In many years wandering the outdoors I've encountered just one bear in the wild, and that from the safety of a car in the Minnesota iron range. It was a handsome black bear, all rippling sinew and fat, that came rambling down an autumn hillside with amazing power and grace, sunlight glinting off its ample flanks.
You expect to run across bears here in the wilds of Wyoming, of course, where they are regarded by some as a nuisance. You hope the ones you meet are mild-mannered black bears and not ferocious grizzlies, which could make your day short and unpleasant. Still, it was a surprise to see one so soon, at the start of our first morning out last week, on the way to the fishing grounds at Soda Butte Creek. And I definitely never expected to get so close.
The bear was sashaying across a meadow damp with morning dew, stopping to paw at the ground and grab handfuls of vegetation. I tried to snap pictures but it was pretty far away.
"If we hurry to that little stand of trees up ahead, he should walk right up to us," said Larry Coburn, my longtime fishing partner. We made a dash for the truck, sped ahead 250 yards and made another dash on foot through a sparse cluster of evergreens.
We arrived just in time. "Here he comes."
Within seconds the bear was upon us, barging straight toward our position, and I felt cold sweat trickling down my neck. "Don't worry," whispered Coburn, who has trout-fished here before and dealt with quite a few bears, including a grizzly or two. "He won't hurt us."
You sure could have fooled me. I grunted unintentionally, doubtless from fear of the unfamiliar creature, and the bear came to a skidding halt 15 yards away, raised up on its hind legs and peered at us with cold, black eyes. It sniffed the air for a scent. I remembered reading somewhere that bears, like deer, don't see well in the daytime and rely mostly on smell and sound. Happily, we were downwind. I made a note to make no more noise and neither of us twitched a muscle.
The bear was close enough to hear its breathing. Between us lay a desiccated, fallen tree trunk. The beast must have gotten a whiff of something good in the dry-rotted wood because it suddenly directed its attention there. What followed was a lesson at point-blank range in just how strong a bear is. Before our widening eyes, it proceeded to tear the tree trunk to shreds with its front paws, noisily ripping and spewing shards of wood in all directions as it rooted for grubs.
You've probably heard the joke about the two hikers, one of whom buys new sneakers before setting out on a trek. When his partner asks why, he says it's in case they meet up with a grizzly bear. The partner laughs and says, "You can't run faster than a grizzly." The other replies, "I don't have to; I just have to run faster than you."
Well, I'll admit that from the corner of my eye I was sizing up Coburn. With his long legs, I didn't like the odds. I started backtracking noiselessly and he followed suit. The bear never looked up, and in a minute or two we were back in the clear.
"Welcome to Yellowstone," said my long-legged fishing mate. And off we went to lay waste to the cutthroat trout of Soda Butte Creek, or try.
Three days into my first visit to the fabled streams of Yellowstone, I can report that fishing is good. We've landed a few big trout up to 20 inches long on the Yellowstone River in the midst of a massive evening hatch of caddis flies, caught scores of smaller cutthroats on dry flies on little feeder creeks where we never saw another angler or even another angler's footprints, and traded stories with flyrodders from all parts of the country, none of whom seemed disappointed.
Fishing in the park is almost exclusively catch-and-release, which ensures an abundance of trout, and while some of the more accessible streams get a lot of pressure in high summer, park officials in their wisdom have set aside a few sanctuaries where fishing is not permitted, in order to give the trout breathing room. And with the short summer season, trout in even the most popular areas get plenty of time over the winter to recuperate from their high-season battles with sportsmen.
But the best fishing from my standpoint is in smaller creeks such as Hellroaring and Pebble, which require a hard hike to get to. They generally hold smaller fish but it's hard to beat the scenery, which is spectacular, or the company (nobody at all).
Coburn and I hiked up Pebble Creek the other morning, scrambling clumsily up boulders and over blown-down trees into a steep, picturesque mountain canyon where clear, cold water roared down, carving channels and eddies where native cutthroats from eight to 14 inches long lurked. These trout were hungry and utterly unafraid. We pitched floating caddis fly imitations into the fast water and they came out like little missiles, slashing at the feathery morsels with abandon. The higher we got in the trackless canyon, the harder the little fish struck. "Some of these fish have never seen a fly before," said Coburn.
With 2.2 million acres and scores of trout streams to pick from, Yellowstone has plenty of untracked wilderness to explore on foot. But for most visitors, the attractions are less physical. Where we are staying at Roosevelt Lodge in the northern part of the park, roads are jammed daily with families in minivans and SUVs, riding around looking at wildlife. They are richly rewarded by herds of wild buffalo, antelopes, mule deer, elk and the occasional bear or moose ambling by, or a wolf or an eagle.
The buffalo in particular are easy to find. The huge beasts gather in valleys to munch on grass. They go where they choose and cross roads at their own stately pace, often leading to so-called Yellowstone traffic jams as lines of cars wait for them to clear out. I spied an old bull hunkered down alone in the Lamar Valley one morning and, at Coburn's prodding, trundled out to about 10 yards away to make his portrait. "He won't bother you," said my old pal. It wasn't till the next day that I saw a Park Service sign warning that buffaloes are "wild and dangerous" and should always be given a wide berth -- particularly the bulls.
Indeed, there are dangers aplenty in this federal wilderness. Four people died here just in the last few weeks. Two fell from a canoe into a frigid lake and drowned, one drove her car into the roaring Yellowstone River and vanished and a youngster fell into a rapids while playing on the banks and was not seen again.
Perhaps it's just as well most people stay in their SUVs, snapping away at the sights with their digital cameras. But for me, having now been nose-to-nose with a black bear and a bull buffalo on their own turf, the safe route just doesn't cut it anymore.
Bring on that grizzly!