On Being a Visitor on a Soapbox

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking, stemming from starting a class about conservation and public land history plus having the chance to be on the other side of the Visitor Center desk–in other words, the one with all the questions.

I don’t like the term ‘visitor,’ as in, “You are a visitor to Yosemite National Park,” or “Yosemite National Park has 4 million visitors a year.”

On the one side, using the word ‘visitor’ conveys the brevity that most people experience inside their national parks. At most, a day, maybe a week are spent inside the boundaries. In Yosemite’s case, ‘visitor’ could imply that entering the valley is traversing on land that someone else occupied, a little paradise occupied by a tribe whose home was converted into parkland through an act of force.

While ‘visitor’ might serve the purpose of reminding us that our natural cathedrals were once places many people before us called home, the conditions of present-day conservation ethics might warrant a different term for those that visit THEIR public lands. That’s right, YOU own Yosemite National Park [as much as a monolithic chunk of granite and a valley carved by glaciers can be “owned”]. YOU, with the rest of the nation’s citizens, are responsible for the upkeep, preservation, and integrity of all 401 units of the National Park Service, whether or not you’ve been to them [if that seems like a lot, just think about all the land that’s designated by the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, etc. That’s all YOUR land, as well]. This ownership we have, you see, isn’t conveyed well in the term ‘visitor’. ‘Visitor’ does not say “I’m responsible for keeping this park free of trash,” or “I am tasked with letting others know that feeding the wildlife is detrimental to their health,” or “It’s my responsibility to preserve everything in this park for the people that arrive tomorrow as well as future generations.” All of these tasks can happen in tangible or intangible ways, but they are the duty of every citizen of the United States.

So with that daunting responsibility staring you in the face, what term would YOU use in place of ‘visitor’?
Half Dome

The Black Bear that Came to a Ranger-led Walk

It was one of those days where the cell phone was left at home by accident. No calls and no photos, either. It was also one of those days where you say something and immediately the universe sets out to prove you wrong.

I had just finished saying to the group that joined me for a morning forest walk that we don’t often see larger wild animals on this heavily visited trail when a lady came running off the trail saying there was a bear at stop #2. Surprising, but not totally shocked, as this bear had been down farther on the road for weeks, stripping trees of their bark. See Photo. As she was showing the group photos she had taken on her ipad, someone in my group blurted out, “I think the bear just walked onto the bridge! Unless I am seeing things, but I caught a dark figure out of the corner of my eye.”

This bridge is an odd one. Its walls come up about 4 feet or so, making it impossible to see through it. It also has a 90 degree turn, which at this moment I was cursing. I told the group to remain in the parking lot while I checked. Tip-toeing up the bridge, I peered around the corner to see a small bear peering right back. Uff. 

I commenced hollering and whooping and smacking the side of the bridge [which didn’t make the loud noise I was looking for, just hurt my hand, and apparently served as a visitor call to action, cameras in tow]. The bear didn’t run, just walked calmly off the bridge as if it had read our directions for wildlife encounters [“Don’t panic, make yourself look big and back up slowly. DO NOT RUN.”].

Once the bear was off the bridge, it milled around on the hillside for its photo op and slowly was working its way away. I was trying to think of ideas on how to get the group back together, as well as pondering if it was wise to leave the parking lot folks to their own devices if the bear were to return. The brainstorming session was abruptly halted when some folks next to the parking lot were trying to get a better view of the bear, noisily walking through some vegetation. The bear’s head snapped up, it located the source of the noise, and then went galloping straight towards them!

For Pete’s sake, I thought, am I supposed to smack those visitors or the bear first?? Running back down the bridge, I started the yelling again. I think the sound of me running down the bridge spooked the bear, so he tried halfheartedly to climb a tree, paused, and decided on a stump next to the bridge about 15 feet away from me. I was hoping he would scramble away, but I had him pinned against the bridge and he started to look a little more panicked. Backing up a step or two, I started banging on the metal trailhead sign. Later that day, I would forget all the banging on things I had done and wonder why my hand tingled so much. The bear, still not as terrified as I would have liked him, took a few steps towards me and the parking lot of wildlife point-and-shoot paparazzi. This is it, I thought, I’m going to have to tackle him. I didn’t see what the people were doing behind me, although all the exclamation was enough to indicate a frenzied crowd that likely wouldn’t run fast enough. Luckily, as he reached the edge of the bridge, he decided not to run into the parking lot or back up the bridge, but head for the edge of the hill and flail down it [and probably ran across the road below without looking both ways, too].  

Letting go of my trailhead sign drum, I walked to the edge of the hill. No visual of him, nor any noise. Good. I went to address the parking lot crowd to tell them the proper techniques of encountering a bear. An adrenaline-rushed lady, one of the family that triggered the bear’s gallop into the parking lot, ran over to me, squealing “THAT WAS SO COOL!” Some days, I am glad I don’t have ears like a cat, because at that moment, they would have been flat against my head in annoyance. 

I spent the rest of that hour giving my forest walk, a mundanely insightful look at an old growth forest that was nothing as exciting as a bear…

This happened a few weeks ago, and reports of the bear have kept coming in. A visitor submitted photo to our facebook page shows just how hard this bear is having it: Visitor’s Bear Photo

Someone took misguided pity on him and threw him a whole loaf [plastic bag and all]. With that handout, the chances of his survival have greatly lessened. If he’s not hit by a car first, he could likely either starve or, if adverse conditioning attempts don’t work and he becomes aggressive, be put down. 

Lucky Dog: Redwood National Park

Lucky Dog: Redwood National Park

I’ve never been there, but I claim with certainty that there are no redwoods in the Pyrenees Mountains. I can proclaim this solely based on my dog’s fur; the amount of redwood duff [and even a few cones] that lodges into her Pyrenees hind end each time she sits down is infinite. I’m not sure which she is more bothered by: the forest that spooks her field-loving nature, or the forest debris that tugs and causes her to be tugged on as we try to remove it. Luckily, she puts up with our redwood-filled, gawking-instead-of-walking, stroll.

You can take your leashed dog several places in Redwood National and State Parks. Trails are off-limits, but anywhere a car is permitted, so is a leashed dog. This includes campgrounds and scenic drives [just watch out for cars–the drivers often are looking up!]. Any beach that you don’t have to hike a trail to get to is also dog-friendly–including right by the Kuchel Visitor Center. Of course, your dog has to be leashed at all times [6 feet or shorter].

There are a few places I’d be wary of taking my dog. The Bald Hills Road during tick season is one; but more importantly, anywhere there are elk, I’d leave my dog in the car. It’s not unheard of for a dog to forget how big is too big and give chase or at least bark at elk, and elk usually don’t forget how big they are and willingly throw their 500-1,000 lbs in the direction of any dog, no matter how cute or tough-looking.

The one redwood-lined place I like dragging my dog [she is not a fan of forests] is Cal-Barrel Road.  This narrow gravel road, most days open to cars, climbs up a ridge for about 2 miles as it winds through the redwoods. Once an easement for logging trucks to access their timber during World War II (so I’ve been told by a knowledgeable ranger), this road allows your dog to accompany you on a serene, forested walk.

Road Closed. This is actually not a redwood, but a Douglas-Fir. Note the difference between the bark of the fallen Doug-fir and the redwood standing behind it. Husband for scale.

While not all parks are quite as dog-friendly, Redwood National and State Parks, a unique cooperation between three state parks and one national park, offers a chance to stand under the tallest canooy in the world with your four-pawed friend.  Something on both your bucket lists, I’m sure!

Fire Cave [Redwoods in high-key, nothing wrong with that!]

Large Log

Winding Up

Walking the Line

I generally don’t share too much of my personal life online [believe it or not], just the ‘front-line’ happenings that most people would see anyway. This past work week was a rough one, though.

I started the week out normally enough, but by my Tuesday night I had nearly sparked a missing person’s search by finishing up my campground rove an hour late. Luckily, most of law enforcement was busy with a real emergency, so not a lot of manpower was wasted on my negligent behalf [P.S. ‘turn on your radio’ was the moral of this story].

My Wednesday went quietly enough, besides the ribbing about the previous night. Thursday seemed like it was going to be quiet, but a rove with a coworker turned into us helping to respond to a medical emergency at a remote campground. While my medical skills are low, I am not bothered by the scene I saw. What got to me the most was the emotional toll that the family had to go through during their 6 some hours at the park. The images that haunt me from those 6 hours are not gruesome ones, but of tears running down someone’s cheeks.

By the time Friday rolled around, confusion was the color of the day. I decided I much rather deal with the petty stuff like printing off more permits and trying to sort out mixed up locks with visitors staring over my shoulder at a gate than watch innocents deal with the emotional strife that goes along with family tragedies.  That kind of drama coupled with the generally happy setting of a park’s campground redefines the extremes of a family vacation.

I thought about the family as we drove out that road and past the campground on my Saturday. Pounding out 7 miles on a trail would be of some benefit, I reasoned. Stopping at the gate, I spoke with someone who had been there, too. I was relieved to know that it sounded like all was going to be okay with the family, but I was troubled to hear that the person I was talking to was still shaken up a bit also.

My group and I headed out on the trail. We talked a little about hypothetical trail emergencies and tsunami routes, mountain lions, elk, moose, and bears. I got to thinking about how law enforcement folks deal with all that stress on a daily basis. I’m not an adrenaline junkie and I don’t feel that I need to be involved in the big dramas of the day, and while I understand wanting to help people, I can’t fathom a week in that line of work.  And to be honest, empathy is probably one of my bigger faults. After 7 miles, I’m still  not able to wrap my head around how much there is to deal with when being the line between life and death.

I’m hoping for a quiet spell this coming week. Of course, Robert Burns summed it up well in 1785:

“But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!”