Close Encounters

The longest day, the first day of summer, was treacherous coming into possible contact with hantavirus, large back country bears, and after returning to the front country and sitting at a picnic table at the Ranger Station was disturbed from enjoying a celebratory beer by bears yet again. A great friend visited from the east and we decided to head into the back country to a patrol cabin in the upper Slough creek area the previous day.

After a hearty breakfast near the original campground of Teddy Roosevelt, we prepared for the journey north into Montana on foot and near the Park boundary to warn hikers of bears and experience the vast valley that is thick with wildlife. Due to a mischievous bear, some of the camp grounds have been closed and had just reopened after concluding that the bear was only curious about a tent and had not gotten into food. Last year some foolish hikers abandoned their campsite, food and all, and in a panicked frenzy hiked out to tell us that a large grizzly forced them to leave. The bear turned out to be a 174 pound cinnamon colored black that had to be destroyed due to contact with human food. The bear’s brother was left alive and hidden in the mountains. The theory is that the brother a few weeks ago collapsed a tent out of curiosity and not food, therefore the camping is open yet again. Dropped off at the trail head by the boss, we escorted some hikers through bison only a couple feet away. Farther and further on up the trail we encountered less and less people until we were the only ones in miles. In the distance a moose sprinted into the creek and swam across to the other side. Sandhill cranes safely worked on their nests. We kept in mind the necessity to remain bear aware as we proceeded north past the unmarked state boundary. Within another hour, we reached the patrol cabin with a brilliant view.

Inventory went well, but a mouse and what it left behind in the storage shed brought fears of the virus they carry. The records in the cabin revealed the details of the 1988 fires that surrounded the area with hundreds of smoke jumpers attempting to tame the flames. “Mars aint the kind of place to raise your kids.” A bear was keeping an eye on us and evidence of its presence near the cabin were fresh prints, scat, and even hair pulled when it likely investigated the outhouse. Fire at night with stars and conversation of jokerman kept the encroaching bear at bay whilst we played music through the phones to assist our presence ability. The idea is to let them know that we are human beings. We are not meant to be eaten, although often are over the years. The bear may not identify us as human unless we ensure our resounding beingness. Let ’em know you are alive and kicking and stand your ground if the bear decides to charge. “Prepare for glory!”

In the morning the cloudless sky and sun turned the valley into a resort. The still snow covered mountains in the distance conflicted with the 70 degree temperature. A research plane flew over and back tracking something. Some hikers did pass by the cabin and wondered how we did what we were doing. We just talked bear information and set them on their way. “Time to start moving.” Filter water. Finish inventory. There was food that had expired a decade ago but the cabin still was strong with enough stocked wood, emergency gear, and even a solar panel for some sort of water filter that I did not understand. It did have a lighter outlet that allowed the phones to remain fully charged. Other than that, no power, just brute long term preparations. An hour or so later we packed up and headed out abandoning the plan to explore the private ranch north of the Park where rich celebs hangout.

Career debate ensued on the trail back and even though we kept the noise high, it did not dissuade a very large bear from walking farther away from the trail when we came upon it. Most likely a cinnamon black bear, it was looked over 400 pounds and the lighting from the sun gave it a texture that at first glance came across as a grizzly. We were within 10 feet of the beast when I spotted it and backed slowly with some words directed at the bear meant to let our presence be known. The bear did not react to us and even started walking on the trail toward our retreat. Fifteen or so minutes passed before the bear was far enough up the trail to continue on. Too close.

The last few miles of a hike are always surprisingly difficult, especially if it is a descent. Picked up at the trail head by another ranger, we made it back to the station just in time for a cookout near the creek. An hour into the cookout three black bears ran through chasing each other in an apparent mating pair with a jealous third. The food was transferred indoors as we chased the bears away up the hill behind the horse corral. The previous evening a large one eyed pirate black bear was chased out of the compound. This black bear had a reputation for pushing grizzlies off carcasses. The three bears disappeared into the darkness of the trees as night approached.

The longest day of 2011 was over.

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