July 11, 2012

Wild Yellowstone

Lisa and I keep a bucket list. On that list is a trip that has been very idealistic to me. I never really thought it'd happen. The reason that it's on our list is because I've read that it's a great place to see Grizzly bears, and hear the Wolves. I've also read that it's as wild now, as it ever was, thanks to well over a century of preservation by the National Park Service.

We had about 6 days, and our objective was simple: we wanted to see Grizzlies and hear the howl of Wolves, in the wild, not from a so called "safe" place. Our plan was to leave the car at Pelican Valley Trailhead, ascend Pelican Valley to Mist Creek Pass, descend Mist Creek Valley, to Cold Creek Junction, then descend Lamar Valley to Soda Butte Trailhead. A distance of about 36 miles. We felt strong, the forecast was good, and time; it-was-a-wastin'. Our return to the car wasn't quite figured out yet, but we'd do that later.
At the trailhead the Park Service had an ominous sign posting the dangers of travel through bear country. Even though we'd completed plenty of "bear homework" we talked about our fears, and assured each other that it was worth it to proceed. I felt that a particularly vivid sense of wildness was attainable by releasing innate fears and meeting with the wilderness on it's terms.

The first leg of our trip was to cross 9 miles of the Pelican Valley. Park Service allows passage only between 9am to 7pm as part of the grizzly bear management area. It sounds like the bears need a break from us tourists in the morning and evening. We got started a bit late, and walked hard all afternoon with heavy packs up Pelican Valley, to be out the east end by 7pm. A few miles from the car we ran into a group of 4 backpackers, heading west, that'd been on the trail several days. They'd crossed from Mist Creek earlier that day and reported seeing two Grizzly bears in Mist Creek near where we were supposed to camp that night in Mist Valley Meadows. Otherwise, they reported hearing wolves in Upper Lamar. They were feeling the pain of an 18 mile day, but were all smiles. I was excited, but nervous.
Bison were all over the place. It was intimidating to be out in a huge grassy valley in the middle of them. The only thing to hide behind was a maybe a clump of grass. On one occasion we came over a rise and there was a massive bull bison just standing there about 10 meters away. We backtracked, then detoured way around giving him about 300 meters. He was definitely in charge, and we had no problem with that! Shortly after our longest Bison detour we took our first break beside a beautiful stream lined with wild flowers.

We got to Upper Pelican patrol cabin about 6pm or so where we met Park Rangers who had been clearing the trail up towards Mist Creek Pass. We talked for a bit then headed on up the pass. On top, we had amazing views of Pelican Valley and Yellowstone Lake beyond. We also had a sign post reminding us how far we had to go.

Mist Creek Pass looking west to Yellowstone Lake

Mist Creek Pass looking east

Since we had a few miles yet to go to camp we kept up the pace and were looking forward to days end. We kept a close eye for recent bear sign and finally made it into camp in the Upper Mist Creek Valley about 8pm. The valley was full of lush grass, wild flowers, and mosquitos. The stream we filtered water from was pristine as it could possibly get. We made beans and rice for dinner. The 12 miles of trail to reach that dinner made it taste salty and delicious....not to mention the view!

The next morning we walked about 15 minutes out of camp continuing down Mist Creek Valley. There in the distance was a brown spot with an unmistakeable hump on the shoulders. I raised the binoculars and sure enough there was the first Grizzly Bear I've ever seen in the wild. She, or he (I didn't get that close) was about 500 meters away. We walked another 60 meters or so to gain a higher piece of ground where we spent a considerable amount of time scanning with binoculars for her cubs, or a carcass she may have been feeding on. I was shaking so bad that I had to steady myself on a tree to see anything through the binoculars. We wanted to make extra sure what was up before proceeding through her area. Before long she caught our scent, and sauntered off into the timber. We didn't see her again. We talked as we walked about where she was during the night as we slept just a few minutes away!
We descended about 5 more miles down Mist Creek before it combined with Cold Creek and Little Lamar River to form the headwaters of the Lamar River. On first glance from the road, Yellowstone looks relatively flat compared to the rest of the Northern Rockies, but the Lamar River and it's tributaries are anything but flat!

Mist Creek

Mist Creek, naturally, grew larger, and more boisterous as we descended. I wondered what the stream crossing would be like, knowing that we were too far into the trip now to turn around. About 18 miles from the nearest road we arrived at our first stream crossing. It didn't look bad, but was way harder than it looked, and icy cold. Both of us about went into the drink with big backpacks. That obviously would've sucked....bad! Like two awkward hunchbacks we made the crossing without disaster and a lesson learned! A bit later the crossing of Cold Creek was much easier with a stick for balance.

On the far side of the crossing we found a spot to dry out, and have lunch. We sat in awe of the remote nature of the long sought Lamar River.

Headwaters of the Lamar

The trail going down Lamar River was easy to follow thanks to the Park Service trail crew who recently cleared it of down timber. The Yellowstone fires of 1988 and otherwise have made plenty of dead standing trees to fall across trails whenever the wind blows. In the afternoon the clouds started to move in and we got a good thunderstorm. In camp we made thankful use of a fly I brought to use while cooking. Part of our "bear aware" pre-trip planning and packing included keeping food and everything associated with it, including clothes, separate from sleeping gear and the tent. We were super glad we had the tarp as the dark sky drizzled rain. We sat under the tarp sipping red wine, as the vegi-chili and rice simmered in a pot.

The next morning we woke to a brilliant sky. We were a bit disappointed to have spent our second night in the wild, having not yet heard the wolves. We made coffee and breakfast. I went back to the tent for something. I was walking back toward Lisa about 9:30 in the morning and the sound stopped me in my tracks. I didn't breathe and stood frozen looking at Lisa as the sound of a wolf howling in the wild over-whelmed us both. It was a single wolf, high on a hill above our campsite. It was a mournful sound. I watched with binoculars for a sighting. The mournful cry continued, louder and louder for probably 10 minutes before we heard the answer of a different wolf from down river. The call of the wolf from downstream grew louder and louder also. We were between the two. Lisa and I sat on a log, captivated, watching to see what would happen next. As if the wild of the morning couldn't be more dramatic the wolf from downstream swam across the river and walked within 20 meters of us. It was big and grey and not at all interested in us....thank god! He/she was looking up the hill toward where the sound of the other was coming from. I looked where the wolf looked and there was the second standing in a morning shadow, on the edge of a thick stand of lodgepole pine. The second looked very eery; white against the wet, and dark background, long legs, and a pointy face. The two wolves went to each other and performed a greeting of sorts like they hadn't seen each other in weeks. They wagged their big furry tails and jumped on each other. They finished their greeting then went off upstream on the river trail, out of our sight. The whole thing lasted about 15-20 minutes. The wildness of the moment made me shake terribly. Lisa said she cried tears of gracious joy. For the first time in my life I couldn't believe my eyes!
Since we have such a lame camera these photos are as good as we did.

We stepped out of camp later that morning walking on air. The Wild Nature had given us more than we ever expected. We were very lucky, and knew it well.
Just as we arrived at Miller Creek another thunderstorm opened on us. We set a hasty tarp and got under it for lunch while it rained. The trail descending Lamar Canyon was up quite high above the river most of the way, which made for wonderful views all the time.

The last morning on the trail we saw another Grizzly Bear and a friendly Moose. We saw the bear from  300 meters away. The wind was blowing our scent the opposite direction. We spent a few minutes glassing to make sure there were no cubs, or other bears around. She wanted nothing to do with us. I rattled my gravel can and she looked right at us. I raised the binoculars and watched her watch us, her stubby little ears back and uncomfortable looking. I told her we were just passing through, and apologized for disturbing her with my weird sounds. She moved into a shadow and stayed there. We talked as we walked about how bears and wolves have such a bad rap; that they're noted as such criminals. They just want their wildness and they want their wild habitat left alone. This bear would've probably preferred to have not had us even pass through.

Our last night in the wilderness, as we cooked dinner, it occurred to me that the last 34 miles of trail, and the things we saw, were bigger than me. I questioned my ability to understand what it meant. I had to take a deep breath, like I had just escaped a walk across thin ice. The Grizzlies, and Wolves and Moose, and Bison, and river crossings, and thunderstorms in the midst of a space so vast made me nervous all the time.
About 2 miles from Lamar trailhead we saw footprints for the first time in 3 days. Soon after we encountered people, the first since seeing the Ranger at the Upper Pelican Ranger Station. I think those people wished we'd shut up as we excitedly told them about our trip. We passed more hikers the closer we got to the trailhead. We also walked across a bridge for the first time on the whole trip.

Now that we were at the trailhead we still had one more adventure to undertake; to get to the car. Our plan was to simply hitch hike. The past few days had thunderstorms in the afternoon. We hoped we wouldn't get thunderstorms on this day, and as it turns out we didn't, it was lovely and warm. We were amused at how we were more comfortable taking care of ourselves in the wilderness during a thunderstorm than in the front-country. We sat on our packs sticking out a thumb. I waved. Lisa smiled her pretty smile. Soon enough some really neat people on an extended honeymoon picked us up. They're currently on a really inspiring trip and are keeping a blog about it called Adventures of Two . Ron and Barbara took us to Tower Junction. In Tower Junction a gas station employee said she thought hitch hiking was illegal. After a few "illegal" minutes on the side of the road an employee of Xanterra picked us up. She was going up the road to where her phone would work and had to be back at work soon so she could only take us a ways. She was nervous about getting stuck in a "bison jam" and was super excited to be done working for Xanterra. She let us out on a wide spot under Mt. Washburn Lookout Tower. Our third ride came from a family from my home state of Oregon. They were from Pendelton. We rode in the back with some of their camping gear to Canyon Junction. Our fourth ride came from Darryl, a musician working for the park. He assured us hitch-hiking wasn't illegal. He was generous enough to give us a ride right to the car. Our shuttle took about 4 hours. The adventure of it fit perfectly with the character of the rest of our trip.
Thanks to the generous people that gave us rides, and to our National Park Service for preserving such a special place. Ron and Barbara sum it up perfectly with their blog title "Oh Yellowstone", which I had a hard time not stealing.

1 comment:

  1. Mick. This is great! Thanks for such a heartfelt description of something most of us will never see.

    All the Best.

    Jeff Snyder