Another backcountry trip in Yellowstone means that for the last week, I had to hear about grizzly bears from every person catching wind of my plans. Friends, family, co-workers, and the occasional stranger butting into my conversation, can’t help but offer their warnings and advice for dealing with such a dangerous wild animal. Of course, most of them don’t venture into grizzly country, have never encountered one in the wild, and really have no idea what they’re talking about. They’ve read sensationalist headlines, seen all the books about man-eaters, fell for some politician’s biased bullshit, or watched overly dramatized documentaries about the animal and are now convinced their fear-based perspective is an accurate representation of a complex animal.
Complicating the issue tenfold is the fact there have been grizzly bear related deaths in the park for the last two summers, something that hadn’t happened in 25 years prior to 2010. Rather than accept the events as an educational opportunity for backcountry travelers, people are manipulating these tragedies to further their own greedy agendas. The Endangered Species Act has been rendered toothless by western politicians who are more focused on “saving our families” from all these wild animal attacks then they are on creating employment opportunities or protecting our shared environment for future generations. Contrary to scientific data proving their immense value to a complete ecosystem, the reckless slaughter of our once protected gray wolves has commenced and it won’t be long until grizzlies are thinned out as well.
But I grow weary of this topic. For once, I don’t want to talk about bears. When I get on the subject, I get defensive, I get combative, I get ugly, and that isn’t how I should feel when discussing something I cherish. I’m almost hoping my wife and I can avoid any sight of them on our 50 mile walk so my thoughts aren’t dragged down to such a miserable, hopeless place. Not that seeing bears is ever any kind of guarantee, but considering our hike will take us through some of the densest grizzly habitat in the lower 48… Still, maybe I can find something else to think about.
Something like the megafauna herbivores that are way more likely spotted in Yellowstone than any other National Park. I’m talking elk, moose, and the unmistakable shaggy tanks otherwise known as bison. North America’s grand champion ungulates, all three species leftovers from the last ice age, regularly weighing between one and two thousand pounds. Creatures of such size and magnificence they can steal your breath as readily as a pack of wolves running along the Lamar River. And, while most people think it’s the predators you have to watch out for, it’s actually the horned ones more likely to injure someone. However, I’m certain some 99% of all tourists ever wounded by a large herbivore in Yellowstone had it coming. Jamie and I tend to have a lot more respect for a giant animal’s personal space than do most of the park’s shutterbug crowd. Were I in their hoofs, I would flat out run amuck every time someone so much as approached me, taking out as many slack-jawed buffoons as I possibly could. The rangers would quickly see to my violent end, but it would be fun while it lasted.
My daydreams of goring tourists are interrupted by the sudden sound of branches snapping and neck-high sagebrush being trampled. A massive blur of brown hair, no doubt having heard the sound of our boots on the hard-packed trail, lurches to its feet in a cloud of dust and pushes through the prickly foliage lining the creek bed. In the seconds it takes for the animal to charge onto the trail before us, I remove the bear spray from Jamie’s pack. The noise had me reaching for the canister just in case we had a grizzly on hand, but now that I can clearly see what we’re dealing with, I’m still reluctant to put it away.
Upon reaching the path, the shaggy bison stops in its tracks and swivels its rotund head in our direction. His eyes are the same color as the darker tone of chocolate hair covering its head and shoulders. The creature looks less than amused for having been disturbed and I’m beginning to wonder if we’re going to find out how well bear spray works on bison when it finally seems to decide we aren’t worth the trouble. The animal’s body language visibly relaxes and he even ducks his head for a mouthful of grass. Comfortable now that we aren’t a threat, the bison turns and ambles back towards its wallow of overturned earth to resume napping.
“One down,” I say. “He was a great specimen too. That’s what we’re after, the big boys of all three.”
“We’d already seen bison before we even hit the trail,” my wife counters. “And why are we only counting the boys? What kind of sexist bullshit is that?”
“We can’t count anything we saw from our car. This is a backcountry megafauna expedition. And girls just don’t have the same majesty as the boys. Sorry, but were looking for big studs and big racks.”
“Hey, the bisoness has horns… but I agree it will be nice to spot a big stud for a change.”
In response, I flex my left arm and kiss my tattooed bicep. “A woman would have to be blind to not notice these guns.”
Grinning, Jamie and I resume our trek across the rolling meadows of golden grass following Cache Creek towards the Lamar River valley just a few miles west of our location. As usual, the close wildlife encounter has buoyed our spirits and it feels as though we could backpack all day without tiring. It’s the first real animal we’ve spotted since leaving the trailhead, unless you count the ruffled grouse we startled atop Thunderer pass yesterday. But sometimes, that’s just how it is in the backcountry. Not even Yellowstone promises thrilling wildlife encounters, although that isn’t the popular perception. As even I had done at a young age, tourists assume that if they are brave enough to venture beyond the boardwalks, they will be treated to a spectacle of wildlife straight out of their wildest dreams. And sadly, that landscape does only exist in their imagination. As it was across the entire country, Yellowstone was absolutely ransacked by the first waves of European invaders. Wildlife populations were hunted, poisoned, and trapped to extinction, or were pushed so close to the brink they will never recover. If you want to see the Yellowstone of 500 years ago, I’ll guarantee some animal sightings, but you better bring the time machine.
Having just reached the first creek crossing after intersecting the Lamar River Trail, Jamie and I are sitting on water polished stones swapping our hiking boots for river sandals, when we see our first party of other people descending the steep bank above us. They are three young men who at first glance appear to spend more time in front of computers than they do outdoors. Slight of build, bordering on scrawny, they look dirty and underwhelmed with their hard walking experience. The leader of the group stumbles to the water’s edge letting his pack slide off his shoulders and fall hard to the ground with a metallic clank. He lets out a heavy sigh before following his pack to the earth where he begins working at his dusty shoestrings.
“So,” I say, trying to hide my smile, “did you guys see a bunch of bison along the Lamar?” The next two days of our own trip will see us hiking along the famous river and I’m curious as to what may be in store. I had overheard a ranger talking to a tourist as we were obtaining our backpacking permit in West Yellowstone, and the young brunette indicated the great beasts were strewn all over the Lamar Valley.
The younger man peers up at me through some half-assed dreadlocks. His blond hair is already thinning ensuring that the stringy locks he’s managed to produce are as good as they are going to get. “We haven’t seen shit,” is his abrupt reply. “I thought there were animals in this park. I think we saw something that was so far away and in the trees I couldn’t tell if it was moose or elk. Other than that, some birds and squirrels. There’s more wildlife in Ohio than Yellowstone.”
His companions nod their heads in subdued agreement and I can’t help feeling bad for the young men. They drove a long way thinking they were going to be exposed to something that simply doesn’t exist. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience numerous wild animal encounters in the backcountry of Yellowstone, but I’ve also had to put in the time. Not every walk rewards you with bear and wolf sightings. Hell, the last time Jamie and I hiked the South Boundary Trail, we saw exactly one deer on the whole trek. One deer. I see more wildlife than that on my morning bike rides to work through the north end neighborhoods of Boise. Don’t get me wrong, that deer was nice enough; she hung around the outskirts of our camp for a couple of hours, but still, talk about your disappointments. It was then, I tried to adopt a sense of appreciation for the animals I do see, rather than set myself up with unrealistic expectations.
During our brief interaction with the hikers, we also learn they have only seen a couple other backpackers. So, I guess you take the good with the bad. If we aren’t to see any wildlife, at least we won’t have to deal with any people either. It also means that we won’t necessarily have to stick to our reservations. Our scheduled campsite for the night is still a long way off and we are nearly ready to call it day. We didn’t stay where we were supposed to last night either, choosing instead a more concealed site that we felt safe to steal after a late arrival and seeing nobody else around. Had a park ranger shown up, or someone with the appropriate permit, we would have been forced to push on for our reserved site, or find a guerrilla camp somewhere off trail.
The setting but still unseasonably warm September sun is just putting the finishing touches on our browning arms by the time we choose a spot for the evening. The designated site is on a large flat expanse of grass, bordered by evergreen lodge pole pines and aspen trees whose leaves are just beginning their stunning transformation to vivid orange. The trail is cut into the hillside just above the river plain guaranteeing we’ll be spotted if anyone happens by, but with the sunset less than an hour off, we’re fairly certain that won’t be a concern. Jamie and I have barely enough time to strip naked and take what has become our ritualistic plunge after a day of hiking. The Lamar, like all mountain rivers, is torturously cold and we just manage to dry off and change into our nightly fleece before the fiery yellow orb sinks into the ridgeline and the temperature instantly drops ten degrees. Day two of our trip is over, and we have one Bison sighting for all our effort.
The dawn brings with it a renewed sense of hope, not only do we have full day ahead of us for potentially spotting animals, but because as soon as we were back on the main trail, my wife and I realize we are following a bear. A thick layer of super fine dust covering the path leaves clear evidence of recent activity. So distinct are the imprints in the earth, I am convinced it is a black bear. A griz would leave much larger and deeper claw imprints than what we see before us. The eerily human-like prints sit right on top obscuring the trail’s older sign, and we soon find a fresh pile of loose stool filled with half-digested berries to confirm our suspicions. Our bear walked by within the last couple hours.
My initial excitement of potentially tracking a bear fades with the usual depressing thoughts that rack my brain whenever I’m on the subject. Feeling my jaded philosophies kicking in, I try to ignore the ursine prints as I crush them beneath my heels. I’m not supposed to be thinking about bears, I’m supposed to be looking for megafauna. A modest goal it would seem, but one proving increasingly difficult. By the time we have settled on another camp for night three, again, not one we actually reserved, Jamie and I are beginning to feel alone in the park. Not only did we never see our bear, we never saw another sign of life all day, unless, like our Ohio travelers, we’re counting the occasional bird and squirrel. Our route for the day had taken us off the Lamar River Trail and onto the Hoodoo Basin Trail following Miller Creek. It’s a good thing the warm September weather hasn’t produced a single cloud in days and the scenery has been subtly gorgeous, otherwise even my patience would be rapidly dissolving.
The animal tease continues after we have set up camp, douse ourselves in the stream, eat dinner, and pull up a seat around a small campfire to ward off the evening chill. From the swelling shadows just north of our camp, a deep mono-syllabic grunt cuts through the silence. And then again. It sounds like a large animal clearing its throat one forced cough at a time. While Jamie and I perk up our ears, we hear the repeated noise only this time from a slightly different location.
“You hearing that?” Jamie asks. “What is that?”
“There’s a moose out there circling our camp,” I reply without hesitation. I’m honestly not certain, but having automatically ruled out bear, bison, and elk, I’m not sure what else could possibly create such a loud deep bass grunt.
I shrug my shoulders. We can poke around the dark forest if you like. See if we can find it…”
Jamie’s eyes take on a distant look of contemplation before she finally shakes her head. “No, I don’t think I feel like startling anything big enough to be making that sound.”
“Good idea. Maybe tomorrow we can find its tracks.”
The breaking dawn finds us having forgotten about the eerie noise from the night before. It isn’t until Jamie is cleaning up our breakfast and I have wandered out into the meadow of chest high grass still wet with dew bordering our campsite to relive my insistent bladder that we hear the sound again. On the heels of the noise, I hear the practiced bird whistle Jamie and I use to communicate from a distance. I look back at my wife to see her holding up one index finger to indicate a solitary animal. Next she places her thumbs against her temples and spreads her hands wide to represent big antlers. Finally, she points to a dense stand of trees, some fifty yards from where I’m standing. It takes a minute or two to find the massive creature totally still amongst the underbrush and lower ponderosa branches. The dark silhouette is looking right at me.
Naturally curious and having apparently dismissed us as posing zero threat, the pre-historic beast steps into a break in the trees allowing a wide open look at our grunting friend. Even from this distance, the massive animal ranks amongst the largest bull moose I have ever seen. The hump above its front shoulders has to be as tall as my 6’2” frame and its multi-pronged rack is nearly the length of my outstretched arms. White socks turn to black hair at the bull’s shins and it’s more chocolate colored winter coat has begun breaking through the ebony sheen in streaking patches. So impressed am I with the magnificent creature’s appearance, it takes me a few moments to realize my exposed position in the meadow isn’t exactly ideal. If the moose decided to charge, I’d be hard pressed to race back to the tree line in time.
Despite their somewhat volatile temperament and reputation, my close encounters with moose have always been peaceful. Unlike deer and elk, they don’t tend to panic in the presence of humans. Instead of choosing between fight or flight in a sudden, decision-making situation, moose have adopted a third option and it’s seemingly one of intellectual understanding preceding any action. Our giant visitor seems as content as we do to stand there staring at each other across the meadow. Finally bored with the exchange, the bull crosses the grassy field with impossibly long strides eating up the terrain in a manner that defies the casualness of its pace.
“Two down,” I say to Jamie with a huge smile as I stroll back into camp, my pant legs wet from the meadow’s morning dew.
“Unbelievable,” she says. “Did you see the size of that sucker? You were making me a little nervous out there.”
“Yeah, I was making myself a little nervous. Glad he’s in a good mood. I think he might be on the prowl for a mate.”
“I think that’s what he’s been talking about,” Jamie agrees. “Check me out ladies; have you ever seen a rack this big? If he had his woman with him, he might be a little testier. Typical for you men to try and impress your girlfriends.”
Our morning excitement quickly fades into another hot and sweaty march as we gradually gain elevation on our climb to the top of the pass that will eventually dump us out in Hoodoo Basin. The Hoodoos are bizarre formations of rock that look like misshapen pillars or oddly sculpted towers. The Nez Perce Indians, native to these hunting grounds, believed the silent sentinels of stone were what became of their ancestors after death. Jamie and I have been looking forward to the unique basin since first reading of it long ago.
Sometime just after our lunch break we run into only the second party of backpackers we’ve seen all trip. They are a sunburnt and sweaty couple from New Zealand and they too wear expressions of discontent. Already suspecting I know the answer, I ask them if they’ve had any memorable wildlife encounters.
“Are there really animals in this park?” is the young man’s response, his bright blue eyes looking defeated. I assume the ones we saw on the drive to the trailhead were just automated cardboard cutouts for tourists.”
Ouch. More products of magazine articles and television documentaries. Even people from the rainforests of New Zealand, an island bursting with colorful and unique wildlife, think they are missing out on something after hearing something about this park. And these folks didn’t drive here from Ohio, they flew halfway around the world to sweat their asses off in a desolate landscape while vainly hoping for a once in a lifetime grizzly bear or gray wolf encounter. I hate to break it to the tired couple, but their chances of spotting wildlife in Yellowstone are much greater from the road than the backcountry. Thousands of human eyes intently scrutinizing the landscape, coupled with covering ground at a much higher rate of speed, automatically ensures the front country as the best opportunity for animal sighting. The sudden walls of slow or unmoving traffic around every other bend, commonly referred to as “bear jams,” are a dead giveaway for nearby wildlife.
“It all depends on the time of year and which part of the park you’re in…” I say in a lame attempt at consolation. I decide to keep our bison and moose sightings secret rather than rub any salt in their wounds. In the backcountry, it also helps to know what you’re looking for, what you’re listening for, and even smelling at times. Both Jamie and I have been caught standing right next to large, potentially dangerous animal, and had no idea until the creature suddenly moved revealing its hidden location. I wonder if the New Zealanders have noticed the fresh bear tracks that have been underfoot since yesterday, obvious in the trail dust more often than not. Would a bear print, something they aren’t used to seeing, even stand out considering the manner in which their vision and brains have been programmed to recognize the world?
“Keep your eyes peeled,” Jamie shouts back at them as we part ways. “They’re out there somewhere.”
And out there they are. We here the whistling and nasal honking of the bull elk a couple hours later as we approach the very headwaters of the Lamar River atop the Hoodoo Basin pass at nearly 10,000 feet of elevation. Judging from the commotion, the rut is already in full swing and he is singing his own praises to whatever harem he’s managed to gather this season.
Even scouring the scrub brush covered hillsides in full anticipation of the herd, and despite the fact they are standing out in the open, we don’t see them until they are startled into motion by our presence. Just up the sloping hillside, about twenty head of fat, healthy ladies instantly charge for the nearest stand of trees. Jamie and I both cringe slightly in anticipation of what happens next. The bull, an absolute grand champion, charges out of the trees where his ladies just vanished and thunders towards us. He stops at the point where I begin reaching for Jamie’s bear spray and arches his neck to let out a long crude sounding bellow. He follows the extended grunting with a series of high-pitched whistles that seems to call his herd back from the trees and send them sprinting in the other direction.
While his ladies scamper for safety, the bull elk continues watching us occasionally lowering and then raising his seven-point rack in a defiant gesture. He seems to be suggesting that he wouldn’t mind showing us those horns at a much closer distance. Impressed with his bold display of protection and aggression, we just stand there unmoving and watch the herd leader’s antics. Once the ladies have all fled up the mountain, the big male finally releases us from his gaze and follows them into the tree line.
“Megafauna!” I shout once the herd has vanished. “That’s all three. Holy crap, I’m not sure which of our samples was truly king. They were all freakin’ huge. Total badasses. Did you see the way he stared at us? Thought he might want to start some shit there for a second.”
“I liked the way he had to tell his ladies they were running in the wrong direction. He was probably thinkin’, ‘Goddamn women’,” Jamie says.
“Pimpin’ ain’t easy,” I laugh.
So what if we haven’t seen any lions, wolves, or bears on this trip. There is more to the animal kingdom than just the predators and a lot of the “prey” is much bigger, stronger, and just as visually striking as their bloodthirsty counterparts. Watching that bull elk take care of his herd was no less dramatic than seeing a grizzly protect her cub. Knowing that these animals continue to thrive, especially all these years after wolf re-introduction speaks volumes, of how well adapted these animals are to each other. They evolved together over thousands of years, and it is in the presence of every last one of them that the natural systems continue to work. The hunters, the hunted, the squirrels and birds, all the way up to Yellowstone’s megafuana are equally important, equally beautiful, and if our trip’s wildlife spotting has come to an end, so be it; as always, the privilege was ours.
6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)
Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer
Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"
"Hot Spring Break "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011
Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"
"Hot Spring Break "
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011