Let's Stay Safe In the National Parks This Summer, Okay?

Let's be safe in the parks this summer, OK? As this poster from Sequoia National Park notes, people drown in the park's rivers every summer.

Summer's arrival and the height of the vacation season is filling the National Park System with folks and families looking to relax, kick back, and enjoy being together in fabulous settings. Let's just not forget to be safe out there, though.

In the two weeks since Memorial Day official kicked off the days of summer we've had two young brothers drown at Buffalo National River, a young woman die in a climbing accident at New River Gorge National River, a climber lost to an avalanche at Mount Rainier National Park, and now word of a trail runner being assaulted in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Might any, or all, of these incidents been prevented? Without having been on the location of those incidents, it's hard to say. But it's reason all the more to remember to practice safety in the parks. Here are some quick tips:

* Use the buddy system. Whether you're climbing, swimming, or trail running, go with a friend and tell folks where you're going and what you're doing.

* If you're staying at a national seashore, or even one of the national lakeshores, check with the rangers about riptides before swimming.

* Be careful of swift rivers in the national parks. They're great places to cool off, but they also can be deadly, as evidenced by the drownings recently at Buffalo National River and those last summer at Sequoia National Park.

* If you're paddling in the parks, wear your Personal Flotation Device whenever you're on the water. Carry a throw-rope in your canoe or kayak and know how to use it. Pack an extra paddle, too, just in case. And be sure you're familiar with the river or lake you're paddling. Don't let rapids surprise you.

* Properly store your food, whether you're off in the backcountry or staying in a front-country campground. Black bears in Sequoia, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Great Smoky Mountains, just to name five national parks, are always on the hunt for food, and grizzlies can be troublesome, too, if they associate park visitors with a meal.

* Cliffs seem to be magnets for youngsters, and young adults, wanting to climb them, and bouldering is becoming more and more popular across the country. If you're going to be involved in these activities, use spotters. And though they're tempting when it's hot, stay off waterfalls; the algae and moss on their rocks have led to too many deadly falls.

* Caves also can be enticing, but stay out, unless 1) You're experienced at spelunking, 2) You have the proper gear, and; 3) The park allows it and you've obtained the necessary permits.

* Keep an eye to the sky. If you're visiting such Southwestern parks as Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, or Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, be sure to catch the weather report before you head out into the park for the day. And after that, glance at the sky every now and again. Thunderstorms can come quick to these places in the summer and into the fall, and they often produce flash floods. Folks have been caught unawares in slot canyons, and visitors who park their rigs too close to washes to get out and look around have had those rigs washed away.

Sometimes watching the sky is of little use, as it could be clear overhead, while a storm cell 10 miles up canyon dumps 6 inches of rain. That's why it's good to keep note of your surroundings so you can spot places where you can climb to safety if a flood comes barreling down on you.

Get the most out of your national park visit, but do it safely.

Comments

How about the idiotic amendment to the credit card reform law which took effect last February which allows anyone to carry a loaded weapon, even assault weapon, into any national park if it would otherwise be permitted under state law? I checked with my congressman who checked with the National Park Service and in my own state a person can now carry a loaded assault weapon into Independence Hall. Is a hunter going to bag a mouse in Independence Hall? So a young child at a park ranger campfire program at a national park could end up sitting next to some guy with a loaded rifle on his lap. Is this what the national parks are for? Some innocent person is going to get shot and killed this year. How do we protect ourselves from that?

Laborman,

It strikes me, too, as an awful "amendment" for the reasons you mention. The first casualty of the new law may have been the grizzly bear shot to death by a backpacker in Denali.

Thanks for the safety message. In addition to safety tips listed above I'll add the following:

Be honest with your experience and make sure you don't engage in activities that are well above your head. If you think you're really experience understand that you are more likely to engage in riskier behavior, you have a higher tolerance to recognizing risk due to repeated successful events. More often than not visitor fatalities and injuries happen because the person over estimated their experience level or were too complacent.

Have a plan of action for the worst case scenerio for the activity your are engaged in, if your hiking on a trail where you know someone or something can attack you be prepared to fight it off. If you are swimming in the water without a life jacket make sure someone is watching and knows what to do and has something to throw to you if you begin to have trouble and you've practiced it...

Make sure you are responsible for your own health and safety by having a plan of action for the worst case scenerio. If you've not rehearsed it you have very little chance of recovering from the surprise. We call this the "what if" game. What if I get tired and start to have difficulty swimming, what if the person who is suppose to be watching me isn't, what if someone or something tries to attack me while I'm hiking on the trail, what if I run our of water, what if a storm comes in, and so on. You'd be amazed at the increased reaction time you get when you plan accordingly for the worst case scenerio.

You check the weather to make sure it will be good while you are recreating take it one step further and ask yourself if it gets bad what am I going to do to recover from it? While you are in the slot canyon look around and make sure you know what your environment is and where your escape routes are. Communicate them to your team/group.

When you don't and your overwhelmed with fear it will take 8 to 10 seconds to calm down enough to come up with a plan...During this time you are incapable of rational thought due to stress hormones crippling your brain. Having a plan that you have rehearsed can mean the difference between life and death...with a plan you've just cut your reaction time down because it lowers your level of surprise...

Millions of people visit our parks annually, millions go home without incident, it doesn't mean they were recreating responsibly, it means they were lucky...Have a plan for the worst case scenerio....

Let us not forget the danger of blindly following your GPS. Two recent stories highlight this danger: http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2008/06/gps-unit-leads-couple-trouble-near-glen-canyon-national-recreation-area and http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2009/08/heat-claims-youngster-stranded-five-days-remote-corner-death-valley-national-park. The problem is that the maps used by the GPS makers do not recognize the difference between regular unpaved roads and roads suitable only for 4WD, high clearance vehicles. The way I have found best to use a GPS in remote areas is to use a routing GPS (in Garmin-speak, that would be a NUVI 700 series and above) along with a routing program (such as Garmin's Mapsource) that lets me see the route the program wants to follow and allows me to customize the route. I then download the route to the GPS and it then follows MY route, instead of the route the unit wants to follow. I always use waypoints to delineate my route, so that, if I should stray off-course, the unit will recalculate using my route instead of making up a new one.