[This is day 3 of a 7 day trip to Montana and Wyoming in September 2012]
We had gone as far south on this trip as we would have the opportunity to do. Now we were heading north and west towards the Rocky Mountains. Our path would take us through Dubois (“doo boyz” in local parlance), through the Togwotee mountain pass, and down into the Grand Tetons National Park.
The drive north was gently climbing but we all commented on how much smoother it was than driving through the rutted track of the desert the previous day. Again, you wonder how the wheels of a pioneer’s wagon would have jounced the travellers in ways we can’t really imagine. It has nothing on a modern pothole.
The smoke grew as we came northwest. We were driving in and out of the Wind River Indian reservation and it may have been smoke from the fire burning there. It meant that, when we reached the Togwotee pass, there was no view of the mountains that we can just distinguish as shadows up ahead. As we climbed back down from 9,000 feet, the air cleared and it was beautiful as we came to the mountains.
Grand Teton National Park always strikes me as remarkably small. It is also unusual because there are people busily driving from one lookout to another. In this way, it feels much more touristy than any other park I’ve been to other than Yellowstone itself. I frequently used the small pull-off aprons on the side of the road to pause and let the traffic piling up behind me get by.
We had grabbed food in Riverton before we headed out and sat beside the Yellowstone River to have a picnic lunch. There were fly fishermen in the water, trying their chances with the fish who might be congregating to the east of the dam near Moran. We found fishing line, a hook, and other rubbish that someone hadn’t packed out. Not that this part of the country feels very wild.
We drove down and past Jenny Lake and stopped to look at the Cathedral mountains, a set of peaks that make up part of the range. Then we headed north towards Yellowstone National Park. I was determined that we would take at least one hike – if nothing else as a counter to the sitting we had done driving in the desert on our first day – and we stopped at Colter Bay to walk along the lakeshore.
As we walked along the asphalt path that would take us out to the small peninsula, we ran into a hysteric woman. She warned us that she and her friends had seen some bear scat (teachable moment: connect scat to scatalogical words, the kids will be rapt) and we should be wary of going on the hike without some bear spray. I nodded and smiled and we carried on.
There are few things I find more irritating than people who allow their fears to overtake them. It is true that this area is grizzly bear country. And I’m sure she was well-intentioned. But all she did was cause fear in others. The likelihood of there being a bear (a) on a peninsula (b) less than 500 yards across (c) at 3 in the afternoon (d) by a path that had about 30 hikers on it an hour, was very small.
The other thing I find irritating is her suggestion we needed bear spray. My general rule is to not go where bears are likely to be. Bear spray seems like “too little, too late” if you have met a bear. We talk and make plenty of noise when we hike, we are constantly scanning on all sides of the trail, we even stop when we pick up an unusual scent in the air. There’s very little chance we are going to see a bear up and close and personal. It didn’t help that this woman had a Tilley hat. The people I meet who have these hats are more likely than not to have spastic colons, be able to know how many garden spider bites will kill them (5,096), have a slightly crazed look in their eye, and talk absolute bosh .
The hike took an hour and we clambered back in the car and headed north to the holy grail of national parks, the granddaddy of them all, Yellowstone. Over the next day or so we would experience all it had to offer. But first we had to experience the traffic jam! It was rush hour in Yellowstone, so we slowly drove up into the park and then turned left to head to Old Faithful. We had visited this remarkable natural phenomenon on our last trip but had not waited the 60-110 minutes it can take for the geyser to erupt. This time, though, the kids were old enough to sit and we had determined we would stay. We sat for an hour on the benches surrounding the geyser hole, which slowly filled with hundreds of tourists, and then watched a 3 minute show of hot water and steam. It was very pretty and worth the wait.
We drove on with evening closing in on us. We were heading for West Yellowstone to spend the night, and, while there weren’t many miles to go, there was a lot of traffic between us and our hotel. It was a slow but eventful trip. We started to see some of the wildlife that had eluded us in the Grand Tetons. While the antelope had been plentiful – we had now seen north of 50 pronghorn antelope here and there by the road, and a herd of about 20 white-tail deer we’d mistaken initially for antelope – now we saw bison and elk.
The bison were waiting for us as we left Old Faithful and there were a half dozen by the side of the road. Despite having just received a goldenrod-colored handout warning park visitors that they could be gored by bison, many of our fellow travellers hopped out of their cars and put them well within the 100 yards they were warned to keep away.
I don’t mean to sound holier-than-thou. I don’t really care; I’m happy to have idiots get gored, mauled, or eaten by wild beasts. My only real hang up is that it not have bad consequences for the animal.
We saw elk and bison along the road west out of Yellowstone to West Yellowstone. You can’t really imagine a more grotty feeling town, completely catering to the tourists who use it as foothold for visiting the park (like us!).
We had driven a long way and seen a lot. Tomorrow we would head back into Yellowstone and then out the northeast corner to the Beartooths. We had two days until I had to be back in Billings for the conference.