Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tales From Yellowstone

There have been several publicized questionable incidents in Yellowstone National Park this year. It seems that far too many of the visitors have been behaving as if the park's animals are pets. I came across several videos of human interaction with bison and bears while researching my fourth Yellowstone visit. Although I believe it is impossible for me to act foolishly and put myself or the animals in danger, I did enter the Yellowstone this year with clear intentions of not ending up going viral on the YouTube.

Yellowstone is huge. It encompasses almost 3500 square miles of diverse and uniquely beautiful landscapes. Most of the park's millions of visitors choose to "see" the park while driving around the Grand Loop road system. This figure eight road provides access to all of Yellowstone's primary features: geysers, waterfalls, lakes, canyons, visitor center/museums, and campgrounds. Trailheads for 1100 miles of trails are also found along the roads. Those trailheads were my destinations along the Grand Loop for this visit as I sought vistas and solitude.

My visit lasted three days. I was entered in a half marathon out of the city of West Yellowstone, MT on the west side of the park. My first hike up Bunsen Peak made me annoyingly aware of the fact that my right hamstring would not allow more than a brisk walking stride. A twenty two mile hike to the top of Mt. Holmes would serve as the alternative activity.

Mt. Holmes is, at 10,336 feet, one of the tallest hiking destinations in Yellowstone. The hike to the peak would be picturesque. The view from the top would make the effort worthwhile. A solo hike in grizzly country would require caution. In fact, the signs at all the trailheads recommended hiking parties of three or more: Me, Myself, and I probably wasn't what park officials had in mind. Bear spray was also recommended and I had a $55 canister of said deterrent was strapped to my vest.

I purposefully ate a hearty breakfast in order to avoid carrying odorous food with me on the hike (I made Me and Myself leave theirs behind also:). Salty water filled my bottles. The camera was at the ready.

Two bison greeted me at the trailhead. Both were lying down, but one stood up as I parked. I reached for the fob and my sunglasses before grabbing the door handle. An expletive and a gush of fear sweat poured out of me when I realized that bison had its nose inches from the driver side window. Relax and get a grip on that bladder. After a long minute the huge beast sauntered into the nearby meadow to graze. It seemed like ten thousand cars pulled into the pullout to take pictures of the other bison while I applied sunscreen with the car between me and the curious bison. Only after that bison moved further into the meadow to the south did I put on the vest and walk onto the trail in the meadow to the north.

The trail crossed that huge meadow before climbing onto a steep hillside and rounding into a long valley leading to Mt. Holmes. I whistled and sang as I moved along. Too bad I don't have my flute. I sang loudly. Sneak up on a grizzly bear? Me? No way, man!

And, as if on cue, there was a medium sized (300 lbs?) grizzly standing on the trail a mere fifty feet away. Really?! I froze. We stared at each other for several seconds. In the Appalachians I would start talking loudly to black bears in this situation. Facing a grizzly - I stood silently for awhile before taking a few short strides backward. I was trying to recall the training I'd received before solo backpacking in Denali back in 1997. No fast or agressive movements. No direct eye contact. Do NOT run.

The bear eventually took a few steps upslope before stopping to look at me again. I took a few more steps backward. The spray canister, still lashed to the vest, was firmly in my right hand with the nozzle pointed at the bear. This stuff better work or I'll be part of a spicy hot meal. Fear swept through me causing goosebumps to swell on my arms. Why are you smiling? Stop smiling? The bear moved further upslope and into the valley before disappearing into the thin pine forest. I turned and walked the 1.3 miles back to the car. I was not going to push my luck by following a grizzly deeper into that valley. Maybe next time, Holmes.

With that hair raising experience creating "what if" scenarios in my mind I drove further down to road. I decided to hike near Bunsen Peak in a meadow - a big meadow where I could see omnivorous animals before they were within one hundred feet of me.

Once again, I shouldered the vest and walked onto the trail after starting my Polar V800 GPS. I planned to walk 3-4 miles along the Fawn Pass Trail and then turn back. The rolling meadow provided extensive views of the surrounding landscape. The path rounded earthen berms and climbed over ridges forged by glaciers as it meandered across and up the long valley.

After cresting one of the ridges I stopped to take a picture. While looking through the view finder I noticed movement about three hundred meters away. I zoomed in, but I saw nothing. Holding the camera focus on that area I tried to construct a photo. There it was again. What the hell?!! Really? Another bear. I was getting glimpses of a golden brown bear with a big hump behind its head. It was walking in the brush (on this trail?) and seemed in search of something. Head up, head down, it looked all around as it moved. I shot two photos but missed a full shoulder/head shot.  I realized from the review screen that I didn't have a good photo so I started to hoist the camera for another shot.

Wait. Wait a minute. Seeing only its head I could clearly see that its nose was turned up into the wind. I was upwind from it and now it knew where I was. And then it was gone. Where the hell did you go? I used the camera to search the area. I could only see brush blowing in the wind. What a gorgeous sight. After several seconds of searching for the bear I decided that it was time to go. I was 2.32 miles away from the trailhead.

Moving slowly at first, I walked until just before the trail dropped sharply from that last ridge. Once again I scanned the valley. Nothing. You're probably in the creek foraging or snacking on fish. Still, I dropped off of that ridge out of view and jogged as fast as my leg would allow. I jogged uncomfortably for about one hundred meters before stopping to look back. Again, nothing but waving meadow: plants blowing in a stiff wind. It would have normally been an incredibly relaxing scene, but I felt an urge to escape from it.

I walked briskly to the next ridge where I once again stopped and looked back. No bear. No panic. So, I dropped off of that ridge and jogged even faster. My hamstring seemed to be loosening up. I repeatedly ran for a bit and stopped to look back. When I finally reached the next ridge I had traveled  1.21 miles back toward the road. I looked back again. Dammit! No way! Not only was the bear dropping down from that last ridge, it was jogging along the trail and it had made up ground since our initial encounter. I was running seven minute pace!

Sure, I knew the bear could run four times faster than me, but I did not expect it to pursue me for such a great distance. I dropped off of that last ridge where it couldn't see me and once again began to run at what was likely 5:30 pace. My hamstring started hurting and I told it to shut the hell up and do its part or get digested. After running hard for about a minute I reached an earthen berm around which the trail would curve out of sight from the last ridge. A quick glance back let me know that the bear was not near me.

Rounding the curve also provided direct line sight of the many cars in the lots near Bunsen Peak. Almost there! I continually looked back as I sprinted, then jogged, then walked to the trailhead at the roadway. When I arrived there I bent over, hands on knees, to catch my breath in the thin air while keeping an eye on the meadow. That stupid grin was still on my face. Part of me wanted to claim victory. Part of me knew that I had not been participating in a game.

Before driving away I read from my list of possible hikes. I was looking for the short ones in open meadows. Within minutes I came upon one of those typical roadside Yellowstone scenes where a ranger was trying to monitor a large crowd of people who had abandoned their cars to get pictures of a grizzly. This one was on the edge of a lake a quarter mile away in a meadow. The ranger was making sure none of the gawkers foolishly moved toward the bear. I spoke with him briefly through my open window when I paused to take a few pictures of the crowd.

I didn't need a ranger to tell me to stay away from that bear.

Within minutes I came across another crowd of tourists being monitored by a ranger while they were hoping for grizzly pictures. My fourth visit to Yellowstone yielded four grizzly sightings within three hours while I had only seen one grizzly (and three black bears) during my previous visits. I wonder what experiences future visits will provide for me. Hopefully, I've reached my life quota for backcountry grizzly encounters.

That was an awesome and memorable day. And, I must acknowledge, a very lucky day. Maybe that message, subconsciously, kept that smile on my face.

Here are a few of the scenes from that day. Enjoy! ST

First bear encounter in those distant trees

No, I can't see the second bear there either, but it is just left of center
where the meadow drops off

Got most of that right 

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