Yellowstone ... barely room to move

Lance Richardson April 08, 2012

A grizzly bear sow with three cubs at Yellowstone National Park.

A grizzly bear sow with three cubs at Yellowstone National Park.

INCONVENIENCES come in many shapes and sizes. This one was many kilometres wide, a black burn stain with great plumes of smoke drifting through the air like a series of enormous arrows saying: you are not here, or here, or here.

How the fire had started was a matter of debate. Sometimes the national park seems to set itself on fire just to spite the visitors. All I knew was the Thorofare Trail was closed - along with any chance of reaching the most remote corner of wilderness in the lower 48 states of the US.

Having no choice but to re-route or go home, my friend Elspeth and I settled on an alternative path to Heart Lake, hardly remote in comparison, though sufficiently remote that our chances of being fatally wounded by wildlife were high enough to make it feel daring. You are encouraged to carry "bear spray" in places like Yellowstone. This is a small can of concentrated mace that fires off a yellow cloud resembling the defence mechanism of Pepe le Pew, with hopefully the same effect.

We did a controlled test across a creek, though it failed to dispel our scepticism. The bear spray was accompanied by a photograph of a man who had used bear spray in a skirmish and "survived". Blood covered his face where the bear had had a chew on him.

Elspeth and I lasted one night at Heart Lake. We sat around the campfire working ourselves into a perfect storm of paranoia. The tent, when we woke the next morning, had the same sweaty humidity as Papua New Guinea. There was a claw mark on a tree. We were done.

The problem with hiking many miles out of the Yellowstone wilderness is that you inevitably arrive back in civilisation about 5pm, by which time every single hotel room and readily accessible camp site in 8983 square kilometres is gone. The largest hotel in the park had closed the day before in preparation for winter.

I swallowed indignation: didn't they grasp what we'd been through?

No, we hadn't seen the bear that made the scratch mark but we could have and it could have eaten us and I once saw a bear in Alaska and it ate my lifejacket. Surely that deserved a room on principle.

Far more level-headed than I, Elspeth decided we would try outside the park. With night quickly setting in, we headed south, through the Grand Teton National Park, where the only hotel was fully occupied by a company who had inexplicably decided to have its conference in the middle of nowhere, perhaps so attendees couldn't leave.

Eventually we pulled up at a dingy inn near Jackson Hole, some two hours' drive from Yellowstone. It, too, was full, but the attendant cut us a deal, giving up a storage apartment that was soon to be converted into office space. Elspeth immediately started a fire, filling the room with acrid smoke (attendant: "I guess the flue is jammed! Sorry!"). As we flung open windows, inviting nature back in, I noted how much we resembled Mary and Joseph in our twist of circumstance.

She handed me a pillow and pointed at the couch. Yes, she said, like Mary and Joseph in every way.

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