Reverence and rowdiness: on trying to love Yellowstone

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.

Paddling the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone. (Photo by author)

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.

Cars block the road as visitors spot an elk along the Grand Loop Road. (Photo by author)

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.

Old Faithful loyally erupts for a constant audience. (Photo by author)

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.

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Glimpsing the tamely wild in Glacier National Park

As I threw down my pack, my shoulders momentarily rejoiced. If shoulders could talk, they would have used the privilege to sigh, “Ahh.” I unzipped the top compartment of my pack, grabbed my water bottle and filter, and sat on a flat rock at the river’s edge.

Beargrass in bloom in Glacier National Park. (Photo by author)

The waters of Glacier National Park are beyond blue. At a distance, lakes shimmer like iridescent gemstones. Here at the river’s edge, the water obscured nothing beneath it. Only the ripples of its flow masked swimming fish. As I screwed the filter onto my bottle, the sparkling water mimicked me. Do you really need to filter such perfection?

But I did. Despite its role as a place of escape, wilderness sometimes reminds us we don’t quite fit in. Somehow we have become ill adapted for natural places. (Or, as is usually the case, we have made natural places ill adapted for ourselves.) This river was so clear filtering hardly seemed necessary, but this is a ritual of wilderness, and one I quite enjoy. After walking along rocky trails weighed down by a backpack, the slow, smooth arm movements required to lift water from its source are a welcome contrast. As I pumped, the world slowed. I looked off into the distance and took in the tiny details of the landscape: the pebbles on the river’s bottom, the towering evergreens, the deeply blue sky.

I had just crossed over the Two Medicine River on a rustic log bridge (an odd but welcome sight in the midst of wilderness). As I fell into my meditative-pumping state, something moved in the bushes off to my right. I sat just two feet from the log bridge, with my back towards it and, before I could even process the rustle in the bushes, something squat and dark and fluffy moved towards me, hopped onto the bridge, and ran across. Its bushy tail followed animatedly.

The log bridge (sans wolverine) over Two Medicine River. (Photo by author)

As it passed me, I caught a glimpse of the animal’s face. I could hardly believe it. It was a wolverine. I marveled at how unafraid it seemed. Perhaps it was waiting for me to finish pumping my water and lost patience with my slow contemplation. Or maybe it didn’t care at all about the human presence. It didn’t go for my pack, which was nearby and contained food, or for me. It simply went about its business as usual. (Though it did seem to enjoy the human intrusion of the bridge.)

As I turned to watch the animal saunter over the log passageway, I was reminded of documentarian Martin Johnson’s idea that wildlife in remote regions are “tamely wild.” That is, they show no fear of humans because they have not been taught to fear them. They are tame through unfamiliarity. This wolverine had no reason to fear me in this remote area of the national park where it enjoyed a refuge from guns and cars. Nor did it have any reason to ransack my stores of food in the plentiful landscape. For both me and the wolverine, Glacier delivered the promise of the National Park System “to provide for the enjoyment of [scenery and wildlife] in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This is the first installment in my series Wandering the National Parks in honor of National Parks Week, April 16 through 24.

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An attractive enemy: impaling invasive lionfish

In March, I was scuba diving off Cozumel when I heard that the dive master had speared a lionfish and fed it to an eel. Luckily, I did not see this happen. And, with no pre-dive education other than—“Don’t touch anything…we don’t want to harm the reef”—the act was shocking. Another diver told me lionfish were not native to these waters and were crowding out native species. Still, for a dive master to impale one in front of unknowing tourists, seemed extreme.

A lionfish (Pterois volitans) swims in a Caribbean reef. (Photo by Nick Hobgood)

The Mesoamerican Reef is the second largest barrier reef in the world. It stretches from the top of Mexico’s Yucutan Peninsula past the beaches of Belize, Guatamala, and Honduras. Its waters contain a rich ecological diversity including some five hundred species of tropical fish, and several species of sea turtle and dolphin. Among this assortment swims one striking non-native species: lionfish.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these Indo-Pacific natives were introduced into the Caribbean by an aquarium spill off the coast of Florida. They believe that the entire Atlantic lionfish population—which now stretches from Rhode Island to Colombia—spawned from this handful of individual specimens that entered the ecosystem in 1992, during Hurricane Andrew. The lionfish infiltration of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico is alleged to be the largest of all predatory invasions the oceans have yet encountered.

Lionfish are an attractive enemy. But the long orange, black, and blue spines that elegantly swirl out from their stripes are venomous; they use them to strike cornered prey. Lionfish are demonized as aggressive predators. Some of the fish they eat are important to the coral reef system, as they thin seaweed and clean algae from coral. If these herbivores decrease, the reef itself—an ecosystem already made fragile by global warming—will change. In the waters off the Bahamas, their voracious appetites have reduced coral reef fish populations by about eighty percent. Part of the problem, scientists speculate, is that fish native to the Atlantic Ocean do not know lionfish are predators and are not quick to recognize the danger of its approach.

Lionfish appear to spawn year-round and can lay as many as one thousand egg sacs every week. What’s more, they don’t have natural predators in the Caribbean. Grouper have been known to prey on them, but the popularity of grouper as a food fish makes it unlikely their numbers could control the invaders. Experiments are on-going. Scientists believe if larger species acquire a taste for lionfish, the problem could be controlled. Thus, they feed them to sharks and moray eels, and have afterwards observed these animals going after their own lionfish. This is the type of population control effort I nearly witnessed on my dive. (An unofficial program, from what I can discern.)

Humans, we are told, could also learn to love lionfish cuisine. They are enjoyed in dishes near their native waters, in China and Indonesia. Some Caribbean communities have organized lionfish hunts, followed by experimental barbecues. Chefs at gourmet restaurants are even beginning to dream up dishes to entice fine diners. Some say its taste and texture resembles halibut. Lionfish might even be classified as sustainable seafood since their deaths are considered a victory for the reef’s ecosystem.

Often introduced by human movements or accidents, invasive species are a problem around the world. But the question remains: Should we interfere again to undo what we have done? What happens, for example, if sharks and eels become reliant upon lionfish as food and they are then eradicated? What if predators begin to devour so many lionfish that the populations of their former food sources explode? Does trying to restore an historical balance upset other relationships?

Virgin Islands National Park diver Devon Tyson examines a lionfish captured in the park's waters.

In last week’s New York Times Sunday Opinion section, anthropologist Hugh Raffles commented smartly upon cultural attitudes about human and ecological immigration. Throughout history (and in America especially) he asserts, “our natural landscape is a shifting mosaic of plant and animal life…Designating some as native and others as alien denies this ecological and genetic dynamism.” The problem of invasive species, Raffles argues, has as much to with cultural perception as scientific analysis. “It draws an arbitrary historical line,” he concludes, “based as much on aesthetics, morality and politics as on science, a line that creates a mythic time of purity before places were polluted by interlopers.”

The fact is, the invader is already there. Things have already changed. Scientists have good reason to worry about the reef given the changes they have already observed. But does more change create more problems? Which moment in history represents a system’s “natural” and “native” state? Or, as Raffles suggests, is such a thing merely a myth of purity we create to fend off the unfamiliar?


The Nature Conservancy



Additional References:

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