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.