It was supposed to be a fun family summer trip to Yellowstone National Park. Two cousins, a neighbor and their families packed two chickens, canoed about eight hours and hiked to the Shoshone Geyser Basin, where they decided to cook their chickens in a hot spring.
But dinner didn’t go quite as planned. In fact, it led to three of them pleading guilty to petty offenses. They were sentenced to two years’ probation, banned from the park for that period and fined between $500 and $1,200, according to court documents.
The men, said park officials, had violated laws governing the use of the national park.
It is illegal to go off the boardwalk or designated trails and to touch or throw objects into hot springs or other hydrothermal features at the park, said Linda Veress, a park spokeswoman. It’s also dangerous, she added. The water in the park’s hydrothermal systems can exceed 400 degrees Fahrenheit and can cause “severe or fatal burns,” she said.
The three, Eric Romriell, 49, and Eric Roberts, 51, both of Idaho, and Dallas Roberts, 41, of Utah, were among a group that a park ranger found after receiving reports of people hiking with “cooking pots” toward the basin on Aug. 7, Veress said.
“A ranger responded and found two whole chickens in a burlap sack in a hot spring,” she said. A cooking pot was also found nearby. When Romriell went to check on the chicken — the group was bathing in the river nearby — he found the park ranger, who then questioned him and the rest of the group of 10 people about it. The next day, the ranger returned to the men’s campsites and issued them citations requiring a mandatory court appearance.
In September, the three men pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Casper, Wyoming, to foot travel in a thermal area, according to court records. Romriell also pleaded guilty to the additional charge of having food in a thermal area.
Romriell, an ophthalmologist in Idaho Falls, Idaho, said in an interview Tuesday that he hadn’t been aware that he was doing anything wrong. He took monthly camping trips as a scout master in Idaho for several years, he said, and each time, his troop tried creative ways of cooking their meals — something Romriell described as “how to not rough it while roughing it.”
They made milkshakes out of raspberry or huckleberry fruit they found while hiking, he said, or tied hot dogs to a rope and put them into hot springs to boil while they swam nearby.
During the trip to Yellowstone, the group decided to try a chicken dinner. They brined the chicken for several days beforehand. Romriell said he looked at the park regulations and found only a line prohibiting “tossing, throwing, or rolling rocks or other items” inside the thermal features.
“The way I interpreted it was don’t be destructive,” Romriell said, “and I didn’t feel like I was.”
Romriell said he double-packed the chickens in a roasting bag and a burlap sack so that he would not contaminate the water. He placed the chickens carefully inside a spring that was right off the trail.
“One of the big rules for scouting and camping is leave no trace,” he said, adding that an officer that inspected his campsite said it was clean. “I don’t intend to be a naughty person. I don’t intend to be a troublemaker.”
One of the other men, Dallas Roberts, who owns a window-cleaning business in West Valley City, Utah, said he had seen some “small and old laminated” signs indicating they were approaching a closed area, but did not realize they applied to the hot springs. (A park spokeswoman responded Tuesday, saying, “There are signs throughout the park, as well as on the park website and on printed material.”)
Roberts agreed that the group wasn’t doing any damage, but added, “I can see that we should not have done that.”
“We definitely have respect for Yellowstone,” he said. “We have respect for the outdoors, and would never do anything in any way to contaminate that or to cause problems for others.”
Eric Roberts, the third man involved and a cousin of Dallas Roberts, declined to comment Tuesday.
There have been a number of episodes in which visitors have been hurt in a hot basin at the park. Last month, a 3-year-old girl suffered second-degree-thermal burns to her lower body and back after she slipped and fell into a small thermal feature near Midway Geyser Basin, according to the park.
In 2016, a 23-year-old man died after walking off a boardwalk, slipping and falling into one of Yellowstone’s hot springs. The man, Colin Nathaniel Scott, of Portland, Oregon, had walked about 225 yards away from trails near Porkchop Geyser when his sister saw him fall into the Norris Geyser Basin.
Yellowstone became the country’s first national park in 1872. The park, which is mostly in Wyoming but also includes small portions in Idaho and Montana, encompasses 3,472 square miles, including national forests and Grand Teton National Park.
The park’s hydrothermal activity, one of the big draws for tourists, is part of the Yellowstone Volcano, which is powered by an underlying hot spot, according to the park service.
Dallas Roberts and Romriell said they wouldn’t try what they did again at Yellowstone, but Romriell added that he viewed it as a question of “when is land use appropriate, when is land use abusive.”
“My opinion was it was land use,” he said, “but it wasn’t land abuse.”
After the park ranger left them following their first encounter on Aug. 7, the group still managed to have the dinner they had prepared. As for the chicken, Romriell said, “It was fantastic.”