Op-Ed: Yellowstone National Park: Hauntingly Beautiful, If You Can Avoid Nature’s Death Traps

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A man who was cited for trespassing at Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park has been sentenced to 15 days in jail, the result of engaging in a series of dangerous stunts at the world’s most famous geyser last July.

Merritt, from the eastern state of Maine, repeatedly ran up to Old Faithful while donning a raccoon fur hat and carrying the American flag. He went 50 feet beyond the safety of the boardwalk by the time the Ranger arrived and apprehended him.

During his arraignment, he pleaded guilty to trespassing and, along with his 15 days in jail, was fined $200, plus court fees and was banned from the Park for at least four years.

In a press release issued by Acting US Attorney Bob Murray, he explained how serious this all could have been:

“Yellowstone National Park has rules and regulations in place to protect park resources and help keep visitors safe. This case ended with federal charges and time in prison, but it could have been much worse. If Mr. Merrick had fallen through the thermal feature, he would have most likely lost his life.”

He is not exaggerating. Yellowstone is listed among the top 5 most dangerous National Parks in the United States, joining the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountain, Sequoia and Kings Canyon among the nation’s most lethal, buttressed by its more than 10,000 thermal features.

Though some may ignore or dismiss the hundreds of safety and warning signs posted around these parks, they do so at their own peril.

In the book Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, author Lee H. Whittlesey gives us an actual perspective on how unbelievably dangerous Yellowstone National Park can be.

“Death is a frequent visitor in raw nature. And in Yellowstone Park, despite cabins and roads, is raw nature. The Park is the untamed and unfenced wildlife and the amoral energy of thermal wonders. The Park is not Disneyland, Rocky Mountain version. Nor is it a zoo with moats and fences separating the wild and the domesticated. For all the trappings of men, it is wilderness. And the man who fails to accept it as such dies.”

  • Little Lester LaDuke, a four-year-old, was was scalded to death at LaDuke Hot Springs (just eight miles north of the Park) when he fell into a bathing spring known as “one of the hottest in eastern Montana.”
  • David Allen Kirwan, a 24-year-old Californian man who jumped into the Celestine Pool after his buddy’s dog “Moosie”, not realizing it had a temperature reading of 202 degrees Fahrenheit. Quickly getting out of the water, he was heard muttering to himself ‘That was stupid. How bad am I? That was a stupid thing I did’ as his body processed the shock of receiving third-degree burns over one hundred percent of it, including his entire head. He went blind, most of his skin sloughed off, and he died the next morning in a Salt Lake City hospital.
  • Colin Scott, along with his sister Sable, veered off the boardwalk in 2016. They traveled 225 feet off course where he slipped into a highly acidic hot spring and his body was never seen again, having been dissolved by the burning chemicals. When asked why they called off the search for the body so quickly, park spokeswoman Charissa Reid said it was done “due to the extreme nature and futility of it all” as there would be “no remains left to recover.”

It’s not just geysers and hot springs, but animals too. Numerous deaths and injuries have occurred over the years from bears, bison, moose, elk, coyote, and even snakes.

In Chapter 2 of his book, Whittlesee tells of Marvin Lesley Schrader, a young man from Spokane, Washington who became Yellowstone’s first bison fatality. During his visit “he spotted a bull buffalo lying down in a meadow, walked within twenty feet of it, and took its picture. The one-ton bison charged Schrader tossed him more than 12 feet. The animal’s horns ripped open the man’s upper right abdomen and pierced his liver. He groaned for a few minutes while his family watched him die.”

The National Parks Services gives a few more examples of animal attacks at Yellowstone in recent years, listing the following stories:

  • August 2015 – a day hiker, hiking by himself, was killed by an adult female grizzly bear with two cubs near the Elephant Back Loop Trail in the Lake Village
  • August 2011 – a day hiker, hiking by himself, was killed by a grizzly bear on the Mary Mountain Trail in Hayden Valley.
  • July 2011 – a day hiker in a party of two was killed by an adult female grizzly bear with 2 cubs on the Wapiti Lake Trail in Hayde

Couple these will lightning strikes, rockslides, falling rocks, storms, floods, freak accidents, drownings, and automobile accidents, and you have the makings of a place that is exhilarating for some and terrifying for others.

Yellowstone is abundantly marvelous and beautiful but comes with a warning to all: don’t feed the animals, throw rocks in marked territories, don’t go off the marked paths in search of scalding geothermal pots, and above else, follow the signage so you can come back alive and safe.


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