Friday, December 26, 2008

Death in Yellowstone (with apologies to Lee Whittlesey)

One of my first summers in Resource Management, I got a lesson in Murphy’s Law. That is, if it can happen, it will happen.

The hot pools, mud pots and geysers of Yellowstone can be very dangerous. People regularly burn themselves in the pools by sticking their fingers in the water to test the temperature. We would often see visitors walking around West Thumb Geyser Basin holding a "scalded" index finger in their other hand. When nothing else was happening, we would patrol the Geyser Basin, look for weeds, make sure people were staying on the boardwalks, and generally give people the impression that rangers were out and about.

The boardwalks run around the geyser basin and people are required to stay on them at all times. They were constructed for the visitors safety and to give them a good (and safe) viewpoint for all the thermal features. A valuable side effect was to lessen the visitor’s impact on the geyser basin itself so that people weren’t wandering around where they shouldn’t. Nonetheless, there were always a few footprints in places that would make you question the sanity of visitors.

As a visitor enters the boardwalk he would encounter signs that would advise them of all the dangers of thermal areas and how many ways a person could kill himself. But it seemed on every one of my visits to the thermal basin, there would be children running along the boardwalk, way ahead of their parents. Often I would see them trip on the rough wooden planks and take a fall. It didn’t take much imagination to see that if a kid took a tumble in the right place they could roll right under the guardrail and end up in a thermal feature. And if they did, they would not be the first person to die from burns in West Thumb Geyser Basin. I would warn parents to keep their children under control and many times would get a "Mind your own business" kind of look in return. (If you want to find out exactly how many people have died in Yellowstone’s Thermal Pools you can read Lee Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone.)

There were other deaths in Yellowstone, but only one visitor died in West Thumb Geyser Basin while I was working there. I didn’t see it first hand but I heard how it happened from a family member. Let me set the scene. West Thumb Geyser Basin had a large parking lot because if you entered the park from the South Entrance, this would be the first thermal features you encounter. After the construction and paving of the parking lot back in the 60's, a new thermal feature boiled up through the pavement, right near the entrance. Maintenance put up a fence. What else could you do?

A family arrived one day in a pickup truck with a camper on the back. They pulled into the West Thumb Geyser Basin and parked. The mom and dad and two kids got out of the pickup. The older of the two kids went to the camper and opened the door to let the dog out. She put a leash on the golden retriever and brought the dog out onto the pavement where it promptly took off. The girl could only hold on so long. The dog raced across the parking lot, under the fence and went into the pool. It probably died instantly. By the time the family got to the pool there was no dog to be seen and nothing we could do. Of course the family was devastated.

We monitored the pool for several days looking for some evidence of the poor dog. We saw nothing but a little fur and scum floating on the surface. The dog had boiled into broth and there was almost no evidence other than a foul odor that persisted for about four days.
This is the pool the dog went into. At the time of the incident, the water level was much higher.

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