Wildlife and wild experiences are headliner attractions at many national parks, offering millions of visitors their first close encounters with the outdoors and critters as diverse as marmots and manatees.
Sometimes visitors make the mistake of violating park rules meant to protect people and the wildlife alike. These mistakes often make headlines, such as this year when a lady was charged and knocked for a loop after she approached too close for a selfie with a bison.
In other cases, visitors are simply out of their element in a national park and into a foreign world of discovery.
Here are some examples from pros in the field.
Jim Burnett, 71, is retired from 30 years as a national park ranger who worked in various parts of the country. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and is the author of two “Hey Ranger!” books. The title comes from how visitors address people like him, and the questions they ask.
“In the Rocky Mountains, and I’ll bet in the Olympic National Park, you have people asking, ‘At what elevation do the deer turn into elk?’ This one guy was absolutely convinced they morphed at a certain altitude.”
Barb Maynes, spokeswoman for Olympic National Park, says that she doesn’t “engage in stupid visitor questions.”
She is sympathetic: “People are going into an entirely new environment.”
“A big one people ask is, ‘Where is the road to the Hoh?’ ”
There is no road going through the Hoh Rain Forest. “It’s a wilderness,” says Maynes.
Burnett remembers a visit he made to the Hoh, which gets 12 to 14 feet of rain a year.
But this was a sunny, clear summer day with blue skies.
A tour bus full of elderly visitors pulled up, and a woman walked up to the parks employee greeting them.
“I thought this was supposed to be rain forest,” said the woman. “Then why isn’t it raining?”
At Mount Rainier National Park, a couple of staffers tell of a mother and child seeing a furry animal outside a visitors entrance.
The kid says, “It’s a monkey!”
The mom says, “That’s not a monkey, that’s a cat.”
It was a live marmot, a member of the squirrel family, but how would you know if you’d never seen one?
Paul Harrington, a wilderness ranger, tells of visitors going out hiking in the backcountry “even though the forecast is for fairly bad weather.”
Then he’d hear the hikers insist the forecast hadn’t called for such weather.
“Some people just don’t want to walk back into the office and admit defeat,” Harrington says.
Burnett says that when working as a ranger, he had to remind himself that these were city visitors he was dealing with.
When he worked at the Grand Canyon National Park, he says, he would get asked about its famous mule trips down to the bottom of the canyon.
He remembers a woman asking him, “Ranger, can you tell me if there is a dining car on the mule train?”
Feeling the burn
Bear spray is not meant to be used in advance of a bear encounter, a Yellowstone National Park ranger said in a conversation this spring.
The ranger recounted her response to a distress call from a parent with two screaming kids suffering as though their skin was on fire.
The mom had doused them from head to toe with bear spray thinking it would prevent any an encounter with a grizzly.
The kids were field treated with lots of water.
The mom was told to read the label on the bear spray container.
– Rich Landers
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