Click to read Part 1
Amy continued shooting frame after frame, seemingly unfazed by the presence of the most dangerous wild animal in North America. I felt a fierce rush of admiration for her courage.
The grizzly bear — for there was no doubt this was a grizzly — continued its advance down the hill toward us. The bear was making quiet snuffling noises, and I combed my knowledge of the animal. Was snuffling a sign of irritation?
I thought of my deep affection for bears. Being eaten by one would not make me as posthumously mad as if I was eaten by, say, a great white shark.
As the grizzly moved closer, we noticed something extraordinary: three more bears. We were facing a female bear guarding her cubs. Darkness was closing in.
Saturday, May 14
It was the second morning of our slapdash vacation to Yellowstone National Park, and we roused ourselves with the energy and zip of a pair of experimental lobotomy patients. We were in room 307 of a (possibly haunted) Best Western hotel.
Lucky for us, though, the redeeming quality of people who habitually sleep too late is their ability to get out of the door in minutes. So, after a mumbled “gd mrng,” a quick shower, and some speedy day-packing, we were ready to go. In a blink we checked in at the West Entrance gates.
Near Madison Junction — still waking up — we tallied our morning’s first animal sighting: the now-familiar group of bison and calves (red dogs) we passed twice the day before. We also saw a group of clueless tourists spilling out of a nearby bus and waltzing right up to within a few feet of the bison. A park ranger had just arrived and was marching over to correct the situation.
Seeing rare wild animals is a thrilling part of a trip to Yellowstone, and our top reason for going (see full ranking in Part 1). But approaching the animals is potentially dangerous for all involved parties. Visitors are told to keep at least 25 yards away from bison, elk, mule deer, and other herbivores. Bears and wolves need a minimum of 100 yards*.
[*It’s very unlikely, but should you encounter a cougar, the National Park Service recommends being polite and trying not to get makeup on your shirt. Ba-dum, ching!]
At Madison Junction we turned north toward Norris Geyser Basin. We were headed for the Yellowstone Northern Range; the best area in the park to find animals.
Before Jackson, Wyoming became a posh vacation destination, Mammoth Hot Springs was the epicenter of park activity. In those days, people came to see the giant mounds of travertine and step into Fort Yellowstone for a nice, room temperature sarsaparilla. It still receives plenty of visitors (as we found that day), but the primary route through the park has now shifted to Old Faithful, which catches the more robust southern and eastern traffic.
The park headquarters is still at Mammoth, though, and there is a full range of facilities; some of which have been retrofit into old Fort Yellowstone buildings. It goes without saying that there are retail shops — three, in fact. We parked in front of our favorite, the Mammoth General Store.
General stores in Yellowstone have an unexpected combination of goods. There are surprises around every corner. You can contemplate a rack of cheap t-shirts, an order of nachos, a $500 porcelain bald eagle, and a stick of deodorant all within a dozen steps or less.
I always look for the book display, and found it wedged between the souvenir blankets and the animal-themed sippy cups. A staple of Yellowstone literature is the gritty memoir, which highlights the struggle of simply surviving the Yellowstone crucible. The best of these is “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park” by the great Lee Whittlesey*, and is chockablock with human beings neglecting to consider their own mortality.
[*Lee Whittlesey is the Yellowstone historian and has been a ranger for many years. He has also written many of my favorite books about the park, and each time we visit I hope we see him somewhere. Not that it would matter, though. We once saw Tim Cahill — another of my literary heroes — signing books in the Old Faithful Inn, and I skipped away like a sophomore afraid to ask out a senior.]
I don’t doubt any of the stories. Many visitors have perished at the cruel hands of Mother Nature. But I was also standing in a heated store and listening to Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” over the speaker system, so it took much of the edge off the danger for me.
We drove out of Mammoth heading toward the Tower/Roosevelt area. This section of road is our secret stretch of asphalt for high-profile animal spotting. Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley have a well-deserved reputation as “America’s Serengetis,” and they are the best places in the world for seeing the herds of bison that are a hallmark of Yellowstone. But for rarity, we always find something exciting on the Mammoth-Roosevelt road.
That day was no exception, as we came across a black bear in a cinnamon/caramel phase near the Petrified Tree. The reddish-blond bear was browsing through a hillside of fallen-down timber, where it would disappear behind and between logs from time to time, only to emerge later to the delight of the crowd. We watched for a few minutes and then pressed on, so others could have our parking spot.
At the Tower-Roosevelt junction we turned toward the Northeast Entrance and Lamar Valley. In the high plains, among the buffalo-shaped glacial boulders, we spotted a group of six pronghorns, all bucks. A uniquely western animal, pronghorns are a scientific curiosity. As the last surviving member of an entire categorical Family*, they are more closely related to giraffes than any deer or antelope Species.
[*Antilocapridae; the others died out at least 12,000 years ago.]
As we started watching these slightly odd animals, three of the smaller bucks began running in circles. All six eventually joined in, which escalated at times to bucking and sparring with their bone- and- keratin prongs. Then, as if obeying some Manchurian signal, the animals would abruptly stop running and start grazing. We guessed it was a contest of dominance, but it could have been a choreographed dance routine, for all we really knew.
Down the road a bit more was the Slough Creek Campground road, where we could see a large gathering of people in a known animal watching area. They were waiting for the Slough Creek wolf pack to emerge. It was the animal watcher’s dilemma: should we wait an indeterminate amount of time for a sure thing, or gamble on exciting sights down the road?
We chose to leave, and five minutes down the road came across a pair of ospreys. They were occupying a clump of sticks and bird ingenuity wedged at the top of a Douglas fir on the far side of the Lamar River gorge. One bird was a white, feathery head popping up from inside the nest, and the other was perched on an adjacent branch.
Ospreys are part of an unusual group: they are a single species with a worldwide distribution. This is not as common as one might think. The other animals in that group are orcas, cats, and humans, basically.
After a few minutes the perched male osprey zipped off downstream, leaving the female settled on her eggs in the nest. Amy had a very human reaction: “Wait,” she cried, “the male is just leaving her? I thought he was supposed to guard the nest?” The male bird and I just shook our heads. She didn’t realize there was important man-osprey business pressing elsewhere.
At last we started down the compact, breathtaking Lamar Valley, where the majority of Yellowstone’s bison herd was summering in the long grass. The bison population of the park is estimated at 4,900 animals, and in that valley were at least 3,000 of them. We also saw an occasional smattering of pronghorn and Canadian geese.
The history of bison from the Louisiana Purchase to the turn of last century is deeply tragic. The population of animals in 1850 was estimated to have been 40 million, and by 1890 they were virtually extinct — under 300 individual animals remained. That is a rate of over 2,700 animals killed per day, for 40 years.
Conservation efforts have brought the population of wild bison back to around 15,000. Yellowstone’s animals are unique in that group as they were never fully extirpated, making them the only continuously wild herd of bison left.
In spite of that scintillating history, encounters with Yellowstone bison are a diminishing return. Single-day visitors to the geysers may only see an exciting handful of them, but for multi-day guests and animal watchers, the herds of bison can become mundane. It takes unusual sightings to make them memorable. For example, we once saw a large bull swim across the wide, deep Yellowstone River near Hayden Valley, and remember it vividly.
Driving through the Lamar Valley teeming with bison was one of those unusual, exciting, and memorable moments.
The Northeast Entrance Road takes a boomerang-shaped turn north at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. The Lamar Valley and Lamar River courses continue south, emerging from the Mirror Plateau and North Absaroka Wilderness, which are some of the most wild areas in the park.
Down the road we stopped at the Soda Butte Creek picnic area and made bologna/turkey/chicken salad sandwiches for lunch (everything was mysteriously shaken up in our cooler). A persistent, curious Uinta ground squirrel scrambled around the table, and Amy tried to sneak it a crust of bread. But the squirrel kept a safe distance, no doubt having a clear understanding of park rules and regulations.
We continued along the road to the pullout for Barronette Peak, where we have never failed spot mountain goats climbing among the crags. The animals are always hundreds of yards away, so our optics can’t do much more than make tiny blobs out of white flyspecks on a vast mountain face. Sure enough, we found a couple of bright white pinpoints that turned out to be goats, each of them casually grazing in places I wouldn’t stand with harnesses, anchored ropes, and helicopter support.
Then, it was time to start backtracking our entire path, conducting the day in reverse. Back in the Lamar Valley we saw a group of bison clumping together as if reacting to a nearby predator. Wolves were a strong possibility, so we stopped to look. After a few minutes of puzzling at tiny dots over long distances, Amy identified one of the specks as a possible bear. We zipped down the road to a better vantage point and, indeed, she had found a grizzly bear eating at the edge of distant trees.
At least, we were reasonably sure she had. The speck was generally bear-shaped and both lighter and smaller than any of the nearby bison. The heightened activity of the bison added extra confirmation.
It was not our most exciting spot of the trip, but as one of the most difficult animals to tally on Amy’s clipboard, we counted it.
Once back through the Lamar Valley, we stopped again with the wolf watchers at Slough Creek Campground road. The general vibe our first time through had been idle waiting, but now the atmosphere was electric. Everyone was perched at their spotting scopes and cameras, gesturing at the opposite hill.
We grabbed our binoculars and rolled the windows down to eavesdrop on the chatter. We were experienced in spotting animals, and they were obviously there to be seen.
But we had some trouble finding the wolves.
We seemed to be looking in the right area, but could not find what had everyone so excited. After several minutes of fruitless scanning, Amy suggested we just ask someone to point them out. I refused. If those people could see the wolves, then so could we.
Still, time ticked by with no wolf. Amy, now with a touch of acid, pointed out that if we ended up leaving without seeing the animals, then we would both be upset.
I doubled down on my determination, narrowing my investigation to smaller points of interest. The area in question was hundreds of yards distant. Even a really big wolf would look tiny.
We can do this, we are good animal spotters, I said to myself. “I am like a Tyrannosaurus rex,” Amy replied, as if she had heard me. “I need it to be moving in order to see it.”
Suddenly, I caught a quick, dark spot cutting through the sagebrush. “Got one,” I said, and did not try to hide any ringing satisfaction in my voice. I described to Amy how to find it and she saw the wolf moments later.
After a few minutes we could see two wolves, and had pieced together from the conversation outside our window that we were looking at their den. One of the wolf watchers came to stand by our car window. “Would you like to come look through my scope?,” she asked. She was kind-faced and bundled up against the cold.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied. We climbed out to look.
“In the scope you will see a little ledge, with a gray wolf and a pup laying down on it.” We each looked, careful not to touch the scope or the tripod.
We expressed our amazement and gratitude. She was happy to help. “I always hate to see people trying to look through just binoculars when there isn’t a chance they can find them,” the woman said, with a bright smile.
She was right, too. No amount of looking would have been enough for us to spot the gray wolf and the pup. Amy told the kind-faced watcher that we had seen the two dark wolves, but agreed with her on the others.
The watcher’s expression popped in surprise. “You found the black ones?” Amy nodded and the other woman looked impressed. She asked us where we were from, and we told her Utah, Salt Lake City. She replied that she was from Utah, Logan. It was a small world, after all.
We might have stayed longer and watched the tiny points play on the hillside, but instead climbed in the car to find more. We had seen three wolves and one wolf pup. Another of the most difficult boxes had been checked on Amy’s clipboard. My ego had been stroked. What more could we have asked from an animal sighting?
The cinnamon/caramel black bear was in the same area near the Petrified Tree, and still exploring the logs. We cruised by without stopping, although by that point in the day we could have had our choice of parking space. But we had many miles to go.
Between the Petrified Tree and Phantom Lake — perhaps our favorite corridor for animal sightings — we saw more bison and pronghorns, along with an increasing number of elk. We doubled back at one point to look at several bull elk, growing what were shaping up to be prodigious antlers.
Making a special mark on the clipboard for the bull elk, Amy announced that we now had just a few more of our favorites to spot before we checked everything on her list*. Our priority was finding a moose, which was Amy’s favorite animal, and was rare to see. We also hoped to tally a coyote and a red fox.
[*The list does not represent all of the animals that live in Yellowstone, just the ones we have a reasonable expectation of seeing.]
Then, at Phantom Lake, Amy spotted a red fox prowling in the bottom of an arroyo. We had just two to go.
Dozens of elk were lounging on the mown lawns around the buildings in Mammoth. Park headquarters was undergoing a decades-long colonization by the large members of the deer family. Although it was a boon for tourism, I suspected it was also another category of headaches for the overworked rangers.
Just outside the Swan Lake area we were slowed by a bison cow and calf moving down the roadway. The animals in Yellowstone have learned to use the roads as “Predator Safe Zones,” gambling that those higher up the food chain will not risk human encounters for an easy meal. The red dog calf was one of the smallest and newest we had seen, and his trot kept breaking into a run just to keep up with his walking mother. We guessed they had become separated from their herd.
Although bison walking down park roads is a good opportunity for a photo, Yellowstone roads are dangerous for the native animals. Unless the missing herd was found, the red dog would end up on the dinner plate of a hungry predator. Still, wolves and bears (and their equally adorable young) have to eat, too. The circle of life moves us all.
On we went, into the dwindling light, looking with great attentiveness for the last two blanks on the clipboard: the elusive moose, and the crafty coyote. We called out as we spotted out the occasional bison, elk, and mule deer, but the prizes continued to elude us.
Then, in the last light of the day, we came to another cluster of cars on the roadway. We looked eagerly for the epicenter of the attention. Surely it would be our moose.
But, it was not a moose. Instead it was one of the best experiences we have ever had in Yellowstone.
It is absolutely true that the bear was a female grizzly minding her cubs, which, technically, makes her the most dangerous animal in North America. It is also true that darkness was closing in, and woods can be pretty scary in the dark.
Just because she was grazing peacefully and there was a vehicle door between us and the bear does not negate the drama of our situation. We were, in fact, armed with only a camera and a vehicle full of snacks and souvenirs.
I mean, look: one man’s “Taking photos of a breathtaking animal in complete safety” is another’s “life or death struggle against a massive, vicious predator guarding her young.” Tomato/Tomahto.
Plus, it’s my story.
So: the devastating monster bear closed in, with murder glinting in her black eyes. She roared defiance at our presence. I could see bits of the last tourist she devoured still clinging to her teeth…
A grizzly bear sow with three small cubs was feeding along the side of the road, no more than 50 feet from where we sat in our vehicle. My inner 10-year-old burst to the surface*, and I began speaking in gushing, embarrassing tones. I know this because my dear bride, the love of my life, filmed me and promptly sent it to several people.
[*The same inner 10 year old who wanted to be a naturalist or a paleontologist until he discovered how much math was involved in the sciences.]
The sow bear was undisturbed by the silly, hairless primates who stared at her from their metal boxes. A threat to her cubs would have brought her to sharp attention, but here she only needed her massive claws to root in the dirt and logs. The cubs popped to a standing alert any time an impatient car buzzed through. I felt a twinge of regret on behalf of those who were in too much in a hurry to witness something numinous and beautiful.
As the sow grazed, the cubs copied her gesture-for-gesture, learning their craft. An unusual quiet seemed to have settled over the observers, either out of respect for the animals’ welfare or in profound reverence for the natural wonder on such close display.
I am not actually sure how long we watched the bears, because I was among the enraptured. After whatever amount of time had passed, Amy gently suggested we move on so someone else could take our spot and share the experience. It was the right thing to do.
Darkness overtook the park as we drove out, and the possibility of seeing a moose or a coyote shrunk to just above zero. We arrived in West Yellowstone with nothing more to report. Amy’s clipboard would record no checks in two columns.
We ate at a Tex-Mex restaurant and then went back to the hotel to pack. We had traveled light, so it only took ten minutes to gather everything together. Then I worked on notes while Amy turned on the TV and fell asleep watching “Sixteen Candles.” The constant tension of looking for wildlife had exhausted her.
Sunday, May 15
Neither of us slept well. We were haunted, no doubt, by old, forgotten dreams and the spirits of so many brave souls who came to this place and lost the battle against nature. Or else it was uncomfortable mattresses and eating too late. Either way, we may not rush back to those particular beds. We tossed the few remaining items in our open bags and left to locate a late breakfast.
Then, after eating, we just left. We had talked about visiting some shops in West Yellowstone, but instead pointed the vehicle toward home. It was raining as we climbed out of the valley.
We pulled off once in Ashton, Idaho (town motto: “Hoping You Need to Stop and Buy Something Since 1891”) to freshen our drinks, and once in Downey, Idaho (town motto: “Come Get Fuel From our Pumps and Gas From our Restaurant”) for tchotchkes, but otherwise screamed home as fast as we were legally allowed. Amy read from “Mr. Kiss and Tell,” which is a Veronica Mars story, to funnel our attention.
We pulled into our garage a little more than five hours after we left West Yellowstone. Our (almost) impromptu vacation had been an unqualified success. Still, we were not going to plan another trip on such short notice again.