Ode to the Common Man, if He Would Only Stay out of View

Uh-Oh. Hippie Liberal Elitism Alert. If you are a hippie liberal like me, do not, repeat, DO NOT read the story in today's New York Times about National Park Service plans for curbing visitation to Yosemite National Park. Reading of this story may cause serious damage to your democratic convictions and theoretical belief in the common man.

The famous "wilderness park" associated with pioneering environmentalist John Muir is now home to bike rental agencies, horse liveries, rafting companies, an ice rink and multiple swimming pools, all of which have served to make the park welcoming and easily accessible to millions of visitors per year. The problem is that a wilderness area accessible to millions of visitors is an oxymoron.

What Yosemite has become, in fact, is a kind of extended mixed-use amusement park, and that's probably not what John Muir had in mind. It is not what I have in mind, either, when I think of wilderness. But I don't want to think about it or read too much about it, because I'm afraid I might lose my libtard card.

The National Park Service has a new plan to cut back on most of the more rinky-dink uses and activities at Yosemite in order to reduce visitation -- get this -- to only 19,000 people per day. So then it would be just you, maybe some friends or family, out there all alone in the pristine wilderness with the other 18,995 people.

This isn't a theoretical problem for me. It's very real, and it's very everywhere. Too many prime natural venues in this country are turning into outdoor Casbahs teeming with way too much, well, too much ... how to put it ... outdoor democracy.

I took a hike with some fellow buzzards my age a few years ago from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the floor in one day, camped overnight, hiked back up and out the next. Because we were buzzards, we were worried about dying, so we devoted a great deal of effort to planning and getting in shape for it. We actually worry about dying when we go to the mall, but, you know, all of that expeditionary preparation made it more fun and was a good excuse to buy new pocket multi-tools.

But once we actually got out there on the trail, oh man, was it ever not what we had prepared for. Far from the lonely expedition we had expected, this was more like getting stuck behind a bad wreck on the freeway. The people jamming the trail from top to bottom looked less like outdoor adventurers than multitudes of lame and halt walking on their knees to Lourdes. The real danger wasn't falling off a ridge or dying of thirst. It was getting crushed under a sudden avalanche of whoopsy-daisies in flip-flops.

In fact at a certain point part of the way down we came upon park service personnel in Smokey uniforms stationed along the trail, turning some people back because they could tell by looking at them that they weren't going to make it. Some of the turn-backs argued with the Smokies. The one overheard Park Service argument that seemed to get traction was, "OK, sir, I cannot stop you from going ahead, but since you have been warned, if you do need a helicopter extraction later, it will cost you $15,000." Then it was flip-flop flip-flop back up the trail.

This whole business of wilderness and access to wilderness is especially tough for us Yanks, not so much for the Canadians. They're a democracy, too, but they seem to be a lot less boisterous about it. The other area where I have seen this dilemma played out is on two sides of the U.S./Canadian border where you have the American Boundary Waters Canoe Area on one side of the line in Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario on the other, about a million acres each.

Both parks cover the same kind of topography -- thousands of lakes cut by glaciers only 13,000 years ago, realm of the water Indians and the fur trade into the 19th century, very beautiful, sort of hard to get around in because you have to carry your boats and stuff between lakes. Both countries require reservations to get in. Part of the difference is that the American reservations are easy to get and the Canadian ones much tougher.

But there are other key distinctions. The Canadians allow 26,000 people a year into their million acres, only 18,000 a year in the interior of the park. Admission is timed and staged, so that as few as eight people are allowed each day to enter sub-areas of the park that consist of tens of thousands of acres.

The Americans allow 250,000 people into their side every year -- 10 times more, on a fairly free-for-all basis, with some use of outboard motors allowed. On the American side, there are permanent campsites with portable toilets. The trails where you have to carry your canoe from lake to lake are clearly marked.

On the Canadian side, no outboards, no portable toilets, no trail signs and tough luck if you get lost, which you can. I don't know anybody who has died out there, but I know people who know people who have.

What difference does it make to the experience? Well, on the American side, you are almost always in view or earshot of other people. On the Canadian side, you can paddle for days and never see, hear or catch a hint of another human being.

So does that mean the people on the Canadian side are the heartier souls? Mmm. Not exactly. On the American side you have all of those stout Minnesotans with their 80-pound aluminum canoes and cast-iron cookware, making their own way as they have for generations. On the Canadian side I see a lot more vacationing ophthalmologists in REI togs with 40-pound Kevlar canoes and no cookware because they brought a cook with them, and that's his job.

See what I mean? When you choke down the visitation numbers and set it up so people have to apply for a permit a year in advance, you inevitably change the demographic from vacationing bus mechanics and reporters to ophthalmologists and their butlers.

My own solution? I heartily and absolutely endorse the American solution, because it is a celebration of the common man and a rejection of elitism, snobbishness and hired cooks. But I prefer to quietly and discreetly do my own canoeing on the Canadian side, because I don't want to run into the common man when I'm canoeing. If I want to run into the common man, I can go to Walmart. (Oops. There goes my card right there.)

See what I mean? Just don't read the article. I think it's a problem that cannot be solved. OK, gotta get over to the yacht club now to burnish some cleats. Talk to you tomorrow.

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