Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Not so superior after all

On a recent topic at NSN (Click Here) people were discussing the "interesting" behaviour of tourists visiting the wilderness, especially at significant places like national parks. I had started to reply to the thread with some examples of things I'd seen, but then I started to reflect on my own actions and decided that perhaps I shouldn't act so high and mighty.

A couple of the worst things, not involving animals, I've seen are in these two pictures (coincidentally taken on the same weekend):

This one is Sunwapta Falls in Jasper NP

And this one is at the Natural Bridge in Yoho NP. The kid is probably 10-12 years old.

This kind of thing makes me upset-in both cases those people crossed fences to get where they were. It was a busy weekend-not high summer, but the end of June with wonderful weather, so it was busy enough-with lots of people around to witness the stupidity. These shots seemed like the perfect examples of things to add to the thread, and make all of us more experienced wilderness visitors feel even more superior. But then I started thinking about things I've done myself.

The first thing is crossing fences. I've done that. There a couple of differences between what I did and what those guys did, though. First, where I crossed fences, it was in places where a fall would not be life-threatening-in fact, unless I leaped headfirst down the slopes, a fall wouldn't have done more than get me dirty. (In the two pictures above, a fall would have been uniformly fatal at the water levels that weekend.) Secondly, when I crossed the fences, there was nobody around-I don't like to set a bad example. While crossing those fences wasn't particularly dangerous, I don't want to give people ideas to do what the people above did!

At Punchbowl Falls in Jasper, the vantage points from which one can see the falls at all (other than from the bridge above) are beyond a fence. There's a bit of a trail beyond the fence, below which is a dirty slide down to the streambed.

At Johnston Canyon in Banff, there are a lot of fences, most of which would be rather dangerous to cross. To get this shot, I had to cross one, though, but this one just has a few yards of rocky slope below it, no steeper and much more stable than any scree slope.

So at first I was thinking that what the guys in the first picture had done was far worse than what I had done. But as I kept thinking, I realized that I had also been to places at least as dangerous as where those guys were-only that I hadn't crossed a fence to get there.

I'm quite sure that before the Icefields Parkway as we know it now was opened in the late 1960s Beauty Creek (in the picture above) was a very popular (at least in terms of the numbers of people driving the Banff-Jasper road as it existed at the time). The trailhead and the mouth of the canyon are right at the old roadbed. But the new highway is a hundred yards away, and there's no sign, and just a tiny parking area. It's described in any decent tourist guide, but all those just driving by miss it completely. Heck, I'd been going to Jasper for ten years before I made a point of finding it. Because it's not a major draw in the modern litigious era, it doesn't have the guardrails and fences that the more popular spots do. It's a sheer canyon, with several significant waterfalls, and not a fence in sight. I found myself at least as close to the canyon edge, shooting pictures, as those guys in the first pictures were. And a fall here would not be nice-perhaps not as uniformly fatal as Sunwapta Falls-but I don't relish the idea of being injured, possibly seriously, at the bottom of a remote canyon with no way out that didn't involve going down a few waterfalls.

I'm not entirely comfortable standing right at the edge of a canyon or other cliff, but I've certainly gotten near enough at Beauty Creek and many other places, such that simply tripping and falling could be fatal. But another problem at such precipices is that we just don't know how stable the rock is-erosion continually makes canyons deeper and wider, and pushes other cliffs backwards. The rock at the edge may still be there a thousand years from know, or it could tumble into the chasm tomorrow. Or right when you're standing there.

Am I really that much better than those guys who stand on the brink at the more tourist-friendly locations? I keep my more dangerous behaviour to myself, but it's still there.

This is another semi-remote location. It too is just off the old Banff-Jasper road, in a spot where the new Icefields Parkway takes a slightly different route. This one is further south, in Banff NP, near the "big bend" switchback. There used to be an observation point, complete with a few parking spaces, on the old road, but I took this picture by scrambling down the slope from the old roadbed a bit further up the road from that spot, so I could get a close-up shot, looking up the falls. I haven't been able to find the name of this stream coming off the side of Mount Saskatchewan. If I had become incapacitated for any reason here, it would have been a long time (if ever) before I was found. I've hiked this section of the old road a few times, and not once seen another person on it.

I'm not about to give up this kind of photography. I just like the wilderness far too much. I do what I can to minimize the risk, but there's nothing that can eliminate it. I carry a small emergency kit that I could use (to start a fire to keep warm, for example) in the event I sprain an ankle or something else happens that leaves me unable to walk. But that wouldn't help me if I had a heart attack (not that I expect one at my age-but one never expects these things) or some other kind of seizure. I usually try to tell my wife approximately where I plan to be, and I give her a call before I leave cell coverage and tell her that I'll call in a few hours when I get back in cell range. If I didn't call back, she'd know to call the Park Wardens and tell them where to start looking. But it would be hours later, probably getting dark. If something really bad had happened, it wouldn't help me much-just make it easier to find my remains. At least those guys flaunting it at the tourists spots would be found quickly (well, the authorities would be notified quickly), or if the bodies were swept away never to be found, their families would know exactly what happened, if not why.

As I'm writing this, the family of a young man named Jordan Darda is waiting to find out how he died. He went camping in Banff by himself-something I've done many times-and was not heard from again. His truck was found a week or two later. (I'm still not sure why it took so long to find the truck-there are only so many places to stop along the Icefields Parkway, and those could all have been checked by Park staff within hours, if they knew what vehicle to look for. But it turns out that he had parked at a trailhead just outside the park on the David Thompson highway-for a trail that went into Banff. I guess nobody thought to check outside Banff since he had apparently told people he was going to Banff.) His body was found not long after the truck (probably since they had a better starting place to work from), face down in a creek. There was no evidence of foul play, animal attack, or large trauma. Hopefully, the autopsy will shed some light on the exact cause of death. The news reports are very light on details, but it could be a simple as slipping and falling while crossing the creek, and knocking himself out on a rock, unfortunately landing face down in the water. That is, of course, speculation, and there could be many other causes. But if something like that were the cause, he would likely still be alive had he been with someone else.

I'm not going to criticize him for going alone, though. That would be extremely hypocritical of me, since I've done the same thing many times-going hiking and camping by myself in remote locations-and I have no intention of stopping. But anyone doing that needs to have the understanding that there are more risks alone than in a group. A relatively minor accident when you're with someone can turn serious, even fatal, when you're alone.

Like I said earlier, am I really any better than those guys standing out at the brink of Sunwapta Falls? When I consider my thoughts on this more closely, I think what bothers me most about their actions is not the danger of the activity itself, but more the public flaunting of the rules by climbing the fence and standing out there in front of dozens of other people. But why does that bother me so much? I don't think I have an answer to that.


At September 21, 2010 at 5:33 PM , Blogger JohnEMarriott said...

Great post, Paul. I've done the exact same thing many a time in the past and probably will a few times in the future, too, though I'm a lot more careful now. I do also carry a SPOT tracker with me at all times, just in case.


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