What's Going to Get me?
(Notes on Personal Safety)

What comes now is a medium-sized solid block of advice. It's intended for safety-conscious readers who want to know the causes of accidents in the Park so they can take precautions to avoid them. I suppose this is a matter of personal taste. If you're one of those people who absolutely refuse to fasten their seat belt, you may as well skip ahead to the next topic.

I'll start with a couple of questions that Park visitors often ask at the Visitor Centers.

Q: Are the bears dangerous?
A: Yes and no—mostly no. Visitor interest in bears is so strong that I'll give them a separate article in just a little while.

Q: Are there poisonous snakes in the Park?
A: Yes, two species: rattlesnake and copperhead. They're fairly common in the Park, although you're unlikely to see one—especially near the Drive or in a developed area such as a campground. Snakebite is rather rare in the Park, but it sometimes happens.

 Poisonous Snakebite

I have the results of a study of 190 cases of poisonous snakebite in Virginia (outside the Park) during a ten-year period ending in 1953. That was a long time ago, but the habits of snakes haven't changed very much since then. There are several points of interest:

July is the most dangerous month. A breakdown of the 190 cases by month: 3 in April; 18 in May; 31 in June; 60 in July; 36 in August; 37 in September; 5 in October; none from November through March.

The bite of a copperhead is rarely fatal to an adult, even if untreated. Rattlesnake bites are more dangerous. Any poisonous snakebite is especially dangerous to children. In this study 52% of the victims were under age 16.

On cool days in spring or fall you may see a snake in the trail, soaking up the sunlight. During most of the summer snakes stay under cover in the daytime. Daytime snakebites result from turning over stones or logs, or gathering firewood, or thrusting ones hands into bushes (as, for example, when picking blueberries).

Snakes come out of concealment at night, and bite when they get stepped on.

Anti-snake precautions are simple: Watch where you put your hands and feet. Don't sit down without looking. Carry a flashlight at night. And keep an eye on the kids.

Q: Is it OK to kill poisonous snakes?
A: Absolutely not. The Park is a sanctuary for all wildlife. If you see a poisonous snake in the backcountry, walk around it. If you see one in a campground or picnic area call a ranger, who will remove it to the backcountry.

 The Cause of Accidents

I've studied the rangers' accident reports for a number of years. Except for freakish one-of-a-kind things, accident statistics are fairly consistent from year to year—so much so that I can predict next year's accidents and be surprisingly close. Here's more or less what will happen next year—whatever year that may be.

Seventy people—most of them children—will be injured by falling; this is by far the biggest single cause of accidents. Children run on trails or in the campground, then slip or trip and fall. Children take shortcuts where trails double back, and they slip and fall. Children climb trees and then fall out of them. But a dozen people—mostly young adults, will fall over cliffs or waterfalls. Some of them will be cut and bruised; some will break bones, one or two may die.

Four people—all of them young adults—will take a "bad trip" on drugs.

A dozen people will be injured in auto accidents, including four collisions, four cases of fingers smashed in doors, and four miscellaneous incidents such as a car falling off a jack.

Four people will be hit by rocks falling or rolling from above.

Ten people will be injured in bicycle accidents, and five in motorcycle accidents. Horses will bite, step on, or otherwise abuse ten people. There will be ten accidents related to firewood: people will cut or chop themselves, or be struck by flying wood. There will be half a dozen painful burns—some of them caused by pouring gasoline or other fuel on a fire or on hot coals.

Five people will be bitten by dogs. There will be one case of poisonous snakebite. Four people will be affected by carbon monoxide because of riding in a station wagon with the rear window down. Ten visitors will be severely stung by bees or wasps, including three who will step on, or blunder into, a hornets nest. But no one will be injured by a bear.

Many children will feed the squirrels; two squirrels will bite the hand that feeds them. Three children and seven dogs will be sprayed (but lightly) while chasing skunks, and one child will be bitten when he actually catches a skunk.

There will be a few severe reactions to sunburn and poison ivy. Five people will slip and fall on the ice next winter, but no one will die of exposure. And that's about it. With two million visitors, the Park is statistically a rather safe place, even though things may be unpleasant for the handful of visitors who make the statistics.

Now that you know the causes of accidents I have no reason to write a long list of safety precautions. The precautions suggest themselves. Even so, I'd like to touch on a couple of points that deserve special emphasis.

 Special Precautions

Be alert! As you travel through the Park you may notice many standing dead trees. Trees have been killed by insects, disease and severe winter weather. Oaks, pines and hemlocks have been particularly hard hit in certain areas. Visitors should be alert to the potential hazards of standing dead trees. As you are hiking, picnicking or backcountry camping, be aware of these dead trees. Avoid areas with standing dead trees and dead limbs which could fall at any time causing serious injury or property damage.

If you have small children, keep an eye on them. Children seem to have a natural urge to throw rocks from high places. But trails often pass below high places, and rocks thrown from above can be lethal.

Cliffs and ledges are exposed to sudden gusts of wind that can throw you off balance. The rocks are often slicker than you might expect, especially if you're wearing smooth-soled shoes. All rocks, however small, are dangerously slippery when wet, or when covered with ice or snow.

There is no reason for going to the top of a waterfall. You can't see the falls from there. The rocks at the top of the falls are always slippery because of spray, moss, and algae. In Shenandoah even deer sometimes fall over waterfalls.

Protect your property. Lock your car. Don't leave valuables such as wallets, purses, cameras, binoculars, on the seat of a car, even if it's locked. Put them in the trunk.

Photographers: Please don't put the viewfinder to your eye and then step back for a better view. I feel strongly about this because two photographers of my personal acquaintance died this way. One stepped off a construction scaffold and the other off a mountain cliff, both while looking through the viewfinder of a camera.

Walking beside the Drive is unsafe; but in a couple of cases it's the only way to get from a parking place to a trail head or other attraction. If you choose to go there on foot, give only part of your attention to scenery and camera; save most of it for the cars that are passing just behind your heels.

 Park Regulations

The Park has a rather long list of regulations, which have the force of law. Willful and knowing violations are punished. Copies of the list are posted on bulletin boards, and are available on request at Headquarters and the two Visitor Centers. Their purpose is to protect the Park—its physical features; its buildings, roads, trails, and other facilities; its plant and animal life—all of it; and its visitors.

With that purpose firmly in mind you could sit down and write a useful list of regulations yourself, without ever seeing the Park's list. Therefore I'll keep this discussion short, and summarize only a few of the more important rules.

Don't collect anything: rocks, plants, animals (including insects), or souvenirs. Leave everything where you find it (except nuts, fruits, berries.) Unauthorized possession of any wild animal, dead or alive, or any part of one, or any flower or other plant material, is evidence of violation. To remember your stay in Shenandoah take pictures, or take notes.

Vehicles. Watch for posted speed limits. No wheeled or motorized vehicle may be taken off the pavement (except that if necessary you can use the unpaved parking areas at the edge of the Drive.) Snowmobiles are not permitted anywhere in the Park.

Wildlife. It's illegal to kill, wound, frighten, capture, attempt to capture, pursue, feed, or annoy any bird or animal, including snakes and fish. When you see a deer or bear, observe it from where you are; don't try to get closer.

Fires. Permitted in fireplaces in campgrounds and picnic areas, at cabins, and at most shelters. Nowhere else. Be sure your fire is out before you leave it.

Campers. Don't dig or level the ground. Keep your campsite clean. Don't clean fish or wash clothes at the campground hydrants, or in the comfort stations. Don't drain or dump water or sewage from your trailer except at designated places. If you have a radio keep the volume down, and turn it off by 10 p.m.

Don't fish without a license, or camp in the backcountry without a permit.

Pets. Must be under restraint at all times: crated, in your car or trailer, tied up or on leash. Dogs are prohibited on conducted walks and on a few very popular trails (with a sign to that effect at the trail head.) No animals (except Seeing Eye dogs) are allowed in public buildings within the Park. Do not leave your pet unattended in a vehicle for more than 5 or 10 minutes even if you have cracked the windows.

Firearms and other weapons must be unloaded, disassembled if possible, and packed away. "Other weapons" include air rifles, air pistols, bows and arrows, crossbows, and slingshots. The use of fireworks in the Park is forbidden.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved