Friday, August 5, 2011

Death in Yellowstone, by Lee H. Whittlesey

Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, by Lee H. Whittlesey.  Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1995.  276 pp.  1-57098-021-7.

... in which we learn of all the gruesome ways an unlucky person can die in Yellowstone National Park. 

Death in Yellowstone chronicles many different deaths that have occurred in Yellowstone National Park during its long history.  This is not a book for the squeamish, and it's not a happy read, but it's really fascinating in a morbid sort of way.    The book is divided into two main sections: Death by Nature, and Death by Man.  Death by Nature is divided up into sections like death by hot water, death by wild animals, death by poisonous gas, death by lightning, death by avalanche, etc.  Death by Man is divided into chapters on death in war, death by murder, death by stagecoach crash, death by structural fire, etc.

I started this book in May, but it proved to be such a grim read that I decided to read it in chunks, slowly.  The first chapter, Death in Hot Water, is both the longest and most interesting and most gruesome chapter.  Yellowstone is probably most famous for its geysers and hot water features, though apparently not all visitors are aware of just how hot the water is.  Most of the features are at or above the boiling temperature of water, but that doesn't stop people from hopping in for a swim, or jumping in after their runaway dog, or fooling around on the boardwalk and falling in on accident.  I won't describe to you what happened to these people who basically boiled to death (!!!!), but it wasn't pretty.

Grand Prismatic Spring.  Beautiful but also hot and deadly. No swimming.
The chapters on animal-related deaths (mostly bison and bears) were also interesting, and far, far less gruesome.  I guess I have a skewed perception of what kinds of things should fall under the realm of "common sense", but I sort of feel like people should know better than to try to pet the bison, or to put their child on a bear's back because it's a "perfect photo opportunity".  Nevertheless, apparently these sorts of activities are common in Yellowstone.  Visitors to the park will recognize this flier, which park rangers hand out to everyone who enters the park:

The second half of the book, death by man, is a lot less interesting, probably because it loses that "Darwin Awards" feel and becomes a lot more mundane.  This part of the book kind of dragged by, and I found myself skimming large parts of the text.  I don't mean to imply that some deaths are worthy of more attention than other deaths, but reading about people mauled by bears is somewhat more interesting than reading about people who died because their stagecoach fell over, or because their cabin caught on fire.

Do not pet the bison, he is a wild animal and has sharp horns.  Do not touch the water; it's gushing and steaming because it's REALLY HOT.

I'm not really sure what it says about human nature (or my nature) when books like this one, or the Darwin Awards series, get published, but gruesome, unusual deaths are usually pretty attention-catching.  I'm also not sure what it says about humans when it gets to the point that we need posted warnings to tell us to not pet the wild animals and to not swim in the boiling water.  To be fair to the author, Lee Whittlesey, most of the stories are told with more sensitivity than is found in the Darwin Awards books.  For many of the older events in the books, he tries to give some historical context, and in many cases he gives credit where credit is due if bystanders valiantly tried to prevent a death from occurring.

I hope that people don't read books like this (or news articles about the many recent deaths in Yosemite National Park) and decide that the parks aren't worth visiting; instead, I hope that people take these lessons to heart and realize that these places aren't zoos and aren't just there for your viewing pleasure.  In the end, Death in Yellowstone serves as a set of cautionary tales about why visitors should always be careful in wild, untamed parts of nature, but it turns into a dull history lesson when it turns to the more human-centered deaths in the park.  I do give the author credit for not trying to glamorize any of the deaths by leaving out gruesome details, but those same details make for a sometimes unpleasant (but educational) read.

Recommended reading for people interested in National Park history and wilderness survival... but only if the reader can handle a sometimes gritty read.

4/5 stars

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