I Saw A Bear Today

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I Saw A Bear Today

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I saw a bear today.  Not exactly what I was hoping to see so I was disappointed.  I had come here to see wolves.  After a few moments I started to take in my surroundings and I realized if you chose, at any given moment you could clear the mere yards between us and explain this encounter was on your terms.  I was a trespasser in your home.  Instead you continued to graze and look for grubs.  I saw strength, forgiveness and understanding.

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I saw a bear today.  I was standing by my car watching you, watching me.  Your gaze was intense, unwavering.  Then I heard the wrestling of brush behind me and within seconds a cub ran by.  When I didn’t think my heart could take much more, when I realized it wasn’t me you were watching but your cubs, the second one came from behind me.  I saw love, forgiveness, protectiveness and patience.

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I saw a bear today.  I watched as you spent over an hour searching for voles and grubs.  I watched people crowd you and watched as you altered your direction to avoid them.  I saw patience, forgiveness, strength, perseverance and a will to survive.

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I saw a bear today.  I watched as you carried your cub across a river too deep for her to swim.  I watched as you played with her and taught her lessons.  As she raced circles around you, causing you to stumble and stutter step; you reached out, grabbed her, pulled her close and sat on her.  I giggled and laughed.  I saw love, patience, intelligence and compassion.

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I saw a bear today.  This was one of the first days you were out on your own, alone, without your mom to guide and protect you.  I wanted to cry and wished that I could hold you and tell you that you were going to be fine.  I saw fear and worry.

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I saw a bear today.  You’re terrified and alone, so small, not sure which way to run or if you should hide.  You’re calling for your mom but sadly she can’t answer, her heart is silent due to the selfishness of one.  You’re hungry and worried about other big bears in the area but don’t want to leave where you last saw your mom.  I see fear, grief and uncertainty.

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I saw a bear today.  You’ve never known fear like the fear you’ve known today.  You heard an explosion and your cubs fall motionless.  Your instinct told you to get to your cubs and protect them but your fear forced you away, to hide till it was safe.  You call to your cubs but they can’t answer, their hearts are silent because of a lack of intelligence, compassion, courage and selfishness of one.  I see love, grief, concern and uncertainty.

IMG_4103I saw a bear today.  I ask for your forgiveness.  I’m so sorry that some “humans” are unable to share the same compassion and understanding you have shared with me.  I’m sorry that they lack the intelligence to see that you are not much different from humans; that you hunt to provide food for your family, that you protect your children at the utmost cost, that you experience fear and love.  And most importantly………………..you grieve.

“Forgive them Father…………they know not what they do.”

What Makes You Happy?

Picking berries one by one while managing to avoid the thorns.

Picking berries one by one while managing to avoid the thorns.

Have you ever left somewhere you were visiting and felt like you were leaving home and it was the last time you would ever see it?  When I had to leave Yellowstone in May 2010 it was like I was moving to another country, saying good-bye to my friends nearly ripped my heart out.  During this trip I learned so much about myself and I couldn’t comprehend it all.  When I had left to come to Yellowstone I was asked a question, “What is it that makes YOU happy?”  Seems like an easy question to answer doesn’t it?  Can you answer it?  Every time I started to answer that question it was pointed out to me that my happiness was based on making somebody else happy.  I searched for weeks for what made me happy, where I was content; excited to be, wanted to be ~ I thought I was a happy person.  One night after dinner my photography friend who had convinced me to come back to Yellowstone said that I “had come back to heal.”

I can’t tell you how many times I nearly turned back around on the 1,600 mile long journey home.  The morning after the night I left Yellowstone the 3 bison carcasses that went untouched had 6 grizzlies and 12 of the Blacktail Plateau Pack wolves on them.  The action was shared with me blow by blow as I was driving.  I drove in tears a quarter of the way back.  If it weren’t for the horses waiting for me at home I’m pretty sure I would have turned around that day and gone back; I’d have left my gorgeous home and everything behind.  Before I had left the park my friends and I had already made plans to return in October; I had never been in October, they knew I loved fall and the colors and the Tetons was the place to be.  At the time it didn’t seem very comforting but I counted every day from the day I got home in May until the day I returned in October.  I still had a lot of soul searching to do and I wondered what it was about Yellowstone that was healing to me.

The first week after I returned home I felt paralyzed and lost.  I was really wondering why I came home.  I went through all my images from the trip more than once and it was the only thing that made me feel connected.  I continued to receive daily updates on the activity in the park until my friends returned home as well and with each report I wanted to be back in Yellowstone even more.  October seemed so far away at the time.

I contacted the woman I had met at the reining horse show before I left.  It turned out she was the owner of the largest horse magazine in the state and she liked my images so much so that she felt I would do really well photographing equine events and she would help me.  There is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time however the saying that nothing worth having is ever easy is also something I hold near and dear to me.  I have stood for many days in a row in 108 degree heat, in the freezing cold with the wind blowing and anywhere in between.  Anywhere that is but when and where it is perfectly comfortable.  I believe in order to get unique and special shots you have to work for them and you’re not going to find them sitting in a chair on the rail; I am always on my feet, moving around looking for better angles.  Some weekends I fought with myself over letting go of the “traditional” horse show images and not being afraid to try new angles and ideas.  I have lost hundreds of hours of sleep editing photos after working a more than full time job, riding two horses, doing chores and running almost every night.  When I felt like saying forget it another door would open.

October finally rolled around and with my bear spray packed I flew into Jackson Hole, why waste 2 good days on the road when I could be in the parks within a few hours if I flew?  When my flight landed and I got my rental car I still had 3 good hours of daylight left in the Tetons, no time to waste.  I quickly found a black bear, a gorgeous bull moose, a cow and a calf and burned up what little light I had left.  The next morning I planned to head to Yellowstone after hiking a couple of trails in the Tetons.  It would be a couple of days before some of my friends arrived and I was really looking forward to some nice quiet hikes and practicing some of the photography techniques my friends had taught me.

Fall in the Tetons

Fall in the Tetons

The morning light was gorgeous so I spent some time photographing the fall colors, aspen trees are my favorite ~ they were right, the Tetons is the place to be in October.  My first hike wasn’t a disappointment; I no sooner closed my car door and saw a black bear on the hillside searching for goodies.  A reminder not to forget my bear spray and once I had my camera I went the opposite direction and up the hill to some waterfalls and a lake.  When your alone you have a lot of time to think about things and see things you might miss otherwise.  The next hike was full of fall colors, lakes and more wildlife.  I started to wonder if I should wait to head into Yellowstone so soon and decided to take another road before I left the Tetons, it was the right choice as here I found a cow moose in a pond enjoying the late afternoon.  You tend to lose track of time when you have a great animal to photograph and before I realized it the sun was heading down, the moose had made my choice for me and I would be spending another night in Jackson Hole.

Black bear an a golden hillside

Black bear an a golden hillside

That night a friend who had already been in Yellowstone for a few days called and was really disappointed, so far he hadn’t seen much as far as wildlife and had been doing mostly landscape photography.  I was torn between staying another day in the Tetons and heading into Yellowstone; I decided the next morning I would just see where I ended up.  It was quiet that morning and after a nice two hour hike I decided I needed to head home, home to Yellowstone.  I spotted deer and elk along the way but I really wanted to get into Lamar Valley by late afternoon so I continued on.

Black bear cub watching from a log

Black bear cub watching from a log

I took a short hike out of the campground in Slough Creek looking for otters and that evening on the way back to Gardiner when there was nearly no light left I found another black bear.  I watched it eat berries until I could barely see it in the darkness, it was peaceful.  I watched from my car as it carefully selected which berries it wanted and used its tongue avoiding the thorns and would pull off each one.  These berries are tiny and I thought of how many berries it would take to fill this bear before winter came and how many hours it had to spend each day doing this.  The bear’s eyes were dark black and brown, large and protected which allows for more light to enter them and enables them to travel in the dark.  I wondered if it would continue eating throughout the night.  I sat there in my car for a couple hours that night and nobody else ever came by.  Photos were out of the question by then and when I finally decided to head to town I didn’t really want to leave.

Curious black bear cub

Curious black bear cub

Early the next morning I headed back to the spot where I had seen the black bear the night before not sure what the chances were that it would still be in the area and when I didn’t see it I went about another half a mile and parked my car.  It was so quiet here, I had a view overlooking a huge valley below and you could see for miles.  A few low clouds were moving in and out of the trees below and made for some interesting landscape images.  As I was standing by my car photographing the clouds I heard a noise in the brush on the other side of my car but I couldn’t see anything.   These are the moments when you wonder if you really heard something.   Even though it sounded like an elephant was running through the brush it will turn out to be a small bird.  About the time I figured it was just a bird I heard the noise again and a second later out bounces a black bear cub.  I know that the next noise I hear is definitely not going to be a bird because behind every little adorable black bear cub is one protective black bear mom.  I had the perfect spot where I was as I could rest my camera on the top of my car and take photos of them up on the hill and just when I didn’t think it could get any better out bounces another cub!  The sow and the first cub had already traveled further up the hill and didn’t seem concerned that this little one was taking its time investigating the berries and fallen trees along the way.  I sat in my car’s door jamb over two hours that morning, eventually forgot about taking photos and watched as the cubs climbed over logs, dug into them, imitated they’re mom, rolled and chased each other and I smiled and laughed quietly the whole time.

I wonder if she can see me if I hide here?

I wonder if she can see me if I hide here?

I started to wonder if it were safe for them to be so close to the bear I had seen last night, was it possible that they were related?  Would there be a problem if they crossed paths?  Had they already seen each other?  My list of questions for myself grew and grew as I watched them.  I felt so blessed to be able to see them and spend so much time enjoying them, there was nobody else around, no bear paparazzi and no distractions; I got to see bears being bears.  When the sow finally took the cubs and disappeared over the hill I whispered a quiet thank you for allowing me to observe her life for a short time.  And I wondered if I would ever see them again.

This whole trip turned out to be about black bears.  Yes, of course there are still bison and elk in Yellowstone but when I finally got on a plane to return home again I had counted 21 black bears in less than two weeks.  I took a few more hikes and did some landscape photography.  I spent time with great friends and met many new ones.  Flying home was worse than driving home in May.  I felt like I was once again leaving a part of me behind.  I thought about all the bears I had seen and the other wildlife like the lone young big horn sheep and wondered if they would make it through winter.  Mostly I wondered if I would see the two cubs again.

When I got home and looked through my images over the next week I became sick with ‘lensitis,’ it attacks most wildlife photographers out of nowhere.  One day your perfectly fine and the next  you start spending hours on researching it online and you go from drooling to foaming at the mouth.  Some start looking around for things to sale and even consider auctioning off the children.  We have all been there and we will be there again the following year.  I needed a bigger lens!!  My 300mm was just not getting me close enough.  When I returned to Yellowstone next May I wanted a 500mm lens.

Once again I heard the question “what makes you happy?”  I love my horses more than life itself.  When I’m with them even if it’s cleaning pens I feel great and I’m happy.  I can spend hours sitting and just watching them run and play or grazing.  I feel peace when I’m with them.  I am also happy when I’m in Yellowstone spending time with the different animals I encounter and learning all I can about them.  There is peace there, serenity.  The animals do not judge you, they do not care what size you wear or what you do for a living, and they simply wish to be allowed to live in peace as well, like us.  Being able to enjoy wildlife peacefully doing what they do every day makes me happy.  It was good to finally know the answer to the question but now what was I suppose to do with it?

Bump on a log

Bump on a log

Wildlife Lesson #4 – Lessons About Yourself

Tucked into a meadow near the trees this black bear was in great health!

Tucked into a meadow near the trees this black bear was in great health!

Black bears seemed to be the most seen animal on my May 2010 trip to Yellowstone.  We saw several near Tower, all gorgeous and healthy.  One evening late while heading back to Gardner we stopped to take photos of a black bear in a meadow; we were the only people there.  A park ranger stopped and as the hours of “good light” for images had ran out we talked to the ranger about the different bears and their personalities inside Yellowstone.  He talked about Rosie and how she used to seem to enjoy bringing her cubs out for everyone to view and enjoy and sadly she had been hit and killed by a park visitor the year before (once I returned home and did more research there was also reports that she had been killed by a male black bear as some wildlife photographers had seen her injured).  I wondered to myself then was her death due to becoming so habituated to people that she was no longer concerned about crossing the road or getting too close them and their vehicles?

A couple of days later I spotted another black bear near Phantom Lake in the later part of the day only this one didn’t make me smile.  The bear was pretty high on the side of the mountain above the lake and one of the first things I noticed was how dirty and burnt it’s black coat appeared to be.  All the other bears I had been fortunate enough to see had been jet black, coats were sleek and shiny and they appeared to be in good condition.  This bear was a lot thinner than the others.  After it finished digging around in some dead fall it turned and headed out of the tree line; the bear was limping very badly.  As I watched I noticed it was barely putting any weight on the right front leg, when putting its foot down it was using more of the back of leg than the actual foot.  It may have been injured for quite some time as it moved with a very hunched over back and the shoulder on the right was also a lot more apparent.  As it continued hobbling along the side of the mountain I wanted to cry; it looked like the bear was in a great deal of pain.  I knew the park didn’t intervene so this bear would not receive help.

This bear had an injured right paw causing it to walk on the back of its leg.  It's hair coat was a burnt brown and dull.

This bear had an injured right paw causing it to walk on the back of its leg. It’s hair coat was a burnt brown and dull.

When this bear disappeared into the trees and out of sight we continued on and less than a mile down the road we came upon another bear, this one a cinnamon black bear, in very great condition and about twice the size of the injured bear that we had just seen.  At the rate they were traveling, it seemed to me they were on a collision course and my heart ached.  What would happen if these two bears did meet up?  Maybe I really didn’t want to know.  Since then I have actually thought about this injured bear really often.  I thought I had seen tags in the bear’s ears and according to the information I found on Rosie once I returned home it indicated that they feared she was severely injured in a fight with a male bear; could this have been her?  What had caused this bear’s injuries and how long ago did it happen?  And of course I wondered if the cinnamon black bear and this injured bear did run into each other and what happened?  Is the injured bear still alive and was it able to heal?

At one of the spots where I encountered a black bear I was lucky enough to have front row parking.  This was where I was able to witness what I hope I never become.  I love photography but my love for animals is far greater.  I never want to harass them or be so close to them that they feel threatened or that it alters their behavior.  The equipment I had at the time was a pro/am Canon with a 300mm lens; not a bad camera by any means but the lens was not what professional photographers consider “playing with the big boys.”  I also didn’t know enough about the equipment I owned to compete with professional photographers, nor did I want to.  As I sat in my car I took several photos of the bear as it walked by and occasionally stopped in the tall grass and dug around, something told me that morning to stay in my car.  On the hillside in front of the bear, directly in front of the bear, were about 40 people.  A few had smaller cameras but most of them had 500mm or larger lenses, no rangers had yet to arrive.  I smiled as I watched them jostle each other around, each one getting closer and closer to the bear in order to out-do one another.  By the time the ranger arrived they were less than 50 feet from the bear who continued on in their direction.  The bear wasn’t aggressive it was just on a mission and that was the direction it wanted to go.  There were also several people with cameras down by the road in front of my vehicle which were in a ‘safer’ zone than those on the hill, I heard several comments go back and forth concerning the “aggressiveness” of the people on the hill.  It was then that I learned there are several different types of people who observe wildlife; the ones who love the animals themselves and observing them in the wild doing whatever it is wild animals do and the ones who don’t seem at all interested in the animal but more about what they will gain out of encountering it.  It was a lot of fun that morning to witness and observe some very true animal behavior, the actual behavior of a wildlife photographer.  It was even funnier to hear the descriptive words the park ranger used when he arrived on the scene!

Another gorgeous and healthy black bear content to search for things to eat as it wandered.

Another gorgeous and healthy black bear content to search for things to eat as it wandered.

Yellowstone and the Tetons are wonderful places to hike; that is one of the reasons why I visit the parks twice a year or more if I’m given the chance.  You never go without bear spray and you make noise as you hike.  Groups of 4 (or more in some areas of the parks) are preferred and encouraged.  I did take two hikes on this trip alone due to my friend hurting her ACL, they were only a couple miles round trip and I checked with park rangers before I left and people knew my plans.  All of these precautions are not for my safety however it is for the safety of the bears.  After my wildlife photography friend shared with me that accidentally coming across a bear and startling it could cost a bear its life and that is the last thing I ever want to happen.  I hike knowing the country I’m in and that coming across wildlife will happen and I’m responsible for what happens there.  Stories of wild animals tracking, stalking and attacking humans are few and far between but stories of people hiking and coming over a ridge in between a sow and cubs are many.

Sometimes the best things are not down low but up in the trees!  A Great Horned Owl in Mammoth.

Sometimes the best things are not down low but up in the trees! A Great Horned Owl in Mammoth.

One afternoon at Slough Creek I was standing with Rick and a group of the wolf watchers, they had all turned their scopes to face the river on the other side of the road thinking the wolves might head that direction.  I heard Rick whisper that something was not good as he scanned the hills.  We all watched as 3 hikers walked up the trail between a stand of trees and a large patch of snow.  At the very top of that patch of snow was a sow grizzly, her cubs were playing between her and the trees.  We could see them easily from where we were but the hikers could not see the grizzlies due to the rolling hills.  There was no way to get a warning to them from where we were and we all stood there waiting for the worst.  The hikers were obviously doing something right because at about the time they topped the hill where the sow was she suddenly picked up her head, looked for a quick second and then ran to her cubs and all of them headed into the trees.  From where we were we doubted the hikers had ever seen her or the cubs, they hiked along the tree line and disappeared over the mountain.  We never saw the grizzly again.  I hope that most encounters end that way where nobody gets hurt.

Mountain Blue Birds are so pretty and vibrant!  They are also very quick and hard to catch images of.

Mountain Blue Birds are so pretty and vibrant! They are also very quick and hard to catch images of.

When my wildlife photography friends arrived we took several hikes together, the sights and sounds away from the road are amazing.  We looked for great grey owls and other wildlife and what we found were coyotes, mountain blue birds and bison.  We weren’t about to waste time or great hikes and not take any photos so we practiced landscape shots and I learned more than I had ever hoped.  I studied different tracks in the snow and mud of bears, wolves and other smaller animals and in my mind I could see the animals actually walking by that left these tracks.  This inspired me to want to learn more about animal tracking and it also makes you more aware of your surroundings.  You could take away my camera and I would go on these hikes regardless and I could spend hours sitting and observing the behavior of the wildlife I encounter and never become bored.

Twisted, dead tree near Mammoth Hot Springs.

Twisted, dead tree near Mammoth Hot Springs.

The first morning we had arrived in the park I had found 3 bison carcasses in a pond, part of the winter die off.  The days hadn’t been very cold and we would stop by and check in on the carcasses about 4 times a day.  I was hoping that eventually the Blacktail Plateau Pack would arrive on the scene but after 8 days in the park the only things that had stopped by were a few coyotes and another bison who almost met its demise the same way.  After watching him swim around for over an hour and finally making it out on solid ground all of us watching him from the turn out cheered!  Three dead bison was plenty, we really didn’t need another one.  My friends asked me to extend my trip; we were having so much fun hiking and taking photographs from sun up till sun down.  If it weren’t for having a job and my own animals waiting for me at home I would have in a heartbeat.  I had learned so much on this trip and the most important lessons were about me.

A male coyote stares off at his mate who was across the river.  He waited for 30 minutes before he decided to swim the river.

A male coyote stares off at his mate who was across the river. He waited for 30 minutes before he decided to swim the river.

This coyote was seen near Canyon hunting for voles in the snow and he was very successful.

This coyote was seen near Canyon hunting for voles in the snow and he was very successful.

 

 

Wildlife Lesson #3 – Expect the Unexpected

How do I get down?Black bear cub looking for a soft spot to land.

How do I get down?
Black bear cub looking for a soft spot to land.

All the recent wolf issues and holidays took me away from why I originally started my blog; to share my photography and stories of my encounters with wildlife.  I apologize but the wolves are very important to me, I’m passionate about them and wild horses, and if I feel that I am needed or that I need to speak on their behalf, that is what I promised I would do.  Things have been quiet today; the state of Wyoming has evaded requests for data on their Wolf Management plan so that leaves me thinking about other things.

I’ve been thinking a lot about where I want to go next.  About once a month I become fidgety and feel I need to escape.  I want to go see new wild horse herds but they are all under snow at the moment making that a bit difficult so I considered going “home” to Yellowstone for a long weekend.  I feel I need to spend time as close to the wolves as I can get right now.  I’m not sure that will be possible however due to commitments here regarding both domestic and wild horses.  When I get like this I normally look through my past Yellowstone trips as they bring back wonderful memories of the people I met and the animals I was blessed to spend time with.

After meeting my “Hellroaring” bear the start of my trip in May 2010 I encountered several more black bears, about 2 every day.  One of my favorites was a black bear sow with cubs of the year.  Nothing can make me smile as much as a baby animal out exploring their new world and playing.  When we saw the black bear she had just crossed the road near Tower and headed into a little meadow.  It didn’t take long for a park ranger to arrive and establish a safe viewing spot for people.  This ranger has since become my favorite ranger inside the park as he is friendly, does his best to educate people and has a wonderful sense of humor.  He has shared many stories with me, most of which have made me laugh hard enough that I cry.  I stood near the road that day and took over 400 images of the sow and cubs.  She was an awesome mom, aware of all that was going on around her, protective and yet seemed to be comfortable in showing off her two young ones to people.

After about 20 minutes she took a nap with the cubs at the base of a lodge pole pine and while we waited for her to wake up the ranger shared a few of his experiences he has had with photographers in the park.  The conversation turned to photographers when a lady appeared carrying two tripods; one for a very expensive camera with a 600mm lens and convertor and the other a video camera equipped with a microphone.  Many people parted a path for her so that she could set up and after a little while somebody finally asked if she was filming for a production company.  When she replied that she wasn’t, that this was simply all for her I think everyone was stunned.  Why would you invest that much money in equipment if all of it was for yourself?  She stayed about 10 minutes and then packed everything up and left.  I was exhausted just watching her carry all that equipment back and forth.  I told myself then I was happy with my little Canon and 300mm lens.  At this point I had only been in the park two days and this was only my second bear, far too early to remain rationale.

The sow’s nap didn’t last too long, she had two growing cubs who wanted to see every little piece of the park and they were soon up climbing all over her while she remained down and would occasionally push one off.  When that didn’t work to get her up they tested their tree climbing skills, it was obvious that going up was far easier than coming down.  One cub managed to climb back down while remaining up right while the other stayed on a limb watching the cub who was now on the ground with mom.  A few minutes later it attempted to climb down again; head first didn’t work as gravity was rushing in.  It got back up right, slowly got about half way down, glanced over his shoulder and checked out the ground.  After he figured out where the softest landing spot was he leaped backwards letting go of the tree and landed right on top of mom!  As he rolled off of her the other twin was right there to pounce on him!  There wasn’t a huge crowd of people there and the ranger was wonderful, keeping us a safe distance but allowing us to get in position for great photos and filled us full of wonderful bear facts.

The cubs (cubs of the year are called coys) eventually got bored playing at the bottom of the trees and decided exploring the river bank would be far more fun and as they ran off, mom slowly strolled behind.  She eventually caught up to them in a meadow that was more open for viewing and photography and while they played under a tree we watched taking it all in.  An occasional car would drive by but we were all safely off the road and had nothing to worry about when a tow truck driver came by.  Our backs were to the road when the tow truck back fired, I had my eye on the bears, the ranger and I leaped what felt like 5 feet in the air and the sow had quickly gathered up her cubs in one swoop of her paw and was headed up the nearest tree.  My heart was racing!  I was amazed at how quick and agile the sow had been in gathering up two unruly cubs that were going different directions and start up a tree.  I never took my eyes off of her but I wasn’t able to see half of what she did.  What a great mother!

Safety in the tree!After the tow truck backfired I was almost climbing up the tree with her.

Safety in the tree!
After the tow truck backfired I was almost climbing up the tree with her.

As we stood there another hour a herd of bighorn sheep crossed the road right behind us, came within feet of us, grazed for a few minutes very close by and then went on down to the river the opposite direction from the bears and spent awhile there drinking.  We had been so focused on the bears that most of the people didn’t even notice the bighorns until they were crossing the road behind us.  The ranger talked about how quickly things can change here; one minute you have what is considered a safe distance of a 100 yards and then the next minute something can change and within seconds that 100 yards has become 10 feet.  I have worked with animals my whole life, I knew how quickly things could change and yet this was even more different.  I had heard the bighorns behind us and was aware of them but I didn’t expect them to cross the road and come so close to us especially when a black bear was so close.  Expect the unexpected.

Bighorn Ram waiting to cross the road to get to the river.

Bighorn Ram waiting to cross the road to get to the river.

I considered myself pretty good at being pretty aware of my surroundings.  I’ve ridden horses all over in different terrain and really keep my eyes open for potential horse eating objects and dangers that seem to be around every corner.  I have worked with all sorts of different livestock growing up and know that sheep and goats have it bred into them that carnivores are to be feared, ran from and kept away from.  Watching how quickly that sow grabbed and protected the cubs made it clear that bears, even though they are so big and may not appear that they can move quickly, can do what they need to very quickly to protect what is important to them.  I watched at how the cubs darted in and out of brush and could imagine if they could run off that quickly, mom wouldn’t be far behind them to make sure they remained safe.  If the cubs were to run in our direction, mom wouldn’t hesitate to come and get them.  The sow wasn’t afraid of us at all but she wasn’t aggressive either; we had rules and we were expected to follow them.  If we followed our rules then there would be no reason for her to fear us or become aggressive.  The bighorns crossing the road and getting so close to the sow was interesting to me; it was as if they were tempting fate.  Then I remembered the elk right outside of the wolves den the day before.  Odd that prey animals would be so close to the very animals that could kill them.

Pausing to look around before heading to the river.

Pausing to look around before heading to the river.

Wildlife Lesson #2: Hellroaring Bear 5/2010

Hellroaring Bear  5/2010

Hellroaring Bear 5/2010

It only took 16 hours to get from southern California to Gardner, Montana.  We had left before the sun came up and made it to Gardner by bedtime.  I brought my friend Marie with me who had never been to Yellowstone before, she was really excited; that night driving through the west entrance and up to Gardner she had already counted 2 moose, a swan, a fox and several bison.  Too bad it was too dark to take decent photos.

The next morning we got up early and headed towards Lamar Valley, the only thing on my list that I wanted to see were wolves.  As we left Gardner and drove into the park I had to laugh!  We were stopping at every elk and bison along the way which was pretty much every 100 yards.  I finally told her that after this afternoon she will be telling me to keep driving, no need to stop, since they are everywhere.

When we got closer to Lamar we pulled off at the Slough Creek camp ground road where a group had gathered at the turn out at the bottom of the hill.  I noticed Rick right away and a few other familiar “wolf watchers” and quickly learned that right above the Marge Simpson Tree, behind the aspens, across the creek was the den of three wolves; a grey female and 2 black males.  The female had 4 pups that were now about 5 weeks old.  At the time when I asked which pack it was Rick had said that they couldn’t be called a pack until the pups actually lived to be a year old, so this was the soon to be “Lamar Canyon Pack.”  We must have spent over 3 hours watching through scopes as the female would come in and out of the den waiting for the males to return from hunting.  Occasionally a pup would sneak out and she would quickly gather it back up and take it back inside the den.  Thankfully a protective mother because a grizzly sow with 2 cubs was seen almost daily making her way down the canyon to the creek below right by the wolves den.  A couple hours after we arrived one of the black males arrived with lunch.  We had to laugh because his return trip took him by 2 elk herds including a herd of about 10 elk cows standing right outside the den under the aspen trees.

After the activity quieted down with the wolves we drove out into Lamar Valley and into Silver Gate, took a short walk and decided to slowly head back in toward Gardner.  I had mentioned to Marie that there was a nice hike that left Hellroaring turn out down to a suspension bridge so she said we should stop and try that hike.  I had spent the past year walking and hiking all over southern CA so that I could take some nice hikes here so this was exciting to me and she didn’t need to ask twice.  We pulled in and jumped out of the car and as I made it to the bulletin board I remembered I had left my bear spray in the car!  One of the things I had been told over and over again by my photography friend was that I was not to hike in Yellowstone without bear spray – ever!!  I quickly ran back to the car and grabbed the bear spray and ran back, happy to be moving around.

We hiked about a half mile when Marie’s knee started to bother her, the downhill incline on a torn ACL was not the best thing for it so we decided to turn around and go back to the car to try hiking another area.  I noticed a hiker about a mile down the trail on his way back and there was a hiker approaching us as we started to walk back to the car.  When he got up to us he stopped and asked if we had seen any bears and I told him no, not here.  That is when he simply said, “Well, your gunna” and started to walk away, “there’s one around the bend on the way back to the parking area.”  I figured if he had hiked down this way that the bear had to be a pretty good distance away and there really wasn’t anything to worry about.  Marie started to hyperventilate and when I asked her what was wrong she explained that she was terrified of bears!  Mind you she has never encountered a bear in her life but like most people she was afraid.  Fear is a gift, it is what keeps us safe and it should be listened to most the time.  I told her we would be fine, but we did need to head back to the car and I would go on ahead to see if there really was a bear and where.  She was having a hard time with her knee and walking a lot slower so she would be right behind me.

I was probably about 60 yards from the parking area before I saw the bear.  He was actually standing about 20 yards from our car digging through dirt in a little clearing on the other side.  I was starting to think that the hiker had been trying to scare us; why didn’t he just say the bear was in the parking lot.  I stopped where I was, not wanting to get any closer and watched the big, black bear.  A few minutes later Marie came up behind me, grabbed my shoulder, pointed and loudly whispered “bear!!”  Her eyes were the size of golf balls.  I tried to tell her to just relax and breath and asked where the hiker was that had been coming back up the trail.  I had my bear spray in hand and the bear was by no means acting aggressive or even worried about us, but if I knew there was a third person I would feel a lot better.  She could only whisper he was behind us.  I could tell that in a crisis, Marie was probably not going to be of much help.  The bear wasn’t bothered by us at all and continued his digging, walked further away and eventually in his digging was now facing our direction.  He knew that we were there and we were far enough away that we were not in his space; I was content just watching him until he decided it was time to leave.  Marie on the other hand wasn’t going to be happy until she made it to the car.

Hellroaring Bear   5/2010

Hellroaring Bear 5/2010

I was explaining to her why she just couldn’t make a mad dash to the car which was now probably 30 yards from the bear since it had been moving when the other hiker came up and asked if everything was okay.  I pointed out the bear to him and he asked what the bear had done and I explained nothing at all, except that the bear was basically hindering us from getting to our car.  He noticed the can of bear spray in my hand and asked if I had tried anything to get the bear to leave and I told him since the bear didn’t seem concerned about us or aggressive I had decided to leave him well enough alone.  The hiker smiled and then clapped his hands and hollered out “Hey bear!” in hopes the bear would move farther away from the parking area.  Personally I was just fine waiting for it to leave when it wanted, why stress it out by scaring it or making it angry.  The bear glanced up, looked at us for a bit and then actually walked towards us a few steps.  I looked at the hiker and noticed that he didn’t have any bear spray and wondered if he honestly thought that I would be sticking around to defend him since it was his idea to clap and holler at the bear.  The hiker said, “Well, that didn’t work, did it?” and started digging in his pack and I said that obviously this bear hadn’t read the rule book concerning what bears are suppose to do when yelled at by humans.  The bear had gone back to digging and I quickly glanced at the hiker to see what he was looking for and noticed a badge in his pack at the same time he found the bear spray he was looking for and I asked if he was an off duty park ranger.  He smiled and said yes and took the safety off the bear spray.

I guess if you’re going to have a bear encounter the safest person to be with is a park ranger.  The ranger hollered at the bear again and clapped his hands but the bear simply looked up and started to slowly walk our way while digging and searching.  Marie was beyond panic by this time and when the bear got to the trail between us and the car, it lied down and started to lick its paws.  The ranger shook his head and sighed and I told him if I had the rule book with me, he could toss it at the bear and then I asked if he had any other ideas.  We were now closer to the bear than I felt comfortable with and surely closer than the mandatory 100 yards we were supposed to be.  I knew we should have just left the bear alone.  The ranger then told us what his plan was; we were to walk at a normal pace out farther up along the side of the rock pile and straight to our car while he kept an eye on the bear with the bear spray in between it and us.  Marie didn’t wait for the ranger to finish and bolted for the car literally within feet of the bear, her ACL injury forgotten.  I don’t think the bear even looked up from licking its paws, I gasped and the ranger and I just stood shocked as we watched her jump into the car and slam the door.  The ranger looked back at me and before he could say it, I did, “I will not being doing what she did.”  He shook his head and said “Please do not.”

I headed for the rock pile keeping an eye on the bear that was still lying across the trail licking its paws.  I still had the bear spray out and ready if needed but the bear hardly acknowledged my presence.  The ranger wasn’t far behind me and when we had crossed to the other side of the bear it stood up, looked around, walked to some fallen trees and started digging again.  As we got to the car I tried to open the door but Marie still had the doors locked.  The ranger laughed and I decided now was a good time to take a few photos.  He told me to enjoy the moment because this was probably the closest I’d ever get to a bear.  The bear moved on about 5 minutes later and Marie finally unlocked the car door.  The ranger said to be careful and have fun and he left.  I finally got Marie to start breathing again but she stayed pretty quiet until we got to dinner that night.  Then all she would say was that she thought she was going to die, she thought “my Hellroaring bear” was going to kill her.

The photographer I’m friends with called later that night and I told him about my Hellroaring bear and the park ranger.  After he got past being worried about us he said he was happy we had been lucky enough to see a bear.  He explained that if the bear had displayed any signs of aggression or worse it could have literally cost the bear its life.  If a bear becomes a threat to humans the park will have the bear destroyed.  If it was a mom with cubs it would be a good chance that the cubs would be destroyed as well, if not by the park they might not be able to survive in the wild alone.  This really bothered me.  It was us who had trespassed into the bear’s world knowing that was where they lived.  It was our choice to chance an encounter with wildlife and had we made a mistake in which the bear reacted in a negative way I didn’t feel it would have been the bear’s fault.

I was more than happy to sit and observe the bear from a safe distance until it moved out of the area on its own so that we could have gotten to the car.  It was interesting to me to see what bears did, what they looked for to eat, how they could move objects around, the strength and power that they have.  It was also interesting to me what they have learned to tolerate; yelling and loud noises.  It made me wonder if that bear would eventually end up in some sort of trouble since he seemed to have lost some of his natural fear of people.  Then I started to wonder why the ranger didn’t want to wait on the bear to leave on its own and tried to move the bear away; was he in a hurry or was that what they are told they need to do?

Like the grizzly I had seen the year before this bear was just doing what it had to do to survive, looking for the nutrition that was needed to carry it into the next day.  It wasn’t aggressive and kept its distance until we drew its attention to us.  I noticed that a bear’s body language is a little like that of a horse and I wanted to learn more.  To me an animal speaks with body language and their eyes, this bear never really made eye contact once it got closer to us but from a distance it would look up and was very much aware of us.  I felt lucky to have seen the bear that day and relieved there was a park ranger there.  I didn’t feel threatened when we were standing farther back down the trail observing the bear but there is something to be said for safety in numbers.  I sure didn’t want to be the cause of a bear being destroyed because of my stupidity.  I had a lot to learn and I intended to get on it right away.