Yellowstone is such a fascinating place. There are over 10,000 thermal features in the park, the highest concentration of geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles on the planet. There are believed to be nearly 500 geysers here, more than half the total number of the entire world. North America’s largest extant land mammal, the bison, is found wild here along with the pronghorn, North America’s fastest land mammal. Gray wolves, grizzly and black bears, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, wolverine, red fox, river otter, beaver, and many other diverse wildlife inhabit this wilderness corner of the Rocky Mountains. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the last largely intact northern temperate ecosystems on the planet. It is indeed a fascinating place and I am extremely fortunate to be able to work here for the summer.
However, Yellowstone can also be a most unforgiving place, especially for the incautious visitor. For backcountry hikers venturing away from the popular geyser trails, one decision may well set into motion a sequence of events ultimately leading to some circumstance from which there is no turning back. Sadly, two hikers during this summer of 2011 made their own separate fatal decisions somewhere along the line and paid for it with their lives.
Park officials warn hikers to travel in groups of three or more, make lots of noise when hiking, always be aware of their surroundings, carry bear pepper spray and know how and when to use it. One hundred yards is given as the “safe” distance to keep from bears and wolves, twenty–five yards from everything else such as elk, moose, and bison. It is unwise and illegal to approach any wild animal – the risk is real that you would be considered a threat by them, something to be charged or mauled. This advice is plastered all over the park on signs and in the park newspaper, and rangers remind visitors of it every day. These are park rules, put forth to encourage visitor safety. In the end, though, we make our own decisions whether or not to adhere to the rules. In a place such as Yellowstone there are no guarantees of our safety if we find ourselves following too closely to a grizzly sow and her cub, or if we choose to hike alone into the backcountry.
At the end of the day, responsibility for our fate is ours alone. We will probably never know exactly what happened during the events that led to the deaths of the two hikers, but a lesson can nevertheless still be learned.
Please be safe out there.