Hike and bear it

  • By Susan Morse, The Washington Post
  • Friday, June 15, 2007 10:16pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

There’s wildlife you don’t mind surprising in northwest Wyoming – like the family of elk my daughter and I stumbled upon on our otherwise deserted trail early one morning in Yellowstone National Park; we detoured, wide-eyed, around them.

Then there’s the other kind, and it’s this that has me worried as I eye the scat – hiker-speak for animal droppings – along our steep, 10-mile round-trip trudge to Surprise and Ampitheater lakes, some 9,700 feet above sea level.

When Laura and I decided to go hiking in Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone, the iconic mountain landscape was only part of the lure. We also hoped to see large wild animals. When people talk here of moose jams and buffalo jams, they’re not referring to spreads for your breakfast toast but traffic bottlenecks caused by drivers stopping to ogle wildlife. Still, some creatures you’d be thrilled to see from the roadside you’d just as soon not startle on a mountain path.

Ursus arctos horribilis tops that list for me. The largest carnivore in the continental United States, a grizzly can weigh up to 700 pounds and is capable of charging at 35 mph.

Its smaller, slightly less fearsome relative, Ursus Americanus (black bear to you, though it actually can be sandy or brown in color), isn’t far behind.

The scat in front of us is larger than two inches in diameter. Some of it’s fresh. And it’s continuing along the zigzag trail.

I start to sing: “Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn.” I sing louder.

Make noise: Sing, talk, let them know you’re there. That’s what the guidebooks say, and I’ve got nothing better to offer, having declined bear spray. (“It’s a weapon; we don’t carry weapons,” Laura had said, and I was inclined to agree – especially after seeing the $60 price, not including the holster, and the can of Body Guard Rescue pepper spray reliever on the shelf next to it.)

Laura says she doesn’t mind the singing; in fact, she rather likes it. But being a confirmed non-singer, she won’t join in. Even though she knows why I’m suddenly so tuneful. Only once does she say, “If you’re that scared, maybe we shouldn’t go.” Even in their 20s, your kids still know how to get you. I shut up. Then I notice the tracks, skirting one edge of the sandy trail. They show, at regular intervals, a roundish spot – a pad. And in front of it, the imprints of – it could only be – claws.

For our introductory hike, we have picked the park’s single most popular trail: the short climb to Inspiration Point. The hike – a mile up and a mile back – is perfect for bodies still adjusting to the higher altitude, 6,200 feet in the Teton valley floor. (If you’re tempted, get to the South Jenny Lake parking lot early, or be prepared to slug it out for a space.

Under a darkening sky, we take a shuttle boat across the lake, then start up to the overlook in a column of entirely too many families with small children. No self-respecting predator is going to take on a crowd this size, I figure, no matter how many huckleberries (a bear favorite) grow along the trail.

But crowds aren’t what we’ve come for. So we resort to that trusty people-shaking tactic: continuing on. A half-mile past the lookout, we’ve left behind three-quarters of our fellow travelers. By a mile or two farther, we have the narrow, winding path almost entirely to ourselves, with the Tetons towering magnificently above. When the storm finally breaks and we run for the shelter of some overhanging rocks, the day is redeemed. And no bears.

For our second Teton expedition, we decide, enough with the kid stuff. We settle on a six-mile hike up to Taggart and Bradley lakes. As far as the bears go, we figure that as long as we stick to established trails and keep out of the backcountry, we’ll be fine.

In contrast to Inspiration Point, we have the trail almost to ourselves; the few fellow hikers we pass don’t stay in sight or earshot long. This is more like it, we agree, as we follow a stream (talk louder, guidebooks advise; it’s harder for bears to hear you above the rushing water), then wind upward through wildflowers and forests of pine and spruce and fir.

Thank goodness the beauty of Taggart Lake doesn’t let you stay focused on fear. We wade in the clear water, then perch on some rocks along the edge to eat our lunch and marvel.

The hike a day later to Surprise and Ampitheater lakes is our most ambitious. Because the trail gains 3,000 feet over five miles, it’s considered strenuous, though the footing along the long sandy switchbacks is fairly even. My guidebook, in true public relations spirit, describes the trail as “an excellent opportunity to quickly gain elevation and reach treeline in a relatively short hike.” Translation: This is going to hurt.

Mindful of the challenge, we start early – but not so early that the trailhead parking area is deserted or that any quadruped might confuse the clear blue skies with dawn. (Later, when we’re trying to catch our breath seemingly after every few yards, we’ll be glad we don’t have the midday sun to contend with, too.) For the first two miles or so, until the switchbacks begin, the trail follows a lateral moraine – a deposit of earth left by the glacier above us. Then come the forests of fir and pine, including whitebark pine, what I later discover to be a bear delicacy.

We’re something like three miles into the hike when I spot the scat and the tracks. The scat stops but the tracks continue, hugging the outer edge of the trail. Strange, I think, that the animal stays on the trail.

Not so strange, I think a bit later, when I see a sprinkling of trail mix here along the side of the trail – and there again, a few feet later. I scoop it up, wrap it in a tissue and stick it in my back pocket. I can brood about it or I can glory in the eye-popping vista down the mountain to our left. I choose the vista. Through the trees, we see Taggart and Bradley below us and the Gros Ventre range to the east.

A half-mile or less from the top, the altitude gets to Laura. She rests, takes some water, but feels nauseated, has a headache. You go on, she says, I’ll meet you at the bottom. After due consultation (Are you sure you’re OK? You’re sure you don’t want me to come?), we part ways. When I reach the lakes a short time later, and then a viewpoint for the glacier beyond them, I don’t linger long. I’m eager to start back down to meet her.

I’m a half-hour into my descent when I see a family of hikers standing to the side, looking down the trail just below us, around a switchback – cameras pressed to their faces. “There’s a bear,” they say. And sure enough, there it is. A small black bear, maybe 40, 50 feet away, right in the middle of my trail, feeding on some vegetation. It doesn’t threaten me at all, just minds its own business. I round the switchback, then stop. I pull out my camera (Laura’s going to want proof) but resist the urge to move closer for a better picture. Doing so is the cause of many bear attacks, I remember reading.

Then I call to the people just above me. If you’re done with your photos, do you mind if I scare it away so I can continue down? No objection. I take the whistle I’m wearing around my neck (my latest strategem) and blow hard. The bear skitters off, vanishes. And I’m making tracks for the car. Singing loudly.

My advice: Before you go, brush up on your song repertoire. In the 21/2 hours it took me to get down, I did some deep digging into mine.

Oh, and the animal tracks. Once I got back, I looked them up in “Mac’s Field Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.”

Could have been a black bear, though the prints I saw had a rounder pad and bigger claws.

What other animal could have made them?

A mountain lion.

If you go…

Grand Teton National Park, about 12 miles from Jackson, Wyo., is open year-round. The entrance pass ($25 per vehicle) is good for seven days in all parks, including Yellowstone (its north entrance is the only one open year-round to cars). The boat shuttle across Jenny Lake to the start of the Inspiration Point hike costs $9 round trip.

When to go: Late spring through early fall (October) is best for hiking. By mid-November or so, snow on the trails makes hiking difficult. By mid-December, skiing rules. Summer is the most crowded; expect more competition for lodging, Jackson eateries and parking at South Jenny Lake, the starting point for the hike to Inspiration Point. Whenever you go, pack for quick-changing weather: Temperatures can drop 30 degrees in minutes when a storm passes. Even on warm sunny days, stuff a lightweight rain jacket in your backpack when hiking.

When to see the animals: Bears are most active in September, when they feed heavily just before denning, says Mark Bruscino, bear biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. They’re also active in March and April, when they emerge hungry from hibernation. The Park Service warns spring visitors to steer clear of animal carcasses and not get between a mother and her cub. On the trail or from the road, you’re most likely to see bears, moose, elk and other “charismatic megafauna,” as park officials call large wild animals, close to dawn and dusk.

Information: Grand Teton National Park, 307-739-3300, www.nps.gov/grte.

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