yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Tanager Lake

2014-07-10 14.11.31This is another experience that must be shared…

Today, I was in the midst of surveying this large wet meadow when to my delight I dipped into this forested alcove and hit the spotted frog tadpole jackpot. I was so engrossed in catching tads that I wasn’t paying any attention to my surroundings or to where I was wandering. Not the best idea. Suddenly, I saw this massive black shape right in front of me so I looked up to get my bearings only to find myself standing in the path of one of the most enormous, majestic and beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen. It was like seeing a unicorn.

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Just feet away, in the meadow with me, stood a female moose with her calf. I stayed calm and scampered away as fast as I could, all the while bargaining for my life and imagining myself being gored to death. Moose hurt more people than bears each year and here I was nearly running smack dab into one with a newborn calf. So as I was making my exit, I braced for impact and avoided looking over my shoulder at the sight of her quickly closing the gap between us. But she never bothered with me, in fact, she seemed relaxed with me there and made me feel like my reaction was, in fact, an overreaction. Her and the calf then bedded down. It was surreal.

The one thing I’ve learned these past few days is to just remain calm. Don’t panic or scream or thrash about or even run because you’ll just freak the animal out. They’re going to think that whatever is after you is after them as well. Amazing things can happen if you just go about your business and act like you’re supposed to be there.

My partner was across the meadow so I motioned to her that something was wrong. Safety in numbers, so she came out to meet me and we were able to view the pair from a reasonable distance. The irony is that we were both talking yesterday about how we’d love to see a moose. They’re becoming increasingly rare in these parts due to habitat loss and disease so seeing one is such a treat. Ahhh, just ask and you shall receive in Yellowstone.

About an hour later, I’m surveying a small wet meadow nearby when I hear my partner yell my name. I whip around and she’s not there or answering my reply so I just figured that she was giving me a heads up that she was stepping away to go to the bathroom. Not a minute passes when I look back behind me to discover that a young male moose had joined my survey. He happily grazed nearby while I looked for tadpoles and slowly made my way back to my partner. When I rejoined my partner, I asked her how come she only said my name once and it was because all she saw was a large, brown animal walking past her to join me in the meadow so she was fumbling for her bear spray in a frenzy. It’s reassuring to know that she at least cares about me somewhat.

Tanger Lake juv moose 3

Tanger Lake juv moose

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Tanger Lake juv moose 6

Tanger Lake juv moose 5

Tanger Lake juv moose 2

Tanger Lake juv moose 1

We obviously cut our survey short and decided to leave the fella in peace but he fancied himself our escort. As we backtracked through the large meadow, he walked through the trees next to us. There’s nothing more amazing than seeing such a large creature move so elegantly and effortlessly through such difficult downfall and dense undergrowth. It was indescribable. The mother and calf were still relaxing where I left them and the young male greeted the baby by touching noses. Calves stay with their mothers for a year so we actually got to witness the one-year old male affectionately greeting its younger sibling.

Tanger Lake juv moose meets baby

Tanger Lake juv moose greets baby

All-in-all, it was a pretty freakin fantastic experience. Once in a lifetime, I’m sure. This field season has been full of these kinds of surprises. I feel like I’m in some kind of Disney movie. When it was all over, we returned to Yellowstone’s human chaos to find that a tour bus had overturned in the middle of the road leaving all of the passengers injured and a few severely so. This left outgoing traffic backed up for literally thirty miles. It was unbelievable. As luck would have it, we were going in the opposite direction so we were able to zip on by and view the extent of the jam. Many people just left their cars and wandered off into the woods so when it came time for traffic to move, the drivers were nowhere to be found. The rangers were losing their minds and their patience. Some people literally set up an entire camp in the middle of the road with chairs, barbeques, radios. It was a mess and such a contrast to where I had just been. Get me back into the woods with the moose already!

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.