January 07, 2008

Common sense takes a vacation

I went to our New Hampshire place last week. It's beautiful in any season, but when it's snowbound it looks like a fairy cottage. Glorious, white, sun-glinty. Icicle swords rooted to trees and eaves and railings, catching sun and bouncing light all over. Animal tracks large and small captured in frozen crisscrosses on the buried lawn.

I'd gone to the cottage to clean up after my son and his friends, who'd spent a week of their college semester break there. Except for the furry Chinese food stuck to some plates in the sink, things looked pretty good. The kids had spent some of their time outside -- they left a Stonehenge-shaped formation of beach chairs, now cemented in place by hardened snow until spring, on the deck -- but I saw no evidence of reckless vacation behavior.

Nobody had, for example, jumped off the roof into the eight-foot-high snowdrift that billows up against the house each winter. Adam had evidently absorbed at least one of our 237 recountings of the day, years ago, when our friend Larry leapt from the roof into the drift, expecting to be pillowed by softness but drilling instead through the snow and crashing full-force onto the boulder the drift covered, shattering his ankle and compromising it for life.

I did, however, see reckless vacation behavior as I drove home. It was school vacation week, and kids were out everywhere enjoying the snow. As I drove above a railbed that paralleled a half-frozen river, I watched two young boys ride snowmobiles down the railroad tracks. Their dad, who'd parked his turquoise pickup on the railbed about three feet from the tracks, accompanied them on his own machine. Dad took up the rear, and the smallest, youngest boy led the pack. The tracks weren't arrow straight -- they wound and curved, mimicking the bends in the river -- so the snowmobilers wouldn't be able to see trouble barreling down the tracks.

This oblivious trio called to mind people I've encountered in far-flung places who seem to think tempting fate is part of the travel experience.

Letting your common sense take a vacation just because you're on one isn't just foolish, it can be deadly. You don't take your kids snowmobiling down active railroad tracks; you don't sit your toddler atop a buffalo in Yellowstone for a photo op; you don't squeeze yourself aboard a tiny, overloaded wooden ferry that has no life jackets.

And, unless you're trained for it, you don't walk across a glacier without a guide.

We were driving Alberta's superb Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper and made a pit stop at the Columbia Icefields Visitor Centre, where we boarded a mammoth Sno Coach for a ride up the Athabasca Glacier, a tongue of ice 10 miles long.

As the coach climbed the Athabasca, we looked to our right across a half-mile expanse of crevasses and cracks and great snow chunks heaved up into wild formations and saw two figures walking up the glacier, unguided and without equipment of any kind.

Our guide shook his head. "They shouldn't be out there alone," he said. "They don't know where to walk, where the thin layers of crusty snow are that hide crevasses. They fall in and die." He then told us about the Athabasca's most recent victims, all tourists who'd figured hiking up this monstrous field of ancient, moving ice was just a walk in the snow.

The fools kept hiking higher and higher and farther and farther away from the guided tour areas and activities. Our guide kept one eye on them as he treated us to a safe and thrilling tour of the glacier.

As we boarded the coach for the trip back down to the visitors' center, I scanned the upper reaches of the icefield for one last fix on the two hikers. I didn't see them.