Death In Yellowstone: Accidents And Foolhardiness In The First National Park, by Lee H. Whittlesey
While this book is enjoyable to read in the sense that it is sometimes fun to enjoy the suffering of people who happen to be stupid and reckless, there is a distinctly uncharitable aspect to this particular book and the approach of its author. There are a variety of ways to approach the reality of death in Yellowstone or any other national park. There is the question of the extent to which government is responsible for the well being of those who travel to national parks, the general ignorance of the public in how to handle wild animals and dangerous phenomena like geysers to begin with. Strangely enough, while the author is quick to poke fun of the stupidity of people when it comes to getting involved in dangerous situations, often by refusing to follow safety protocols and putting oneself in harm’s way through the use of alcohol and other intoxicants, he is not as quick to ponder the extent to which the National Park Service itself has created a paradox that puts people in harm’s way because it is not possible for all aspects of Yellowstone to be enjoyed while providing a modicum of safety for park visitors.
This particular book begins with acknowledgements and a couple of introductions (as this is the second edition), and contains 25 chapters in two parts along with four appendices that make up more than 300 pages of material. The first part of the book looks at death by nature, and contains fourteen chapters. The author looks at deaths in hot water, deaths due to wild animals, deaths by bears and some myths on how to prevent them (including the oft-quoted myth about women in their periods being at risk in particular), deaths from poisonous plants like parsnips, death from poisonous gas, death from lightning, deaths from avalanches and freezing, death by cave-in, death from falling rocks, deaths from falling trees, deaths from falls, deaths from forest fires, the gloom of earthquakes, and deaths from drowning. Not all of these, of course, can be blamed on the stupidity of the people who died themselves, even if some of them clearly can. The second part of the book contains chapters that look at deaths from Indian battles, deaths from fights, from diving, from horse, wagon, and stagecoach accidents, from accidental and self-defense shootings, from foul play, from suicide, those who are missing and presumed dead, deaths from gas stove explosions and structural fires, deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, and deaths on the road and in the air. The author urges readers to pay attention and accept the risks of being in the wild, includes a chronology, and then closes with appendices that discuss three cemeteries and other gravesites on Yellowstone’s grounds, before notes, a bibliography, and an index.
It is possible to agree with the author that Yellowstone is wild and cannot remain so without some risk on the part of people who travel there without agreeing that most of the people who died in the park were idiots who deserved Darwin Awards. More than a few of the people who died because of bears died because of the policies of the park concerning feeding bears and providing bear-proof food lockers, and it is little surprise that bear deaths have disappeared now that bears have been weaned off of human food from park staff and visitors. Likewise, at least some of the risk of being in the park comes from the fact that Yellowstone’s appeal springs from geological activity that is itself inherently dangerous because it results from the presence of magma close to the earth’s surface. Don’t go swimming in hot pots, for example, and remember the danger of many of the lakes and rivers of the park in general. The author could certainly have done a bit of a better job at making his point about the need to be wise and careful without being as hard on others, though.