The average lifespan of a grizzly bear is just under 25 years. About two grizzly lifetimes ago, I shepherded my Literature of the Wilderness class of about a dozen college students on a camping trip into Yellowstone Park.
Students were not only to study classic wilderness writers, but also experience wilderness themselves and keep journals. Park rangers suggested the last week in September for perfect fall weather after mosquito-killing freezes. A camping site near the border of the park and the adjoining Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness ensured we would not run into any other humans. Tourists would be long gone, and the wolf photography craze had not yet commenced in the park’s pre-wolf days.
A ranger met us at the trailhead to make sure we were safely outfitted. I hoped we would make a good impression, so he would not see us as “tourons” — tourist morons. Unfortunately, one young man nicknamed Frosty (for Forrest), and full of vim (or vin) and vigor, jumped out with a walking staff roughly the size of a pregnant rib from a Viking raiding ship, and wanted to charge up the trail before we were organized. Frosty wore a white kamikaze headband scarf tied in back that showed the rising sun and some Japanese characters. He looked as if he just stepped down from his Zero after returning from bombing Pearl Harbor. Ranger Rick nearly bust a gut, spleen and pancreas trying to hold in his laughter. He looked at me and said, “Lots of luck.”
No bear maulings that summer, but he cautioned to make noise so bears could hear us coming. A few students began to realize we were going where the bear lived, not where we lived, but Frosty and others were anxious to get going. We trucked up the trail sounding like a convoy of bullhorns, politicians on the stump and talent-show singer rejects.
Two students who were all but married (ABM) had camping experience. I counted on ABM to help encourage those who had never walked a trail in their lives. Everyone had previously gotten in shape by hiking around campus with backpacks and new boots for weeks. I had stressed the importance of breaking in new boots, so who showed up with never-worn new boots?
Right, ABM had hiked no more than a mile, and already exhausted most of their moleskin treating blisters. The column slowed to mere crawl, frustrating those who wanted to stretch their legs. I worried we might not make the campsite until late.
Luckily, the director of the college’s outdoor program had come along. He led, keeping eager beavers from ranging too far ahead and becoming lost. I was the tail-end Charlie doing triage.
Our campsite sat along a sparkling trout creek in a surprise open field area. Snow-tinged peaks and yellow aspen set against the conifer forest framed the meadow. It was stunning. Sore feet, aching body parts — all forgotten. We made camp, ate, hung our food up in a tree and retired to warm sleeping bags.
Early morning, moose paraded through the meadow, majestically ignoring us. A rugby scrum ensued in the tents as campers scrambled for cameras. I struggled to keep the group from racing out for closer shots. Moose were migrating into the park to avoid the opening of hunting season. Rutting bulls were looking for Econoline vans to tip over. Mama moose with young were ready to chase down sedans, ATVs or sociology majors.
Later, while I was dealing with some issue in camp, the gang wanted to take a short hike. Fine with me, as long as they kept within eyesight of one another and returned in about an hour. They could fish, wade, meditate, photograph, write or sun in the great outdoors. We would take longer hikes together later. They needed time away from the adults.
Frosty pulled out a knife half as long as his leg and professed he could fend off any threat.
I watched them until they disappeared around a bend — out of my sight of course. About 15 minutes later the white samurai bandana bobbed in the distance. Frosty led a quickstep march back. I asked why so soon. Breathless, one volunteered they didn’t feel like hiking any farther.
I knew something was up. After a few minutes, out of sight of the others, the ABM female whispered to me, “Bear, big claw marks.”
Show me, I said. I retraced their trail with the entire crew sticking behind me as if I were a mother hen with duct-taped chicks. They were almost tripping my heels to stay together. They pointed to a big weathered sentinel conifer. Much higher than anyone could reach, huge claw marks were gouged into the tree as if trying to fashion some macabre totem pole. Certainly a very, very large grizzly. It was impressive.
They asked, “How did he get up there? I thought grizzlies couldn’t climb a tree.”
I said, “He didn’t. He was standing on his back feet.”
All I heard back was, “Oh.”
After that, I had a hard time coaxing anyone to walk even a short distance from camp to take a “nature break,” if you know what I mean. That became a group effort. Bearismo won out over machismo.
In the end we had a glorious hike up the steep divide where we enjoyed the view of our own meadow below and the wilderness forest valley on the other side, stretching “as far as the eye can see” if you have one eye. On the hike out, the rising sun headband disappeared, Frosty returned to being Forrest, and he mentioned that someday he would like to be a ranger, or maybe a priest.
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