Nature Naivete

There's a widely read article in today's New York Times about people who are getting themselves into dangerous situations because they're venturing without preparation into wild places and then counting on their cell phones, GPS units, and personal satellite messaging devices to bail them out of trouble. The anecdotes are, frankly, jaw-dropping:

People with cellphones call rangers from mountaintops to request refreshments or a guide; in Jackson Hole, Wyo., one lost hiker even asked for hot chocolate.

A French teenager was injured after plunging 75 feet this month from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon when he backed up while taking pictures. And last fall, a group of hikers in the canyon called in rescue helicopters three times by pressing the emergency button on their satellite location device. When rangers arrived the second time, the hikers explained that their water supply “tasted salty.”

“Because of having that electronic device, people have an expectation that they can do something stupid and be rescued,” said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

“Every once in a while we get a call from someone who has gone to the top of a peak, the weather has turned and they are confused about how to get down and they want someone to personally escort them,” Ms. Skaggs said. “The answer is that you are up there for the night.”

Talk to any Registered Maine Guide and you'll hear similar anecdotes about clueless urbanites lighting campfires with kerosene and approaching skittish moose to get close-up snapshots. Tenderfeet have always been with us and always will be. One of my favorite short stories, Jack London's harrowing "To Build a Fire," is the tale of a newcomer to the Yukon who simply has no idea what a fool he is until he's literally freezing to death. John Krakauer's Into the Wild offers a contemporary take on this same old story.

The larger issue is our society's increasing detachment from nature. When you are unfamiliar with a thing—a river, an animal, a storm—it's easy to misjudge it. You bring preconceptions based on televised fantasies to matters of life and death (the news that two young people died mimicking the fraud that is "Man vs. Wild" is heartbreaking). It's yet another reason why I urge parents to read Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

I feel sorry for National Park rangers who are forced to offer remedial educations to stranded hikers who should have learned basic life lessons when they were children.