Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Yellowstone Bear Story

Beartooth Mountains seen from the highway

Back in August of 1999 I went out to Yellowstone National Park on a short trip. I planned to drive out, climb a mountain, photograph for a few days and then go home. I thought it would be fun and easy.

I left Wisconsin at 4:30 in the afternoon and drove all night, stopping only for gas and to sleep a few hours somewhere in North Dakota. By a little after 3pm the next day I was leaving Red Lodge Montana headed for Yellowstone via the Beartooth Highway. The late Charles Kuralt once called the Beartooth Highway "the most beautiful drive in America." It's more than 10,000 feet high with remarkable views of the Beartooth and Absoroka Mountains.

Due to road construction it was already 6 pm as I entered the park through the northeast entrance. I was excited to be back in Yellowstone, but I was one very tired pup.

The weather was beautiful as I drove into the park looking to photograph something before dark. By the time I made it to the Mammoth Hot Springs campground, it was full, so I drove on to Indian Creek.

At the Indian Creek campground, signs were posted saying no tent camping allowed. I had planned to sleep in my tent, but decided the car would be fine. I reserved a space and went to check in and pay. I asked the campground attendant about the signs and was told that grizzly bears had been coming into the campground, playing with tents, and knocking them down.

That certainly didn't sound like normal bear behavior, but I  didn't give it too much thought. It was already 11pm and I was exhausted. I went back to my car, layed the seat back, got as comfortable as possible, pulled a blanket over me, and fell asleep.

The night was uneventful. I awoke early the next morning and drove through the park looking to photograph wildlife. Once the back country ranger station opened I stopped there to get an overnight camping permit for a site near Electric Peak. 

I was required to watch a video about safely camping in bear country before I was issued the permit. My plan was to take my tent, sleeping bag, thermarest, water purifier, camera gear, water, and a little food and be out for a day and a half.


Electric Peak and Swan Lake seen from the park road

My goal was to climb Electric Peak, a 10,992 foot mountain and the highest point in the Northwestern corner of Yellowstone Park.  I had looked at Electric Peak rising in the distance for years and wanted to go and see it up close.

I was wearing new hiking boots, a new backpack, and had unknowingly put on fifty pounds over the last couple of years. I had gained all of that weight and didn't notice it until after this trip. In my head I was still as fit as the day I left college years earlier.

At noon it was 75 degrees and sunny. I was parked at the trail head and finished loading my back pack. I had two bottles of water, a couple of apples, and a sleeve of Chips Ahoy cookies. I was feeling good, ready to get out there and drink in the view from the summit of Electric Peak.

The first three miles of trail crossed hot and open sage brush flats which offered no shade or protection from the sun. The trail then rose along the flank of Sepulcher Mountain before it cut through the forest and skirted the edges of large meadows on its way to the Gardner River. My designated campsite was just across the river. There were actually two campsites about 100 yards apart which weren't visible to each other. I was assigned site 1G4.

When I got there at 2:30 in the afternoon I took off my boots and my feet were already blistered and sore. The backpack itself was fine, but I hadn't balanced the load well. The tripod I brought along weighed almost 12 pounds and never did sit comfortably in the pack. (Note to self; always take a lightweight plastic tripod when attempting to climb a mountain.) I set up my tent, drank some water, tended to my feet, and ate a few cookies. On the hike over I had seen a coyote and two sandhill cranes out in the sage brush. I saw a moose calf in the trees near the Glen Creek trail head and two large adult bull moose in velvet bolted out of the Gardner River as I went down to cross. Life was good.

A coyote standing amid sage brush

After drinking my fill I rested and watched big fluffy white clouds float across the blue sky above me. Since the weather was good I decided to try for the summit. I put a camera in a small backpack, the heavy tripod over my shoulder, two water jugs on my belt, and started the climb. It was a few minutes after 5 pm when I began the ascent. After awhile the trail grew faint and I mistakenly followed a game trail for a short time until I regained the actual trail. The hike up was good and the views just kept getting better.

By 7:30 I was almost out of water and still probably a half mile from the top. I decided to stop there, take a few photos and then start back down. I really wanted to make the summit, but I wanted to make it back to camp before dark even more.

The route up Electric peak

NP1691.2-Sepulcher Mountain and Cache Lake


NP1688.2- Cache Lake and Gardner's Hole seen from Electric Peak

The above photos show what I saw to the southeast from the spot where I stopped on Electric Peak. I had the mountain all to myself, as I saw no other hikers that evening. I felt good, really good on the side of the mountain that night.

I stayed there for half an hour and then started down towards my camp. I saw a pine martin working his way from the lower branches of a tree to the ground, but I was too tired to go and check it out. By 9:30 I was off the mountain and back at my tent . Shadows were already creeping across the valley where I was camped. I noticed smoke rising through the trees from the other campsite, but didn't see any people.

I took my boots off and hung them on a big Douglas fir tree tree to dry out. My feet were a mess, just lots of pain and blisters. I refilled my water bottles in the river and ate some cookies and an apple. As I leaned against a tree near the tent eating, a large bull moose in velvet came out of the river about 40 yards away and walked right past me. Just beautiful.

After awhile I got up and gathered everything that might smell tasty to nearby bears. I put the apple cores, the cookie bag, water jugs, the shirt I wore, and sunscreen into a bag and hung them from the bear pole near the campsite. I included the shirt since it was soaked with a delicious mixture of sunscreen, salt, and sweat from my trek up Electric Peak. I had bear proofed my camp and was ready for bed.

At 10:41 I crawled into my tent and into my sleeping bag. Almost immediately nature called, so I got back up and walked a little ways from the tent. When I got back in I left the vestibule zipper up just a little bit so it would be easier to grab the next time. I was using my fleece jacket as a pillow and was asleep almost as soon as I lay down.

After just a few minutes, something outside was rustling against the bottom edge of the tent near my head. (In the past small rodents sometimes worked the edge of the tent at night. I figured they were looking for salt from sweaty hands and just flicked the tent wall to move them along.) Still mostly asleep, I flicked the tent wall where the rustling was and thought nothing more of it. Almost immediately I was sleeping soundly.

Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I awoke to a sound that I couldn't identify. I put on my glasses, grabbed a flashlight and my knife. I opened the knife and had it in my hand at the ready. While  doing that, I realized that someone or something was unzipping the vestibule to my tent.

Whoa! That wasn't right.

My mind was racing. I was camping six miles from the nearest road at a back country site in Yellowstone and something was opening my tent in the middle of the night. This was wrong on so many levels. I had seen smoke from the other campsite on the way down, but if someone from the other site needed something, they had to ask, not just open my tent.

My plan was clear. I yelled "Hey, Stop!" and "get out of here!" repeatedly while my arm was cocked holding the knife in my hand. I had the flashlight on, but couldn't see through the tent wall to the vestibule zipper. I decided that if anything came into the tent I would punch it in the face with the knife and try to kill it. Animals and people were supposed to respect the boundaries of the tent. So along with the "get out of here!" and other stuff I was yelling, I told whatever it was that I would in fact kill it if it didn't leave.

Once the zipper stopped moving, there was an absolute stillness. It seemed that time stood still as I waited. I tried to imagine what was out there and hoped it would leave.

"Urrrm, Urrm," is what I heard, and a second later the corner of the tent shook as something ran into it on its way into the forest.

It was probably only 45 seconds from the time the zipper first moved, but it seemed much longer. I sat there for a minute before I unzipped the tent and looked at the vestibule zipper. I used my flashlight to examine its entire length. It had been unzipped almost to the top. About half way up the zipper I found a golden hair about 2 1/2 inches long. I held the hair in my hand and knew it was from a bear.

A bear had just unzipped my vestibule zipper and left. This really wasn't good.

I started going through my options in my head. I didn't know whether it was a grizzly or black bear since both species come in a variety of colors. If it was a black bear maybe I'd be alright staying there. If it was a grizzly, I couldn't stay in the tent.

I had been spending time and photographing wildlife in the Rocky Mountains for awhile, so I had some bear knowledge to draw on. I had also read lots of books about bear attacks and bear safety.

The tent is always supposed to act as a barrier. Even though bears could easily get in if they wanted to, the structure itself is supposed to be some kind of psychological barrier. Most experts suggest that people play dead if attacked by a grizzly bear, except if it comes into your tent with you. Any bear that enters your tent while you are in it is a direct threat and action is called for.

Common sense told me not to stay in the tent anymore that night. Whether it was a grizzly or a black bear didn't really matter. The fact that it had unzipped the tent with me in it meant I was in trouble. Normal, healthy, and unhabituated bears just don't do that. I checked my watch and it was eleven o'clock.

Walking out to my car wasn't an option. My legs and body were shot and even if they weren't, bears and other wildlife used the hiking trails at night. It just wasn't safe to try to walk out and the bear was probably still nearby. I shined my flashlight in all directions to see if there were eyes looking back at me. Nothing. I thought about going over to the other camp site, but didn't feel good about walking over there either. If this bear liked to unzip tents, maybe it also liked to jump on people walking to other camp sites.

My last option was to climb the big Douglas fir tree and stay up there for the night. I was fifty pounds overweight, had walked over 13 miles that day, including up and down most of a mountain in boots that were a size too small, and did some of it with no water. Needless to say, I was really, really tired, and didn't want to stay in a tree. So I said screw it, crawled back into my sleeping bag, zipped the tent closed, and went to sleep.

"Get Out."  I sat straight up in the tent. I was wide awake and put my boots, hat, and fleece on. I took my flashlight and knife, went out and started to climb the big fir tree. I don't know how or why I heard those words in my head, but they were loud and clear and I listened. The new plan was for me to sit quietly in the tree all night and if anything crawled up there with me I would try to kill it.

I climbed maybe fifteen feet up and found a place where I could wedge my legs between some branches and wrap one arm over another branch to hold on. I figured I wouldn't fall out even if I did fall asleep, so I settled in for the night. It was only 11:30 and I probably had eight or nine hours to sit in the tree before the sun would make it over the ridge and light my valley the next morning. Yee Ha.

WHOOOOSSSHHHH! I may have been asleep in the tree until I heard that sound. It was around midnight when the bear actually jumped right on top of the tent which I had left standing. The big whoooossshhhh was the sound of the air going out of the tent when the bear landed on top of it.

I was glad I wasn't in the tent.

From where I was in the tree I couldn't see what was going on below me. It was pitch black down there and I wasn't about to turn on my flashlight or do anything else to draw attention to me. So I quietly sat on my perch and listened to the bear break my tent and chew on things. Every so often I would hear the clank of metal when the bear bit the pack frame or tent poles.

While I was listening to this I was doing some math in my head and adding up the cost of all of the things I could hear it breaking. When the number got over a thousand dollars I thought about going down to fight the bear and save my stuff, but common sense won out. At some point while the bear was rolling and frolicking in my gear it actually banged right into the tree I was sitting in.

About a half an hour later the noise stopped and I realized that the bear had left.

After waiting an appropriate time I climbed a little higher in the tree and found an even more comfortable position to lock me in. Once again I settled in to spend the night. The sky was clear as I watched stars and a few satellites go by overhead. I saw only one shooting star all night, but it was a beauty.

Though I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt my hat and fleece kept me warm enough. I would guess it was around 40 degrees that night.

As the first rays of light made it over the mountain to the east I heard the bear rolling around in my stuff again. I strained to see the animal below me. In the low light I could almost make out the shape of a bear. It looked light colored and not very big. It was kind of like a UFO sighting, I could see something down there, but I couldn't tell you exactly what it was. For another ten minutes or so the bear seemed to be having a good time rolling and chewing on my things, then it left.

I waited for the sun to get high enough that it actually touched the ground near my tree before I climbed down. I yelled a couple of 'hey Bears' as I got to the ground and kept looking around. The coast was clear so I walked over to the other campsite.

When I got there I saw two people, one sitting up and one sleeping near a very large fire. They told me their bear story. The evening before, a bear walked up and bit a hole through their tent and looked inside. It was before dark and they thought it was a black bear. They had been standing outside near the fire when it happened and were able to scare the bear off. They broke down their tent to prevent further damage and then held vigil by the fire all night.

They were obviously shaken, It was their first visit to Yellowstone and the first day of what was to be an extended hiking trip. I did what I could to allay their fears and told them what a great job they had done with the situation. I reassured them that this wasn't normal for the park and encouraged them to make a report to the rangers when they got out. As I walked back to my campsite I was thinking that I wished I had taken my tent down before I went up the tree.

As I put my broken tent and ripped up ground cloth away I thought about the bear. The campers who saw it said it was a black bear, but I wasn't so sure. In the past I had seen people mistake moose for elk in the park, and telling a black bear from a grizzly could be much harder. I thought about the Indian Creek campground I had stayed at the night before and the grizzlies wrecking tents. The Gardner River that I was camped near ran right into Indian Creek and led to the Indian Creek campground just a few miles away.

There were bite marks on my sandals, bite marks on my tripod, and the small pack my camera had been in was chewed on. Lucky for me the camera was OK. My pack frame had bite marks on it and much of the padding was ripped. The thermarest air mattress was like a pin cushion and wouldn't hold air, but the sleeping bag seemed no worse for wear.

After I picked up all of the scraps, I got the bag from the bear pole and saw that the fire pit had been dug up. There was aluminum foil and other trash left by previous campers, and one very clear bear track. The track didn't look very big, but it did look like a grizzly track. I left the fire pit just as it was so the rangers would be able to see it.

With all my chewed on gear back in my ripped up backpack, I refilled my water bottles, crossed the Gardner River, and started the six mile walk out.

I wasn't moving very well now. My feet were blistered, it seemed every muscle in my legs were sore from the day before, and my knees had been left somewhere on the way down the mountain. I had bruised one ankle in the boots that didn't fit and was limping. As I trudged away from the mountain, lack of sleep and other deprivations seemed to catch up with me. I walked as slowly as possible and still stopped several times to rest. The fact that the trail was mostly downhill helped a lot. As I plodded along I thought about the night before and flicking what I assumed had been a rodent outside my tent. I laughed out loud as I realized that I had probably flicked that bear right in the nose.

Much later on I made it back to my car, filled my water jugs and enjoyed every last drop of the delicious cold water.

As I watched other cars drive by with people visiting the park I found it all a bit surreal. Most of them had stayed in hotels the night before, would eat in restaurants that day, and see the park through their windshields.

I had just slept in a tree, walked about twenty miles, and had a bear unzip and then jump on my tent during the night. I had seen moose, cranes, a coyote, and a pine martin. I had seen grand views of forests, valleys, lakes, and cloud filled skies from the side of a mountain. All in the last 24 hours and less than ten miles from the spot I was standing.

I wondered if they'd believe me if I told them.

I put my broken gear in the car and headed to the ranger station. The same ranger I had spoken to the day before was there. I told him what happened and filled out an incident report. He called the bear biologists and two of them came over. I got out my broken tent and gear and they collected hair samples from the velcro on the tent and measured the distance between the teeth on the bite marks. They planned to run DNA tests to determine the species and match an individual bear if they caught one.

The rangers told me I had done everything right. I had kept a clean camp and done nothing that would have caused the bear's behavior. I left my phone number and they said they would call if they learned anything about the bear. With that, I left Mammoth Hot Springs and headed to Old Faithful for a shower, shave, and some food. Boy was I tired.

The grizzly bear above and a large cinnamon colored black bear below are both a similar color. These bears are an example why color is not a good way to identify bears. Both of these bears were photographed in Canada not Yellowstone

P.S.- About a year later I talked to one of the Yellowstone bear biologists about the bear. They had attempted to trap it with no success until late fall when they got a dome tent and used it for bait. The bear was a young grizzly and probably the same one that had been jumping on tents at the Indian Creek campground earlier in the summer. This bear was relocated to a wildlife sanctuary in California

P.P.S. The next fall I again tried to climb Electric Peak, this time as a day hike. I came up just a little short of the summit, but I wore boots that fit and the walk was great. I've lost the extra fifty pounds now and one of these days I'll see the view from the top.


Anonymous said...

Wow. That is one incredible story. I'm glad you're all right and you got to live it.

Ann said...

This was a really interesting and entertaining story. I am happy that you did not get hurt by the bear. Yellowstone is my favorite place in the world and a very spiritual place. Our best mammal was a wolverine. Keep hoping for a mountain lion one of these days. And, of course, I still get choked up every time I see a wolf, especially if there are no "wolfers" around to spoil the moment!