The transition from summer to fall here in Silver Gate has been a pleasant, leisurely slide this year. No sudden blizzards, no multi-day freezes, lots of sunny afternoons. The road into Yellowstone remains closed, but the park announced that it will reopen on October 15th, right on schedule. I can’t wait to spend my mornings looking for wildlife in Lamar Valley again.
For the past couple of months I’ve continued to walk into the park pretty much every morning, but lately – thanks to construction work – the area open to pedestrians has been reduced to just a half mile past the gate. With such limited access, and with loud trucks frequently rumbling back and forth, my wildlife sightings dropped dramatically.
Thankfully some of our local animals were kind enough to make house calls. In September our neighbors Jill and Greg began reporting brief sightings of a short-tailed weasel by their place, raising my hopes that I might spot one. And then in our yard one afternoon I noticed a weasel darting around the wood pile by our fire pit. I ran inside for my camera, terrified that the little guy would be gone when I returned. But not only was the weasel still there, it hung around for almost an hour, disappearing and reappearing in all the nooks and rocks and logs around Jill and Greg’s shed.
Jill came out to watch the show, too, and often the curious weasel ran right towards one of us, stopping only a few feet away before dashing back to cover. In March I had a chance to photograph a white-coated weasel (ermine), but this was my first-ever non-winter encounter. I still can’t get over how tiny and lightning-fast they are. Getting sharp photos of something that small moving that quickly is a real challenge, and I missed FAR more shots than I managed to get. What luck to have had so much time with such an incredible little creature.
Not long after that I was hiking up the Pebble Creek trail in Yellowstone early one morning when I heard a sound behind me. Assuming it was another hiker, I was shocked when I turned to see a grizzly bear mom with a cub walking straight towards me. They were about 30 feet away and closing the distance quickly. I’m not entirely sure how long it takes for a wave of adrenaline to surge through someone’s body, but it felt instantaneous.
My first order of business was to yell “Hey bear!” to make sure they saw me and knew what I was. No reaction – they continued towards me. Next I grabbed my bear spray from one of my backpack’s exterior pockets. As I fumbled around trying to remove the bear spray’s safety I was also doing my best to back off the trail, but large rocks blocked me. I hopped up on the rocks – awkwardly, of course – but only managed to retreat a few feet.
The mom and cub weren’t acting aggressively, but they also weren’t stopping. Just above me the trail began a series of switchbacks, and thankfully the bears – without missing a beat – turned off-trail just before reaching me, climbed up the slope, and rejoined the trail as it cut back again. Before I knew it they were out of sight. It all happened so fast I never even took my camera out of my backpack.
Later I learned that one of the construction workers had seen the grizzly mom and cub heading towards Pebble Creek that morning, and then a half mile farther he saw a male grizzly heading the same direction. Male grizzlies will sometimes kill grizzly cubs, so I’m guessing the mom was trying to get her cub as far away from the male as possible. It would explain why she seemed so focused on covering distance in a hurry.
Seeing grizzlies like that was a thrilling experience, for sure, but not something I ever hope to repeat!
My other recent outings were considerably less perilous. One sunny afternoon before my trip to Yosemite, Jill and Greg took us kayaking on Island Lake in the Beartooth Mountains, and later Marie and I returned there so she could test out her new origami (Oru) kayak, which worked perfectly. Soon after that, Jill, Greg, Marie and I did a great hike from Island Lake down to Beartooth Lake.
I have mixed emotions about this time of year. It’s daunting to feel the inevitable approach of heavy snow and extreme cold, but wildlife activity typically picks up as the temperature drops. And – fingers crossed – we’re very close to having direct access to Yellowstone again.