Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bear Country

I have always loved to hike. By hike, I mean walk in the wilds for a few miles, maybe up to about 8 of them if the terrain is pretty flat, though 6 is ideal before my crummy old feet give out. I suppose I limit myself by carrying a heavy pack of camera equipment – two cameras, two lenses – binoculars, lunch, water, maps, bird book, cell phone (which, if I’m hiking where I really like to, is out of range).  Someday maybe I’ll get over the need to be optically over-prepared and lighten my load, but until then, I’m traveling heavy.
View of Swan Lake Flats, Antler Peak, the Gardiner River and Gardner's Hole from Bunsen Peak in Yellowstone; please click to enlarge
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and the surrounding national forests offer unlimited hiking possibilities, although I tend to repeat my favorite trails when I can. In Yellowstone it’s Mt. Washburn, its smaller, more easily do-able cousin Bunsen Peak (the photo is a panorama stitch of photos taken atop Bunsen last time I was up there), Slough Creek to First Meadow, Lone Star Geyser and beyond to a couple of great back-country thermals, Hellroaring Creek; in the Tetons, it’s Colter Bay to Jackson Lake Lodge, Phelps Lake from Death Canyon trail head or the Rockefeller Preserve, Two Ocean Lake...the list goes on, but the best part is that there are a vast number of trails out there I’ve yet to set foot on.  Isn’t that great?

There’s plenty of hiking in the other places we go as well, especially in the many other national parks that we have been to, or are yet to visit; there are even interesting trails in the ‘burbs of Chicago. A couple of autumns ago KLK started out on a trail at Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin. We were surrounded by tall, straight deciduous trees, their green, red, and gold leaves fluttering against the blue sky in the sunny breeze. But something was took me only a few yards from the trail head to identify exactly what it was: there was no possibility of seeing any “charismatic megafauna” and in particular, no chance of encountering a bear.

Given the state of current events--the fatal mauling of a hiker in Yellowstone by a female grizzly bear who felt he threatened her cub; a black bear nibbling on a camper in his tent in Leadville, Colorado--anyone reading this has doubtless by now concluded that I am crazy.

Bear Honker
I have seen bears while hiking (though the vast majority of my sightings are from the road, largely because that’s where I spend most of my park time), and I do carry bear spray and rehearse its use in my head; when I hike with others, I always remind them before we set out that we must not hike too far apart, and if we spot a bear, stand shoulder-to-shoulder so we look big. Or bigger, maybe. Instead of “bear bells” (aka, dinner bells from the bear's point of view) which, take it from me, can’t be heard more than 30 feet away along a rushing stream, around a blind bend in heavy brush, or in a forest full of trees swaying in the wind, I carry what I call a “bear honker,” a $3 bicycle horn, to let bears far and wide know there’s a stranger in their territory before inadvertent confrontation. I’m pretty sure that obnoxious noise carries far enough, as I’ve had oncoming hikers comment, irked, on the distance from which they heard me coming.

There’s no doubt that the risk of a rendezvous with a bear, be it black or grizzly, heightens the pleasure I get from hitting the trails. Of course there are other thrilling possibilities as well. Once KLK and I were heading up to Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone, when we heard a great crunching up ahead. I just knew it was a huge, and grumpy, grizzly. I knew it and my heart was pounding in my throat. We froze. Then what should emerge from the brush but an immense bull moose with a magnificent full rack. It stopped mid-trail, and, calmly chewing his cud, looked us up and down, then stepped into the tall trees to our left and, faster than imaginable for a 1,200 lb animal, vanished.
Cinnamon-colored black bear, Yellowstone
On another occasion, a friend and I were two-thirds along the short trail to Trout Lake when I spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear about 30 yards off the trail. He was minding his own business, but I didn't want him getting the idea of following us after we passed. So I squeezed my bear honker and yelled I HAVE BEAR SPRAY!!! (which was true) and jumped up and down and waved my arms and repeatedly ordered him to skedaddle. He looked at me like I was surely some kind of major village idiot, and I suspect he was right. In any case, his little bear brain wheels turned slowly and deliberately, as going away wasn’t on his agenda, but ultimately, after several minutes of my terrifying threat display he decided discretion was the better part of valor and turned tail. A lot of adrenalin at the time, but in retrospect, probably a tempest in a teapot.
Grizzly bear along the roadside, Yellowstone National Park
Part of the inspiration for this post comes from “Up the Crick,” a story by Tom Reed in the May-June 2011 issue of Wyoming Wildlife News. Wyoming Wildlife, an excellent publication by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, is of course highly responsive to the interests of hunters and fishermen, but unfailingly so from the viewpoint of a highly responsible conservation ethic.  

Reed’s superb 25 column-inch story is about the vibrancy and inspiration that comes from being in bear country and the mental and physical clarity it demands. He concludes, “I know there are other opinions out there, those would rather have an absolute serenity in the wild, would rather not have even the ghost of a grizzly in the territory. I am different. I would rather feel that shock of a hammering heart, would rather hit the soprano note in my “Hey BEAR!” and would rather be alive in a country where we have learned to tolerate and respect. This is the difference between the wild and the deep wild. Or, perhaps this is the difference between just another piece of country, and one that holds mystery and an adventure, a feeling of what it once was when it was all this way. I like having that charge of fast-twitch electricity in my neurons and blood. I like the charge.” I could not have put it better myself.
Grizzly with three cubs, Grand Teton National Park


  1. Wonderful post Veronica. I concur completely with the concluding article. I brought my two sons as teenagers into the back country of Yellowstone many times. Slough creek 1st and 2nd meadow was a favorite place. I taught them to be careful, respectfull of the wilderness and follow all the rules. Also in the BWCA. It was an important part of their growing up...

  2. What a thrill to see such beautiful places - including the "charismatic megafauna" that belong there. Had to laugh at the bear honker.

  3. Very interesting post! Make me feel like a wimp when I worried about walking off the tracks in Australia because of snakes!

    I suppose it is so out of our experiences, we have nothing potentially dangerous at all, apart from a native spider, the katipo, which doesn't actually kill but is termed poisonous.

    Our worst danger when out tramping in the bush (forest)is getting lost and then dying of injury or hypothermia.