Harming Nature Through Human Nature

In the past couple of weeks as I write this post in November 2014, a rogue artist from New York has been in the news for vandalising some of America’s national parks with artistic graffiti. As expected, this activity has been condemned by both national park rangers and the public. Type ‘lady defacing national parks’ into Google and the top searches begin with the terms ‘awful person’ and ‘terrible human’. The perpetrator has been slammed for drawing these images and uploading them to Instagram, i.e. for seeking fame and attention at the expense of nature.

I of course was also appalled when I heard about these acts , especially as I have many special memories of the magnificent topography in some of the victimised parks – including Canyonlands and Zion – that were formed only weeks before these images were drawn. But then I thought about this issue some more and asked myself: regardless of spray-paint, are tourists not already defacing the nature of the parks? Through our own desires to find fame from capturing the best photo of a wild animal, are we camera-crazy (albeit well-meaning) humans not causing harm too? Harm that is subtle and unintended in nature, but still damaging to nature’s routine.

The other day I read the George Orwell classic ‘Animal Farm’. Published in 1945 and banned in the USSR for its anti-Stalin sentiment, the beginning of the story involves the animals of a farm rising up in rebellion against their greedy human owner and establishing control of the farm themselves. As I read the (highly-recommended) novel, I thought back to the encounters I had with wildlife during my American road trip this past summer.

I thought about the Rocky Mountain goats in Glacier National Park being woken from their afternoon naps by invading tourists trying to take a photo of their babies. Often the mother goat would nudge her kid to its feet and they would trot off to find a new secret place – something hard to find on the particularly popular Hidden Lake Overlook trail. People would watch them go almost offended, as if it was an insult for an animal to reject human advances.

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I thought about the bison in Yellowstone demanding that traffic come to a standstill while they marched across the road to new pastures. For all I know, their deep grunts were a sign of resentment towards the cars that clogged the man-made partition of their resources. I was surprised at how gentle they were; they were more than capable of causing damage to the monstrous RV that obstructed their path, by bashing their huge heads against its artificial walls in a determined declaration of  “We were here first.”

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I thought about the regular signs on the roads of Yosemite that reminded tourists to drive carefully, citing recent bear fatalities (reports state that so far this year, the figure is at 25). How ironic that in our quest to see a bear, we actually end up killing them? We contradict the whole purpose of a national park to conserve a species. It is in Yosemite’s campgrounds that keeping food in cars is prohibited, since recently a few bears learned how to open doors. These bears were then destroyed to prevent the trait being learned by others and to avoid human casualties. But is it not humans that are invading the bears’ space, rather than vice versa?

Finally, I thought about the large group of elk on Highway 101 just outside Redwood National Park, who caused a traffic jam when they decided to block part of the road. I remembered a man with long hair who drove a VW campervan videoing the scene and asking out-loud, “What does this mean, animals blocking a man-made road?” At first I had smiled to myself at this apparent hippy-expressionism, then I realised that he actually raised an interesting question. Was this group behaviour a form of defiance against man’s interference in nature?

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Does our greed as humans for viewings of rare wildlife touch on the verge of exploitation? Are we not slightly reminiscent of the white man colonising sparse lands in order to generate revenue, killing native inhabitants in the process? It should be mentioned that it is because bison were brought under conservation in Yellowstone that the species was protected from poaching and was subsequently able to grow in numbers within the last century. But back when the park was established in 1872, who was to know that these animals would eventually become the target of the tourist paparazzi? For it has become human nature to stalk the world’s rarest wildlife through a lens.

Obviously tourists, including myself, want to get a close look at wildlife; it’s only human nature. Personally however, I try to respect animals’ privacy in doing so and not disturb them from their natural state. It’s the same way that I would attempt to be discreet if taking a photo of a human stranger doing something interesting, if it was a situation where asking for permission would ruin the moment. Animals have no voice to give consent and therefore cannot be ‘asked’ in the way we humans are familiar with, but that doesn’t mean they condone the behaviour.

After reading ‘Animal Farm’ and thinking about these issues, it almost seems plausible to imagine these animals calling for a revolution against us human tourists.

But then there is the issue of squirrels. At first, it’s cute and endearing when the tame, chubby ones in Zion scamper over to your feet and look up expectantly for food with their tiny paws out like Oliver Twist. Even my friend and I were at first caught in the trap of taking photos and ‘awwww’ing at them. However, you then see them picking on the skinnier squirrels, consequently depriving them of food. Like in ‘Animal Farm’, those animals that interact with humans benefit, and it becomes the case that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. If humans weren’t feeding these squirrels, the inequality within the species would be smaller. Like the British Raj in India, it seems that human tourists have cemented power through a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Perhaps if the intrusive human presence left, the animal kingdoms would disintegrate into a state of instability and corruption.

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Of course, I expect many people reading to view the idea of an animal rebellion as an eccentric, far-fetched vision. But it is easy to imagine innocent things, just like it is easy to harm innocent beings. As history has shown, both are only human nature.

 

 

 

 

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Bear in Mind: Preparing for a Scare in Glacier National Park

‘Failure to prepare means preparation to fail’: that’s something we’re told growing up, whether in school or before competitions. You would think the same motto applied to travel, and in most cases it does. However, the most memorable experiences from travelling do not necessarily arise from preparation, but pure unpredictable chance.

When I started my road trip through the USA, I didn’t consider the possibility of seeing a grizzly bear to be very high. Having not seen one in the Canadian Rockies three years earlier (a black bear from inside a bus doesn’t count), I assumed history would repeat itself, regardless of the breed’s higher population in Montana. Only when my travel buddy and I were walking along the interestingly-named Thunder Knob trail in Washington’s North Cascades one morning,  did the prospect of coming across a bear seem greater. A clanging noise grew louder through the trees and we passed a couple in expert hiking gear walking their dog with a bell attached to its collar. My friend looked down at his outfit and said, “Okay, now I feel unprepared.”

Views of Diablo Lake from the Thunder Knob trail

Views of Diablo Lake from the Thunder Knob trail

In Glacier National Park in Montana, tourists are briefed to prepare themselves for seeing a bear. On arrival at the park’s entry stations, drivers are handed leaflets explaining what to do in the event that they encounter one. (Interestingly, this leaflet recommended making occasional bursts of noise, rather than a constant sound.) Bears were described as more likely to avoid human contact than pursue it, but that didn’t make a backcountry hike seem any less risky.

We drove on to Bowman Lake, the secluded ‘primitive’ campground (‘primitive’ meaning there were pit toilets and no showers, hence a subsequent cheaper price of $15 per night). From the park’s west entrance to the campground in the north-west, it’s a 32 mile drive which mostly involves dusty gravel roads, switchbacks and plenty of potholes. Some cars turned back, fed up with the slow-driving conditions. At six miles, Polebridge is the closest ‘village’ to the campground for stocking up on supplies. A small female ranger at the entry station greeted us and we asked her for clarification of what to do upon coming face to face with a grizzly. “Oh well…you know… you just want to show the bear that is has plenty of space to pass,” the lady began slowly in a cute high-pitched voice, tucking some hair behind her ear. “Just stand still and be nice and calm, you know – ‘hey bear’,” the lady’s tone piped higher as she mimed a shy tiny wave that stemmed from her wrist. “Let him know you’re not a threat, you know, just relax…and back off slowly.” We nodded at her and I bit my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of this little lady waving up a grizzly saying “hey bear”.

Many more potholes and tight pull-overs later, we were rewarded for our patience by views of Bowman Lake with its scenic mountainous backdrop, before we found a spot in the rustic campground. Accompanying the descriptions of each 12 mile-return hike was a warning about bears. All these warnings, understandable as they were, made me a little nervous. As we set off on a hike along the Lower Quartz Lake trail, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, occasionally calling out “hey bear!” in a voice that sounded way too wimpy. Blood flowed to the tips of my toes and fingers. I was in flight-mode and instructions saying to stay still and not run away upon meeting a bear did not seem realistically achievable. I certainly wasn’t going to stand there saying hello with a wave…

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

Why was I so worried? This wasn’t like me. Was it because I was with (male) company that I felt a greater excuse to be scared? Or was it because all these warnings increased the expectation of being confronted by a huge animal? It probably didn’t help that my friend, walking behind me, began telling me a story he’d read about a mountain lion leaping from a tree onto a man’s neck in Washington. I laughed sarcastically to suggest I didn’t believe him, all the while glad he was behind so he couldn’t see me scan the trees suspiciously. “I doubt we’ll see one to be honest…” he then said reassuringly, and I felt a little better. “…But if we do and it comes for us, I want you to run away while I distract it.”

I wheeled round and cried for him to stop it, unable to bear the thought (ha). ‘I am never going travelling with a boy again,’ I thought as we carried on up the path, with him now singing a made-up song to a bear in a baritone voice. “Can we turn around now?” I asked a few minutes later. “Are you really that worried?” he asked in surprise. I don’t think I was; I too was starting to believe we wouldn’t see a bear. But the anticipation of doing so was making me skittish, frustrated with the boring trail. “Okay, okay, 10 more ‘hey bears’ and then we’ll head back,” my friend promised. When we got to 10 I turned around and took off running for home, side-stepping tree trunks and skipping roots in the ground. The potential danger had charged me with adrenaline and I felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement as I dashed back along the trail, blood pumping, not looking back. It was a feeling reminiscent of that I’d experienced in BC in 2011. We reached Bowman Lake breathless with fatigue, relief and laughter, and jumped into the glacial lake, fears forgotten in the freezing cold water.

After all the cautions and expectations, we had not seen a grizzly bear. ‘That’s how it always seems to go,’ I thought. Both of us agreed that we probably wouldn’t see one the whole time we were in the park.

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake - the 3rd largest in Glacier National Park

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake – the third largest in Glacier National Park

A day later, we had made our way along the incredible Going-to-the-Sun road and stopped to make sandwiches at the quiet picnic area in St. Mary. As I innocently opened the trunk to find the bread, a French lady nearby started gabbling excitedly to her husband and grabbed a camera. Intrigued, we followed her to the edge of the picnic area where a few other people had gathered, whispering giddily. 20 metres away, a small grizzly strolled casually out of a narrow path and ambled past the picnic benches, oblivious to the humans staring at him in fascination. “He looks pretty young…” my friend remarked pointedly, but still people crept out from the bush to take a closer shot as the bear wandered on absent-mindedly into another pathway. Two couples peeped out from the path the bear came from and called over “Has it gone?” French-couple waved them over. “I’m pretty sure it was a cub,” my friend said louder, but again, his hint wasn’t registered. However, it soon became clear the bear was alone, and people went back to eating their sandwiches, as if nothing had happened. Indeed, it was almost as if it was the thousandth one I’d seen; there was no overwhelming rush of fear or excitement as I had expected, perhaps because I had been bracing myself for this moment for a while, and because the sighting had occurred in a more populous area and with less drama than I had anticipated.

"hey bear"

“hey bear”

A few minutes later, we ourselves walked along the very path the bear had emerged from to sit at the edge of St. Mary Lake. Even though there was a fresh pile of bear dung feet away, decorated oh so prettily with huckleberries, I didn’t feel nervous at all, completely unfazed by the possibility that this bear might return the way it had come. Likewise, the first mile of a hike to Otokomi Lake later that afternoon featured bear droppings every 100 metres or so, but still I felt no fear. Finishing the 10 mile-return trail in one piece, I joked light-heartedly, “Calling out ‘hey bear’ probably wasn’t the most sensible phrase to use.” My anxious anticipation had reduced now that I had actually seen the talk-of-the-town for myself.

Definitely makes the 5-a-day of huckleberries...

With this huckleberry consumption, bears definitely makes one of their 5-a-day…

Our sighting was an experience that many tourists diligently prepare for, researching promising time periods of activity and driving themselves to the most recommended locations before spending hours waiting there, all just to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear. And yet, like forcing oneself to struggle until a math problem is solved or dance routine learned, it seems that trying too hard at sightseeing might even threaten progress. Events happen when you least expect them and are least prepared. It’s easy to get drawn into the hype of potentially seeing a special wild animal in risky circumstances; it’s the expectation created by this hype that can make us more nervous than is perhaps necessary, and subsequently less successful. I feel really lucky to have seen that bear, knowing that many tourists will leave Glacier National Park feeling disappointed about missing out. It almost seems unfair that it happened so easily. Sometimes people simply find themselves in the right place at the right time, and there are no bear necessities when preparing for this type of experience.

Sharing Cars with Strangers in Germany

What was one of the first things your parents told you when you went outside to play? I can imagine it was either “Don’t talk to strangers” or “Don’t get into a car with a stranger”. Well, now you’re older, you can be a little more flexible with that advice. If you’re on a trip at home or abroad alone and make a spontaneous decision to travel somewhere else located a few hours away, chances are that you will pay a pricey fee for a last-minute train. Buses may not run regularly and will take a long time, whilst planes can be an expensive hassle. So why not share a lift with someone? A stranger, that is.

I first became introduced to carpooling when I was in Germany. Help-exchanging at the home of a teacher in Hamburg for a week, I then had to make my way to a village in the Rhineland-Palatinate. As I searched for trains on my host’s laptop one evening, she suggested I try ‘Mitfahrgelegenheit’. I looked at her blankly. Advertising lifts was something that I hadn’t even heard of in my own country – hitch-hiking yes, but not organised car share. My host proceeded to show me a website where drivers offered space in their car to travellers heading in the same direction, in return for a contribution towards fuel costs.  Drivers were asked to state details including whether or not they smoked, the make of their car, their mobile number and a copy of ID. I was open-minded about travelling with a man, however my host, perhaps feeling responsible for my welfare, was insistent that I travel with a female. We soon found a lady heading in the same direction as me.

At this time my German was pretty minimal. I began writing an email to this lady, in which essentially only the first and last couple of sentences were written in German. Her reply was written in good English. (It ended with the line: “I’m sorry, I know that my English is not good. I hope you can understand me.”) The lady asked for 27 Euros for this journey – about 50 Euros less than what a train would have cost. She gave me her vehicle registration number and asked to meet outside Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof.

On a rainy Wednesday morning, I made my way to the parking lot outside the main station. I was quite excited for this new experience, but a little nervous too. What if the lady didn’t show up? What if she was a terrible driver? What if her car broke down and we were left stranded somewhere on the autobahn? What I didn’t worry about however was whether she would turn out to be different from her profile. The media will often feature horror stories of women being kidnapped by strangers posing as someone else, but I’ve had enough positive experiences to have faith in the kindness of strangers.

The street was bustling with chanting protesters. Police officers in smart blue uniforms formed barricades as they came closer to the station. I approached one officer to ask him what was going on and was told that it was a protest against a neo-Nazi demonstration.

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I wandered along the pavement, feeling very conspicuous with my big rucksack as I scanned the cars parked along the side of the road. Suddenly I spotted a navy blue Renault Clio with the registration number I was looking for. Beside it watching the protest stood a rather large woman with a pixie haircut and scruffy trainers. I introduced myself and she shook my hand with a shy smile. There was little room in the boot and so I sheepishly squeezed my backpack onto the backseat amongst her own things before sitting down in the back. A few minutes later, I heard a backpack being thrown in the boot behind me and then the passenger door in front of me opened. The smell of thick smoke, body odour (as well as a slight whiff of urine) swept through the vehicle as in jumped a male skinhead dressed in black, looking like he’d just run away from the police monitoring the protest. He turned to shake my hand and say hello with his stale breath. “Ich komme aus England,” I stated, trying not to wrinkle my nose. He nodded with an “Oh” and said no more.

As we set off, I had to bite my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of what we must have looked like to other drivers – a bizarre combination of a rather butch-looking woman with short hair, an emo-type guy with no hair, and a standard girl with long bright blonde hair. A painfully awkward silence suffocated the car. Eventually the two Germans started to chat briefly whilst I stared out of the window, trying and failing to understand them. However, their conversation soon ran out of steam and as we joined the autobahn, the driver turned on the radio, flicking between radio stations sporadically as if realising that there was unlikely to be one which we would all enjoy. Smelly-skinhead-guy reclined his seat backwards so that his smell lingered closer and I became even more cramped. Desperate to avoid any awkward speech, I remained with my legs jammed tightly together to one side, wishing I could jam my nostrils shut too. Two hours later my driver turned off and I looked up disorientated. “We will stop here for 10 minutes,” she said to me slowly. While the guy lit a cigarette with jittery hands outside the car, I followed her into the service station to use the bathroom. One had to pay 90 cents to use the facilities. “You can use the ticket for food,” she explained again simply, pointing out a sign which showed a 50 cent discount on confectionary.

Smelly-skinhead-guy would leave us at Frankfurt airport, where he was evidently flying to South America. I didn’t probe on his motives, only pitied the passengers who would be sitting near him. I jumped into the front seat and wound the window down with relief to remove his musty smell. I hoped that the driver and I would be able to speak more now. However, as is common with languages, the lady was less confident at speaking English than writing it. Carefully-phrased questions by myself in English would receive stammered and uncertain responses from her, upon which I would attempt the question in German, with no further success as I struggled to make myself clear. It became a rather frustrating process, until eventually the conversation fizzled out helplessly. In defeat, I turned to look out of the window at the wind turbines on the side of the autobahn, before we entered rural land and the views were replaced with fields lined with vines and Church steeples poking up out of small villages. I felt bad, wishing my German was better so that I could make the experience more interesting for both of us. At the same time, my driver said apologetically, “Normally there would be more speaking.” She dropped me off on the street of my next location and I handed her the money, thanking her for the helpful lift. Then she wished me a pleasant stay and I in turn wished her a safe onward journey, before we said goodbye with an awkward wave.

The experience was a reminder of the social restrictions that a language barrier can bring, particularly in such an intimate environment as a car. Now my German is so much better that, had I the opportunity to do it again, I would have got so much more from the journey. Nevertheless, whilst conversation between the three of us was limited, it was rare that I would find myself in that context with such different characters very often. It’s a story that I can look back on and chuckle over. Carpooling in general is something I would highly recommend. It might not be the most comfortable form of travel, but it depends on your priorities; some people want luxury, others just want to get from A to B for as cheap as possible. By choosing the latter option, one has more money to spend on the more important things! One is essentially taking the same journey as one would on a train or bus, albeit for less money and with fewer people, in a more close-knit setting. Perhaps it’s because participants are more expected to talk with other unfamiliar people that they might be put off by this travel option…

Whilst I didn’t have much luck with this myself on this occasion, ride-sharing provides an opportunity to make interesting contacts, and the act of doing a favour for a stranger is a nice, refreshing prospect. As much as I like to joke about how suspicious the guy in the car seemed, carpooling is an experience which reinforces that strangers are not to be fundamentally suspected or feared. I also wanted to mention the neo-Nazi demonstrations to highlight the importance of not letting hate fuel hate, and not letting the actions of a few people influence your opinion about an entire nation collectively.

Bensheim – my final destination

I would definitely consider using carpooling on future travels around Europe, and I’d hope other travellers would too. Something that can be regarded in this technological age as the modern version of hitch-hiking, carpooling is cheap, convenient and certified. Maybe just bring an air freshener with you as an advance gesture of gratitude…

Would you ever consider car-pooling? Have you any weird and wonderful carpooling experiences to share?