In the Tetons, Claws for Concern
All they wanted to do was hike. So why did those bear tracks have to keep showing up?

By Susan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Bear Facts

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."

· You're more likely to be injured by a bison than a bear in Yellowstone.

· Humans kill far more bears than bears kill humans -- though "that's not much consolation if you're the one on the receiving end," concedes Mark Bruscino, bear biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Human injuries from grizzlies average about two a year in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, encompassing both parks, says Bruscino. Injuries from black bears are much less common.

· Mountain bikers, because they move quickly and quietly over remote terrain, may be more likely than hikers to surprise bears. Last year a biker coming down a slope was charged by a grizzly and knocked off his bike just outside the park, near Togwotee Pass. His friends heard his screams and scared the bear away before he was more seriously hurt. Now that's friendship.

· Menstruating women who backpack or camp may be at greater risk of bear attack. The Park Service posts sanitary advice on its Web site.

· Here's what you're not supposed to do if you see a bear: run. "The worst thing you can do is turn and run because . . . that's going to excite their predatory instinct," says Skaggs. Also discouraged: diversionary tactics such as dropping your pack, especially if there's food in it. What you are supposed to do: Make yourself look big -- put your hands in the air. Talk calmly. Gradually back away. (Let me know if it works.)

· Grizzlies are most active at night, black bears during the day. Both like dawn and dusk.

· Bear bells don't work. "They make such a faint noise," says Skaggs. Better to talk, sing, clap your hands, especially if you can't see down the trail.

· Bear spray does work, as some hunters, firefighters and trail crews can attest -- but only if you have it handy and can steel yourself to use it properly. That means waiting, says Skaggs, until a charging bear is "within 15, 20 feet of you. And you have to aim down 'cause it has a tendency to rise up." (Be my guest.)

Higher and Higher

For our introductory hike, we pick 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 altitud, 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. Evil, evil Jenny Lake, we will mutter ever after when passing it.)

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. Not fun, opines Laura. Just getting our -- ha -- bearings, I offer. 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. Surprise. The Park Service board at the trail head welcomes us to the backcountry.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company