Continued from my last post, Grassy Lake Road, Part 1
Where was I? Oh yes. Fast asleep in my campsite on the Reclamation Road, just south of Yellowstone. Grizzly Country.
SPLASH! Thud. Splash-plonk!
I sat bolt upright in my tent and listened real, real hard. I’ve heard many an animal nosing around in a campsite before (don’t get me started on the Point Reyes raccoons), but usually I’m in a crowded campground or I’m in a tent with someone else. This time I was entirely alone.
And I was freezing. I realized I’d been sitting up outside of my sleeping bag for several minutes and I began to tremble with either terror or cold or both. I heard more rustling sounds – something coming through the willows along the river bank. Could be a moose. Could be a black bear. Could be….
Well, I had to look. Why are tent zippers the noisiest damn things? I knew for certain that a flimsy nylon tent was not capable of saving me if a big ole bear decided I smelled tasty. I didn’t want to spook any creature, really. Trampled to death my a moose? Embarrassing (for everybody). But I just couldn’t sit there shivering all by myself, unable to see what was coming through my camp. And no way in hell was I going back to sleep just then.
ZZZziiiiiipppppp. You cannot unzip a metal zipper slowly enough to make it a quiet endeavor. I got up on my knees, poked my head out the tent door and blinked in the starlight. The Milky Way blazed. The birds were still singing – at midnight. The river gurgled and churned. No moon. But enough glow to make out the biggest bear I have ever seen – a gigantic black bulk lumbering slowly and so, so quietly through the grass not five yards from my tent. I couldn’t tell if it was a griz or a black bear, so I won’t embellish. But it was huuuuuuuuuge. Almost as big as my two-person tent. And then…it just kept on walkin’.
I did not sleep for three hours. Several more visitors during the night paid me visits. One of them sounded like a clumsy elk tripping over a downed log – but I didn’t peek that time. I feel asleep again soon after and woke up at dawn, alone again.
A couple hours later, post-coffee, I knew I couldn’t stay a second night. I knew I’d come back another time, though. I was thinking this as a Park Ranger drove up to chat with me and give me the standard Bear Safety sheet. I told him about the bear from the night before. He said it might’ve been a large black grizzly whose territory encompassed the JDR, and who was affectionately known as XL.
I can imagine all kinds of responses to this post. You weren’t even in the backcountry, big deal. You are so stupid to camp alone. You should have made noise. You are a rock star! Why didn’t you run for your car and leave?!
All I can say is: Of course. And: No regrets. I didn’t go looking for trouble, and I locked up my food. I didn’t get mauled to death. I saw something no one else saw; it’s my memory. I will never forget the way that bear moved through the high grass, in the cold dark under the stars. Or the way the Snake River changes its sound – from a fast rushing to a dampened chuckle to a muted cobble-thumping sigh in the watches of night. I was feeling sad and dispirited when I went up to Grassy Lake Road. I recovered my lost spirit there, that raw feeling of being alive in this extraordinary world.
Reclamation Road, indeed.
Photo of meadow and Camp 2 by me. Bear Safety sheet from National Park Service.