Sunday, September 4, 2011


2011 is already going down as a deadly summer in Yellowstone National Park. Annually, it seems to be water that claims the most lives of the park's 3 million some visitors. But, this July, Yellowstone saw its first deadly grizzly attack inside the park in 25 years. And suddenly, in late August, a second deadly attack occurred within eight miles of the July attack.  Some experts indicate that the late May snowfalls were a contributing factor in keeping bears at lower elevations for a longer period of time.  Neither of the victims had been carrying bear spray, but mace itself doesn't guarantee a saved life. Yet, it does provide some level of security when hiking in the Yellowstone wilderness.

In our 2010 adventure, there were a few things I was thankful for. One was the company of two other individuals. It's rare for a bear to attack a hiking party of three or more—even though a sow grizzly attacked a group of seven hikers in Alaska this summer—the number three makes one feel a bit better in bear country. Two was the fact that all of us were carrying bear spray.  In two particular bear encounters I was glad to have it at the ready, but I also realized that carrying spray is a relative state of being. One better have it literally ready to fire within seconds. Bears move quickly, and as we discovered in our most memorable bear encounter, they can be dead silent.

Before our foray in the Slough Creek valley, we had spotted several bears on our trip. A grizzly near Soda Butte creek was the first—we had literally and foolishly ventured past warning signs thinking they were expired as we fished. As we hiked out, a young male grizzly was preparing to cross the sage meadows into the area we had been fishing. Later that same day we angled along the Gardiner River, and I had drifted away from Joe and Josh.  As the vegetation grew thicker and trees closer together, I decided to dig the UDAP from my pack and attach it to my belt. Ten minutes later, as I climbed back up onto the stream bank, a sub-adult male grizzly stood not more than 40 yards away. As I slowly stepped back, the spray provided some level of comfort. Fortunately, the bear never appeared to see me, and when I informed the guys, we quickly decided to hike out of the area. That was the last time I wandered far away from the group.

Over the course of the next several days, we spotted some beautiful bears, both grizzly and black, but always from a safe distance, and sometimes even from our vehicle. There was one grizzly foraging on a high meadow above us as we hiked into Cache Creek.  We never saw that bear, but another angler informed us of his presence—this of course, instigated some rather ridiculous stream-side sand drawings on our part. I'll always wonder if we inspired a chuckle from a hiking angler who encountered the T-Rex-size tracks left in the dirt.

Black Bears were reeking havoc on the backcountry campsites along Slough Creek in 2010.  Just two weeks before our arrival, a female 167-lb black bear had to be euthanized by park rangers after it destroyed a a backcountry site where five fisherman had just set up camp. The bear refused to leave despite the eventual presence of horse-mounted rangers. By the time we actually hiked into the meadows of Slough, all but two of the backcountry sites were closed due to bear activity.

We had decided to hike as far as the second or third meadow—between six and nine miles. Five miles in we saw a jet black bear sprinting along the stream bed from about 150 yards—he appeared to have been spooked by some fisherman.  An hour later we stood at the edge of heavy patch of evergreen trees chatting with a backcountry ranger and a field assistant near the Elk Tongue Creek patrol cabin. At this point we were nearly 10 miles from the trailhead, and not more than a mile or two from the park boundary.

"You guys spot any bears on the way in?' the ranger said.

We told him we had.

"Were its back legs cinnamon?" he asked.

We told him the bear we had seen appeared to be all black, and it seemed smaller than the bear he described to us. Apparently, a medium to large sized male black bear with distinct ruddy back legs had been harassing the pack camps across the stream for several days. The bear had been sprayed, hit with rocks, and shouted at, but it seemed to do little to deter him from entering camps. Never a good sign in bear country.

"If you see him, spray the hell out of the bastard...and don't stash your packs..." the ranger said. Those were his last words of advice as he amiably turned and headed down the trail whence we had come.

We were standing there watching him walk away. Our packs at our feet. Elk Tongue Creek babbling nearby. I remember Joe and Josh turning to pick up their equipment, and for some reason, I was a little slower on the draw. I stood still watching the ranger.

And, then, just like that, the bear was there.

It happened so quickly, that by the time the words of a surprised shout had escaped my mouth, the bear was already across the trail and bounding into the woodline. He was 15 yards away. His ears were pinned back in full sneak mode. He never made a sound.  I could see the individual hairs on his body.  If we all had turned away at the same time, we would have never noticed his presence.  The final detail? His legs were a conspicuous shade of red.

"Bear!" I shouted. Our ranger friend abruptly turned to see our party of three frantically pointing and racing along the path as the bear clambered along a fallen pine just off the trail. Surely, the ranger must have thought we were joking, but in a flash he had his rifle drawn, glassing out the bear as it ran deeper into the forest.  It was a moment I think we'll never forget, and it certainly added to the allure of our Yellowstone adventure.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Nightly Council

Even as I peck away at the keys, my mind is already planning our next Yellowstone adventure.  The summer of 2010 carried along in a similar fashion. Hours upon hours I researched, cataloged, and read about the streams we should fish in the park.  I consulted maps, blogs, and webpages, as I figured out what types of terrestrial patterns to pack.  The compilation of data was stored in a shiny red folder and carried along to camp. Each evening, I would pull out the research and consult with the guys about our day to day adventures. We began to fondly refer to our meetings as "nightly council". While topics meandered, we always seemed to give the next day's business focused attention, and in all truth, no other meetings in my life will rank even close in enjoyment to those campfire talks.

The Old Ice Box

It was August of 2005 when my wife and I first visited Yellowstone National Park.  We camped in the northeastern section of Yellowstone for two nights at Tower Creek. It was there that I was introduced to Yellowstone flyfishing. The rough and tumble stream is where all my dreams begin. Three years later I would return to fish Tower Creek with Polla—a lifelong friend who had just scored a job in Missoula. Two years after that another high school friend, Joe, helped us to form a party of three. So, it was that Joe, Polla, and I made Tower Creek our base camp—fishing it our entire first day and saving the last hour of just about every day for a jaunt on its banks to catch the night's dinner. Ever reliable, Tower Creek never disappointed us.  In an hour we would have more than enough for supper around the fire.  Recently, I read an article entitled, "Five streams you should never drive past in the Yellowstone". I was glad to see Tower Creek on that list.  It would be here, in the same 100 meter stretch, that myself (2005), Josh (2008), and Joe (2010) would catch our first Yellowstone trout.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Year Brushes By

It's been one year since I last stepped foot into the wilderness of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park. In August of 2010, two good friends and I enjoyed a fishing trip like no other. We fished, hiked, and spotted wildlife in the backcountry for six consecutive days. We had a few close encounters with bears—a particularly memorable one with an ornery black bear and a backcountry ranger.  The memory of the trip is still as vivid as the days I was living it.  It will always be a cherished life memory. Countless nights and days, I've conjured up the scenes we lived in those six suns.  Tower Creek. Hellroaring Creek. Cache Creek.  Perhaps, our most productive days of flyfishing were discovered on those small mountain streams.  Teaming with aggressive native cutthroat, rainbows, and brook trout rising to our terrestrials, I enjoyed those days of solitude most.  I hope to step back into the dreamworld in a year or two.

Upon our eventual reuniting of nightly council around the campfire, I am sure a return trip to Hellroaring Creek and the Black Canyon of Yellowstone will be considered.  A pleasant day hike that involves feisty fish and plenty of solitude is pretty much standard order for us, and there is plenty of it here.   We even had the opportunity to chance upon a morning herd of pronghorn, and I shall always remember the sound of their rushing hooves—like breeze over praire grass.

Of all the days of the trip, this one was completely spent afield. Venturing out in the morning dew and returning in the ruddy evening light, we were awash in satisfaction. One last look over my shoulder at the Yellowstone River—I will see her again in this beautiful valley of green and gold.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Memories in Life

My brother got married this past weekend. I thanked him for being my best friend these last several years in central Pennsylvania. "Now, that we are both married finding time to hunt and fish together will be harder to come by, but whenever we do take to woods and waters, I will cherish it all the more," I said in my speech.

Silverware clinked, music played, and laughter filled the room, and it was a good late June night. And if one was standing outside the Gamble Mill Restaurant in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, he might have listened to the sounds of a joyous reception mixing into the background as the voice of Logan Branch babbled along directly behind the old brick building—a sweet secret of a stream. Of course, my brother and I had already made future plans to strike it on another warm summer evening in the not too distant future. He had already hauled in a few nice brown trout on some terrestrials a week prior.

In early June the pair of us plus our father had ventured north to Kettle Creek—probably Pennsylvania's most wild stream.  As we worked the stream on a Friday evening and Saturday morning, we were handsomely rewarded with bountiful brook and brown trout. We never did spot the monster brook trout I had spotted early on Memorial Day morning, but we were more than satisfied with our take.

This is who we are in the blossom spring and green summer. Fisherman. When autumn's golden hue shades forth, we morph into field stalkers taking cackling green-winged pheasants in flight, and eventually fold over into rabbit walkers in snow meadows of winter's grip.

Rabbit season ended on the last weekend in February this year—a new extended season added three more weeks to what used to be a rather disappointing arrival of the new year's second month. Most everything closes up for the year once Valentine arrives. But not this year. I was thankful for that. It gave my brother and I one more memory in a good year of hunting and another story to add to a growing collection of lore.

After a hearty breakfast in predawn darkness, we set out to work along the lake's edge in Bald Eagle State Park.  George had recalled spotting several rabbits in the area while catfishing in early September.  It was a frigid morning, and for the first hour we followed Daisy as she scoured the bramble covered slopes for a hot scent. It was simply too cold. The sun had yet to hit in earnest. We did spot a bird of the park's namesake soaring high above the waters. We cut tracks on herds of deer who had cunningly survived another season.  We flushed grouse we could not shoot by law. It wasn't until nearly mid-morning, when Daisy bugled her first call in brush-filled meadow, that we took the first cottontail of the day. Daisy was so deep into the fallen timber that she was literally underground or "undersnow" at a few points in the chase, and it was admirably humorous to watch her amaze us yet again with her effervescent drive for bunnies.  Less than a half hour later, Daisy ran another nice rabbit out to George, and we had two for the walk home. Or so we thought. Signs of spring seemed to set in as the sun warmed our faces and the temperatures rose. Tracks were all over at this point, and we began to randomly kick piles of brush.

Suddenly, motion exploded out of one my brother had harassed, and I squeezed off two fast shots.  Daisy, well-acquainted with the meaning behind a shotgun blast, careened into action, and I was sure I had missed as she took up the trail. I sprung along the snow drifts to an old logging road intent on cutting off our quarry for one more shot.  Daisy was baying wildly, but I could tell she had stopped in one spot. Perhaps the bunny had holed up safe and sound?  George's laughter told the story.  My second shell had found its mark and Daisy was war dancing over the kill.

It was a satisfying hunt. Three heavy late-winter rabbits. A warm sun. And, a great dog. George departed a week a later for another long stint overseas, and that was a good memory to hold on to until I saw him again in June for our fishing trip north.

Our times outdoors are who we are. My hope is that I'll be able to instill the same love my brother and I share in my own two sons. I hope they too know the feeling of trailing cottontails together with a little hound in late winter. I hope they share in the joy of landing a trophy-class trout along a fern laden creek. I hope they grow to appreciate these gifts man has be given.