Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hikers and visitors to state and national parks need to take personal responsibility.

The tragic death of 2 year old who fell while hiking with his family in Chimney Rock State Park in North Carolina has opened a dialog where people has been inquiring as to if there were sufficient warnings of the potential danger to hiking children and if these warnings were bilingual or not. Now some are asking if children should be banned from being on certain hiking trails.

In this day and age it is up to everyone to take personally responsibility for their own safety as well as those under their supervision. I have personally turned around on trails that I have hiked before because conditions were such that the trail was unsafe for me to continue.

I never needed a sign to tell me to not dangle one of my kids over a lion's cage at the zoo or let them be alone next to a burning campfire when they were too young to understand not to stick their hands into the pretty flames.

Unfortunately even though I always did do my best to protect my children, they did get some bumps and bruises, sometimes when they were right next to me because accidents do happen - that's why cars have seat belts.

Rather than ban driving because accidents can happen, we ban dangerous behavior when driving such as drinking/drugging while driving and speeding - the biggest dangers in our national parks and state parks that claims more lives than anything else.

It's not that I am just singling out this tragic accident in the Chimney Rock Park. This Labor Day I was hiking along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains national park and saw 3 blatant cases of foolish behavior which were risky to the risk takers as well as the lives of others arround them.

Before even leaving the Clingmans Dome parking lot to start my hike, 4 men in their early 20s were climbing on damp rocks that have a warning sign prohibiting people from climbing on them. One of their backpacks along with a water bottle were by the warning sign.

Next at the Double Spring Gap backcountry shelter there were more overnight campers than the maximum capacity of the shelter and in violation of Great Smoky Mountains national park rules, tents were set up outside the shelter.

One of these tents contained 4 people who ate food and then stored their food overnight in their tent. Considering the next backcountry shelter over the Mount Collins Shelter has an active bear warning, the chance for an unpleasant encounter with a black bear which could potentially endanger everyone in the over capacity shelter is high.

All backcountry shelters in the Great Smoky Mountains National park that I have checked have signs warning of the presence of black bears in the GSMNP and what to do to avoid them as well as some of the other park regulations for campers. These warnings were obviously ignored.

Further down the Appalachian Trail about 2 miles past the Silers Bald Shelter I ran into 3 young male hikers coming down the trail with the leader of the group wearing beach sandals. It turned out that Mr. Flip Flops was an experienced hiker who just felt like not wearing his hiking boots on this trip.

I asked him which one of his friends was going to carry him out if he twisted his ankle or got hurt and his friends laughed and pointed at each other. Considering how deep in country they were, any extraction would have to be a serious undertaking which would have also put any rescuers at risk.

All of these risk takers spoke English and acted foolishly knowing of the potential danger they were putting themselves and others in. Obviously they just didn't care about their own safety as well as the safety of others.

I hike 10 - 15 miles a day in the Great Smoky Mountains national park year-round unless the weather or road conditions are hazardous. While I solo hike most of the time (which I don't suggest) I outfit myself so that I am ready for any potential emergency and I don't behave in a risky manner or take chances along the trail to increase the chances that I will have to be rescued.

When I bring someone else along on a trail I make sure that I know their skill level and that they have an understanding of what they can and can not do and make sure that they have the right footwear, clothing and supplies to safely and comfortably come hiking with me.

If you plan on taking a hike or engaging in any other activity in the park that has a risk, be smart, go to one of the visitor centers and speak to one of the Park Rangers or volunteers and take their expert advice.

While no one can guarantee you won't have an accident or an unpleasant experience, with a little planning and taking personal responsibility for your own actions and those in your party, your hike will probably end with pleasant memories of time well spent in the park rather than a nightmare that will haunt you the rest of your life.

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