilations (2005 and 2007) of mostly funny, some weird and a few tragic tales while he served in eight national parks, plus a smattering of funny stories from 28 other national parks around the country. More sobering is “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park,” by Yellowstone’s Lee Whittlesey, published in 1995.

“Last year there were about 276 million visits to National Park Service sites across the U.S. When you bring that many people into close contact with Mother Nature – and with each other – it’s inevitable that at least some of those trips won’t turn out quite as expected,” Burnett said in an interview. “In the aftermath of some of the more bizarre or humorous situations, most park rangers have remarked more than once, ‘Somebody really ought to write a book!’ After I retired, I decided to do just that.”

Photo Credit: Brian Suderman Image Courtesy of Yellowstone National Park.

Whittlesey, now park historian for Yellowstone, wrote in his introduction that “Many visitors to Yellowstone and other national parks enter the gates with a false sense of security. These persons wrongly believe that the animals are tame, and that the place surely is a lot like a city park, with wings, horseshoe pits, golf courses, swimming pools, and total safety – a place where lawns are watered and mowed regularly and fallen tree branches are picked up and carted away, all nicely managed, nicely sanitized. But national parks are not like that; they are places where nature and history are preserved intact. And intact nature includes dangers.”

Both Burnett and Whittlesy agree that national parks, and especially Yellowstone, are NOT Disneyland.

“I look at these stories as case histories on human nature,” said Burnett, “how people react to alien environments. Some do well and others don’t.”

That’s true, agreed Whittlesey. He’s chronicled 300 fatalities at Yellowstone, and while a few could be considered “acts of God,” most can be chalked up to poor judgment, not paying attention or even ignoring the posted rules and regulations.

The tip-off for Whittlesey, that a visitor could get into trouble, is what Whittlesey terms “a wild look in the eyes.”

“While rangering in the Mammoth Visitor Center one summer, I was approached by a man with a wild look in his eyes,” Whittlesey recalled recently. ” I’ve learned to recognize that confused look as a sign that a visitor wants to ask a question, so I asked him whether I could help him.

“He said, ‘Can you tell me something? These animals that are just running around out here, … they couldn’t be wild, could they, or you just wouldn’t have them running around loose?’”

Looking at an accident just waiting to happen, Whittlesey spent 15 minutes trying to give that visitor a little grounding in reality by emphasizing that yes, these animals are real, they are wild and they can hurt or kill you if you get too close to them.

Campers often can’t resist temptation to feed the park animals…Photographer: C. Duchesne, Image courtesy of Yellowstone National Park.
Campers often can’t resist temptation to feed the park animals…Photographer: C. Duchesne, Image courtesy of Yellowstone National Park.

Visitors can be fined if they violate rules to stay at least 25 yards away from wild animals and 100 yards away from bears, said Whittlesey.

“It is amazing how often people borrow a neighbor’s tent, without ever having practiced how to set it up,” mused Burnett. It seems there are thousands of configurations for how to erect a tent, and all too often one of the tent pole pieces is missing, he said. For some reason, discovery of the missing piece seems to often occur late at night or during a rainstorm.

“That’s when I often hear imprecations for divine intervention,” Burnett said.

The official policy of the National Park Service, and of Yellowstone National Park, is not to make fun of tourists.

However, Whittlesey said the public likes to hear funny stories, especially when it happens to someone else.

He said gas station attendants at Old Faithful used to keep a typed list of the classic questions from tourists, including:

  • At what altitude does a deer become an elk?
  • How big does a deer have to be to become an elk?
  • Does the river run downstream?

Preconceptions that wild animals are cute or harmless can have tragic results. Whittlesey has several accounts of camera-laden tourists gored by bison or mauled by bears that just moments before were “just the cutest thing.”

Still, Burnett and Whittlesey agreed that there are moments when rangers can watch a face light up and “get it.”

Ranger on the lookout Photographer: Jim Peaco, Image courtesy of Yellowstone National Park

“Those are what I call the ‘Ahaa’ moments, when in the course of an interpretive hike, a one-on-one encounter or a campfire talk, you can see someone catch on,” said Burnett. What follows can be a lifelong passion and interest in the national parks and wildlife, he said.

“Years later,” said Whittlesey, “people will come up and say they remember me or another ranger, or a bus tour guide, and say we said something that really changed their lives.”

An encounter between a park ranger and a visitor can be funny, can be tragic, but mostly it comes down to the giving and receiving of information and some interpretation. And it often leads to the visitor’s deeper appreciation of this wonderful world and a commitment to protect it.