Saturday, March 1, 2008

Photography in National Parks - Be Aware, Not Afraid

Our National Parks are wild, beautiful and all too often dangerous, especially for tourists with cameras. I have often seen people so caught up with recording their experience that they put themselves and others in danger. They are so focused on their equipment, or taking that memorable photo, that they lose track of what is happening around them. Animals in their natural habitat can be protective, annoyed and territorial. Between the years 1991 to 2001, an average of 177 fatalities occurred per year in the United States as a result of animal and human contact, according to a study published by the Wilderness Medical Society (not just national parks). With over 275 million visitors to U.S. national parks last year the number of deaths and injuries may not seem high, unless it happens to you or someone you know

While visiting Yellowstone National Park, which has the largest concentration of wildlife in the continental United States, I witnessed one father encouraging his two children, who were standing with their backs to a large bison, to step back a few steps so he could get a picture of them with the huge animal. I wasn’t close enough to say anything and didn’t want to yell or run toward them for fear of startling the bison. I watched and held my breath. After what seemed like a very long time, the picture was taken without incident and the kids ran to the car for the next photo op. As I watched this foolhardy suburbanite drive away, I turned my attention to the grazing bison. To my amazement, I saw another man, who had been watching the family in front of the bison, step forward and try to put his daughter on top of the grazing animal as if it were a donkey ride at the local bazaar. Fortunately, a ranger driving nearby stopped them. While these bison look like grazing cattle, they can be unpredictable. Even an accidental bump from a 2000-pound bison can cause considerable damage.

National Parks may seem safe because of their similarity to zoos. Both have paid admission at the entrance, a visitor center with concessions, uniformed personnel, descriptive signage and even areas marked where to stand for great photos. While these parks may appear safe, you need to be alert. The animals and reptiles in National Parks are not part of a petting zoo. You should be at least 25 yards from large animals like moose, bison, and elk, and 100 yards (the distance of a football field) if you are near a bear. Most parks, like Yellowstone, have free literature and videos on park safety. Be sure to read all you can about the area you are visiting. You should never feed wild animals. Be respectful of every animal and bird, let them have their space.

In addition to being aware of the dangers from wildlife there is also the natural environment about which you need to be knowledgeable. Hot springs, posionous plants, avalanches, falling rocks, and exposure to the elements can all kill or severely disable adventurers of various sill and experience. So, to ensure that you get the best pictures from your ventures into our beautiful outback safely, take notice of your surroundings before you say “cheese”.