In the Tetons, Claws for Concern
Sunday, September 17, 2006
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 this summer 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 twenties, 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.
I'm not alone in worrying about bears.
"I think a lot of people kind of get a little paranoid. Around here . . . we call it bearanoid," says Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Grand Teton National Park. "We don't want people to be fearful and have to curtail their activities but to just be smart . . ." If you and a bear want the same piece of trail, the bear wins. It's up to you, says Skaggs, to detour around, giving it wide berth, or failing that, "turn around and retrace your steps and give the bear the trail."
Here are some facts that may surprise you about Wyoming bears:
· Teton bearophobes sometimes take comfort in knowing real grizzly country is to the north. It's not true. "Many people think that Yellowstone has the grizzlies and we have the black bears," says Skaggs, "but there's a goodly number of grizzlies that also live in Grand Teton National Park. And almost every part of this park now, our biologists tell us . . . conceivably can be grizzly habitat as well."