The Rise of Techno-Travellers

During my American road trip over summer, I encountered a lot of amazing sights that had a lasting impact and stayed in my mind. But one thing I didn’t expect to have encountered so regularly on this predominantly rural-based trip was the overbearing presence of social technology amongst what I now call ‘techno-travellers’.

One day, my friend and I were walking the popular ‘Hidden Lake Overlook’ Trail in Glacier National Park.  I couldn’t believe the number of ipads I saw being wapped out. As we turned back from the end point, no longer able to tolerate the constant sounds of clicking and sights of crowding, a man said to his friend: “You know you’re too close to civilisation when you see an ipad.” I couldn’t agree with him more. The travel paparazzi had arrived and were relentless in their pursuit of taking a thousand photos of the same image. Thankfully, we were able to escape the tourists after noticing a steep rocky path to the left. From its clear formation, the path must have been trodden a few times before, but few tourists were ascending it then. A few people would look over at us as curiously as we made our way over to it, but they did not follow. Perhaps their sense of adventure was restricted to only those areas photographed and written about online and in magazines. We scrambled to the top on all fours, only to be greeted to our complete surprise by the sight of a snow kingdom on the other side of the hill. Finally we were alone, in peace, and the techno-travellers had no idea what they were missing.

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Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to take a photo of something beautiful and unique. But when one is surrounded by electronic devices so capable of connecting with a million others around the world near a natural wonder that is so far away from these millions, it feels a little intrusive. People are so snap-happy that one wonders whether they have really taken the time to appreciate what they are seeing. There is a difference between looking/seeing and observing/appreciating. Are these people simply just wanting to take pretty pictures that will earn them an extra follower on Pinterest or ‘like’ on Facebook? The rush to upload their photos straight onto social media makes you think so.

It’s because of my irritation by the growing social media-habits of travellers that I will probably never make a living as a travel blogger. For starters, I like food too much to withhold eating it until I’ve taken a zillion photos of it beforehand.  I also don’t believe I fit in with the blogging ‘game’. I find that the ‘competition’ for publicity between travel bloggers makes it quite an unfriendly world. I can’t stand it when I follow a travel blogger on Twitter (after they’ve followed me) and they then unfollow me, simply because they were just looking to boost their stats with extra followers. And then there’s the messages requesting that I now follow someone’s Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram accounts. If I want to look at your photos or read your blog, I will find it myself when I wish. In fairness, most of these messages are automated, but if anything that just makes it worse. The whole ‘Thanks for following, you’re awesome! Let’s share more stories together’ is completely fake. There are some really kind and helpful travel bloggers out there who are also successful, but many are so pre-occupied with their own success that they let this stop them acting like genuine human beings with a soul.

This was particularly evident in Yellowstone. At the Lower Canyon Falls, a group of what I would describe as either ‘serious tourists’ or ‘travel bloggers’ clustered against a fence with their huge cameras, leaning out a far as they could to get a shot of a nesting bird. They looked like addicted bank-robbers desperately reaching out to grab at notes of money flying away from them. Occasionally the photographers would step back to add an extra part to their camera, clinking on various pieces so that it looked like they were loading a machine-gun. They would scowl at those who tried to take their place or briefly blocked their view to have one quick look, and hogged the area with a snobby air that made one feel almost intimidated to go over and have a look themselves. I wonder how they would have reacted if someone in a wheelchair had approached the viewpoint…Travel should be accessible to everyone and not a competition, but some people add a hierarchy of entitlement through their behaviour, and it’s often related to the use of technology – ‘I write a blog and have a big fancy camera, therefore I must have priority viewing.’

‘We played with marbles and climbed tall trees; now kids can’t play without batteries’. This message was written on signs approaching a town called Panguitch in Utah. It perfectly addressed the problem of society’s obsession with digital technology and social media. People are losing their adventurous spirit in favour of an online social life and evening of inactive escapism with the gang of ‘Game of Thrones’. Meanwhile, travellers might say “Oh I didn’t go inside that building or climb that mountain…but I got a photo of it so it’s okay!” They’ll say that they’ve ‘done’ a country when they’ve only seen an eighth of it. By sticking to the guidebook and always photographing what they think will be most popular, travellers and bloggers threaten the unique charm and untouched beauty of an area, and miss out on other surprises or less conventional sights that are just as stunning.

Travel bloggers are in danger of becoming too concerned with the stats that they start to alienate the real reason they started a blog in the first place: to talk about travel. Occasionally my spam folder will have comments from scammers with dodgy web addresses, talking about SEO services and saying that I don’t have enough key words highlighted in my post and that because I don’t use so-and-so here and this-and-that there, my ranking on Google will be lower. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about these picky details. I started a blog because I love to travel and I love to write and wanted to share my experiences with friends. The fact that strangers from all over the world find and read and follow my blog is humbling. However, I don’t intend to spend my life in front of my computer, downloading various plug-ins and spending money on various schemes to make my followers grow even more. I read an article where a guy said he’d got in $36,000 of debt just so he could make his blog a huge hit and never have to work in an office again…Where was his  logic? I’ve also read that some bloggers actually pay for followers, not caring whether they read their blog or not, but just wanting to boost their chances of being sponsored by a travel company so that they can travel the world for less. Where is their integrity?

Too much mixing with technology threatens the traditional elements we associate with travel: the temporary isolation from others we know; the subsequent engagement with others we meet; the requirement for map-reading skills; the use of our brains to make decisions when something goes wrong; the anticipation of seeing all of someone’s photos a few weeks later when they return (rather than a few everyday that leave you wondering why they made a huge thing of saying good-bye before going away to a foreign land, when they’ve practically never left). We don’t even see a photo of a place in its genuine form anymore; instead it’s photo-shopped to the max in order to make it as perfect as possible and what it is assumed people want to see. But ‘perfection’ doesn’t mean the same to everyone. What’s wrong with simply seeing something in its true form and avoiding the creation of high expectations that may very well end up being disappointed?

Wi-fi was used once during the whole three weeks of our trip, simply to look up a ferry schedule (and create a birthday event to take place three days after the trip ended). The escapism was wonderful and not once was it wondered what gossip was being missed out on from Facebook.  If people spend their whole life staring at their phone or through their camera lens, they’ll miss what’s on the other side of their screen and that ‘most-recommended’ area that it looks at. And as the photos show, the other side can be pretty cool.

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Some other travellers agree with me – hurrah!

‘Why I’ll never be a Professional Travel Blogger’ by Theodora

‘Confessions: Sunday Social Reflection Talk’ by we12travel

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.