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Yellowstone adventures and a close call

I came back a few weeks ago from an advanced tracking class with Jim Halfpenny in Gardiner.  But before the class, I spent a day and an evening hiking around the Park.

Tuesday late afternoon called for a trek up Mt. Washburn, which I’d never done.  They say if you only have time for one hike, Mt. Washburn is your ticket.  Its a great view for sure of the Yellowstone volcano, but what’s more impressive is that during the ice age only 30,000 years ago, Mt. Washburn was the only land not covered with glaciers from there to the Tetons.  The hike is not far but a good uphill and the alpine wildflowers were impressive.  A group descending came bye and told me to watch for a grizzly they’d seen near the summit.

View from Mt. Washburn of the Yellowstone caldera

Polemonium

Pedicularis

Gentian close-up

At the top, a ranger is stationed and there’s a free telescope for viewing (Wow, something actually free!).

Wednesday morning after camping at Mammoth, I headed up past the Golden Gate looking for a nice dayhike.  I thought I’d do Solfatara Creek.  I parked at the isolated trailhead.  Not my favorite kind of trail presented itself.  An ’88 burn area, the trail was thick on both sides with young lodgepoles so tight you can’t move nor see ahead.  Essentially, these kinds of trails are like tunnels and I don’t like them because if you come upon a bear there’s no where to go.

I decided to try the trail and see if it opened up.  If it didn’t, I’d find another to hike.  Sure enough, after about 700 yards, the trail opened to meadow and an unburned forest.  As I approached the hot springs of Solfatara Creek, the trail showed lots of fresh bear sign.  The creek was a beautiful and unusual greenish-blue, warm, slow water, but the mosquitos were thick.  Between the bugs and the bear scat, which was thickening in tune with the mosquitos, I decided that since I was hiking alone I’d prefer to find another trail, one more open and less buggy.

I retraced my steps and when I got to the meadows, I noticed a troop of rangers off trail looking like they were doing some kind of vegetation studies.  I figured they must have come through the ‘tunnel’ that was approaching, so maybe they’d scared off any bears.  But just in case, as I always do when I can’t see well in front of me, I took my bear spray out of its holster, uncapped it, and held it in my right hand as I came through the trees.

About halfway through the forest, I came around a corner almost directly into a lone bison bull rubbing its horns on a sapling.  I watched for a moment while debating where to go to get out of its way.  He was coming my direction and I was headed towards him.  If I went backwards from whence I came, I’d be stuck in the narrow thicket of trees on the trail in his way.  I couldn’t slip pass him. Beside me was a teeny, tiny clearing of about 5′ square.  I moved as far as I could into the clearing.  He began to trot on the trail past me, but just at the last second he changed his mind and decided to charge me.  At only about 6′ away, he lowered his head; his horns now directly facing my chest.  Instinctively, I sprayed him with the bear spray I’d luckily been carrying unhinged and uncapped.

Immediately he made a right turn and trotted off down the trail, swinging his head side to side since his eyes were stinging.  I left the trail, totally beefed up on adrenaline and thanking my lucky stars that it wasn’t my day to die.  Bison scar me way more than bears as I feel they are much more unpredictable, way more dangerous, and definitely not as smart.  This guy didn’t seem threatened by me.  For him, it was more like I was challenging him, offering him a chance to have a sparing match. An old lone bull like him is a cranky old man.

Lone bison but not my bison

Grizzly lake, my destination after Solfaterre

On the way back to Mammoth, I got stuck in a bear jam.  Two black bears were feeding on one side of the road and decided to cross over.  What amazed me wasn’t the bears, but that people got out of their cars and ran as fast as they could towards the bears, getting as close as they dared to take photos.  Luckily these bears were used to people, but not all bears in the park are that amenable.

Guy in the white T shirt on left is almost right on the bear

In this one you can see the bear and the lady in front not even paying attention!

Halfpenny always leads a fabulous class, highly recommended.  The mornings were spent in the classroom and the tracking museum.  He has a fantastic collection of plaster casts and other assorted items to help you to learn to track.  The afternoons were spent in the field.  Here is a track of a badger of which I made a cast.  The upper left hand corner contains a coyote track as a bonus.

Badger track (coyote track upper left). Notice long claws

Young bull moose

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8 Responses

  1. My daughter and I were camping at the Slough Creek campground some years ago when a bison came down the open hills to the west, crossed the creek and walked through the campground. Seeing that it was going to pass directly through ours, we moved to the other side of the picnic table and tried to be inconspicuous. As the bison walked past us, a gust of wind made a small aspen planted there shake; the bison trampled it into the ground, snorted and moved on. Cranky is the correct term for those big boys.
    Nice post.
    Mike

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  2. I enjoyed rehearing (reading) about your bison adventure here on your blog.

    The badger print cast is very interesting, the long claws would make this track rather easy to recognize, once the pattern is memorize. The whole think has a sort of elongated look to it.

    Nice photos to illustrate today’s post. When you think of it, it is really amazing that more folks aren’t injured/killed in Yellowstone than actually are, the way so many people ignore the park warnings.

    Have a good day!

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  3. you have been missed………..love reading your blogs………..maybe one day we’ll meet again!………until then, take care………….enjoy summertime!

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  4. It was fun traveling with you on your adventures. I was worried when the bison came at you but it turned out okay. How foolish of those people with the bears. Don’t they read the news at all? Thank you for the outing.

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  5. Buffalo are way scarier than bears–and if you’re hiking/skiing in the Park there are so many of them. Always wondered how they would respond to pepper spray. Park black bears do seem incredibly tolerant of people and certainly not so prone to attack as griz. Still, having been charged by a few black bears, they deserve respect. We used to make plaster track casts when daughter Emily was young–I should bring a box of plaster to our upcoming family/friends rendezvous, you’ve inspired me.

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  6. Fantastic photographs! I particularly loved the close-up of the Gentian. Gorgeous!

    I am enjoying reading your blog! It is inspiring me to get out their and have some more adventures of my own!

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