Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Call" of the Wild

Once a month my local hiking club organizes a day-hike to some interesting area. Most of the people in the club are "mature" adults -- meaning the real hard-core young adventure types aren't with us. Still, the group consists of mostly fit people who are serious about exercise and enjoying the great outdoors, and the hikes are often in fairly remote and wild places.

Every other month the hike is publicized in the local newspaper and non-members are encouraged to join us. Not long ago one of these public hikes was a trek along an old historic trail that crossed some very difficult and remote terrain. The challenge of the trail and the isolated setting fostered an appreciation of the hardships and simplicity of an earlier time. I was enjoying the scenery and the physical exertion, chatting occasionally and briefly with fellow hikers, but mainly absorbing the uniqueness of the moment as I hiked alone.

From behind me I suddenly heard a very loud voice describing the beauty of the trail and how wonderful the hike was -- not unusual comments to hear but not at a such a startling volume level. When I looked back I saw a newbie talking into a cell phone, apparently so eager to share their experience with the person at the other end that they didn't mind violating the serenity of the group around them.

There are lots of aspects of this we could explore, like the need for norms of etiquette surrounding cell phone use, or the implications for society when the superficiality of technology-mediated relationships makes people desperate to maintain constant contact with others. The aspect I want to focus on, though, is how technology is changing our perception of natural settings and altering the way we interact with nature.

As my example indicates, many natural areas that used to be remote and cut off from easy communication with the outside are now accessible with a quick cell phone call. The access can include sound, still photos, and even video. Besides cell and internet links, gps technology makes navigation a matter of reading an lcd screen instead of paying close attention to the surroundings (I've written before about my own infatuation with gps -- see my blogs of 7/6/09 and 2/14/10).

This technology has made the "wild" seem less forbidding and more amenable to casual human activity, even when this is demonstrably untrue. One result is that people underestimate the risks and dangers that natural environments may pose. Rangers in our National Parks have seen this first hand, according to a recent investigative NYT article. For example, Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming reports “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. The answer is that you're up there for the night.” People with cellphones call rangers from mountaintops to request refreshments or a guide; in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, one lost hiker even asked for hot chocolate.

One particularly telling instance of how perceptions of nature have changed is recounted in the same article:
"One of the most frustrating new technologies for the parks to deal with, rangers say, are the personal satellite messaging devices that can send out an emergency signal but are not capable of two-way communication. (Globalstar Inc., the manufacturer of SPOT brand devices, says new models allow owners to send a message with the help request.) In some cases, said Keith Lober, the ranger in charge of search and rescue at Yosemite National Park in California, the calls “come from people who don’t need the 911 service, but they take the SPOT and at the first sign of trouble, they hit the panic button.”

But without two-way communication, the rangers cannot evaluate the seriousness of the call, so they respond as if it were an emergency.

Last fall, two men with teenage sons pressed the help button on a device they were carrying as they hiked the challenging backcountry of Grand Canyon National Park. Search and rescue sent a helicopter, but the men declined to board, saying they had activated the device because they were short on water.

The group’s leader had hiked the Grand Canyon once before, but the other man had little backpacking experience. Rangers reported that the leader told them that without the device, “we would have never attempted this hike.”

The group activated the device again the next evening. Darkness prevented a park helicopter from flying in, but the Arizona Department of Public Safety sent in a helicopter whose crew could use night vision equipment.

The hikers were found and again refused rescue. They said they had been afraid of dehydration because the local water “tasted salty.” They were provided with water.

Helicopter trips into the park can cost as much as $3,400 an hour, said Maureen Oltrogge, a spokeswoman for Grand Canyon National Park.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when the hikers pressed the button again the following morning, park personnel gave them no choice but to return home. The leader was issued a citation for creating hazardous conditions in the parks."
For me, the telling point in this account is the group leader saying that without the emergency device he would have never attempted the hike. As park rangers have noted, visitors who get into trouble often acknowledge that they have pushed themselves too far because they believe that in a bind, technology can save them.

As this example illustrates, technology may be insulating us from the reality of natural dangers and the necessity of relying on our own knowledge, skill, and courage in experiencing nature. We regard nature as an extension of our hi-def televisions, Iphones, and computers -- configurable to our own user preferences and changing interests, and as having an "Undo" button if we make mistakes.

The problem is that nature doesn't always play along.


PaddleDoc said...

Among wilderness leaders we've had many discussion about the ethics of taking sat. phones, cell phones and telling or not telling participants we had them when we asked them to leave theirs. There is a discussion also about fining folks for unnecessary call for emergency help or for any call for help. The big question: will someone in real trouble put off calling till too late. That's familiar in my old business where we wanted to avoid deterring our users from making that first contact, esp. during an emergency. At $3400/hr that chopper brings expensive water!

Bob Z. said...

Dick- Great Blog- Linda and I spend a lot of time outdoors and we think the simple solution to the cell phone issue is a public flogging on the town square every week until the practice stops.

I don't know if our visit is around the time your group takes a walk, but that would be fun for us. (we wouln'd have a cell phine )

Bob and Linda