“Ok, you have to decide right now... before we get any further. Make a choice!”
“I get to pick first?”
“Yeah... I mean, it is your birthday trip.”
“Fair enough. I choose this one.”
My wife and I had just entered Yellowstone Park through the west gate and slipped into the slow, single lane of motorists when our competitive natures and propensity for small stakes gambling got the better of us. This behavior is something we were born into as initially reluctant allies. See, I am an Idaho boy, born and raised with the Sawtooths as my stomping grounds. Jamie, on the other hand, is a Wyoming girl and her heart lies within the mighty Wind River Range. She boasts about her mountains superior heights, while I hail the accessibility of my peaks and kinder weather. She brags of the rainbow-like painted hills, as I launch a salvo of glorious hot springs. I bring up the immenseness of Idaho's wilderness, second to none in the continental United States, and she counterpoints with, “size doesn't matter when you're scared of real bears.” Referring, of course, to the gem state's pathetic intolerance of grizzlies. Usually, as I back-peddle from the bear argument, Jamie finishes me off with two national parks of unimaginable splendor, all but a sliver of which reside within Wyoming. Twisting the knife even further is knowing that Idaho lays claim to a miniscule portion of one, and the other is within spitting distance of our eastern border. My final, feeble argument is that I can't stand all the park tourists, traffic, and noise. “That is why we backpack,” she typically concludes.
We had already exchanged our usual points when she decided to up the ante and have us pick a national park in a pseudo-official bet. Our mission was to backpack some 100 miles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Jamie wanted to gamble on which park would bring us the greatest memories and most fulfilling adventure. Assuming we could agree on such a thing. For starters, we had to drop our preconceived notions and previous experiences at the door. The trip wasn't our first to these wonderlands of outdoor beauty. In fact, the two parks basically form a barrier between our childhood homes and we frequently drive through the area on family visits.
“Ok, you got Yellowstone. I get the Tetons,” she said.
Clueless as to what I was doing, I twisted one hand into some semblance of a gang sign and sneered at my wife. “Y.S. for life, baby!” My bad impersonation prompted the usual eye-roll from my wife.
I first suspected something cosmic was on my side of the wager when, less than an hour into the park, the line of cars slowed to a creep and tourists lined the road with high-powered cameras. We spotted the reason two hundred yards across a grassy meadow at the very edge of the treeline. Just in time, we saw a huge sow grizzly with two fuzzy cubs in tow amble behind a small, solitary spruce, and then the giant animal vanished. Just like that. Gone. Like the massive bear had a trapdoor on the gently sloping hillside to an underground lair.
“What the,” I began to say, “I mean, it's hiding behind a Christmas tree. How can we not see her?”
My wife seized the opportunity with a smile. “Idahoans just don't get it. In Wyoming, we understand the magic of the great bear.”
Similarly stumped, the rest of the drivers gradually picked up speed and once again focused on the road ahead. I looked back to where she disappeared thinking a different angle would reveal her hiding place, but the massive momma had given us the slip.
I barely had time to rub in the fact that the grizzly sighting had clearly put Yellowstone out to an early lead, when we saw the next mother bear. This one less than a hundred feet away. She was trapped in a narrow strip of meadow between the nearly solid line of vehicles and raging river. Normally, a grizzly could manage the powerful current, but she too had a cub on her heels and there was no way a mother bear would take such a chance.
The panicked grizzly charged through an opening in the dense willows where she had been trying to hide and right towards our truck. Even within the safe confines of our truck, I felt a primitive reaction, something imprinted on the very blueprint of man's DNA; I had to fight the urge to throw open the truck door and flee. Not sure where I would have gone, but the caveman inside my blood did not like being charged by grizzlies. With no gaps between cars on the crowded road, the mother bear was forced to veer off and run parallel to the river once again. Eventually, the mother and cub topped a rise on the riverbank and were lost from our sight.
“That was intense,” Jamie says with a nervous grin.
“In your face, Tetons!” I shouted raising both fists triumphantly.
After the initial excitement, Jamie and I expressed our concerns for the trapped bear. We felt sorry for the animals constantly being hounded bu humans in this sometimes all too zoo-like environment. Still, five grizzlies in the first hour. My horse was off to one hell of a start in this race, nearly making up for the constant roadwork slowing traffic.
By the time we reached the pull-off for Hell Roaring trailhead, I was more than ready to leave the masses behind and hit the trail. Well over 90 percent of the millions of annual visitors to Yellowstone never leave the pavement or boardwalks. The park is a vast, pristine wilderness; as close to what existed before the European invasion, and yet very few actually step out into it.
Of course, you can't just backpack into Yellowstone thinking you will hike whatever trail you want and camp wherever you please. At least not legally. The backcountry permit process is tedious and regimented, but absolutely required. Rangers insist on knowing precisely what trails you plan to use and you must reserve specific campsites for each night. Reservations can only be made from a ranger station and a visit to the backcountry office requires a mandatory film on the perils of camping in bear country. No matter how many times you have seen it, no matter your backpacking experience, no matter how many bears you may have personally wrestled, they will still force you to watch their movie.
To avoid potential bear clashes, one of the things you learn when obtaining your permit is how to properly store your food. In Yellowstone, you must hang your sack of edibles from a log lashed between two trees about twenty feet in the air. I guess they figure that while bears are adept at climbing trees, they aren't much for tightrope walking. In Yellowstone, every camp has one of these “bear poles” securely in place. In Teton, you are expected to place your food inside a nearly indestructible plastic container, with an equally tricky lid, and stash it somewhere on the ground.
Now, thanks to the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his Memorial Parkway, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are, for all intents and purposes, connected. There is nothing stopping the bears from wandering the few miles from one park to the other. Why there is a totally different process for storing food with the same populous of bears is anyone's guess. I'd make a joke about the efficiencies of government, but I work for the government and know full well that anything so sadly true couldn't possibly be funny.
Our destination for the first night was the very maw of legendary Black Canyon, a pocket in the Northwest corner of Yellowstone that biologists claim is home to the densest population of large predators in the lower 48. Mountain lions, wolves, and bears reign supreme and that reputation was matched by the carnage we saw on the trail from the very first mile. Despite the abundance of decomposed carcasses, by day's end, the electric buzz from the grizzlies had been replaced by weariness and a slight sting of disappointment. We had walked a clearly marked and well maintained trail gradually gaining elevation through a high desert landscape, but the vast scenery was completely void of large mammals. There were other hikers, of course, but humans didn't count. I wanted animals and all we saw were bones.
“Where's all the beasties you promised?” asked my wife as we arrived at our first camp. “I didn't see fresh sign of anything.”
“It has to be the cool spring. The summer heat hasn't driven the prey this high yet.”
I hated to admit it, not because of our wager, but because I knew it meant the next several days would most likely bring more of the same. Except for a lucky sighting of some rogue traveler, without prey, we'd be lucky to see any predators at all. A wave of disillusionment washed over me along with the simultaneous sense of déjà vu. As a child, I had been let down by my expectations on our families first trip to Yellowstone.
Living in Idaho, you can’t help but hear about the park. Everyone has been there for vacation and as an avid reader, I had learned even more. Still, all the information was being filtered through the eyes of an over-imaginative child. There was supposed to be vast herds of deer, elk, and antelope around every bend; moose and bison by the boatload, and more bears, wolves, and lions than one could possibly count. It was supposed to be a wildlife wonderland the likes of which I could barely comprehend. Instead, it wound up looking a lot like the places I had camped near home.
With the exception of the Black Canyon's looming entrance just to our West, our first designated site could have been any other river canyon in the gem state. The camp was set at the edge of a sagebrush spotted clearing on a dusty knob of upthrust river bank twenty feet above the powerful Yellowstone River. This was to be our base camp for a couple nights while we made day hikes into the canyon and off trail.
A handful of mosquitoes were the first night's only drama; the weather and scenery unbeatable. Despite the missing wildlife, Yellowstone was turning out every bit as grand as I had predicted. The Tetons would need to rise to the occasion if they wanted to win this contest. “Everything is perfect,” I said to Jamie as we rested on our air mattresses and boiled water for a dinner of dehydrated chicken and rice.
“Tell that to our neighbors,” she replied sweetly and pointed upriver.
Two hikers were standing in a meadow maybe a hundred yards to the east staring at a large piece of paper held between them and pointing in various directions. Losing the main trail was impossible, so we knew they were checking a map for the location of their actual camp. Jamie and I had noticed the sign for the only other site within miles on the hike in. I was tempted to point them in the right direction, not out of a sense of goodwill, but because I had just hiked all day to find some privacy.
I suspect our unwelcoming vibes radiated across the clearing as the two of them wandered further east and out of sight. Not in the right direction of their campsite, but it worked for us. I assumed they would be fine, even if they had to make a guerrilla camp somewhere and risk a park ranger’s ire. Although, the Hell Roaring trailhead sign did have a picture of a missing hiker lost just the week before. Jamie and I had actually discussed the possibility of stumbling upon his half-eaten corpse.
As it turned out we didn't need to worry ourselves with such morbid curiosities. Never once in three days did we see a flesh eater in Black Canyon. The legends were all a lie, or, based on the countless number of bones, we just had unfortunate timing this season. Obviously, it wasn't long ago that something in the area was eating its fair share of fresh meat.
On our last off trail hike, I experienced a brief startle when I tried pulling myself up a steep hillside by reaching out to grab what looked like a thick, dead branch. I recoiled at the last second, nearly slipping, when I realized the branch was actually an elk antler still attached to a mostly decayed skull. Tangled up with the severed head was the impressive rack of a large deer. The two rotting skulls looked as if they had been wedged into a narrow pocket between two boulders and half covered with small logs and branches.
“Jamie,” I hissed at my wife who was scrambling up the slope ahead of me. I had heard of bears burying their food for a later return, but I wasn't entirely convinced it was the work of an animal. Still, the ghastly blank eye sockets sent a shiver down my spine and the dense forest suddenly seemed quiet and dark.
“What is it?” she asked, noticing the peculiar look on my face.
“A couple of heads,” I replied.
“Skulls, a couple of skulls crammed up in here. Still have some hair and hide on them.”
“What kind of skulls?” she asked slowly.
“Deer and elk; still have their antlers too.”
A look of concern crossed her face, feeding my uneasiness. In our animal kingdom, only a bear was capable of anything like this, and if it wasn't a bear then it had to be a person. Would the park rangers be stashing skulls for some reason? Was someone illegally gathering antlers to smuggle out of the park? The paranoia got the better of me and I decided it didn't really matter how the skulls wound up there.
“We should probably get out of here,” Jamie suggested, “before our heads wind up down there.”
By the third evening, I had given up on seeing a living, breathing animal when we spotted a distant mountain goat high on the basalt cliffs across the river and high above our trail. We pulled up a cool, comfortable chair on a sandy beach near the churning water and watched the magnificent animal make daring leaps down the sheer black walls. It wasn't exactly a bear, lion, or wolf, but impressive nonetheless. To tell the truth, my wife and I have a soft spot for those shaggy white pranksters with the devil's black horns.
“That has to be a point for Yellowstone,” I said to Jamie with a smile. “That, and the perfect weather, lack of mosquitoes, and pimp trails.”
“I'm not sure how official this scoring system of yours really is,” was her response.
Despite the rugged and unique beauty of the river gorge, I had felt slightly cheated when we reached our deepest point on the trail and knew it was time to return. What was originally planned as a through-hike became and out-and-back when we realized there was some squabble over private property rights nears the trail's end. However, despite having to turn our backs on the Black Canyon, our Yellowstone trip wasn't over. We had another site reserved about halfway between the base camp and our truck.
Our second camp was a scenic jewel set off the main path by a mile walk across a sagebrush littered valley floor. A massive elk skull with eight point rack placed on a large boulder announced our arrival. The site had an amphitheater feel, with stunning mountain views out in front of us and a cliff wall at our backs. Just below our campsite, a rocky beach diverted a small channel off the massive flow of river allowing us to take a naked plunge in the freezing water; our first bath in days.
Shortly after our arrival, we were half-startled by a big horn sheep. The little lady appeared from behind a large pile of stones at the edge of our camp and then froze in place as she noticed us sitting twenty feet away. Trapped in the open, I could see her eyes darting nervously from side to side; almost like she was trying to wrap her mind around an escape plan that didn’t involve actually moving. Jamie tried to whisper something reassuring, but the sound of human voice caused the ewe to panic and she fled back into the rocks.
“Very cool,” I said, expecting that was the last we would see of her. Instead, the petite big horn reappeared a few seconds later amongst the jagged slabs that had fallen from the cliff wall just above our campsite. With cocked head and curious eyes, the ewe watched us for at least fifteen minutes. We studied each other about as well as different species could before she finally moved on. Jamie and I agreed that our camp had officially been blessed.
“I'm just gonna count our furry friend as a two-pointer,” I said while mimicking a jump-shot and extended follow through.
“I'm gonna laugh when she comes back tonight and attacks you in your sleep.”
Our laughter at the image of the blood-thirsty big horn was interrupted by the sound of other voices. As it was on the first night of the trip, our personal space was being invaded. A group of four older hikers appeared on the far side of the river, dropped their packs and talked excitedly amongst themselves. At least the sound of the river muffled their voices to the point of being barely audible, and their camp was nestled mostly out of site amongst a thick stand of trees. Our moods soured a bit at the prospect of company and no more skinny dipping.
Jamie elbowed me in the ribs. “Do you wanna take a point off your score, or just give me one?”
“Take a point,” I sighed. “You don't get to start counting until we see a Teton.”
Before going to bed that night, Jamie and I explored a small shelf just above the first cliff and below where another rock wall started. It looked like narrow, fifty yard half-pipe dotted with stumpy trees and fallen boulders. Bones of several different species covered the area. It was easy to imagine a mountain lion, waiting here in invisible silence for a variety of prey to make its nightly trek to water. Obviously, several animals never made it out of the death tunnel. Like the rest of the predation sign we had encountered, the kills were old, but we still excused ourselves rather quickly.
We slept late the following morning, dragging our heels because the day would find us back at our truck and amongst the masses. However, a return to our ride didn't mean it was time to go home. Our ace in the sleeve was one last night in the backcountry already planned; we just needed to drive a little to reach the next trailhead.
When we finally broke camp and began walking across the flat desert landscape, the heat of the day was already upon us. We trudged on gradually getting sticky from sweat. About midway back to our rig, we topped a rise in the middle of a sloping grass meadow and found the trail blocked by a giant, solitary bison. Separated from the massive creature by only half a football field, Jamie and I looked for something to climb, or hide behind. All the boulders large enough to possibly protect us were on the far side of the grazing beast, and even without a heavy backpack, neither of us could have reached the closest tree. The bison eyed us warily as it grazed on lush grasses.
“Ok,” I whispered in my wife's ear, “you go distract it while I slip by. You know, make moose antlers with thumbs in your ears… and stick your tongue out.”
“You're in danger of not getting this one to count,” Jamie hissed. “How 'bout we backtrack to the river and work our way around?”
“Fine,” I said in mock exasperation, “if we're gonna be babies about the whole thing...”
“You're welcome to use the trail,” she said. “Go for it.”
After a twenty minute detour, Jamie and I figured we had circled far enough to safely return to the trail. As we topped the gentle slope from riverbank back to meadow, we realized we were even closer to the behemoth than before. The boulders were also closer, but somehow, they didn't seem much bigger. The bison, on the other hand, appeared much larger than before; big enough to possibly get a person on top the rocks. I didn't want to test the theory by tap-dancing on a five foot rock while an enraged, one ton beast tried to hook its horns into my legs.
Moving as nonchalantly as possible, Jamie and I angled back towards the trail and away from the prehistoric creature. The bison watched us go with about as much interest, or disinterest, as it had watched us arrive. From a safe distance, we turned and waved goodbye, not only to the buffalo, but also the fading basalt cliffs of Black Canyon.
Back at the truck, we decided to find the nearest lodge in order to clean up in the bathroom. Based on a long running track of predictable behavior, I also suspected we would manage to locate a cheeseburger and beer along the way. There was also a chance we might talk ourselves out of the last hike and find someplace posh to crash. My wife and I almost always stay true to our plans, but occasionally, we do elect to spoil ourselves.
As it turns out, I was right about the burgers, beers, and alternate plans discussion, but I couldn't have predicted the manner in which the person at the table closest to us would eat his sandwich. Frankly, and I hate to say this, but the man's natural appearance wasn't helping the situation... at all. His wide-open mouth was trapped in a nonstop, cud-chewing motion, while a stubby, pale tongue poked out at regular intervals. Behind thick glasses and bulbous nose, he looked like a plump, vacant-eyed, frog-cow monster from the very bowels of hell. I had to completely turn my chair around and mentally slip into a state of denial in order to keep my lunch down. Clearly, the demon was sent as a painful reminder from our spiritual, wilderness guide. Jamie and I finished our food, pounded our beers, and without a word, decided to get back on the trail as soon as possible.
Although the final hike was less than five miles in, we found ourselves questioning our decision after realizing it was another desert march, even hotter than before. Just as we reached the campsite, the elevation had finally begun to rise and the landscape more forested. This time, not one, but a half-dozen stacked elk skulls guarded the entrance to the camp. Separating the meadow and tree line was a small, picturesque pond. Unlike the vast majority of Yellowstone backcountry sites, this one had a usable fire pit, which meant roasted hotdogs for dinner instead of boiling water for something dehydrated.
The luxurious camp was also guaranteed to have zero neighbors as there wasn't another designated site for miles. No neighbors didn't mean no visitors though; the freshest sign of bear I found in all of Yellowstone was where we were supposed to erect our tent. A sizable pile of scat, no more than a day or two day old, sat right in the middle of the small, dirt clearing. Claw marks and dried trails of bleeding sap could be seen on the closest tree. I removed a chunk of the animal’s fur from the bark where it had most likely been scratching its backside.
“Sleep tight,” I said to Jamie with a wink.
Before bed that night, we reminisced around a small, warm blaze about our favorite parts of the trip. After hiking out, we had to return to Boise for the work week before driving back to tackle the widely ignored northern trails of Grand Teton National Park. More than anything, I wished we could just keep hiking, but we had to finance our adventures somehow.
I awoke a first light on the last day of our Yellowstone trip to an insistent bladder. Heeding the call, I quietly slipped out of the tent so as to not disturb my sleeping wife. It didn't work. Jamie rolled over and looked at me, bleary, blue eyes about the only thing visible inside her sleeping bag.
“Happy Birthday, lover.”
“Oh yeah,” I said having completely forgotten. “Thank you.”
I moved down the treeline away from camp, and while taking care of business, I noticed the bark on a nearby spruce begin to move. For a moment, it felt like a hallucinogenic flashback from days gone by. A second later, my vision separated the camouflaged animal from tree trunk. It was a great, gray owl, nearly two feet tall, perched eye-level to me on a broken limb. The giant raptor was facing the opposite direction, but had spun its head entirely around to exam the intruder in its forest. The bird’s pale face was circled by a distinct line where its feathers grew darker, almost like it was wearing a tightly cinched hooded sweatshirt.
After relieving myself, I tried to get Jamie’s attention by making a beckoning hand gesture until she finally noticed. Before she could shout any questions, I held an index finger against my lips and again motioned for her to join me. Jamie stealthily extracted herself from the tent and creeped to my side. All our precautions were unnecessary as the big owl appeared totally unruffled by our presence.
“Oh my!” Jamie whispered. “How amazing is that?”
“It’s my owl,” I replied, “come to wish me happy birthday. I might bring him home.”
After examining us with amber eyes for a few minutes, the bird’s attention was attracted by a scurrying movement out in the meadow. Ground squirrels were waking up and beginning to mill about the entrance to their lairs. The gray owl leaned forward until its momentum carried it off the branch. On motionless wings, the raptor floated low over the field, rose abruptly a few feet, and then, silent as a stone, dropped into the midst of a small sagebrush. The thin branches shook as a struggle ensued. Everything went silent for a moment before the owl rose into the air empty-handed. It must have just missed its intended target.
The owl spent the morning with us, continuing to hunt all around our campsite. Despite its brilliant, awe-inspiring tactics, the bird of prey missed several times before finally landing in another bush and emerging victorious with a small rodent in its black talons. We cheered for the silent assassin as it devoured its catch from a nearby perch.
“That might have been the icing on the cake,” I said later as we walked the last mile back to our truck.
“Yeah, it was unbelievably cool,” Jamie admitted. “But wait until we see that herd of grizzlies in Teton.
My eyebrows rose questioningly. “Herd?”
“Sure,” she said. “What, you’ve never seen… oh wait, you’re from Idaho.”
“Always the comedian,” I replied. “Better phone ahead and tell the Tetons to get their A game ready.”