Sunday, February 08, 2009

Outdoor reading - accidents and mortality

I enjoy reading books and magazine and web articles about backcountry accidents and death, and I hope that I gain insight about how to avoid becoming a backcountry statistic from them. For instance, I read the blog Hiker Hell and the NPS Morning Report regularly, I've read the 3 books entitled Death in {Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite} (not all by the same authors), and I've read several books about wildlife attacks both in North America and elsewhere. While some of this interest is probably common morbid fascination, there are other reasons. Clearly I'm not alone in my interest in the more morbid aspects of backcountry, otherwise such books would not be publishable.

Books on animal attacks are interesting both from a perspective of avoiding or surviving such attacks and because I'm interested in animal behavior. My education is as a biologist and even though I haven't worked in biology for 25 years, I still maintain my interest. I'm most inclined to read books on bear and large cats, and I can rationalize my interest as avoiding such attacks although this breaks down for tigers or African lions.

Death in Yellowstone has historic interest as well as sociological and legal interest as it offers a brief view of how the NPS has evolved attitudes toward visitor safety. It also offers some history on the NPS's changing views on animal and resource preservation as opposed to visitor accessibility and generally allowed behavior in parks. Now few parks allow hunting, tree cutting, or mineral collection but this was not always true. The book also warns me and others about behavior that I wouldn't necessarily consider foolish. I've talked to parents of small children who told me that the book caused them to control their children much more carefully than normally, the hot pools are attractive to children who are too young to understand the dangers. And while I am aware of rock and animal dangers from caves and rock overhangs, I wouldn't otherwise have thought about noxious gases (Chapter 5).

Both Death in the Grand Canyon and Death in Yosemite are more explicitly concerned with how to avoid serious injury and death as is the blog Hiker Hell. These state mistakes hikers make and situations to avoid to reduce risk. I may not follow all of their suggestions, I continue to hike alone, but they provide common sense information about what to avoid and what to do. The NPS Morning Report rarely provides me with information I can use about parks but reads like a litany of human folly. The deaths are usually due to suicide, vehicle accidents, and drowning flavored with drug and alcohol abuse. I'm not immune to these but they are often not backcountry related and are more standard "civilized" risks.