|Olympic National Park Mountain Goat|
No. Really? But they’re so photogenic — snow-white, sinewy, with gravity-defying dexterity — and, until recently, so rarely encountered.
The fatal goring of a hiker last year by a rogue goat in Olympic National Park has not only changed the way we anthropomorphize these wild animals, but it’s prompted $10 million in wrongful-death claims by the victim’s family and new warnings about the perils of nature.
In Yosemite National Park, where 16 people have died in 2011 — almost three times the average for this time of year — park rangers have taken to telling people not to wear flip-flops while hiking the steep, slick Mist Trail and not to swim in the killer currents above 317-foot Vernal Fall.
Plenty of people have, in fact, defied the obvious and commonsensical — and paid for it with their lives. Three of this summer’s Yosemite deaths came when hikers went around a guardrail with a warning sign and waded into water that swiftly carried them over a cliff.
So, the conundrum: More than ever, an urban nation plagued by obesity, sloth and a surfeit of digital entertainment should encourage people to experience the wild — but does that mean nature has to be tame and lawyer-vetted?
My experience, purely anecdotal, is that the more rangers try to bring the nanny state to public lands, the more careless, and dependent, people become. There will always be steep cliffs, deep water and ornery and unpredictable animals in that messy part of the national habitat not crossed by climate-controlled malls and processed-food emporiums. If people expect a grizzly bear to be benign or think a glacier is just another variant of a theme park slide, it’s not the fault of the government when something goes fatally wrong.
This year, Yosemite is experiencing a surge of visitors — 730,000 in July, a record for a single month, they say. The Park Service is happy to be loved, after years of declining or stagnant use. But a lot of people bring their city swagger to the outdoors; they forget that Yosemite, the greatest waterfall show on earth, is also more than 90 percent wilderness.
“Many of these people aren’t used to nature,” said Kari Cobb, a Yosemite park ranger. “They don’t fully understand it. We’ve got more than 800 trails and 3,000-foot cliffs in this park. You can’t put guardrails around the whole thing.”
Last week, on the popular Mist Trail, which winds along the spray and froth of a thunderous nearby waterfall, Cobb found people hiking barefoot on the wet rock staircase. At Vernal Fall, where the water gathers itself in a stirring pool before plunging more than 300 feet, some hikers still ignore signs saying, essentially, don’t jump to your death.
Yosemite’s most lyrical advocate, the naturalist John Muir, anticipated the urban hordes as the population moved away from field and farm. At the dawn of the 20th century, he saw the parks as places to escape “the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury.” But Muir also expected people to have some basic understanding of the outdoors.
Two years ago, my party of four set out to climb Half Dome — Yosemite’s iconic mountain — just two days after someone died there in a fall. We were warned, many times. The danger was part of the allure. The park service has installed cables to guide people up the bald, steep stretch at the end of the climb. But it’s a false security. And three weeks ago, a woman who was descending through that very support system slipped during a thunderstorm and fell to her death.
As my climbing group waited to descend the granite face, we were jittery and somewhat scared — properly so. The nervousness made for extra caution.
With aggressive goats, the issue is a bit more complicated. Bob Boardman, who was gored to death by a 300-pound goat in Olympic park, was an experienced hiker. The goat stalked him. Boardman bled to death while the animal stood over him for 30 minutes, according to the incident report. The goat was later shot.
In their legal claims, Boardman’s lawyers say the park service knew it had a problem goat in the high country, the subject of many complaints about harassment of hikers, and should have done something about it. Still, goats are wild animals — though introduced to the area in the 1920s — in a mountain ecosystem that answers to its own rules. No matter how many lawyers tread the landscape, it’s impossible to safety-proof a national park.