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Sorting Through Yellowstone’s Lost and Found Department

Assorted pets including cats and dogs. Nearly 400 hats, mostly baseball caps. Tons of sunglasses. A set of dentures. Many pillows. A walker. And, even, a toupee.

These are just some of the items, both mundane and strange, that end up in the Yellowstone’s Lost and Found Department, which is handled by the National Park Service’s Visitor Services Office, according to Matt Nagel, an eight-year veteran of that office.

Generally what happens is a visitor or a park employee may come upon an item that appears to be separated from its owner. The finder will attempt to locate a visitor center, ranger station or ranger to hand the item off to. The most likely items to be lost are hats and sunglasses—which currently fill two plastic laundry tubs in the VSO, Nagel said.

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Personally identifiable items like wallets, credit cards and cellphones are relatively easy to return to their owners. Things that aren’t claimed by their owners and are otherwise difficult to return are held for 60 to 90 days, but most likely longer, Nagel said, but not forever.

People have called and asked, for example, about a camera left behind in 2013.

“We don’t have it,” Nagel said.

Nagel sees to it that some of the Lost but not Found clothing gets to area thrift stores. And some items get packed together in large “lots” to be auctioned off as a large unit, Nagel said. The items are auctioned off online at www.gsaauctions.gov, which vaguely resembles a less that user-friendly eBay.

Yellowstone, of course, has some unique challenges regarding lost items. After all, the park encompasses an area the size of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Windy weather around hot springs lends itself particularly well to baseballs caps getting blown into the springs. Items that land in hot springs can sink and choke off the sometimes delicate fissures in the natural “plumbing systems” of geysers and hot springs, so there are crews that periodically extract human-caused detritus in springs.

Nagel recalled an incident where a visitor’s cellphone slipped and went over the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

“The phone was visible, but there was no way to retrieve it,” Nagel said, due to the steep canyon walls.

Last winter, your correspondent watched a family attempt to retrieve a cellphone that had fallen off the boardwalk in the Fountain Paint Pots area.

Nagel estimates his office has about 2,500 items. But the park’s major concessioner, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, runs its own Lost and Found Department. Xanterra works with the NPS on lost and found and reported 9,000 lost items last year, he said. Xanterra collects a lot of lost pillows, most likely from hotel and cabin guests bringing their own pillows from home and forgetting to pack the pillows upon check-out time.

Asked if there was any particular place where people lose the most stuff, Nagel didn’t hesitate.

“Old Faithful,” he said. “Because 90 percent of the visitors go to Old Faithful.”

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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