SALT LAKE CITY – Freshly unemployed, former business executive Bruce J. Colburn flew to the far northwest corner of Montana in search of a place to die.
In early October, he paid a hotel clerk to drive him into Glacier National Park. He spent the night in a campground and then made his way on foot to a valley between two deep glacial lakes. On a forested slope not far from the trail, he shot himself in the chest with a handgun, according to park officials.
Although his motivation remains unclear, investigators found evidence on a computer that the 53-year-old Reading, Pa., resident had searched for information about suicide in Glacier park, according to Patrick Suddath, branch chief of ranger operations at Glacier.
“He clearly intended to come here for that purpose,” said Suddath, who led an extensive search after the man was reported missing.
Colburn was one of at least 33 people who chose to end their lives last year in a national park. The number is higher than recent years, although the National Park Service hasn’t consistently tracked suicides.
“It’s some place where, toward the end of someone’s life, when they’re feeling a total sense of despondency, they want to return to a place of natural beauty … for their final moments,” Suddath said.
Park officials estimate people made more than 274 million visits to the country’s 391 national park units last year. The vast majority are intent on seeing breathtaking vistas, wildlife in its natural habitat or places where history was made, such as the Gettysburg battlefield. A troubled few came to end their lives. Among them:
— A 46-year-old carpenter with cancer climbed into a canoe and vanished in Everglades National Park.
— A 49-year-old builder blamed the economy in a note he left for his ex-wife and attorney before killing himself at the edge of the woods at Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
— A 65-year-old university biology professor disappeared into Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, telling relatives in a note he was returning “body and soul to nature.”
— A 70-year-old woman left a suicide note in the trunk of her car at Arizona’s Saguaro National Park before killing herself about a half-mile from a trailhead.
— Three people, in separate cases, jumped off a towering bridge at West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River.
In 2007, there were 26 suicides or probable suicides in the parks. Park Service search-and-rescue records — which are likely incomplete — show 18 suicides in 2006, 18 in 2005 and 16 in 2004.
More suicides occur in Grand Canyon than any other park in recent years. The park averages two a year. There were three in 2008.
Suicides have been on the rise in some places like Colorado National Monument, where 26 people attempted suicide last year. Two were successful, including a 21-year-old man who hanged himself from a juniper tree near Cold Shivers Point in July.
The numbers there are partly a reflection of nearby Mesa County, where the suicide rate is roughly twice the national average, said Joan Anzelmo, the monument’s superintendent. But it’s also a testament to people’s connections with national parks, places they go to hike, escape urban life and even get married.
“They come here in the happiest of times and unfortunately some choose to come in the saddest time of their lives,” Anzelmo said.
Suicides can take a toll emotionally on rangers and financially for agencies that are part of search-and-recovery operations. After Colburn went missing in Glacier, as many as 40 people from various agencies looked for him. Recovering bodies or cars that go over cliffs can be dangerous as well as expensive.
Most law enforcement rangers in national parks are also trained in emergency medicine, which includes strategies in dealing with people in crisis. Some park employees are taught to keep an eye out for notes taped to steering wheels and at least one park, Colorado National Monument, has contemplated closing certain areas at night.
Several suicides are prevented by rangers each year, but it would be impossible to stop them all.
“I think anybody that does the kind of work that we do would like to offer hope to anybody that’s at that point of despair in their life,” said Lane Baker, the Park Service’s chief of law enforcement, security and emergency services. “But I’m not sure we can do anything to change that.”
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