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Thursday, September 14, 2006


Roaming the Western States part 3 - Where the Buffalo Groan

This is part three of a road trip retrospective. Last week's installment earned me a swell comment from a reader in Butte, Montana. Click here to read what she had to say, here for the post that upset her and over here for part 1 in the series.

Now let's see if I can offend anybody with part three.


- 1 fox
- 12 mice (give or take)
- 1 elk
- 1 owl

The fox was unexpected but it was the owl that really threw us off. We were driving back to our inn in West Yellowstone, Montana well after dark. The owl zoomed right past our headlights. A quick flash and off into the bushes it bombed. My sister Shanna was behind the wheel at the time and let out an audible yelp. This was followed by, "I think...I think...I almost killed an owl."

Dive bombing birds of prey and fearless foxes- nature's extreme sports enthusiasts. They're not the sort of thing I run into on the streets of my Portland neighborhood. Yellowstone, being a national park littered with sights straight out of Middle Earth, is a stranger place. I wouldn't have been surprised if we had happened upon an animal conference in one of the park's meadows. Omnivores and carnivores with nametags, all exchanging tactics- discussing how much time a field mouse would have to cross from one end of the Canyon to Norris highway in front of an SUV without getting squished and whether or not tiny helmets made of twigs would be a help or a hindrance.

There's a reason why the posted speed limit here doesn't exceed 45 MPH even on long straight-aways. After dark, it's best to drop the odometer down to 25 MPH. You never know what could be waiting on the edge of the pavement, eager to go down in Yellowstone history as the critter to get the closest to a speeding car's bumper without getting squished. While I was working as a desk clerk at a park hotel in the summer of '02, I was nearly run off the road by an entire family of elk that considered the middle of a highway a great place to convene at 11 PM on a foggy Tuesday.

While we went out of our way to avoid any vehicular homicides, our animal friends didn't extend us the same courtesy. Popping out of nowhere in the middle of the night? What were they trying to do? Kill us, themselves or just get an enormous rush that beats even escaping from the clutches of their natural predators?

On the long drive down from Butte we'd kept ourselves occupied with Death in Yellowstone, the only piece of literature on the park I had thought to bring along on the trip. The book contains blood-soaked tales of nearly every recorded death that occurred in the park between its establishment in 1872 and 1994 or so. A great read for a warm, sunny day in southern Montana.

The most notorious of the deaths compiled would have to be an incident from 1981 when a 20-something named David Allen Kirwan made the fatal mistake of diving headfirst into a boiling geyser in the park's "Paint Pot" area. He had been trying to rescue his pet Great Dane. I'll spare you the gory details, which were further immortalized in Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted, the author's collection of short horror stories. Another chapter in Death tells of a woman in the 1930s who trained her "pet bear" to stand on its hind legs and snatch candy out of her hand. When she ran out, the bear, meaning no harm, tried to use her shoulders to lower himself to the ground. His claws inadvertently tore into her torso. The bear left her mangeled and howling for its execution.

I'd brought the book along for some good old fashioned sibling taunting. Shanna, who had never spent a substantial amount of time in the great outdoors, let alone in bear country, listened with casual interest. But when it came time to go on a three hour hike into Yellowstone's back country, the stories kicked in and she insisted we go prepared for anything that could go wrong. We took along enough food and water to keep us going for a week. To prevent any encounters with something that could maim us, we brought along a $4 "bear whistle" so loud it would notify anything within a square mile that "man was in the forest" (to quote that old line from Bambi). If we came to blows with the local quad-peds, Shanna had thought to bring along a five-inch hunter's knife, the sort of thing that Davy Crockett probably used to kill that grizzly when he was only three. The blade along with two others had mysteriously shown up on her doorstep years prior, meant for a previous occupant that never returned to claim them. Perhaps the knife was destined to protect us from whatever lay between the parking lot at Artist's Point and Lillypad Lake.

In addition to the animals, the two of us were up against a 40% chance of thundershowers. As we hiked through a meadow lined with the husk of trees destroyed in a forest fire decades prior, we felt like we were in the opening scene from a Discovery Channel show. Something like I Can't Believe I'm Still Alive. The trees creaked in strong winds as Shanna nervously broke out the bear whistle every twenty yards. I'd been on the trail before but the ominous trees and the darkening sky was even creeping me out. Just two schmucks from the city wandering through the wilderness. Would the whistle protect us from a falling trunk or a lightening bolt?


-The top line on a warning sign near the trail head.

We made it 1/5 of a mile from the parking lot before Shanna had her fill of nature. The sign, which basically told us our chances of survival in the back country were 1 in 3, hadn't boosted her courage. I agreed to turn back and we made it halfway through the meadow when we encountered a guy in his 60s, happily munching on granola as he marched past with a hiking stick. "G'day," he said, ignoring the trees that looked too much like the ones in The Wizard of Oz. Hiking solo in the back country is considered insane by park rangers.

Now Shanna's ego was bruised. If this guy, who was old enough to be collecting Social Security and possibly have 15 years worth of AARP Newsletters back home in Sydney, could risk the minimal chance of a grizzly attack, why not her? We turned around, Shanna reduced her whistle-blowing to every fifty yards and we made it to the lake without incident. The sun had even come out. Down on the shore two kids and their parents were enjoying a day in the outdoors. Another lone father with his two tykes walked past us in flip-flops. Flip-flops. Not Columbia Sportswear hiking boots like us. Had they brought along two canteens of water? A hefty bag of beef jerky? Or a shiny new bear whistle? Nope.

We kept going. We had to get further into the wilderness, if only to outdo Flip Flop Guy and his bored brats, who were lagging behind him at a dozen paces. Around a bend we stepped out onto a bed of clay over what was, essentially, a boiling lake of mud. Ah, finally a real threat to our personal safety!

Geyser areas like this are about as common in Yellowstone as cabs in New York. But, if this one was sitting 100 yards from the Lake Hotel, it would be surrounded by warning signs, wooden walkways (see above) and barriers. In the back country, anything goes. "Feel free to walk across the thin bed of clay over the boiling mud through known grizzly territory. Pretend you're in Lord of the Rings!" Or so goes the unspoken mantra of Yellowstone National Park once you get a few miles away from Old Faithful and into the woods proper. Out here, trails lead right over places like this.

Shanna, who had been terrified at the incredibly slim possibility of encountering a grizzly, thought nothing of tromping across the clay bed. We wandered right up to a portion that have given way, exposing the lake of bubbling mud below. We could even see the cracks caused by us and other hikers. Fun!

We continued on to Lilly Pad Lake and back again. We spotted not a single bit of wildlife but I did walk away with four bug bites that would later cause problems at LAX. As for the bears, we finally found one on the other side of a river running down into Gardiner, Montana on the northern end of the park. We had come around a bend on the highway where a French teenager staring with his jaw dropped at small black bear climbing a hill. A "bear jam" of cars and gawking tourists quickly swarmed to the scene. The bear, noticing that he had drawn a crowd, decided to head back down and flee for cover.

Of course, there were also bison, which any park ranger will tell you cause more human injuries per year than the bears these days. They can found all over the place once you get within a few miles of Lake Yellowstone. They travel in herds, the park is their oyster and they go where they damn well please. The middle of the roads, regardless of the weather.

And everybody digs the lovable brutes. On a stretch of road near the lake we watched a family of tourists attempt to pet one of them- a two-thousand pound critter with, if the warning signs around the park are to be believed, a quick-trigger temper worse than a Klingon crossbred with Animal from The Muppets and Seth Bullock from Deadwood. I'd never seen one flip out until we reached the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Out front, an entire heard had taken over a small hill leading up to the main entrance. The herd was there to munch on grass but then two of them started butting heads. It was neat to watch, especially against the backdrop of a hotel with a live violin concerto going on in the lobby.

And what is this thing? We thought it was a hummingbird until it slowed down long enough to reveal its antennas.

I have no way to draw this post to an end. I guess this will do the trick:

The busload of elderly tourists that pulled up just behind us at Mammoth Hot Springs absolutely loved this thing.

NEXT TIME IN PART 4: What happens when you take service industry workers from all corners of the globe and pack them into a honky-tonk saloon?

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