yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Gibbon Meadows

elk skull
An omen perhaps?

I realize that I’m about 1.5 weeks behind in the whole blogging thang, I’ve just been so busy trying to bust out this field season before it busts me. Plus, to complicate matters, my computer broke while I’m out here so I’m having to hen-peck these words on my tablet which takes forever and a day. This also means that I can’t download any photos from my camera, which further diminishes the blogging experience. So it’s all comes down to my low quality phone camera at this point. All is not lost though, most of my daily updates have been on Instagram so follow me there if you’d like.

Now for my story…

My partner and I just returned from our first backcountry trip of the season and it was more than worthy of a post. It was my return to Gibbon Meadows. Last year, two teams ventured into the site on two separate occasions to see if it was worthy of including in our yearly surveys. The first team was completely perplexed and had no idea how to handle the site so we had to go in to see it for ourselves. After some hemming and hawing, it was deemed suitable amphibian habitat but the intense beaver activity happening there may make it unmanageable in future years. Those industrious little scallywags!

The site is extremely remote and hard to get to so last year we decided that it would be best to make it an overnight backpacking trip. Well, one thing we managed to overlook about that plan is that most of the animals out there have never seen humans before. Last night at our campsite we got a taste of what exactly that entails: curious, unfrightened animals of all shapes and sizes wondering who the strange aliens are.

We were woken up at 2 am by the sound of elk thumping through our campsite. For a while the elk slept surrounding us until they were driven off by something. That something, which I saw pacing around in the darkness just outside my tent, decided to bed down next to me and happily smack its gums for what seemed like an eternity. Instead of being frightened when my partner and I spoke (calmly panicked), it was comforted and lulled to sleep by it all. Eventually, my partner couldn’t hold it any longer and she had to leave her tent to pee. She shined the light on the creature and instead of running away it was fairly inquisitive and unafraid of the light. From what she could gather, it was her height, had predatory, forward-facing eyes and was very stealthy when it got up and decided to bed down a little father away. At this point we were terrified because it was pitch dark outside, we had no conclusive idea of what it was, the elk left us, there were only two of us, we were far away from civilization and no one has a clue as to what lives back there.

My partner hurried back to safety and not too long after she whispers, as calmly as possible, that something is sneaking up behind her tent. So with pepper spray in one hand and a knife in the other I dive into the darkness to save her from what I believe to be a grizzly bear. The problem comes when I don’t see a darn thing behind her tent. Seconds later a small chipmunk deviously squeaks and scampers off…probably having a great laugh at our expense. I nearly shit.

So the rest of the night was spent with an unknown creature snoozing happily at my side and me waiting until the sun came up to actually relax enough so I could sleep. Yup, I was freaked. The next morning there were wolf tracks around our campsite and a path in the grass leading right to my tent. That was a unique experience which is fun to recount right now but at the time it was absolute terror. Still, not many can say they’ve slept embedded in a herd of elk, almost maced a chipmunk for mistaking it for a grizzly bear and shared a bed with a wolf all in one night (or ever) so I’d easily put myself through that again just for bragging rights.

During our surveys I also saw (and came way too close to) two bear cubs and lots of elk. We tromped over beaver dams and scent mounds galore. We both fell chest-deep into hidden pockets in the wetlands. And most amazingly, we were followed by a large adult grizzly for most of the day today. Everywhere we went the tracks were fresh and right behind us. It was all one heck of an adventure but I’m thankful we didn’t spend another night there because all of the animals were way too curious about us. They didn’t know any better and certainly had no malicious intent but they just had no fear of us. I have no doubt that the inquisitive grizzly would have been my sleeping companion had I stayed. Such a crazy and unique experience.

Getting in and out was about three hours of hell, especially with heavy packs on. We were trying to outrun a storm so by the end of it we just gave up on comfort and proceeded to ford a river at a popular picnic spot. We must have been a sight. Two girls with enormous packs on, completely exhausted, insect bitten, clothes muddy and torn to shreds, stinky as all heck, emerging from waist deep water and walking across their picnic spot. Some brave soul asked us what we were doing and boy did we have a story to tell. We blew the guy’s mind!

When we returned and told the story to our supervisor, she asked us to make a list of all the animals we saw to inform the park service because they’ve never been back there. That’s crazy to imagine that there’s still completely untouched, unexplored wilderness in the world, especially the United States, even today.

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