How to Not Get Killed in National Parks

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climber2-main_Thumb.jpg Outdoor Adventure

Husband Jon and I wrote this together.

We recently wrote an article on how to avoid celebrities (and their bodyguards) in National Parks.

Here’s what else we learned on the same trip

 1DSCN0620_Thumb.jpg High Literature

Jon writes: Read ALL the signs and safety brochures provided by the National Park Service. Your life depends on it!

For example – it was lunchtime in Yellowstone National Park, and we had a cooler packed with delicious ham-and-cheese sandwiches, soda pop and potato salad – the aromatic kind made with mustard and bacon! Yum! Imagine our delight to find a completely deserted picnic ground in a thickly-forested valley, silent except for the sound of bluejays calling and the soft breeze through the tall evergreens. We spread out our feast, enjoyed our lunch al fresco, and put everything back into the car. Took pictures of each other posing in our new Western hats and hiking shoes, and strolled around the clearing before getting back on the road.

I was particularly intrigued by a small, blaze-orange sign on a post near a trailhead – it stood out like a beacon against the dark green of the trees, and I had wondered all through our picnic, why on earth the Park Service used such a garish color for a sign in a natural area? It totally clashed with the serene green of the underbrush. Went to check it out.

It said: “WARNING: GRIZZLY BEAR IN THIS AREA. An aggressive bear has been frequenting this area. Keep food and all odorous materials locked in airtight containers. Use appropriate precautions if hiking or camping.”

We left in a hurry, with my dear spouse asking earnestly whether I was trying to kill her…

j0402530_Thumb.jpg Bison – in a Rut…

Kate writes: Don’t Approach Wildlife When Your Spouse Is Being “Helpful”

Our next stop was a wide open meadow where numerous vehicles had pulled onto the shoulder of the road, so their drivers could photograph a large herd of bison that was grazing about 200 yards away.

Everyone had been warned by the Park Service rangers to keep our distance from bison, as it was the rutting season, and the bulls would be ornery and aggressive. You don’t want to mess with half a ton of enraged wild ox, but I took a calculated risk. The animals were about 600 feet away, and I thought I could tiptoe just 50 feet closer, to get them in range of my telephoto lens. I knew how fast the beasts could run at full charge, though, and I really counted on nothing upsetting them.

Just as I got my camera aimed, a dozen or so bison cows and calves suddenly emerged from the trees only 20 yards to my left – MUCH too close for comfort. And where there are cows “in heat”, the bulls will not be far behind!

I started to walk, silently, backwards, as did all the other camera-laden tourists, when suddenly someone’s car-theft-alarm went off REAL LOUD! The bison cows spooked, shied in my direction, then thundered off into the distance. Sure enough, two big bulls were in hot pursuit, both eying the cluster of vehicles with angry, red, little eyes.

I made tracks back to our car, and there discovered that it was OUR vehicle’s alarm that had spooked the herd. My dear husband, the one who had sat all through lunch wondering why there was a bright orange sign in the picnic area – had dutifully locked up the car so our belongings would not be stolen. He had not witnessed my stealthy advance toward the bison herd, until I was several yards off the road, at which point, in a state of some anxiety, he thought I’d be safer with a longer-focus lens, and yanked on the door handle of the car to retrieve the camera bag. Off went the alarm, flashing lights, etc – and twenty panicked tourists beat a hasty retreat to their own vehicles. Some offered advice to Jon about the creative placement of our telephoto lenses, while others merely speculated about his ancestry.

After we were safely driving away, blushing with embarassment, I turned to Jon and said, “That’s twice in one day, Dear! Should I be concerned?”

j0407565_Thumb.jpg Never Strikes Twice???

Jon writes: Stay Off the High Peaks During Thunderstorms

The day after the above near-mishaps, we drove through Beartooth Pass, on our way out of Yellowstone National Park, hotly pursued by a very nasty, greenish-black thundercloud that made a spectacular backdrop to the magnificent scenery. So, of course, we stopped to take many photographs, as the storm loomed closer and closer. We beat the storm to a little town in the foothills, before the skies opened up. Had a nice lunch in a small restaurant, serenaded by an impressive thunder-and-lightning show, and then followed the thundercloud out of town across the Montana prairie. We could see that the storm was about to crash into another range of tall mountains, and decided we were safer at low elevation, so we skirted ’round the mountains instead of heading over another high pass. So far, so good.

j0407568_Thumb.jpg Is That What I Think It Is … ? Don’t Get Smug At a Storm

What we flatlanders didn’t know, is that when a big storm crosses a major mountain range, it looks for the path of least resistance. What this usually means is that a nasty thunderhead, packing rain, hail and powerful winds, will generally follow a path through a valley or canyon, and come roaring like a freight-train through the gap, into the plains beyond.

So there we were, safe on the prairie, approaching the far end of the mountain road we had NOT taken. We just couldn’t wait to take a peep up the valley from which the high road emerged, to see what kind of a pounding the storm was giving the higher elevations. Out from the mouth of the canyon burst the thunderstorm in all its undiminished fury, now accelerated by gravity and squeeezed through the nozzle of the narrow canyon walls. We had timed our arrival perfectly to be caught in a whiplash of wind and rain much more severe than it had been earlier in the day. To top it off, a gleaming, white, sparkling tower of Something appeared from the bottom of the thundercloud, and quickly reached down to the earth, directly in our path. We didn’t know what it was – it didn’t appear to be a tornado cloud, but it was something huge, and the sunlight reflected off it like off Niagara Falls. We thought it might be a good idea to get under cover before whatever-it-was struck.

We high-tailed it to an off-ramp and headed toward a bridge-underpass. The Thing struck us before we reached shelter. It was hail, but unlike any hail we prairie-dwellers had ever seen before. The size of ping-pong and golf balls, falling in a solid column a quarter-mile wide, so thick that visibility was near-zero, and powered by vertical, downburst winds in excess of 50 mph! The roar of the hail on the roof of the car was absolutely deafening, and we skidded under the freeway bridge with our ears ringing. Behind us crowded several other vehicles, and a pair of motorcycles whose riders must have been both soaked and bruised!

I expected to find no paint left on the roof of my car – but, inexplicably, neither our car nor anyone else’s appeared to have so much as a ding!

My spouse complimented me for driving in such adverse conditions.
She also allowed that it would be difficult to blame me for the weather.

But she remained curious how we managed to arrive precisely at the right moment for the storm we’d been avoiding all day, to slam smack into us. On her side of the car.

j0402582_Thumb.jpg Zzzzzzz?

Jon writes: I dearly love my wife, and would never do anything to harm so much as a single cell of her body. And the fact that she knows how I feel has allowed us to remain married and delighted with each other, despite this notable Yellowstone vacation.

She does, though, sleep with one eye open…

(Kate writes: Yes. I do.)


  • Take Park Service literature seriously. Don’t imagine you can “fudge” what it says about weather or wild animals; you can’t.
  • Mountain weather is not like weather in non-mountain areas. Take time to learn about what can happen, suddenly, in areas of high elevation and steep slopes; and plan your day accordingly.

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