As I paddled into a cove along the shores of Lake Yellowstone’s West Thumb, the clouds that were threatening at a distance moved swiftly overhead. Thunder began to add its eerie sound to the silence of the landscape. Lightning could not be far behind.
Seeing a rocky island beach, our tour leader motioned for us to paddle quickly to it. The last kayaker to shore literally jumped out of the water as a flash and crack of lightning hit the glassy lake. Here I was in what I had been told was the most culturally infected of our national parks—Yellowstone—having a most unusual encounter with nature’s unpredictability.
I had always thought of Yellowstone as the “safe” park. Our young guide seemed to think the same. While he saw the clouds approaching, he continued to paddle along though there were several beaches we could have landed on for safety. His inexperience continued to reveal itself over the course of the overnight paddle. He seemed to possess all the outdoor skills of a Disney Jungle Cruise guide. Did he view his job as backcountry guide with the same false sense of safety with which I approached the park?
While I was alarmed to find such a cavalier attitude towards nature with a permitted guide service, I was not at all surprised to find it near the park’s main attractions where my impression of the tourist-ed Yellowstone landscape was reinforced. As I drove along the scenic Grand Loop Road, I encountered a dozen cars pulled haphazardly to the side of the road. I fell in line to see the attraction (for I, too, was a tourist). There, in the dry grass that nearly camouflaged its russet fur, browsed a small grizzly bear.
At first glance, the grizzly seemed surreal. I had never before seen a bear in the wild, and had not expected my first encounter to be roadside. But before enjoyment could set in, a crew of baseball-capped men piled into the back of a red pickup truck rowdily yelled towards the grizzly, teasing it with fresh-caught fish from their stash of ice chests. Thankfully, the bear ignored the ruckus. I could not.
I still find it difficult to separate the image of the bear from the foreground of noisy tourists. I’d like to see Yellowstone again, but I’m afraid to try. While its wilder parts promise serenity, crowds frame its icons. I have, however, found camaraderie with strangers in other national parks. At an overlook in the Badlands, a tattooed and bandanna-ed biker headed to Sturgis and I exchanged words of wonderment as the setting sun cast shadows over the crevices of the landscape. At the top of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain, I marveled with fellow hikers at the view from fourteen thousand feet as we passed around a bag of celebratory trail mix.
But Yellowstone seemed to attract a different tourist—one who may or may not hold reverence for nature. People here treated nature as amusement, and behaved much like tourists at Disneyland. I don’t know whether it is the park or the people who visit it that make Yellowstone feel more amusement venue than wilderness. I enjoy Disneyland—just not with my nature.
This is the second installment in my series Wandering the National Parks in honor of National Parks Week, April 16 through 24.
- I don’t blame the park for the lack of reverence I saw in Yellowstone visitors. By the time most visitors reach the park, their views of a vacation in Yellowstone, and of nature, are well-formed. The solution is earlier education outside the parks. See Children & Nature Network to learn the importance of nature education.
- For a useful guide to Yellowstone National Park, pick up Stephen Timblin’s The Rough Guide to Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons.
- For a thoughtful history of tourism in the national parks, read Paul Sutter’s Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement.
- To learn about tourists blunders in the national parks, browse Jim Burnett’s Hey Ranger!: True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America’s National Parks.