We forget, in our over-air-conditioned, too-containerized world, that nature is dangerous.
The heartbreaking tale of the toddler snatched by an alligator as he splashed his feet at the water’s edge in the shadow of one of Florida’s most luxurious hotels, his parents hovering closely nearby, must remind us to be careful out there. Very careful.
This summer, millions of Americans will head to our magnificent 59 national parks as the National Park Service, one of the most wonderful gifts we citizens have received, celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Millions of those visitors will be unprepared for being in the great outdoors.
In Yellowstone, our first national park, tourists will encounter bears and get too close. Just 10 months ago, a hiker in Yellowstone was killed by a grizzly. (The little cubs may be cute, but the mother bears always nearby are not and will attack in an instant. Personal observation from a Yellowstone visit: Bears are incredibly fast.)
Also in Yellowstone, scalding, boiling, sulfurous hot springs and pools are far more dangerous than they look. There have been deaths and injuries suffered by children and adults who slipped off boardwalks into these springs or, incredibly, thought the waters were safe enough for swimming. They are not.
More often, tourists do not take enough precaution when trekking in the wilderness, assuming that because they’re in a park, they will be safe. Last August, two French hikers died at White Sands National Monument. They did not have sufficient water for even one day.
Every year, between 120 and 140 people die (excluding suicides) in national parks. Suicide is the fourth most common cause of death in the parks following drowning, vehicular accident and falling. Other causes are avalanches, pre-existing medical conditions, heat or cold exposure and wildlife.
On the other hand, at least 282 million people visit the parks each year — last year there were more than 307 million recreation visits — meaning your chances of dying in a national park are infinitesimal. Yet deaths occur. Years ago, a woman unadvisedly walking alone on the Appalachian National Trail wandered off the trail and died despite an extensive search for her.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine found that the most fatalities occurred in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, Grand Canyon National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Yosemite National Park. Domestic visitors accounted for 73 percent of the fatalities, and European visitors accounted for 13 percent. Transportation and water-based activities resulted in the highest number of fatalities. Motor-vehicle crashes accounted for 20 percent of fatalities and were followed by suicide (17 percent), swimming (11 percent), hiking (10 percent), plane crashes (9 percent), climbing (6 percent) and boating (5 percent). Not surprisingly, one of the major causes of car crashes is drivers distracted by scenery.
In 2014, Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey updated his 1995 book, Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. It is a fascinating and sad account of macabre incidents but, as Whittlesey has said, also an account of how incredibly stupid park visitors can be. In his view, the most terrifying dangers are the hot springs, bears and bison.
In general, the common-sense rules for park visits are: Don’t hike alone, don’t ski into blizzards alone, don’t climb over guardrails, don’t drink too much and don’t jump in rivers, especially if you can’t swim. And don’t get out of your vehicle or get too close to wild animals — even if they seem tame. And be prepared for emergencies.
The tragic alligator attack in a manmade lagoon near Disney’s Grand Floridian resort and the frightening incident involving a 3-year-old who fell into the gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo remind parents that vigilance with small children can never be too intense, even in what should be highly safe venues.
With care, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the amazing parks system, let’s hope the worst experiences we encounter will be traffic jams and high entrance fees at the most popular parks.