Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Digression: Report from Yellowstone

Digression: Report from Yellowstone

(I departed Illinois last month for a few weeks to travel with a very good friend and former colleague Dennis in search of sites in Western lore that had fascinated us, but for which we had never had or made the time to explore.  I reported back to my close friends and family what we learned each day.  This is just one day.) 

Bear Spray: On Sale at $49.99
The rage in Montana and Wyoming this summer is a new product called Bear Spray.  Frightening commercials jump out at you on the radio, the television, or billboards as you drive along the wilderness.  Bear Spray is supposed to stop a Grizzly when it attacks you while you are on the trail, strolling along the edge of a forest or shopping in a local convenience store.  

The ads come on in fifteen-minute intervals, and even the Park Rangers have taken up the cause by providing warning tips in their handouts before you enter the park.

From their brochure: “If you encounter a bear (common) stand your ground.  If the bear charges at you (rare) stand your ground and use bear spray.  If a bear charges and makes contact with you (very rare) fall onto your stomach and ‘play dead.’”

In the store, Bear Spray costs $50 a canister.  And the packaging clearly boasts that a man who survived a bear attack made it.  There is a ferocious image of a bear on the package, but no images of the survivor/creator.  Cosmetically, probably not a good idea.

The Park Service further suggests: “If a bear charges at you, (1) remove the safety clip, (2) aim slightly downward and adjust for wind, (3) begin spraying when the bear is 30 - 60 feet away, (4) spray at the bear so the bear must pass through the mist.”  Later on in the same information, the article describes a Grizzly Bear’s ability to burst up to speeds of forty miles per hour.  

That’s a lot to do in the three seconds you might have before something like a furry and toothy Honda Civic hits you.  Act fast!

View of Yellowstone R.
The Absaroka Inn where we are staying is named after the Crow Indians in their language and the host behind the office counter is very knowledgeable about the Grizzlies in the area.  We asked him this morning before we left if we should do something special, like buy some Bear Spray.  His name is Donald.

Donald:  There’s no point in buying that.  Bears will attack when surprised.  You just need to let them know you are coming and they will leave you alone.  In fact they will usually leave the area.

Dennis:  How can we do that?

Donald:  I sell these smaller sleigh bells.  You clip them to your belt or pants trousers and the noise will make the bear aware that you are coming.  They’ll leave.  This is very important to do if you are in bear territory. 

John:  How will we know if we are in bear territory?

Donald: You’ll see their scat.

Dennis: Scat?

Donald:  Bear poop.

Dennis:  How will we be able to tell if it’s bear poop, and not some other animals’?

Donald:  You’ll see the all the bells in it.

Seriously, we saw no bears today, but we spied just about everything else, including a 35 minute wait on the road while Rangers tried gently to coerce a herd of Buffalo bulls to move their girlfriends off the asphalt.  

We took pictures from the car.  A few people got out with tripods and photographic equipment even National Geographic would covet. to get closer.  

Like most places, people are crazy here.

Buffalo do not see very well (we learned that when we went to the Buffalo talk in Custer State Park), but they can hear and smell very well.  When you get within 70 feet of them, they will extend their long blue tongue, wag it back and forth, and grunt aggressively.  This is native Buffalo for “Back off, my friend, whatever you are.”  Dennis and I listened carefully, as bulls are over 2000 pounds and up to 10 feet at the shoulder. We stay in the car and play mute.  

Evidently an Australian visitor last week did not learn this, or he didn’t comprehend the body language, so he tip-toed up to 3 feet away to snap a big bull's picture. He’s recovering, as is the young girl prodded by her parents last week to stand next to a Buffalo lying on the ground.  Brave girl.  When Mom and Dad asked her to turn around so they could take a picture of her and the Buffalo next to her she was gored badly.  You can’t fix stupid - probably the words on the poster on the wall of the Park Rangers’ changing area.

Today, Dennis and I watched elk in herds lying on the grass. coyotes crossing in front of us, young ospreys in a nest over a canyon gorge, a white-tailed deer walking through the middle of town.  But we also saw much more.

I imagine it must have been the same for those first explorers like John Colter and David Thompson who came through the surface of a seething caldera and witnessed a geological demonstration unlike most anything else on earth.  Nearly 3500 square miles of protected land sitting atop gurgling, steaming geothermic activity.

Native American points washed up on the Yellowstone River, date back to nearly 11,000 years where we sleep tonight.  The Yellowstone River, from which the park got its name.  

There’s a scene that old Ridley Scott film “Bladerunner” (which Dennis and I both love) when the dying Replicant exclaims his parallel mortality to a persistent and ignorant mortal: “I’ve seen things you people would never believe.” 

One day, while an ambulance and several Ranger vehicles speed by us in the opposite direction to search for the remains of a 28-year-old park visitor who decided to leave the carefully constructed, protective path around the hot geysers and slip into the bubbling turbulence, we went to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring.  The spring is a bubbling geothermic kaleidoscope that produces various minerals, bacteria, and super heated water, which in turn engenders a combination of color and radiance that “you people would never believe.”  Heck, we were there and we didn’t believe it.

We arrived at Old Faithful about one half hour before it erupted.  Four tres jolie jeune filles sat down in front so we could snap pictures.  Over 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year, so it should come as no surprise that many, very many are international.  Nevertheless, I was often surprised at the myriad numbers of languages encountered on even a single small path leading to something naturally beautiful. Wherever we went, languages fell about our ears from distant countries.  I greeted a woman with “bienvenu” at the artist paint pots today.  She said, “Enchante.”  I felt like a smitten diplomat.  

Finally, we wandered along the edge of the Yellowstone Canyon before coming home, standing as far as we dared along the earthquake shattered cliff face that asked us not to step any further.  We didn’t.

Going to bed tonight.  Hiking with all these bells on is exhausting.  Hoping Dennis will come back soon.  Have not heard from him or even his bells lately.  

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