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Unnatural Death in Yellowstone and How to Avoid It

Q&A with author of Death in Yellowstone book, park historian Lee Whittlesey, including his favorite stories and what scares him.

Back in the early ‘90s, then-Yellowstone museum technician Lee Whittlesey had the killer idea to compile all the “unnatural” deaths—that is, those not caused by run-of-the-mill car accidents or heart attacks—that have occurred in Yellowstone through the years. There were enough to fill a book, and so Whittlesey wrote the fascinating Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park.

Nine years later, Whittlesey released the second edition of the book, updated with more than 60 new tales of demise. We caught up with Whittlesey, who was then park historian, to discuss true threats, stupid visitors, and what just might be the scariest fate of all at Yellowstone. Whittlesey retired April 29, 2018, from the National Park Service.

The author Lee Whittlesey
The author of Death in Yellowstone, Lee WhittleseyPhoto by Rocco Paperiello

National Park Trips: What inspired you to write about such a morbid subject?

Lee Whittlesey: A bunch of park employees were sitting around years ago, 1992, I think. We were talking about what books were important for tour guiding, and somebody suggested, “I know the book that ought to be written—a book about the ways people get themselves killed in the park.” Immediately as she said that, I saw the chapters unrolling in front of my eyes.

NPT: Why update the book now?

LW: One, there had been numerous fatalities that had occurred since the first edition. Two, through my years of researching, I’d stumbled on many other stories that had heretofore been lost to history. And third, I knew there had been updates in the law of the national parks. I wanted to make sure all that stuff was in there, too.

NPT: You write in your book about the balance between ensuring visitor safety and preserving wilderness. Who should take the blame when someone dies in the park?

LW: The park has certain legal duties. We have a duty to warn of hidden and obvious dangers—that would include wild animals, and the signs are everywhere. But you get these people who come in from the city, and they think it’s Disneyland.

Yellowstone is not Disneyland.

Here, you take nature as it comes. You can get hurt or killed here. We have big animals that can kill and literally eat you. When people insist on walking up to pet a bison or feed a grizzly bear… Then there are the hot springs. People hear “hot springs,” they think, “Can I bathe in it?” No! These are boiling. People can be incredibly dumb. I hate to say it, but it’s true. In an incident, the general rule is that negligence is involved, and it’s almost always the person who got hurt who is negligent.

Sign warning of dangerous ground conditions at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone.
Sign warning of dangerous ground conditions at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone. (Photo: Gloria Wadzinski)

NPT: Someone picking up your book might get the impression that Yellowstone is a very dangerous place. Is that true?

LW: It can be. If the book keeps us all a little safer, all the better.

We’re not trying to terrify anybody. We’re trying to face reality about what the threats are. That’s part of the charm, the adventure, the fun.

In my opinion, if you cannot get killed and eaten by a wild animal, then you don’t have a true wilderness area.

NPT: Any advice for precautions visitors can take?

LW: In each chapter, I give specific rules about how to avoid that threat. Generally, just don’t do the things listed on page xxii of the book. [Editors’ note: That includes activities like hiking alone, skiing into blizzards alone, climbing over guardrails, drinking too much, and jumping in rivers even though you can’t swim.]

NPT: Do you have a “favorite” story in the book?

LW: That’s a hard question. I think all the stories in the bear chapter are pretty gripping. And they teach lessons about what to do and what not to do in bear country.

NPT: Which of the park’s dangers scares you the most?

LW: A hot spring. The idea of falling into one just terrifies me. If you read the chapter, you’ll see why. Grizzly bears would be second. Probably bison third.

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Buy the book at your local bookstore or on Amazon.