July 30, 2011

Heart Lake

I guess if your gonna get an urge to go walk yer guts out then Yellowstone Nat'l Park is a darn good place to go.
I don't even know how many miles of trails exist here, but on looking at a map, it's a bunch. The Yellowstone backcountry trail map is a good time to look at and contemplate. On talking about the trip Lisa and I decided that our goals would be to see a grizzly, and a wolf in the wild. We started looking into going a little too late to apply for a backcountry permit. We figured we would just go to the South Entrance Backcountry Office and take our chances. It was a little bit complicated, but we got a permit for a three day trip into Heart Lake. The ranger at the B/C office gave us a warning of a regular grizzly hanging around at Heart Lake. Heart Lake sounded like a rad place, without much extra driving to the trail head, so we got the permit and made sure we had all the safety stuff. Cordage for hanging packs, a bear canister, pepper spray, and a good educational video in the NPS office.
We hadn't heard of the grizzly bear mauling of hikers that had happened just a few days prior to our arrival, that was apparently widely broadcast on the news. I'm not very good at listening to the news during summer because most of the time it's a big fat drag to listen to anyway.
The permit wouldn't let us start the hike until the next day so we had most of a day to kill. Yellowstone is so big that it's pretty easy to kill a bunch of time driving. We already drove from Utah and didn't feel too keen on more driving, but we did anyway just to see the torrent of spring run-off going over Yellowstone Falls.


We also did the tour to Old Faithful and were lucky enough to be in the company of about 6,000 other people to see it go off. On the way back to our campground, in the waning hours of a beautiful summer day, we had the distinct pleasure of seeing a big bison bull swim the Yellowstone river. He got across the swift current, and with the swagger that only a bison could sport, came up into the middle of the road, and shook the water out of his fur, all over the front of a Prius.

We continued to our campground at Lewis Lake passing endless scenes of visionary enchantment (to steal a phrase from Lewis and Clark). The next day we had only a short distance to drive to the Heart Lake trail head where the bear warnings were again posted.

We made a first day goal of making it 14 miles to a campsite on the far end of Heart Lake. It was a beautiful sunny day all the way there.
The first several miles of the trail to Heart Lake Ranger Station was heavily used. We saw quite a few people going to and from the popular Heart lake.

Beyond the Ranger Station, for the next 5 miles or so, we saw nobody the rest of the day, nor the next day. The trail was also much more primitive and lightly used. We kept our eyes alert for signs of recent bear activity, and saw nothing recent. As we walked along the north shore of the lake we heard coyotes back in the woods yipping. It was the first time I'd ever heard coyotes during the day. The mosquitoes?....well, my dear mother told me, before she left this shitty world, that if I haven't anything nice to say then don't say anything, so i won't bitch about the Yellowstone mosquitoes. The same moisture that was making the mosquitoes go crazy was also making the wild flowers go crazy, so it was a beautiful misery of sorts. We arrived at our campsite that was recommended by the back country ranger we met on the trail, on the way in. She called in and changed our campsite saying this one was much better, and it was beautiful. We sat by a smoky fire cooking dinner, and sipping red wine out of a nalgene, and talked of the distinct difference between the Yellowstone of Old Faithful with 6000 people, and the much preferred Yellowstone that we currently had all to ourselves.

The next morning we got up, completed our routine, packed up, and got ready to head out. As we departed the campsite there was a big, and I mean big, pile of fresh grizzly bear shit right on top of our tracks in the trail, on the edge of the camp. We continued to follow fresh grizzly tracks and sign for 5 or 6 miles all the way back to where the trail goes along the shoreline of Heart Lake. By this time there were rangers staffing the cabin so we told them about our past 36 hours or so. They said there had been a big grizzly pass through early that morning following the trail. They seemed pleased to hear what the bears behavior was in our campsite, and that is exactly how it's supposed to happen. Backpackers must be able to live with bears by keeping food and scents contained and away from the bears. Anyway, it was plenty exciting even though we didn't see it.
After making our report to the ranger station we hung around on the gravel lake shore for a few hours because there was a beautiful breeze coming off the lake that was just enough to keep the mosquitoes away. We did some foot fixing, filtered some water, ate some lunch, and just lazed around in the warm sun doing typical beach activities.

Later on we walked out the next few miles to our camp for the night on the west shore of the lake. It was also a nice camp, but I thought the first nights camp was better. We again went through the strict routine of hanging our packs and generally "bear proofing" the campsite. Even our daytime clothes were hung with the packs. All our tent related stuff was in Lisa's pack, and all the food related stuff was in mine so we wouldn't make any sleeping gear smell like food.

The next day we woke to an overcast sky. We made coffee and some hot cereal over a fire, and made a vow to come back. We took our time getting packed and filtering water, but were ready to leave because of the mosquitoes. We couldn't wait to come back to Yellowstone to hopefully see a grizzly next time. Maybe a trip in Lamar valley, we speculated, would increase the chances of seeing a wolf too. We started to step out the 11 miles back to the car in a warm light rain with no breeze. The ranger crew at the station was also packing up to switch out crews. On our way out we met the same ranger from a few days ago and complimented her on the wonderful suggestion of the camp on the east shore, and told her of our grizzly excitement.

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