The Corp of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark were the o
first whites to explore the greater Yellowstone region among them was one of the most celebrated hunter and woodsman of that period, John Colter. On the return of the expedition in 1908, Colter returned to the Yellowstone and trap this region and in doing so became the first white visitor to what is now Yellowstone National Park. Upon his return, his "tales" were so unbelievable that no author or mapmaker would publish it for fear of scrutiny amongst their piers.
Colters stories about the wonders and wildlife, led the fur traders to explore the Yellowstone regions. Most of the mountain men during that era were experienced in trapping and survival, they were also illiterate. Fortunately, Osborn Russell was unique, he knew how to trap, read and write and his journals are the earliest accounts of the Yellowstone region.
"There is something in the wild scenery of this valley which I cannot describe: but the impressions made upon my mind while gazing from a high eminence on the surrounding landscape one evening as the sun was gently gliding behind the western mountain and casting its gigantic shadows across the vale were such as time can never efface. For my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor" - Lamar Valley, Osborne Russell 1835
"I sat there in amazement, while my companions came up, and after that, it seemed to me it was 5 minutes before anyone spoke. Language is inadequate to convey a just conception of the grandeur and sublimity of this masterpiece of nature's handiwork" Artist Point - Charles Cook 1869
In the latter part of 1840 the fur trade was coming to an end. The trappers who remained in the region adapted and among them was the distinguished, Jim Bridger. Bridger, a natural born topographer, new the fur trade was over and became a guide, scout and legendary story teller. His knowledge of what is now Yellowstone National Park was unparalleled and he became the first "geographer" of the region and was summoned to guide Capt. W.F Raynolds including Dr. Ferdinand Hayden and the Raynold's Expedition of 1859. Due to the expeditions schedule and uncompromising weather this first organized exploration of the Yellowstone region was unsuccessful.
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During the 1850's to 1870, miners inhabited the Yellowstone and in doing so helped to publicize the region however with not much more credibility than their trapper predecessors. In 1863, Walter Delacy and his party set out to prospect through the Yellowstone. Although the party was equipped with prospector tools and no survey equipment, his party made many new discoveries including Shoshone and Lewis Lake he also published the first map of the Yellowstone area. By 1870, gold fever was gone and the great Yellowstone expeditions began.
In 1869, D.E. Folsom, William Peterson and C.W. Cook completed the first successful privately organized Yellowstone expedition. After 36 days, they completed their quest and returned back to Helena, Montana to publish their findings only at first to receive the same response as John Colter and Jim Bridger, that their story was too risky. Eventually their exploits were published by the Western Monthly Magazine of Chicago.
One year after the Folsom-Cook party reported about the wonders of Yellowstone, Gen. Henry D. Washburn organized the next expedition into Yellowstone. His party included Nathaniel P Langford and a military escort led by Gustavus C.Doane. This Party was responsible in the early place names of Yellowstone National Park's most historical sites including Old Faithful,Castle Geyser,Giant Geyser and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This was a successful expedition in terms of their credibility in verifying and naming early historic landmarks. The mission was not without hardship when one of the party members, Truman C. Everts became lost and endured a 37 day ordeal to finally be rescued by Jack Baronett. Upon the return of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, the leaders of the party set out in their own specific ways by lectures and print (no www.YellowstoneNationlPark.com back then). During one of Langford's lectures. Dr. Ferdinand Hayden was in attendance.
Hayden proceeded to capitalize on the current interest in the Yellowstone region by asking Congress for funds for an official expedition into the Yellowstone region. With influential friends seated in Congress at that time, it did not take long before he was granted appropriations for $40,000 for a geographical survey to investigate the Missouri and Yellowstone territories. Hayden assembled his dream team including James Stevenson, Albert Peale, William Jackson and Thomas Moran. The artists and photographer proved to be invaluable to the expedition for their paintings and photographs served as dramatic and effective testimonials in favor of establishing the park. Along with new discoveries and place names the party collected geological, botanical, zoological specimens, sketches, photographs and countless volumes of exploration notes. This collection of data was brought before the public and congress. The bill's chief supporters convinced their colleagues that the region's real value was as a park area, to be preserved in its natural state. On March 1, President Grant signed the bill into law, establishing the Yellowstone region as a public park and setting a major conservation precedent. The Nation had its first national park; an area of exceptional beauty was set aside for the enjoyment of generations to come, and a tradition of preserving similar areas was established.
Retailers have the expression that you “open your doors and the public comes in.” That’s equally true for the National Park Service and certainly for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. A broad range of humanity drives, walks, bikes or snowmobiles into our national parks and they bring with them all of society’s strengths and weaknesses. Visitors prove themselves, again and again, capable of great courtesy, kindness and understanding, as well as folly and foolishness. That’s seen very clearly in two books by two different National Park rangers. Newly published is Jim Burnett’s Hey Ranger!, a compilation of mostly funny, some weird and a few tragic tales while he served in eight national parks, plus a smattering of funny stories from 28 other national parks he’s gleaned around the country.
On a more sobering note is Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, by Yellowstone’s Lee Whittlesey, published in 1995. “Last year there were about 276 million visits to National Park Service sites across the U.S. When you bring that many people into close contact with Mother Nature – and with each other – it’s inevitable that at least some of those trips won’t turn out quite as expected,” Burnett said. “In the aftermath of some of the more bizarre or humorous situations, most park rangers have remarked more than once, ‘Somebody really ought to write a book!’ After I retired, I decided to do just that.”
Whittlesey, now park historian for Yellowstone, wrote in his introduction that “Many visitors to Yellowstone and other national parks enter the gates with a false sense of security.
These persons wrongly believe that the animals are tame, and that the place surely is a lot like a city park, with wings, horseshoe pits, golf courses, swimming pools, and total safety – a place where lawns are watered and mowed regularly and fallen tree branches are picked up and carted away, all nicely managed, nicely sanitized. But national parks are not like that; they are places where nature and history are preserved intact. And intact nature includes dangers.” Both Burnett and Whittlesey agree that national parks, and especially Yellowstone, are NOT Disneyland.
“I look at these stories as case histories on human nature,” said Burnett, “how people react to alien environments. Some do well and others don’t.” That’s true, agreed Whittlesey. He’s chronicled 300 fatalities at Yellowstone, and, while a few could be considered “acts of God,” most can be chalked up to poor judgment, not paying attention or even ignoring the posted rules and regulations. The tip-off for Whittlesey that a visitor could get into trouble, is what Whittlesey terms “a wild look in the eyes.”
Yes, The Animals are Wild
Case in point is the young man Whittlesey wrote about in his book. “While rangering in the Mammoth Visitor Center one summer, I was approached by a man with a wild look in his eyes. I’ve learned to recognize that confused look as a sign that a visitor wants to ask a question, so I asked him whether I could help him. “He said, ‘Can you tell me something? These animals that are just running around out here, they couldn’t be wild, could they, or you just wouldn’t have them running around loose?’
Looking at an accident just waiting to happen, Whittlesey spent 15 minutes trying to give that visitor a little grounding in reality by emphasizing that yes, these animals are real, they are wild and they can hurt or kill you if you get too close to them. Visitors can be fined if they violate rules to stay at least 25 yards away from wild animals and 100 yards away from bears, said Whittlesey. Burnett agrees that the wild or confused look in the eyes is a good clue that someone could get into trouble.
He also gets a quick read on visitors by how they handle backing boats down a boat ramp into water, or backing a camper trailer into a campground spot. Losing a vehicle in the lake or smashing into trees is a good indicator that someone’s out of their native element, said Burnett. Then there’s how not to erect a tent as the classic tip-off. “It is amazing how often people borrow a neighbor’s tent, without ever having practiced how to set it up,” mused Burnett. It seems there are thousands of configurations for how to erect a tent, and all too often one of the tent pole pieces is missing, he said. For some reason, discovery of the missing piece seems to often occur late at night or during a rainstorm. “That’s when I often hear imprecations for divine intervention,” Burnett said.
The official policy of the National Park Service, and of Yellowstone National Park, is not to make fun of tourists. However, Whittlesey said the public likes to hear funny stories, especially when it happens to someone else. He said gas station attendants at Old Faithful used to keep a typed list of the classic questions from tourists, including:
-At what altitude does a deer become an elk?
-How big does a deer have to be to become an elk?
-Does the river run downstream?
Burnett said he was once stationed at Olympic National Park in the rainforest country of Washington. For a rare and wonderful change, the summer sky was deep blue and cloudless as a tour bus drove up. “There was this little old lady clutching an umbrella under her arm as she approached the visitor center,” said Burnett. “She came up to the counter and demanded to know why it wasn’t raining. Sometimes you can’t get around people’s preconceptions.”
Oh look at that cute animal!
Preconceptions that wild animals are cute or harmless can have tragic results. Whittlesey has several accounts of camera-laden tourists gored by bison or mauled by bears that just moments before were “just the cutest thing.” Retired Ranger Dan Moses reported that a group of foreign visitors had exited their bus to take pictures of bison grazing in the Fountain Flats area. “A man, his wife, and small child had walked away from the bus and into the field near the bison. When I pulled up I saw the man attempting to hold the child above the bison’s head so the wife could get a picture that looked like the child was on the bison’s back. Luckily the bison was content grazing and did not charge. I was able to get on my vehicle PA system and ask the couple to walk slowly away. All turned out well, but could easily have had a different ending.”
Still, Burnett and Whittlesey agreed that there are moments when rangers can watch a face light up and “get it.” “Those are what I call the ‘Ahaa’ moments, when in the course of an interpretive hike, a one-on-one encounter or a campfire talk, you can see someone catch on,” said Burnett. What follows can be a lifelong passion and interest in the national parks and wildlife, he said. “Years later,” said Whittlesey, “people will come up and say they remember me or another ranger, or a bus tour guide, and say we said something that really changed their lives.”
An encounter between a park ranger and a visitor can be funny or tragic, but mostly it comes down to the giving and receiving of information and some interpretation. And it often leads to the visitor’s deeper appreciation of this wondrous world and a commitment to protect it.