Idle Thoughts

Hiking with Bears

Montana is riddled with Trails and long-distance walks which .....
02/06/2010
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THE FIRST FORAY

Montana is riddled with Trails and long-distance walks which are well-documented and usually well maintained. I had decided that I really should not spend my time viewing things from the comfort of the car, and vowed that, after all the guests had left, I would hike every day that the weather was good. But lone hiking presents certain problems in this region of extremes.

Having already encountered a Moose and her calf calf whilst fishing, I was satisfied that hiking in the Rockies was not like a stroll in Hyde Park. I had previously been to be measured for my bear-spray, or rather had visited an outdoors shop with a bewildering array of these terrifying weapons to discuss the options. I purchased one which came highly recommended – it had a picture on the packaging of one Mark Matheny with claw marks across his forehead, blood everywhere and sundry other chunks bitten out of him. But he did look to be alive. He had subsequently devoted his life and career to producing the best deterrent spray, and pursuing bear understanding and injury avoidance amongst the outdoor public.

For my first hike I decided to walk to George Lake from the Pine Creek Trailhead. I checked my rucksack – waterproofs, sweater, whistle, torch, lunch, water, granola bars, camera and of course bear-spray – but the first thing that my bear protection instructions told me was to decide where I intended carrying my spray and then to practice my ‘draw’. Bears can run at 30mph and it is no use fumbling for your spray when it will cover the intervening distance in seconds.

Placing the spray in the side pocket of my backpack, I practiced my drill several times. On the last, as suggested, I pulled off the safety catch and aimed a one second burst directly in front of me at bear height. A ruddy brown fog twelve inches in diameter shot out to thirty feet and terrified me, I just hoped it would have the same effect on a bear. Crossing the car park to the start of the trail, I passed the Trailhead notice board and was further unnerved by the bold statement ‘This is Bear Country’ and the accompanying sign ‘Be Bear Aware’. Bear Aware? I was so aware I was in ursine sensory overload. The sign gives much advice on what to do and what not to do, both when camping and walking, advice on walking in groups, making lots of noise, looking for signs of bears, not running if confronted and much else. I was reminded about the joke about identifying the difference between Grizzly and Black Bear scat, which I had always thought very funny – that is, until hearing a group in Yellowstone long before I met them because of the large belts of bells they were wearing around their chests. Perhaps it wasn’t a joke after all!

I set off in bright sunshine. Heading off up the steep turning path through the pine forest it was quite dark under the canopy, not helped by the fact that I had forgotten my spectacles and was wearing my RayBans! However, the sun was bright and I walked on banging my stick against anything within range. It wasn’t long before the skies darkened, it started thundering and flashes of lightning provided additional lighting in the distance. I walked on for a while, but decided that I didn’t really like being in the middle of a forest in a thunderstorm, and anyway, the view afforded by the ever-darkening sky and my shades would probably preclude sighting any bear at three feet, let alone it’s spoor. I was about half way down when the rain started, oh the joys of hiking! Yes, I was prepared, but honestly, if you have to walk, you might as well walk in glorious sunshine!

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PETRIFIED FORESTS?

At the top of Specimen Ridge in the Lamar Valley, my favourite part of Yellowstone National Park, is a petrified forest, a petrified forest that extends over forty square miles and one of the most extensive in the world. The forest tells a very different story to that of today, yes, it has temperate, cool-climate species such as spruce, fir and sequoia, but it also has laurel, magnolia, breadfruit, a relative of the mangrove and other sub-tropical species. Ever since first coming to Yellowstone I have wanted to hike the Specimen Ridge Trail to see this geological wonder. Why have I never ventured atop the Ridge?

Well, one factor could be that the simplest route to the top is up a brutally steep climb of 1600ft in well under two miles. However, a second factor is that, in the past three years I have seen at least a dozen bears, most of them grizzlies, grubbing around in the sage brush that leads from the road, and also at the forest edge as the climb begins to steepen. On two occasions, mother and cubs have gambolled where the track leads. Having seen a noisy group of about thirty hikers slowly climbing the route, I decided that, as a sole hiker, the odds weren’t quite right.

If you drive to the Trailhead at the end of Tom Miner Creek Road, two thirds of the way down Paradise Valley from Livingstone to Yellowstone, and climb the 1450ft in just over two miles to Buffalo Horn Pass, there is also a petrified forest. I rationalized that there would be less chance of encountering bears outside the Park, and so, on a beautiful clear Sunday morning, I grabbed a stout stick left by some other walker and set off. At a quarter of a mile there is a fork to the right that leads to ‘The Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail’, a two mile-600ft stroll with explanatory notices for wimps, which it became clear not long afterwards had been the route taken by the occupants of the other two cars at the Trailhead. I was on my own to The Pass.

Hiking in Montana is exhilarating, the scenery is breathtaking, the bird-life colourful and not totally reclusive, and the flowers in Spring are everywhere. I climbed in and out of the dappled shade of the pine forest, into wide sun-drenched meadows with stands of aspens and carpets of every shade of blue, purple, pink, yellow, white – wild montana clematis, pulmonaria, glacier lilies, wild cyclamens, stitchwort and many, many more whose names I did not know. The scent was almost over-powering. As I got higher, the views of the mountains and forests of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in the distance got better and better. The route followed the Trail Creek, bubbling down to the Yellowstone River in the valley, and at about a mile I had to rock-hop across Dry Creek, from which the climb steepened and entered a darker part of the forest where the track was damper. It was then that I spotted the bear paw mark. About the size of a side-plate ignoring the claw marks, it was obviously several days old and was heading downhill and diagonally away from where I had come. No point worrying, it was long gone.

Onwards and upwards, pausing for breath and a look at the view whenever a clearing presented, I began to encounter snow patches and skirted them without trouble. It was on seeing more evidence of slightly more recent bear tracks that I decided to carry my bear spray in my hand and to make a noise – banging my stick against trees and rocks and singing the odd song. You do feel stupid! About a quarter of a mile from my goal, with the ridge visible from time to time through gaps in the forest, I spotted the very new and small bear cub tracks in front of me and realized that the large footprints in the snow bank next to the track weren’t left by the last hiker, but were large mother bear tracks heading in the same direction as I. Re-assessing the situation – rapidly – I set off back whence I had come.

The stick made a lot of noise as I banged it on everything within reach, that is until it broke during a particularly vigorous warning stroke. It is also surprising how one’s fear of ridicule can entirely dissipate in an instant. There followed a selection from ‘Uncle Mac’, including ‘Happy Wanderer’, ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’ and ‘Old Macdonald’s Farm’, which then moved on to more uplifting deterrents such as ‘Jerusalem’ and the ‘Alleluia Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah – sung with great vigour as a choirboy, sung with much greater vigour as potential prey – and finally ‘Men of Harlech’, which seemed reassuringly loud and sustaining.

Thirty minutes later, I emerged at the fork for the ‘Interpretive Trail’ and decided that it was nowhere near as wimpish as at first thought. I climbed again and ate lunch at the mouth of a cave, from the roof of which the large petrified bole of a pre-historic tree protruded, and pondered the fact that I was probably just as likely to encounter bears up there as anywhere else. But at least I had walked half as far again as I had planned, and could take some satisfaction in the additional exercise – should I make it back to the Trailhead.

I did. I left a somewhat less stout stick than I had originally acquired, and I realized just how exhilarating it is to complete a hike in Montana.

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WOULD I RECOMMEND LONE HIKING IN MONTANA?

With all this talk of bears, moose, wolves and other mind-concentrating species alien to the British walker – and I haven’t even mentioned Diamond-back Rattlers – would I recommend hiking alone in the forests and mountains of Montana? Wholeheartedly! It makes you more aware; it makes you more observant of what is around you and what may be around you; it does a lot for your scanning technique; and it makes you look more closely at everything you encounter. Rather than skirting them, you look into those damp muddy patches on the trail to look for tracks, and you take the trouble to learn what tracks and scat are which, and how fresh they are. You begin to get a much wider appreciation of the environment you are in – it’s not just the wonderful vistas, the flower meadows or the forests, it’s also all those things you can’t see. You stop, watch and listen, and woodpeckers, tree-creepers, fly-catchers, solitaires, dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned sparrows and others slowly appear flitting from tree to tree, various rodents become bolder, small azure butterflies settle onto the damp animal droppings on the track seeking moisture and salts.

You take more time and you observe, your eyes are opened much wider and even my failing ears try that bit harder! It certainly adds to the excitement, but it adds enormously to the enjoyment and it makes you appreciate that you are not wandering about in man’s backyard, but are wandering about in the bear’s home and the home of all the other creatures that live there. This is not a wild playground for man, it is life and death for those whose habitat it is. You are a guest, you should respect your hosts and pass through taking enjoyment, but nothing else. As a local photographer commented, there are far too many people who would never dream of behaving in someone else’s front-room as they do in Yellowstone and other wild places.

Black or Grizzly. The Grizzly is actually a Brown Bear, but is not necessarily brown, it may be black and sometimes is white – revered by native Indians in days gone by, whereas the Black Bear can be blond, cinnamon, light brown, dark chocolate brown or jet black. Both are relatively common in and around Montana, but there is always conflict between man and bear because of man’s encroachment on their territory and their natural tendency to wander when foraging for food. The grizzly was originally an animal of the Prairie, and it is the loss of this as a wild habitat that has forced them into the forest and the forest edge. The grizzly is the larger and generally the more aggressive, but either with cubs is a potentially dangerous prospect, and young male grizzlies can be a real threat.

The pine bark beetle is destroying pine trees across America – a consequence of global warming and insufficiently cold winters to keep it in check – but the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) has been particularly badly hit. Everywhere you look there are brown patches amidst the huge tracts of lodgepole pines, but of more consequence for grizzly bears is the fate of the whitebark pine. This slow growing tree, dependent on Clark’s Nutcracker for propagation from the missed seeds from their buried stores, produces cones with extremely high-fat pine nuts which are particularly important for impregnated sows as a source of high calorie food to see them through hibernation. Without this source of food, the grizzly has to forage wider and further, again risking conflict with man. It remains to be seen what the ultimate fate of the whitebark pine will be, but it is also a critical species in other ways – at some point in the year the squirrel, elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep all benefit from its presence. The GYE is under threat in many ways, global warming included. Perhaps time to go and visit?
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