Yellowstone National Park
Noah Comet, Tribune News Service
Floods have shut down Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Loop Road and caused damage in adjacent towns. Portions of the park where the road has washed away may not reopen to vehicles this season. This is grievous news for those planning to visit and for businesses dependent on them, as well as for those who suffered property damage, but miraculously, no one was killed or injured by the flooding. Let’s use this pause to rethink how we visit the park.
As it happens, I was in Yellowstone recently, and although it was rainy, it was business as usual for June, otherwise known as bear jam season. Within a couple of minutes of entering the park, I found a mess of cars and RVs crammed into pull-offs at odd angles and others idling, with passengers rubbernecking precariously for cellphone pics. Frenzied pedestrians, abandoning their vehicles without a thought for those behind them, darted across the road to join the elbowing throngs on the shoulder. National Park Service employees were already on the scene, keeping cars moving and spectators safe, all with tired politeness. After several minutes in traffic, I glimpsed the attraction: a mother bear with cubs, foraging along the tree line. A few miles on, I encountered another bear jam, and another after that.
Bears deserve paparazzi. Though they’re mainly placid creatures, the pulse quickens when one is in sight, reminding us on a neurochemical level that we are strangers to the wilderness. But then, how wild is this Instagrammy version of Yellowstone, really? Sitting behind the wheel for 20 minutes, inhaling exhaust fumes: Is this the wilderness we came to see? Or did we bring the city with us?
From the bear’s point of view, it’s the latter, and she thanks us for our disruptive urban ways. According to a 2016 study, a mother bear will use the presence of humans to fend off males looking to kill her cubs and mate with her.
Think about what this means in light of the nature tourism we presumably came for. Yes, the bear we’re seeing from the road is wild, not captive, but the experience of viewing that animal from an asphalt perch, alongside busloads of other people, is not so different from what we might have at a city zoo. And the bear itself seeks our noisy presence for that very reason. We may be in nature, but we are not experiencing nature on its terms; instead, it’s experiencing us on the terms we hoped to leave behind.
Last year, Yellowstone logged 4.8 million visitors — a record — but consider this: Only about 43,000 applied for backcountry camping permits. Park officials estimate that 98% of visitors never venture far from their vehicles, meaning they never see more than the 1% of the park that’s visible from its paved and planked surfaces and never explore any of its more than 900 miles of trail.
Backcountry camping or even day hiking at high elevations isn’t an activity for everyone, so there’s no shame in touring Yellowstone by car. And, as the flooding reminds us, there are risks to hiking in the park, though if it’s a fear of carnivores keeping us off the trails, we should note that one is far more likely to be injured by a vehicle — perhaps at a bear jam — than by wildlife.
What we will find, if we park and walk a ways, is what we came for and what we won’t get on the road. Within a few hundred yards of the trailhead, the din of traffic will fade. Come at the right time of year, and we’ll cross fragrant meadows of lupine, paintbrush and arrowleaf balsamroot, alive with the hum of pollinators.
A wary glance, maybe, from an elk or blacktail deer grazing on sagebrush; a golden eagle cruising a thermal in the distance. We’ll make way for a bison, who’ll hardly bother to notice us. And on the margins of a small glacial lake that we may have to ourselves, we’ll see pawprints from the whole host of Yellowstone’s fauna and wonder how recently they were made and wonder, too, about the displaced peoples who once hunted here.
Finally, mindful of afternoon storms, we’ll head back, and maybe we will indeed see a bear a ways off, excavating the moldering trunk of a long-fallen lodgepole pine. She’ll notice our small group, lift her head and sniff the air and then saunter off to her dark and lonely places.
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