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Bears and moose and bison, oh, my!

Yellowstone. For those who have witnessed its wonder, just the word charges the senses and sends one into the halls of memory. The natural wonders are each worthy of study longer than an average visit. Indeed, many people visit the park for just a day or two. The great expanse of the park, 2,219,271 acres—almost 3,500 square miles—precludes one from seeing the park or merely comprehending it in just a few days.

That’s why it’s a place that you return to. With great excitement, we take off August 1 for another trip the grand wonder.

We–Nick, Sydney, and I–are taking in the park for a week in August. It will be my fourth time in the park, and the third for Sydney. Nick will witness the jewel for the first time.

I was first in the park as a kid. I don’t know the exact circumstance, but it was a family vacation. My dad worked for the NCR Corporation, one of the first companies to give its employees paid vacations back in the early years of the twentieth century. Their vacation plans were liberal by today’s standards. My dad had worked for the company long enough that he had a month’s paid vacation.

I only remember a few things from that trip. The first is the eruption of Old Faithful. The geyser erupts every 35 to 120 minutes and once it erupts one crowd leaves and another begins to fill its spot for the next eruption. We stood near the front of the crowd. We waited, it seemed, a long time. But soon the ground began to rumble under my feet. People around me tensed in anticipation of the event. Wisps of steam turned into clouds, which transformed into gushing water that climbed to unimaginable heights. It was to me the mightiest thing I had ever seen.

The next image is that of a hot spring pool. Green around the edges, the pool grew blue and then azure as it deepened. Steam coming off the pool made it seem mysterious, unknowable. I remember the blue of the center of the pool, a deep Prussian blue, as blue as anything my young eyes had witnessed. I threw a rock into the pool (a major no, no that I would disown my children for today) and the rock floated! Looking back, the stone must have been some of the travertine these pools build up over time. Air trapped in the rock kept it afloat. But, again, wonders . . .

I returned to the park when I was 32 and on my way from Kansas City to Helena on foot. I planned to do some backcountry hiking once I walked into the park. I spent the first night at Lewis Lake, a bucolic campground next to a crystal-clear lake that bled off one end into a strong stream called the Lewis River, which flowed into the Snake River. After a day of walking, I decompressed at a picnic table listening to the other campers as they made dinner and settled in around their campfires. I set my lean to and waited for the silence of the night.

The next day, I hitchhiked to the head of the Ice Lake Trail. The trail took me up a long incline, at the top of which lay a paint pot—a muddy sink where bubbles from water boiling below came to the surface. I topped the hill and stood admiring the geological wonder when I realized that a bison stood just on the other edge, just twenty or so feet away. I froze. The magnificent creature looked me over and went back to grazing. Not knowing what bison are capable of, I backed away slowly, as calmly as I could, until out of sight, I quickened my gate from leisurely stroll to man-with-purpose.

Over the next few days, wonders continued. One evening, I camped at the edge of the forest above a vast alpine valley, at the bottom of which was a lake. I sat at my campfire eating my pot of beans and rice, thinking just what a lucky guy I was. Suddenly, a bison plodded through my campsite. What could I do? I ate beans and rice and watched it graze upward into the forest. Meanwhile, moose came and went up a little rill next to my site.

I fished my way along the Gibbon River and smaller tributary streams. Moose blocked my way and I had to beat another trail farther up in the woods. One night, I settled in and thought I was going to have a quiet night. By nightfall, I was sleeping deeply, without dreams. When I woke, I knew exactly where the bear was, though I didn’t hear it for another few minutes. I waited, daring not to take a breath. Then I heard the animal splashing in the small creek in one of the ravines. It sounded as if it were flipping stones over in the water. After a short time, it left the creek and its footfalls became louder, the ground moving in thumps.

My heart raced. I lay dead still, hoping my daughter wouldn’t be too upset when she heard the report of her father being eaten. My hand hurt, and I discovered I had fished a little can of anti-doggie spray out of a bag I kept near and was squeezing it tightly. The bear stopped and began to scrape a tree, making machine-like grinding of wood sound. It moved on to a tree very close to my lean-to. The ground trembled as it walked by, and its nose zipped back and forth across the canvas as it snuffled and sniffed. An odor wafted into my shelter that was the strange combination of sweat and shit and the sweetness of decayed meat. Then, I panicked, held my breath, and clenched all my muscles even tighter. The ends of the lean-to were open, ready to be pawed under for roots and bugs like any other overhang! Plus, the fuzzy ball of my stocking cap was hanging out of the end of the lean-to like a big, red marshmallow.

Slowly, methodically, the bear moved on, scraping two more trees on its way down to the stream in the next ravine. It flipped stones with loud crashes that diminished as it moved back up the hill. I stayed in that tightly closed fetal position for a long time. As I fell asleep again, I promised to get the hell out of there at dawn. Soon, there came a machine gun-like pounding up the hill near my pack. I had no idea what it could be, and I scrunched back into a tight ball, just in case. I lay there a long time, in and out of sleep as the sound started and stopped again. Soon, I didn’t even fall asleep, worried about what it was and when it would just quit and go away. Don’t these animals know all I need is a little sleep? Finally, with dawn twilight, I rose slowly, peeped over the side of the lean-to in the direction of the sound.

I spent the next week or so seeing the tourist sites of the park. People gave me rides from one attraction to another. I wound up in Mammoth Hot Springs at a campground with a man from Germany on a bike, a woman camping alone, and two brothers—Craig and Jeff Bedard—who are still friends of mine today.

I’ve been back to the park two times with my daughter Sydney. She even worked one summer in the park with the concessionaire. She is looking forward to going to the park as much as I do.

We will meet my good friend Pat O’Kelley and his kids. We will be tent camping and won’t get off into the backcountry but for day hikes. But there is plenty to do and we will be there for a week. A week of course, is not long enough. But it will have to do for now.

I don’t look forward to getting sniffed up by a bear. Nor do I treasure getting within twenty feet of a bison or a moose. I’ve done those things. But if it happens again, I won’t complain. I’ll be in Yellowstone with my kids, the luckiest guy in the world.

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