Funny and Tragic Tales in our National Parks

At what altitude does a deer become an elk? Read a compilation of mostly funny, some weird and a few tragic tales of adventures in our national parks.
By Staff ,
Yellowstone elk sticking out his tongue

Retailers have the expression that you “open your doors and the public comes in.” That’s equally true for the National Park Service and certainly for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. A broad range of humanity drives, walks, bikes or snowmobiles into our national parks and they bring with them all of society’s strengths and weaknesses. Visitors prove themselves, again and again, capable of great courtesy, kindness and understanding, as well as folly and foolishness. That’s seen very clearly in two books by two different National Park rangers. Newly published is Jim Burnett’s Hey Ranger!, a compilation of mostly funny, some weird and a few tragic tales while he served in eight national parks, plus a smattering of funny stories from 28 other national parks he’s gleaned around the country.

On a more sobering note is Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, by Yellowstone’s Lee Whittlesey, published in 1995. “Last year there were about 276 million visits to National Park Service sites across the U.S. When you bring that many people into close contact with Mother Nature – and with each other – it’s inevitable that at least some of those trips won’t turn out quite as expected,” Burnett said. “In the aftermath of some of the more bizarre or humorous situations, most park rangers have remarked more than once, ‘Somebody really ought to write a book!’ After I retired, I decided to do just that.”

Whittlesey, now park historian for Yellowstone, wrote in his introduction that “Many visitors to Yellowstone and other national parks enter the gates with a false sense of security.

These persons wrongly believe that the animals are tame, and that the place surely is a lot like a city park, with wings, horseshoe pits, golf courses, swimming pools, and total safety – a place where lawns are watered and mowed regularly and fallen tree branches are picked up and carted away, all nicely managed, nicely sanitized. But national parks are not like that; they are places where nature and history are preserved intact. And intact nature includes dangers.” Both Burnett and Whittlesey agree that national parks, and especially Yellowstone, are NOT Disneyland.

“I look at these stories as case histories on human nature,” said Burnett, “how people react to alien environments. Some do well and others don’t.” That’s true, agreed Whittlesey. He’s chronicled 300 fatalities at Yellowstone, and, while a few could be considered “acts of God,” most can be chalked up to poor judgment, not paying attention or even ignoring the posted rules and regulations. The tip-off for Whittlesey that a visitor could get into trouble, is what Whittlesey terms “a wild look in the eyes.”

Yes, The Animals are Wild

Case in point is the young man Whittlesey wrote about in his book. “While rangering in the Mammoth Visitor Center one summer, I was approached by a man with a wild look in his eyes. I’ve learned to recognize that confused look as a sign that a visitor wants to ask a question, so I asked him whether I could help him. “He said, ‘Can you tell me something? These animals that are just running around out here, they couldn’t be wild, could they, or you just wouldn’t have them running around loose?’

Looking at an accident just waiting to happen, Whittlesey spent 15 minutes trying to give that visitor a little grounding in reality by emphasizing that yes, these animals are real, they are wild and they can hurt or kill you if you get too close to them. Visitors can be fined if they violate rules to stay at least 25 yards away from wild animals and 100 yards away from bears, said Whittlesey. Burnett agrees that the wild or confused look in the eyes is a good clue that someone could get into trouble.

First-time Campers

He also gets a quick read on visitors by how they handle backing boats down a boat ramp into water, or backing a camper trailer into a campground spot. Losing a vehicle in the lake or smashing into trees is a good indicator that someone’s out of their native element, said Burnett. Then there’s how not to erect a tent as the classic tip-off. “It is amazing how often people borrow a neighbor’s tent, without ever having practiced how to set it up,” mused Burnett. It seems there are thousands of configurations for how to erect a tent, and all too often one of the tent pole pieces is missing, he said. For some reason, discovery of the missing piece seems to often occur late at night or during a rainstorm. “That’s when I often hear imprecations for divine intervention,” Burnett said.

Funny FAQs

The official policy of the National Park Service, and of Yellowstone National Park, is not to make fun of tourists. However, Whittlesey said the public likes to hear funny stories, especially when it happens to someone else. He said gas station attendants at Old Faithful used to keep a typed list of the classic questions from tourists, including:

-At what altitude does a deer become an elk?

-How big does a deer have to be to become an elk?

-Does the river run downstream?

Burnett said he was once stationed at Olympic National Park in the rainforest country of Washington. For a rare and wonderful change, the summer sky was deep blue and cloudless as a tour bus drove up. “There was this little old lady clutching an umbrella under her arm as she approached the visitor center,” said Burnett. “She came up to the counter and demanded to know why it wasn’t raining. Sometimes you can’t get around people’s preconceptions.”

Oh look at that cute animal!

Preconceptions that wild animals are cute or harmless can have tragic results. Whittlesey has several accounts of camera-laden tourists gored by bison or mauled by bears that just moments before were “just the cutest thing.” Retired Ranger Dan Moses reported that a group of foreign visitors had exited their bus to take pictures of bison grazing in the Fountain Flats area. “A man, his wife, and small child had walked away from the bus and into the field near the bison. When I pulled up I saw the man attempting to hold the child above the bison’s head so the wife could get a picture that looked like the child was on the bison’s back. Luckily the bison was content grazing and did not charge. I was able to get on my vehicle PA system and ask the couple to walk slowly away. All turned out well, but could easily have had a different ending.”

Aha Moments

Still, Burnett and Whittlesey agreed that there are moments when rangers can watch a face light up and “get it.” “Those are what I call the ‘Ahaa’ moments, when in the course of an interpretive hike, a one-on-one encounter or a campfire talk, you can see someone catch on,” said Burnett. What follows can be a lifelong passion and interest in the national parks and wildlife, he said. “Years later,” said Whittlesey, “people will come up and say they remember me or another ranger, or a bus tour guide, and say we said something that really changed their lives.”

An encounter between a park ranger and a visitor can be funny or tragic, but mostly it comes down to the giving and receiving of information and some interpretation. And it often leads to the visitor’s deeper appreciation of this wondrous world and a commitment to protect it.

Members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees contributed these memorable stories to the Yellowstone Journal:

— This occurred when I was Chief Park Naturalist (at Yellowstone) in the 70s. A visitor who obviously had seen enough of the park stopped at the Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs and asked the ranger on duty, “How do I get out of this place?” “Just continue five miles to the North Entrance at Gardiner,” was the reply. “I don’t want an entrance! I want an exit!!” he retorted.

— Alan Mebane I was on snowmobile patrol, and as I entered one of the park’s scenic pullouts between Old Faithful and Madison Junction, I saw two visitors chasing two coyotes across the parking lot in different directions. This seemed a bit odd, so I stopped to investigate. Well, one coyote had a day pack in his mouth, and the other a snowmobile helmet. As it turned out, the snowmobilers had stopped at the pullout and had fed the coyotes some crackers from the backpack and then left for a walk around the geyser basin. As they were returning, they saw the coyotes around their snowmobiles. Well, one of the coyotes had ripped the pack from the snowmobile and was making off with it, and the other had taken a liking to the hair gel inside the helmet and was making off with that as well. The last we saw of either coyote they were heading into the woods. Needless to say, the visitors had no chance of catching them in the deep snow.

— Dan Moses At various times throughout my 34-year career with the NPS, I have been asked to participate in the distribution of cremated remains of family members and friends. Although this is now prohibited in many park areas, it was a common practice up until the 80s. During the time that I worked at Haleakala NP on the Island of Maui, Hawaii, we received a number of such requests. On one occasion when we were asked to participate in the scattering of ashes at sunrise, I accompanied the family to the summit and helped them select a secluded area away from the more frequently visited overlooks. As we approached the rim of the crater there was a light breeze blowing, but it did not appear to be of any consequence. After a few moments of silence and meditation, one of the family members opened the container and poured out the contents over the edge of the rim. What happened next was totally unexpected. The ashes were caught in a fairly strong updraft, made a quick return and amply coated all of us from head to toe. After quickly recovering from the initial surprise, someone began laughing, which prompted us all to join in almost uncontrollably. Once we regained our composure, we brushed each other off as best we could, and someone commented that the departed relative was going to receive a much wider distribution than what was originally intended, which caused another round of laughter. The family was not at all upset by the events, and, by mutual consent, decided that their deceased relative had indeed gotten the last laugh.

— Barry Cooper The Mesa Verde visitor center exhibits explain that Gustav von Nordenskold excavated cliff dwellings in the late 19th and early 20th century over a period of about 16 years. I once stood next to a man and his wife in silent awe looking at one of the many spectacular ruins. As they turned to leave, the man said: “If old Nordenskold put all these up in only 16 years, he had a lot of help.” I have a postcard printed in the late 30s or early 40s showing a lady tourist asking the park ranger, “Why did the early Pueblo people build so far from railroads?” My father, who was Superintendent at Bandelier National Monument, said they actually got that question on occasion.

— Bill Binnewies In the early 70s, I was Superintendent of Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah. The caves are located high up on a mountainside. The visitor drives up the canyon, parks and enters the Visitor Center, pays a fee (it was 50 cents then), and struggles for about an hour up a 1,065-foot rise on a hot, switchback trail to the cave entrance, where they are guided through the caves by rangers. While there, visitors have the opportunity to sign a “guest book,” and offer comments. One portly lady from N.Y., I believe, struggled mightily up the trail, and wrote the following: “Boy, I’m sure glad I didn’t buy a dollar’s worth of this!” This story was printed in Reader’s Digest. Incidentally, a common question at all “cave parks” is: “How many miles of undiscovered cave do you have here?” Of course the rangers reply that they will let them know as soon as they are discovered. ––Don Castleberry