At one of the entrances of Yellowstone National Park, they collect the innocent and naive questions that some of the visitors ask when they come to the park, such as “When do the rangers pen up the bison for the evening” or “When do they turn off Old Faithful?” They also collect stories of some of the dangerous things that tourists do there. Years ago a friend of mine related to me an incident that she witnessed as a park employee. A park visitor placed his toddler on the back of a bison, walked off, took and picture and luckily retrieved the kid without incident. When my friend confronted the person, he said, “If it was dangerous, the park wouldn’t let you get anywhere near it.” And, that was in the front country.
Recently in the backcountry, according to Kevin Jacobson of the Northland News Center, on Sunday, June 17th Robert Weitzel’s body was pulled from Lake Superior by the Canadian Coast Guard. At 9:20am that day something caused Weitzel, a kayaker attempting to circumnavigate Lake Superior to raise money for the Big City Mountaineers, to activate his emergency personal locator beacon. The activation triggered a search and rescue operation. After a two-hour search, the Coast Guard found and retrieved his body at 11:30. Jacobson reported that the Thunder Bay Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police said that 42 degree water and 30 mile per hour winds contributed to his death.
The first incident was perhaps innocent and stupid and the second perhaps in pursuit of the noble and brave, but both to me seem to illustrate a couple of somewhat un/related important points:
- In our parks and wilderness areas, the rangers are not there to manage all the risks for you.
- Risks that might not seem apparent might be there.
- Even the world’s latest and greatest technology might not save you.
All these points deal with risk or managing risk. Risk defined by Managing Risks in Outdoor Activities is “The potential to lose something of value. The loss may be physical, mental, social or financial. The presence of risk creates uncertainty … The motivation for risking is to gain something of value. That something in the outdoors is the challenge of an adventure.”
The book defines adventure as “An experience where the outcome is uncertain because key information may be missing, vague or unknown,” and challenge as “The interplay of risk and competence,” which is “The ability of an individual to deal effectively with the demands placed on them by the surrounding environment.”
If we eliminate all the risks of outdoor activities, they no longer offer an adventure or challenge or that magical moment in the outdoors when time stands still and you experience life in the moment. In a world like that, our parks become zoos with any dangers hidden behind bars with cattle pens to walk us from area to area and backcountry travel becomes prohibited. The key for would-be adventurers to avoid a sterile fenced-off world is to understand that:
- You are on your own out there.
- You need to own that thought.
- Competence doesn’t come with gear choice or a class. It comes from seat time and lots of it.
- Know your limits and when the real risk is death, don’t push your competence.
If you ignore that, you’re living on the edge, and while the rewards may be great, you might not like the consequences if you’re around to witness them.
Note: Please, understand that this isn’t a criticism or suggestion that the people in my analogies didn’t know this or surpassed their competence. Sometimes, shit happens. Well…the guy in the bison example was a flip’n idiot, but by all accounts Weitzel was competent enough for this trip.
My sympathies go out to Robert Weitzel’s family and friends.