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In the Tetons, Claws for Concern
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.
Bruce Springsteen to the rescue. "We are climbing . . . Jacob's ladder, We are climbing," I sing, drawing on "The Seeger Sessions" CD we've been playing in the car. Then, less thematically apt, but with just as steady a walking beat, "Low bridge, everybody down. Low bridge, coming to a town." After a little while, though, I fall back on talk.
Somewhere along the figure-eight loop trail, I find myself telling Laura about "Grizzly Man." That, you'll recall, was the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary about wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell, who spent years in the Alaskan wilderness living alongside grizzlies before he was eaten by one in 2003. (Audiotapes left running recorded the attack; authorities who tracked the bear and killed it found Treadwell's remains inside.)
Parents, don't do this to your children.
I am days convincing Laura after this that even if we do happen on a bear, it isn't likely to eat us. Scare us, charge us, maybe. Eat us, no. Treadwell's was an unusual case, I argue; bears don't normally eat people.
Why not? she persists. They like meat. Why wouldn't they like us?
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.
Bears Gone Bad
The problem with bears in our parks, naturalists tell us, generally isn't the bears; it's people. If people wouldn't be so careless in leaving scraps of food around, or leaving their backpacks and coolers unattended, there wouldn't be a problem with bears. Because, says Skaggs, "that's when they learn to associate people with an easy meal and loose their fear about approaching people."
As the Park Service newspaper tells visitors, "A fed bear is a dead bear." Just this year the agency euthanized a black bear that had developed a nasty people habit -- the first such killing in two years.
In recent years, the Park Service has experimented with alternative measures of controlling "nuisance bears." In August 2000, after a Jenny Lake black bear taught her two cubs to raid tents and boats in search of food, park biologists fitted her with a Global Positioning System collar and moved her and her cubs to a remote section of the park. Within months, the animals found their way back. One cub died of natural causes. Park staff members killed the other two.
'We Are Not Afraid'
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 (see Bear Facts, above). (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 okay? 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. Loudly.
"Follow the drinking gourd. Follow, follow the drinking gourd . . . Oh to be in Oleana, that's where I long to be . . . Hey, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe . . . O-oh freedom, freedom. O-oh freedom. O-oh freedom over me. And before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave, and go ho-ome to my lord, and beeeee freeeee."
My advice: Before you go, brush up on your song repertoire. In the 2 1/2 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.
Susan Morse is the assistant editor of The Post's Health section.