The Bear

The year before our first child was born, my husband and I took a month-long camping trip out West, to the Badlands, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks.  We planned several days of backpacking, so we could get past the summer crowds and experience the "real" Yellowstone.  We were avid outdoorspeople but had lived on the Gulf Coast and the East Coast and hadn't had much experience with wildlife, other than deer, squirrels, and an occasional glimpse of other small mammals found in our regions. 
We looked forward to seeing all of the wildlife for which Yellowstone was so famous but were a bit nervous about one thing - bears.  We read articles and books for hikers that recounted all sorts of terrifying encounters with bears, and Yellowstone seemed to be a popular place for them.
With this in mind, we planned our backpacking expedition carefully.  We pored over park trail maps and selected a 3-day hike in an area not known for much bear activity.  We read up on bear avoidance techniques and made sure we knew how to properly hang a "bear bag" to keep our food safe from unwanted visitors.
We started out on our backpack journey on a beautiful, sunny morning in the north-eastern portion of Yellowstone Park.  Within a half-mile of the trail head, we spotted a coyote in the high grass to the left of the trail, staring at us as if wondering what we were doing in his home.  A bit further along, we saw a snake slithering across the trail in front of us.  We were excited about seeing wildlife so soon into our hike, but the sightings made us all the more alert for bears.
Throughout our three days backpacking, we strictly adhered to all of the guidelines we'd read for avoiding contact with bears.  We kept our campsite scrupulously clean, hung anything with a scent in bear bags at night, and each wore a whistle around our neck, just in case.  While hiking, we sang loudly to be sure any bears would hear us coming and clear out of our way.  This resulted in some embarrassment on the third day, as we reached the end of our musical repertoire and rounded a bend in the trail to find ourselves face-to-face with a large group of hikers staring at us, as we belted out Tony Orlando and Dawn tunes.
Finally our backpacking trip ended, and we headed for the nearest town for much-needed showers.  That night, over pizza and beer, we laughed at our bear anxieties and agreed we probably didn't see any because we made so much noise!  Several days later, we headed south to the Tetons, feeling both relieved and a little disappointed that we hadn't seen a single bear during our week in Yellowstone.
A few days later, we embarked on a dayhike into the Tetons, along the popular Cascades Canyon trail.  We remarked on the clear difference between this hike and our backpack trip at Yellowstone.  The trail in the Tetons was filled with people, many unprepared for a long hike in sandals or flimsy sneakers.  Despite the crowds, we enjoyed the warm, sunny weather and gorgeous scenery around us.
After passing the largest waterfall along the trail - and the final destination for many of the dayhikers - we were suddenly alone.  Relishing the quiet solitude, I remarked to my husband, "Look at this!  We have the trail to ourselves now."  Just then, a bear ran out of the surrounding fields onto the trail about 10 feet in front of us, paused, and looked directly at us.
We reacted just as any seasoned, well-prepared hikers would.  We froze in our tracks, pointed at the animal on the trail in front of us, and stammered, "It's a bbbbear!"  The bear recovered from its surprise a little sooner than we did and continued on its way, up the hill next to the trail, glancing back to be sure we hadn't moved.  We managed to regain our composure and began to back up slowly so as not to startle the bear.
A few minutes later we had each continued on our way, but the encounter left my husband and I amazed and excited.  After all of our careful preparations and anxious attention in Yellowstone, we finally saw a bear - close up - here on one of the most popular trails in the Tetons.  We couldn't believe it.  We ran into a group of hikers a little further on and warned them to approach that section of the trail cautiously because of the bear.
Word must have spread on the trail that day.  Several hours later, after a relaxing lunch and more hiking, we were heading back to the trail head.  Two different hikers stopped us along the way and said, "Hey, did you hear?  A couple saw a bear right on this trail earlier today!"

©  2001, Suzan L. Jackson

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This page was last updated on: November 10, 2011