For five days we floated through the deep, ruddy canyons gouged into the landscape of Dinosaur National Monument by the Green River, and for those days not a cell signal was tapped, not a phone conversation heard, not an app applied.
It was glorious.
Particularly enjoying this technological disconnect was my oldest son, a sound recording engineer who relished the fact that his cell wasn't beeping with texts or ringing with calls. No inbox to check for emails, no deadlines to meet. Just scenery to absorb, rapids to run, and quiet conversation to enjoy.
But there's a concern in some circles that visitors to America's national parks don't want such a disconnect, a forced downtime from Facebook or tweeting, from tagging friends in front of a sputtering Old Faithful. The National Park Service has heard those worries, and is embarking on a pilot project to explore expanded Wi-Fi and cellphone service in the National Park System.
Granted, more than likely if you're floating idly through the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur or enjoying the view from the Goat Haunt Overlook in Glacier National Park you won't ever find a signal even if the pilot project gives way to full-blown wiring of the park system's front country.
But think of where such expanded service might reach. The bench-lined apron that fronts the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone. The waysides along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park that spill over with vacationers in summer and leaf-peepers in fall. The visitor center at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Possibly even Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park, the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, or Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.
It also might be ramped up at visitor centers and lodges, and perhaps even along roads that wind through parks and right up to trailhead sign-in registers.
Technology Is Wonderful, But We Do Need Breaks From It
Now, there's no doubt that techology can be a tremendous boon when it comes to interpreting the parks. But it also can turn visitors inward, glueing them to their tablets and smartphones, oblivious to their majestic surroundings. So detaching can it be that we're not enlightened by it, but rather debilitated.
"How many lives are we losing because people are too overwhelmed with technology and can’t get away from it?" said Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods, a groundbreaking book that examined the so-called nature-deficit disorder that afflicts youngsters who shun the outdoors. "Just the cumulative of too much electronics in people’s lives, and I’m not anti-tech.
"The mantra of the Nature Principle, the new book, is the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. We have to find that balance because there is evidence that too much technology in our lives does hurt our mental health, our physical health."
Mr. Louv, who told me the idea of expanding Wi-Fi and cell coverage in the parks is a "grim idea," that "(W)e need Wi-Fi free zones," addressed just this issue last summer in a column:
Scientists who study human perception no longer assume we have only five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. The number now ranges from a conservative 10 to as many as 30, including proprioception – the awareness of our body’s position in space, of where we are. We tend to block off many of our senses when we’re staring at a screen. Nature time can literally bring us to our senses.
But unplugging the power strip doesn’t always come naturally, even for those of us who, by nature, love nature. It requires a conscious act and a change of scenery.
This is one reason conservation is so important. These days, unplugged places are getting hard to find. Even some parks and campgrounds now offer Wi-Fi — the theory being that people just won’t get outdoors if they can’t tweet. (Insert bird joke here.) For sanity, what we really need are No Wi-Fi Zones and Phone-Silent Sanctuaries. Especially for people who can’t afford a cabin on private land.
This isn't some incredibly new, out of nowhere idea. Indeed, in moving forward with the pilot project, one that possibly could see concessionaires collaborating with national park friends groups and the Park Service to develop interpretive apps and charging for access, the Park Service seems to be ignoring studies that have examined technology and how it can stand in the way of "getting back to nature," advise from experts and, even, advise from former directors of the agency.
These studies and experts maintain that the lack of cell coverage is not an "irritant that adversely shapes memories of a park visit," as the National Park Hospitality Association suggests, but actually a benefit that helps us reconnect with nature.
* In 2009, the Outdoor Foundation, an arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, found that simply taking youngsters on a hike or a camp-out with campfire songs and s'mores might be more important to developing a lifetime love for the outdoors than loading the latest outdoor app on their phones.
* More recent studies demonstrate that getting away from it all, and unplugging as you go, improves your creativity. Psychologists at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas collaborated on a study that found that backpackers scored 50 percent better on a creativity test after spending four days in nature without their iPhones, 'Droids, and MP3 players.
* At America's Summit For National Parks last January in Washington, D.C., the audience was counciled that expanding the technological reach in the parks is not a panacea for waning interest in the parks.
Though technology should be maximized to showcase the value of the national parks, "dissemination of information may not be communication," said Robert Stanton, who served as Park Service director from August 1997 until January 2001. "We should never diminish the importance of personal communication. Interpretation is not intended to do something for the listener, but to encourage the listener to do something for themselves."
Connect With The Landscape, Not Your Phones
Alan Latourelle, the chief executive officer of Parks Canada, told the audience that, in the face of diminishing visitation to Canada's parks, his agency approached its own centennial last year with a goal to reach youth and new residents of the country unfamiliar with its parks' offerings.
"Leave your technology at home and come experience the parks" was one of the messages Parks Canada used to connect with youth, said Mr. Latourelle. The point was not to abandon that technology, he stressed, but to take a break from it to experience the natural wonders of the country.
And while Fran Mainella, NPS director from July 2001 until October 2006, agreed technology can play an important role in gaining new visitors to the parks, she didn't believe it was wise to "turn parks into virtual tours."
"Use the techology to entice the young people into our parks," said the former director. But "we do not want it to consume how we experience the parks."
* A study published in February 2011 in PARKScience, a Park Service publication that integrates "research and resource management in the national parks," underscored the value of human connections between rangers and visitors.
Using interpretive ranger programs at Great Smoky as a case study, the authors of The Benefits of Live Interpretive Programs to Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- Marc J. Stern, Robert B. Powell, and Cathleen Cook -- noted that such programs...
...help to reveal to park visitors the deeper meanings associated with parks’ cultural and natural resource. They can enhance visitors’ enjoyment by providing entertaining experiences or better orientation to the available sights, resources, and activities. They can effect emotional connections to landscapes, to animal or plant life, and to the history being interpreted. They can influence visitors’ attitudes to the park they are visiting, toward the National Park Service, or toward an ecosystem, a historical event, a social movement, or the environment or nature in general.
According to the article, more than 80 percent of the visitors who responded to a survey said ranger-led tours and programs "were important to the mission of the National Park Service."
More significantly, in light of the Park Service's desire to connect visitors to the parks and make them more aware of environmental systems and threats to them, the study also found that "(N)early 90% of respondents reported that attending a ranger-led program increased their appreciation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the National Park Service. More than 60% of respondents indicated that their awareness of environmental issues and this country’s cultural heritage increased."
The National Park Service, Mr. Louv told me, should be urging visitors to come to the parks "for your mental health and to increase your productivity when you get back to work, to help your kids do better at school by giving them a break from the computer, to get to know your kids better because you left the electronics home.
“You know," he added, "frankly, deep down I think that’s what people want a lot more than 24, 48 (more) hours with their machines.”
The current extent of Wi-Fi and cell coverage in the parks doesn't need to be expanded or enhanced. What the Park Service should be doing is promoting both the wonders and health benefits of unplugging and disconnecting and looking not at your phone or tablet, but at the spectacular landscape in front of you.