Vernal Fall

Yosemite’s Vernal Fall, where three hikers were swept to their deaths in July after climbing over a guard rail to take photos. Seventeen people have perished in the park this year.

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 20 years since Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s in the infamous “hot coffee” case. Ms. Liebeck claimed McDonald’s should have warned her about the excessively hot temperature of its coffee after she spilled it on her lap while sitting in her car trying to affix a lid. The jury that awarded her $2.9 million apparently agreed.

While I would not wish to downplay the third-degree burns this elderly woman incurred, the case has come to represent in the minds of many an overly litigious culture in which individuals reject the responsibility to look after their own safety through the use of common sense.

Mountain Goats

Warning: Don’t try this at home.

At least that’s what I thought of when I read Timothy Egan’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Nature Without the Nanny State. Egan describes a curious warning he saw on the Forest Service website while planning a hike in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness: “Aggressive mountain goats have been reported. Use caution and move away.”

Egan’s response was along the lines of “Well, duh!” But he said the government’s admonition came about after the fatal goring of a hiker by a rogue goat last year in Olympic National Park, which spurred a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit by the victim’s family.

Egan also noted warnings from rangers to Yosemite visitors about not wearing flip-flops on the slick, rocky Mist Trail to Vernal Fall, and not swimming in the turbulent pool just above the lip of the 317-foot falls. “Well, duh”!?? Yet 17 people have died in the park so far in 2011 — another hiker today in a 2,500-foot fall from face of Half Dome — largely due to failure to exercise reasonable caution around natural dangers.

The conundrum, Egan says, is this: “More than ever, an urban nation plagued by obesity, sloth and a surfeit of digital entertainment should encourage people to experience the wild — but does that mean nature has to be tame and lawyer-vetted?”

I hope not. Else we risk neutering nature of just the wild power it has to nourish our souls.

I remember the striking difference between my visit to Mexico’s Copper Canyon versus the South Rim of the Grand Canyon around the Visitor Center. While it’s been a few years since I gaped into the 6,000-foot-deep chasm from the rim at Divisadero, and it’s possible that guardrails may have since been erected, I remember being struck by their absence.


Copper Canyon overlook at Divisadero

Obviously this was Mexico, where lawsuits aren’t rampant like they are in the U.S. There was something very welcome, and powerful, about standing there with over a mile of space between me and the shadowed river bottom, no human-made barriers to interrupt the view of rock and sky.

Likewise, on a backpacking trip to Wyoming’s Wind River Range last summer, I was well aware there were grizzly in the area — but I was grateful there were no warning signs that would have marred our remote campsite setting below the Cirque of the Towers.

I, however, was raised on hiking trails and wilderness lakes, a pack and paddle as familiar to me then as joysticks and iPods are now. When kids don’t even play outside anymore or walk in the woods near their homes, it’s perhaps no wonder a whole generation seems to think of a place like Yellowstone as just another theme park — except these aren’t the animatronic bears of Frontierland.

If we’ve got a nation full of city folk and sedentary suburbanites unfamiliar with how to approach the natural world, perhaps the best response is a campaign to get everyone to spend more time in nature, especially children. Outdoor education ought to be as much a part of the curriculum as standard academic subjects. Kids need to learn to ‘read’ nature as they learn to read books, or music, because nature has as much to teach us.

When kids can grow up understanding the power of a river at high water, the cross-pull of a riptide, the fragility of an ice shelf or the instability of a loose scree slope, they will be on their way to loving nature even more because they respect it. Because isn’t nature’s raw potency a central part of its beauty? Such education can start at any time — for adults as well.

Nature PrincipleIndeed, as Richard Louv writes in his new book The Nature Principle, the more high-tech we become, the more we need to “develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and…balance the virtual with the real.”

We won’t fully embrace the restorative gifts of nature if we build obstacles between ourselves and wilderness through excessive risk management. When fear impedes our encounters, we miss out on meeting nature in the fullness of its glory.

Here’s my advice: wear Vibram soles, stay away from the brink of waterfalls and crumbling canyon rims, and don’t let your quest for a photo override logic when it comes to wild animals. The lessons are pretty simple. Let’s teach them through experience in the field, not through ever more signs, barriers and restrictions.

Yours for adventure,