Watch out for hijackers in our national parks

Essay by Alan Kesselheim

Wildlife – September 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, spring last year. Marypat and I have stopped for a picnic break on our annual April ride through Yellowstone. We prop the bikes against a bridge railing, take our sandwiches and stroll to a grassy patch near a creek. It is quiet and tranquil in a way it never is during tourist season. The sun is warm. A herd of bison grazes in the distance.

Part way through my sandwich, I glance up at a raven flying past. In silhouette, it looks like it is carrying an entire bagel in its beak. The dark bird lands a short distance away.

“What the heck has that raven got?” I ask, standing up.

I walk closer. The bird flies off before I can identify the object. Then I turn around.

The first thing I notice is my green wind pants, which are dangling from the bridge, waving in the breeze and about to drop into the creek below. I sprint up the rise to the road, grab my pants before they slide into the current. Like the owner of a burgled home, I start assessing the crime scene.

The raven did not have a bagel in its beak. It was my apple, which had been zipped inside the bike pack. The pack is now open wide, completely unzipped. The bird went through the contents, tossing out my pants, dropping our camera in its case on the ground and pilfering a couple of carrots before taking wing with the apple. I hadn’t been away from the bike five minutes before that trickster had the joint cased and the burglary in the bag, or beak, so to speak.

Canyonlands National Park in Utah, this spring, a year later. Our family is backpacking into Chesler Park to a campsite. We stop to snack in a drainage and decide to leave our packs while we hike up to an arch. I notice a couple of ravens flying close overhead, and one that lands below a nearby juniper tree. The bird watches us closely with that glittering, intelligent stare.

This time I take note. “OK guys,” I say. “We need to stow everything away and stash the packs under this overhang.”

I don’t really believe that ravens as a species have figured out zippers, but I’d been victimized once, and these birds seem altogether too interested in us.

Our side-hike takes a couple of hours. Approaching our packs again, I can see from 20 yards away that I’ve been had. Despite being under a sandstone overhang, and being zipped up tight, the packs have been violated. All the side pocket zippers hang open. Bandanas, blister band-aids, pocket knives, a pair of binoculars lie strewn around like an apartment bedroom after it’s been ransacked by bad guys.

“Man, it’s a good thing they haven’t mastered buckles and toggles, or we’d have nothing left!” I say, looking over the mess.

When we hike up the trail, I catch myself flinching whenever the shadow of a bird passes over.

Ravens aren’t the only species that has figured us out. Check out the chipmunk scene on Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, or ask rangers in Glacier National Park how good bears are at opening coolers and car doors. To some extent, we leave animals no choice but to figure us out. We keep encroaching on their habitat, forcing them to retreat or find ways to cope in our domain. Hence, bears raiding garbage cans and bird feeders, deer nibbling our gardens, skunks in the compost, peregrine falcon preying on pigeons from perches on skyscrapers.

So far as I can tell, violations featuring ravens and zippers seem limited to the national park system. That, after all, is where backpacks and zippered compartments protecting goodies abound. The knowledge may not have spread beyond park boundaries yet, but I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time.

Anymore, when I park the car in a national park, I make sure to lock the doors. I’m not worried about being ripped off by my own species; usually there’s nothing in there worth the trouble. But I’m just a tad paranoid that I’ll come back in time to watch some critter driving off, giving me a wave of a paw as it rounds the bend.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.