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Cell Phone Use in Nature Is Ruffling Feathers

Many find migration of ubiquitous devices into Great Outdoors disruptive. Some carry them for safety, though remote locations can limit reach.

October 19, 2000|JAMES P. MILLER | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

You can answer the call of the wild. You can answer your cellular phone. But if you answer both, be ready for some hard looks.

Over the last decade, city dwellers have resigned themselves to hearing strangers chatting volubly on their cell phones in restaurants, on commuter trains, at the ballpark or even at the theater. Now, cell phones are finding their way out of the urban jungle and into the great outdoors.

People sure do love their phones. They chat with the folks back home while rafting the rapids of the Colorado River. They check their voicemail back at the office while hiking the Appalachian Trail. They reach out and touch someone from atop Mt. Rainier. They call their brokers--or try to--perched atop horses navigating the crags of the Rocky Mountains.

But the more wireless users stay in touch with the world, the more they irk nearby nature-lovers who left civilization to get away from it all.

In most wild places, there's enough room for purists to avoid gabby neighbors, and the issue's still on the back burner for many folks. But cell phones have been banned in Maine's Baxter State Park, except for emergency use, since the mid-1990s. Park authorities decided that recreational cell phone use "trivialized the wilderness experience," according to park naturalist Jean Hoekwater.

Some visitors find it "very offensive," Hoekwater said, "when they're watching a moose and somebody whips out a phone and says, 'Honey, you'll never guess what I'm seeing.' " Sometimes, she said, visitors gazing out from the peak of Mt. Katahdin find their thoughts brought back to earth when fellow visitors--moved by the beauty of the sight--pull out their cells to phone the park's reservation desk, seeking to extend their stay.

Cell phone protocol isn't just an issue in far-flung wilderness sites, either. You could ask Dale Birkenholz, a retired professor of ornithology at Illinois State University in Normal. Last month, he was doing some bird-watching at a park in neighboring Bloomington.

"It's a nice natural area," Birkenholz said, and "it was a good evening for fall warblers." But he called it quits on his bird-watching expedition because "this woman was actually yelling and talking very agitatedly" on her cellular phone.

Birkenholz says he's grown inured to cell users in airport waiting rooms and restaurants, but never before had to deal with intrusive cell phone use while bird-watching. "It just ruined everything."

At Sawbuck Outfitters in Gunnison, Colo., "We have some old-fashioned principles on cell phones in the woods," said owner Tony Maldarella. Sawbuck offers up to weeklong horseback trips into the Rockies, and Maldarella said, "To truly appreciate what the wilderness is intended to offer, you shouldn't be lessening its grandness by bringing yourself out of it with a phone call every five minutes."

Maldarella recommends that clients not bring their phones, warning them that the mountains almost always block signals. But some people won't be deterred. "About 95% of the people who come on our trips don't want to conduct business" while on the trail, Maldarella said, and "the other 5% might want to but they can't" because of the topography. "God's kind of on my side on that one."

At Canyoneers Inc., a Flagstaff, Ariz., company that offers guided Colorado River trips through the Grand Canyon, "We try to discourage people from bringing their cell phones," said President Gaylord Staveley. Staveley says his concern isn't the potential distraction for other rafters, but the way in which a cell phone can tether guests to civilization.

"They'll end up enjoying the river trip more if they just forget about the outside world," Staveley said. "If the phone is there, people are inclined to call friends or family and either brag, or complain, about where they are."

As the wireless-service infrastructure has grown more sophisticated, most people have grown to expect flawless cellular service wherever they travel. But in many national parks and other natural settings, coverage is still hit or miss, depending on such factors as proximity to an urban area and the terrain. Even in close-in settings like Olympic National Park near Seattle, however, cell phones are rendered useless when their owners are in low-lying areas such as valleys and canyons.

(For emergencies, Staveley's staff carries satellite phones, which work well in the mile-deep canyon. These more expensive, business-oriented systems don't use cell towers, but bounce signals off satellites.)

But the question of using telephones in the wilderness goes well beyond cell phone etiquette while moose-viewing. Communication with the outside world can literally serve as a lifesaver to a hiker who's suffered an injury or sudden illness in the wild; many savvy hikers now routinely toss a cell phone into their backpacks just in case.

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