Danger in Yellowstone?

Yellowstone National Park is not just a magnificent and unique wild landscape, but it also affords us humans the primeval opportunity to be incorporated into the food chain and travel through the digestive track of a grizzly. Or does it?

The correct answer is, “barely”. If you try hard, or if you are an unlucky one in many a million, then yes, you might end up as bear poop. But at least in Yellowstone, you are much more likely to drown. Or fall to your ultimate demise. Or even to be par-boiled in a hot spring. And you are, quite literally, at least a hundred times more likely to depart this world in a car wreck. Beware the wayward Winnebago!

I recently re-read a cheerful book called Death In Yellowstone, by Lee H. Whittlesey (1995) and have taken some notes and updated the statistics based upon my recollection of news reports since the book was published. This discussion pertains to Yellowstone National Park and immediately adjacent lands in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. As you are about to see, automobiles, snowmobiles, drowning, hot springs and falls constitute by far, the greatest dangers to life and limb in the world’s first national park. Before I begin to throw the numbers at you, however, I should mention a couple of caveats.

You’ll note a death toll of 11 in and around Yellowstone, due to bears. This figure includes one early 20th century trapper who was killed by a bear that he’d caught in a leg-hold trap. The angry Griz ripped himself loose leaving behind 3 of its toes, and took it out on the trapper. You sure can’t blame that bear! It also includes 2 photographers who unwisely tried for closeups, one fellow who camped illegally near a garbage dump, and  two folks who were car-camping next to a highway just outside the park, where bears had become habituated to unsecured human food and garbage. Another victim, a young woman from Switzerland, appeared to have done everything right, except that she was traveling alone in the backcountry. The moral of the story is that if you travel with others and conscientiously follow all of the safety rules for bear country, the odds of death by Griz are astronomically low!

I’ll also mention that many of the hot pool deaths involved a fall, and most of the falling deaths involved canyons. Therefore, if fall you must, make sure that you’re not near a big drop-off or a hot pool. Try, real hard, to land right where you are on soft grass or pine needles. Also, whatever you do, don’t take a canoe trip with the Boy Scouts on one of Yellowstone’s icy lakes, assuming that you don’t want hypothermia and/or drowning to loom in your future.  And be careful crossing streams and rivers. Whenever you’re near a raging torrent, don’t fall in! In other words, be careful and follow the specific instructions of your Big Wild guide. Thus, you will be unlikely to drown or otherwise fuel the fires of natural selection. OK, here’s the breakdown:

  • Auto and snow-machine accidents: > 1,0000.
  • Drowning: >100 (evidence that humans diverged from fish many eons ago)
  • Earthquakes/Landslides: 28 (all at Hebgen Lake,1959; talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time!)
  • Falls: >20 (Our own worst enemy? our own two feet!)
  • Hot Springs: 20 (nothing like a good soak)
  • Bears: 11 (see above paragraph on human stupidity)
  • Froze to death: 8 (booze was involved in some of these)
  • Avalanche: 8 (this number is much higher when the entire ecosystem is considered)
  • Lightening: 5 (I am surprised this number is so low, given some of the close calls I’ve had)
  • Ingestion of water hemlock: 3 (“It looked like edible yampa”)
  • Falling trees: 3 (not including logging/tree-felling accidents)
  • Bison: 2 (one might argue that these beasts can do better!)
  • Falling rocks: 2 (not including getting conked by rocks thrown by other humans)
  • Embankment cave-ins: 1 (go figure)
  • Hydrogen Sulfide gas: 1 (in a construction pit; we’ll still not include these last two examples of real bad luck in our pre-trip safety talk).

So there you have it. Of course, the history of Yellowstone includes numerous murders, suicides, construction accidents, stagecoach wrecks, and Indian wars, none of which are terribly likely to befall our clients. All we ask (well, almost all) of our clients is that they pay attention to the guide and try real hard not to fall off a cliff, drown or slip into a steamy cauldron of boiling water. And we promise to be real careful on the drive to the trail. So sleep tight, for the bed bears are unlikely to bite!

Want to learn more about Yellowstone guided hikes or are you ready to book your Yellowstone backpacking trip with Big Wild Adventures? If so, then click on the previous link.

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