It was still early in the summer season when we pulled into the Lamar River trailhead. While the grasses were green, patches of snow remained in the north facing drainages and in the few small patches of trees that covered the hillsides. Higher-up, snow cornices could be seen below most of the windblown slopes; those ridges have always been good places to scope for bears. Grizzlies like to walk the ridgeline, as if they are waiting for the snow to melt higher up and for food to become available in the valley floor. With their keen noses, bears can smell the odor of winter killed carcasses as the morning’s upslope winds carry the aroma of death high into the mountains. All I could smell was spring in the Rockies: sagebrush, pine trees and flowers.
As my hiking partner Sal Jonvoto and I did the last-minute adjustments to our backpacks, we watched the ridges for movement. From the trailhead, you could see that the trail dropped to a small bridge that crossed Soda Butte Creek and then slowly began to climb across a sage covered hill before meandering out of sight. Above the trail, sagebrush steppe gave way to a spruce and fir forest that rose into Yellowstone’s backcountry, where trees shadowed the forest floor.
I had just finished shoving the last of my gear in my pack and as I swung it over my shoulder, I sighed under the heavy weight. “Man, it feels like we are going for a week,” I complained.
Sal just looked at me, as he let out a small barely audible, “bragger.”
I replied, “Bragger hell, I’m just saying it’s heavy,” as I tried to tighten the belt on my pack.
I again heard, “bragger,” as Sal walked down the first muddy hill toward the creek.
I finished my adjustments as I followed from a distance. I have always been a slow starter when it comes to hiking; my friends would laugh and say, I was a slow starter at most everything. However, with hiking, I tend to trudge along until my body decides that all the pain will be good for me; sometimes, I never find that comfort zone; on those trips, I just push on in quiet.
Sal was well out in front as I climbed up the hill on the other side of Soda Butte Creek. It was a beautiful blue-sky day with just a few pillow shaped cumulus clouds dotting the horizon. As I grunted, shifted and cursed with every elevation change, all I could smell was the strong spring fragrance of sage. Yellowstone has several varieties of sage; size is the only difference I see. In the northeast corner of the park, Big Sage dominates the valleys. It grows as tall as a man and on that morning, the powerful smell blocked out all others. I pushed along enjoying the sage.
After the first mile or so, the trail leveled out as it began to skirt the slope. Sal was waiting as I cleared the hillside. The slow hiker always gets screwed in those situations; the person in front drinks some water and waits as the slow one reaches the top of the hill and then the speedy hiker is ready to hike again as soon as the slow one gets there; I always get screwed.
Sal and I hiked together for the next mile or so until both of us noticed some movement along the trail several hundred yards out in front of us. It was small and brown and its head was popping in and out of view. “What the hell is that?” Sal said, as he squinted to get a better look.
“I’m not sure, but if it’s a bear, it’s a cub and mom should be close,” I muttered. We took our packs off and stood silently while scoping the hillside for mom. Down slope, the meadow gave way to the Lamar River, which was just coming into view as it entered the valley. A few elk were grazing near the river, maybe a half a mile from where we stood and there were several bison across the river. The mystery animal was sticking its head up and then slumping down and out of sight. We could not see a mother, but a grizzly could have easily been hiding in the sagebrush and the spring grasses.
It seemed like we stood there for the longest time, but it was probably just a few minutes. Sal looked at me and said with some hesitation, “I’m not sure what it is, but I believe if it was a bear, mom would have already shown her face. We should get our bear-spray ready and ease a little closer.” The whole time, he had this crazy look on his face, as if to say, what the fuck, we are here, let’s go. People develop that look after years of hiking in grizzly country.
As we slowly moved closer, we became sure we were not dealing with a bear, but a coyote, although we were wrong again. It turned out to be a baby elk that was just a day or two old. Its mother had bed it down in the tall grasses before she wandered off to feed. Newborn ungulates have no scent. It is a defensive measure that helps protect them from predators. If a mother elk, moose or deer senses danger she lets out a grunt and the newborn slips under some sage or nearby plants and the mom can head in a different direction so that the predator will follow her away from her baby. Grizzlies have learned to do a grid type search through meadows in hopes of randomly finding a hidden meal.
As we got closer, we could see that the baby elk was down slope from the trail. We thought we could get a good look and slip past without disturbing the wobbly and spotted newborn. As we approached, it stood and started to come our way while making this high-pitched grunting noise, as if we were its mother. I remember, we stopped and laughed before running up the trail so that it could not follow. I wanted to walk up closer than I did, which was too close anyway, but I did not want to deal with mom if she was around. I had seen female elk standing on their hind legs so that they could eat leaves off the cottnwood trees in Mammoth Hot Springs. They are nearly ten feet tall when they do that and I’ve always thought that if elk walked around on their hind legs all the time we would be scared to death of them. We never saw the mother.
Just down the trail, a small aspen grove was shading one of the last patches of snow. It was in view of our baby elk and we thought we should watch from a distance for a while. If the elk mistook us for a mother, maybe it would mistake some predator as well. As we approached the aspen grove, we could see that a bull elk had died under the trees over the past winter. It was a massive elk with a beautiful rack of antlers; we counted seven tines on each side. I could tell it had become stuck before dying in the snow; the snow had covered a group of down trees and as the heavy bull stepped over the hidden trap, it stranded itself and died while trying to get free. Scavengers had not found it yet, but it soon would feed a family of bears, wolves or coyotes and a variety of other critters. It looked so peaceful, but I am sure it did not die without a struggle.
Just then, we noticed a coyote walking the trail behind us. It was moving its head back and forth in an attempt to smell out some food. We watched to see if the baby elk would show its face as the coyote approached, but it remained hidden and the coyote passed by without seeing the calf or us. I was relieved; I hate to watch one animal kill another, even though I know it is just survival. The predator and prey relationship is amazing, but on that day, I was on the side of the prey.
We continued up the trail as it led out of the meadows and into the trees. The trail wound into several small drainages. For some reason, we just turned to the left when the trail came to a split; we were supposed to continue on the main Lamar River trail after fording Cache Creek, but we avoided the ford and followed the trail into the heavily forested woods. We just walked in quiet for a while. The only sounds I could hear were the wind blowing in the trees and Sal saying, “hey bear,” every several minutes, in an attempt to let any grizzly know we were coming. We still had not looked at our map.
A mile or two up the trail, we found a nice spot to have lunch. It was on a small hill that overlooked Cache Creek; the creek was maybe 100 feet directly below us. As I ate, I studied the woods below for any signs of life. I told Sal that our perch would be a perfect place to watch a bear down in the creek bed. After lunch and a short rest, I started to stir and I walked out to the cliff and studied the drainage below. That is when I first saw it; a large grizzly was working his way down stream in the opposite direction we were heading. He was turning over decaying trees looking for insects. Sal and I were able to crouch down and watch. The bear was tall, with massive legs; he was not a particularly heavy grizzly, but his legs were long and he was powerful. The trees that he was rolling were so big it would take several people just to budge them; he rolled them with ease. When he would find the more rotten trees, he would stick his snout deep inside to lick-up any insects and then move on. We watched as he worked his way down stream and then eventually up the opposite slope and out of sight. He never saw or smelt us, or at least if he did, he did not let us know it. I looked at Sal and said, “That was one of the most beautiful natural encounters I have ever had,” as my heart rate was attempting to return to normal.
“Bragger,” is all Sal said, as he looked my way with some sort of satisfaction.
With our grizzly friend gone, we relished in our good luck and then pulled out our map to see if we could figure out where the bear was going. That is when we realized we had missed our ford near where Cache Creek enters the Lamar River. The bear was moving toward our original route. After some discussion, we decided we would continue up the trail, away from the bear and camp off the grid. We were both experienced backpackers and we were prepared to camp without leaving any trace.
The site we chose was along the floodplain, but well above the creek. We thought that if any bear would wander through, it would most likely stay closer to the creek than we were camped or it may hike the trail, which was above us. We both pitched small tents and then ate some dried food well away from our camp.
I remember sitting on a log close to my tent as the sun went down. At first, the only sound was the water rushing down the creek as it past our darkening campsite. Just after dark, as we talked about all we had seen that day, we started to hear branches break off in the distance. With more than a little apprehension, we sat quietly as the crunching got closer, only to give way to an occasional snort. Our only light was the faint beam from our headlamps, which we turned off, as the snorting got closer. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out the shape of one, then two and then a herd of bison as they stumbled their way down stream and past our camp. We just sat in silence as these two-thousand pound relics of the American West joined us and then left us in the dark once again.
We were up and on the trail by the time the sun came up over the ridge. We both seemed to be in some sort of trance as we retraced our path from the previous day. With an occasional, “hey bear,” we just eased down the trail. We passed the grizzly overlook, the ford that we were supposed to take and the aspen grove with the dead bull elk. We watched for the elk calf, but it was gone. As we threw our packs in the back of my truck, Sal started to laugh, as he looked my way and said, “That was a crazy twenty-four hours.”
I just smiled back and said, “Bragger.”