Tuesday, June 30, 2015

TRIP REPORT - Part I: Into the Jaws of the Wild West

After the end of my season, nearly two months ago, I took about 5 days off from running, but have since returned, averaging about 55 to 65 miles per week. Nothing fantastic, but going through the motions all the same. I will return to “normal” blog posting shortly, but wanted to type out a trip report, of sorts, which details me and Katie’s recent trip out west – to Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. There is too much to blog about in one post, so I am doing it in two parts – Grand Teton/Yellowstone and Glacier.

The adventure began like most – in a plane. After arriving in Denver last Saturday, June 20, Katie and I drove to the town of Lander, Wyoming, about 5.5 hours away. We stopped a few times, most notably at the Vedauwoo Campground, just across the border. We ambled around the giant boulders for about an hour, but soon got back on the road. We drove down long, endless highways that cut through long, endless prairies. Pronghorn antelopes abound. Once in Lander, we dined on pizza and ice cold beer at an old saloon, which once, reportedly, doubled as a brothel. After a couple of local brews, we walked back to the motel and fell fast asleep.

On Sunday, we drove 3 hours to the chic town of Jackson, just south of Grand Teton National Park. Along the way we passed a herd of buffalo and countless elk. We car camped at the Gros Ventre Campground in the southeast corner of the park. It was hot and I nearly combusted trying to catch a few Zs in the tent in the afternoon. Behind our tent a busy beaver worked continuously on his stick house. I sipped scotch out of my flask and watched…for about an hour. Later in the evening, we wandered over to a pavilion and listened to an interpretive ranger give a talk about alpine wildlife. A small, toad-like woman, who happened to be camping next to us, nagged me about leaving my alcohol stove out. She was worried about bears.

On Monday, we woke up at dawn and proceeded into Grand Teton proper. On the way, we passed two large bull moose that were casually strolling between the Gros Ventre River and the road.

It was a magnificent sight to see in the early morning light. About 10 minutes later, a sandy-colored red fox greeted us near the official entrance of the park. I knew it would be a good day. At 7:59am, I walked into the Backcountry Permit Office and inquired about the trail conditions. Unfortunately, the 18.5 mile loop (12 miles one day, 6.5 miles the next day) I wanted us to hike was still partly covered in snow. “You’ll need ice axes,” one of the rangers told me. “Or, at least, spikes”. We had none of that, nor did I want to make it that type of hike. Instead, we decided to trek 6.5 miles into the park, stay at the campsite next to Holly Lake that I had previously reserved, then hike the same 6.5 miles out the next day. The rangers printed out our permit and told us to mind the snowpack – it would still be thick on sections of our hike. In fact, only 1 out of the 3 backcountry campgrounds was clear of snow, he said. Knowing 6.5 miles wouldn’t take us long to hike, I decided we should start later in the day and instead spend the morning exploring the park by car. Katie obliged. During our drive, we ran into a number of cars parked along the side of the road. I immediately assumed we had hit a “bear jam” and was pleasantly surprised to see a small black bear (about 100lbs) wandering along a swamp next to the road. We watched the bear for some time, before returning to our vehicle and continuing the safari.

By 11am, we had already seen a beaver, 2 moose, a red fox, pronghorns, elk and a black bear. But, now it was time to climb. As we got our overnight packs in order, a couple, who had returned the previous night from Holly Lake, declared it would take us “at least 5 hours” to make the 6.5 mile trek. I looked at my watch – 1:00pm – then gulped. I assumed it would take 3.5 hours. Not long after, Katie and I, with bear spray on my hip, were on our way into the backcountry. The scenery was beautiful and the climb was manageable. About two thirds of the way up, we came face-to-face with a young bull moose.

He was casually making his way down the trail, eating along the way. I was surprised to see a moose so high up the mountain, but, then again, I’m not a moose and don’t know what they like and what they don’t. We contemplated moving off the trail and around him, but, because we were already downhill, moving around him, would actually be moving towards him in a way. Eventually, the moose went one way and we went the other. This was a good thing, because moose, arguably, can be more dangerous than bear in the backcountry. With about a mile to go, we ran into the snow.

Although it was quite warm outside, the snow was still deep and the footsteps on top of it were encrusted with a thin layer of ice. I cautiously inched forward and kicked away new footholds for Katie. This went on, off and on, for quite some time. During the ascent, we spied a number of marmots – part squirrel, part groundhog, part raccoon. I also got a quick glimpse of a pika, a small mammal that relies, and thrives, in higher elevation. In fact, they can die if they’re exposed to temperatures above 78 degrees. Just before 5pm, we finally reached the campground.

The trek up had taken us about 4 hours. Indeed, only 1 of the 3 campsites on the summit wasn’t covered in snow, but the views were amazing - we had our own glacial lake, which was being fed by melting snow and a magnificent ice cold waterfall.

I filtered some freshwater and then boiled up some Mountain House on the stove. By now, marmots were everywhere; at one point they were circling the campsite and threatening to overrun our Alamo. Before the sun dipped below the mountains, I deposited the trash and extra food in the bear box (the NPS had hauled one up years ago) and proceeded into the tent. The winds were howling something fierce and I thought it might be a cold night. I woke up just a few times to the wind, thinking it would lift the tent right out of the ground and toss it into the heavens, kinda like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz.

We woke early on Tuesday and proceeded down the mountain. Making our way down the snow bridge was far more perilous than going up it. Still, we made it down in about 3 hours then we got in our car and bombed our way north into Yellowstone National Park. Before receiving our next permit, we were forced to watch a safety video in one of the backcountry permit offices. That, plus a long line of patrons, threw us off schedule to a degree. By the time we arrived at Old Faithful, we were starving. However, there were billions of tourists, mouths agape, wandering about. Pushing through them as best we could, we finally found a parking spot (it was like the mall on Christmas Eve) then ordered a few simply items from the grill. We hurriedly ate them then waddled over to the hot springs and pools, watched Old Faithful erupt, then hurried back to our cars to begin the long drive to Hellroaring Creek, located in the northern section of the park. Having made this trip through the park before, I was determined to not rush it, because the sites and vistas, namely Hayden Valley, are truly awe-inspiring. Along the way, we passed dozens of bison, herds of elk and another black bear. Although I didn’t want to rush, we agreed we should get to the trailhead by 5:00pm, which soon became 5:30pm, which eventually became 7:30pm. A red fox greeted us at the trailhead, but there wasn’t much time for formalities, and we were soon on our way. As we departed, a group of young adults emerged and they were covered in mosquito bites. “We forgot bug spray,” the woman lamented. I doused myself in 1000% deet then powered ahead.

It was truly an amazing hike, more so, because we trekked through the golden prairie at dusk. It’s one thing to drive past bison and antelope, but it’s another thing to hike alongside them in the waning light of day. Unfortunately, my mileage was off and our assigned campsite was, in fact, a couple extra miles down the trail…and this was after we had already hiked an extra mile or so. It was getting dark and the mosquitos were relentless (despite the dope and deet). We backtracked to another campsite, which was assigned to another group of campers. We tip-toed past them and set up camp across the meadow. Then I tip-toed back to the bear hang and, using a piece of elk antler I found in the grass, tossed my rope around the cable and hoisted our bags (filled with foodstuffs). We collapsed in our tents too tired (and not really hungry) to eat. Despite bathing in bug spray, I still had about 2 dozen bite marks on my back.
On Wednesday, we woke up around 5:30am and, shortly thereafter, backtracked to our car. The other campers never even knew we were there. We cleaned ourselves up at one of the many general stores they seem to have here and proceeded to explore more of the park, including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. On our way north, we came across yet another black bear, the third of the trip. Soon, Yellowstone was behind us and we were on our way to Glacier.

Next post: TRIP REPORT - Part II: Evening of the Grizzlies...


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