I left Vancouver on 7 June, making my way through the stunning landscape of Washington and into Montana. I’d said goodbye to Electra the night before as she was flying back to Ibiza on the 8th, and was joined by my friend Jon who I also worked with in Brisbane. Jon had his own car though so we set off separately. The drive was gorgeous, the weather cool due to snow which was around late in the season.
Jon and I had planned to go to Glacier National Park, however it was closed due to snow and it made sense to head to Bozeman, on the borders of Yellowstone National Park which is in both Montana and Wyoming, famous for its volcanic activity – most notably the geyser called Old Faithful. If you’ve seen the movie 2012 with John Cusack you are aware of the Yellowstone ‘supervolcano’, a 45 mile caldera that lies beneath Yellowstone. If this thing blows the plume of lethal ash and gas will plunge Earth into a nuclear winter, ultimately killing everything on the planet.
The grizzly warnings were out in force, prompting us to buy bear spray, which you are supposed to spray in the face of an oncoming attacking grizzly. The literature is hysterical. Now bear (he he) in mind that a fully grown grizzly can weigh in excess of 400 pounds (approx. 200kg) and it’s running FULL PELT at you. The spray contains capsicum, amongst other things, and you have to take the following considerations in mind:
- A spray distance of 25 feet under optimum conditions. (Factors such as wind, moisture and the age of the canister itself can all reduce the effective distance of the product.)
- Minimum spray duration of 6 seconds;
Bear experts offer the following additional recommendations:
- Carry the bear spray in a quickly accessible location such as a hip or chest holster. If faced with a charging bear, you don't have time to start digging in your pack. In your tent, keep the spray readily available next to your flashlight.
Bear spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear. These products are only effective when sprayed as an airborne cloud and make direct contact with the eyes and nose of an approaching animal.
- These products are not a repellent and should never be applied to people, tents, packs, other equipment or the surrounding area. Research at the Alaska Science Center found that the residue from the spray may actually attract bears, even several days after the product was used! (WTF?!!)
- Keep a firm grip on the canister and aim slightly down and toward the approaching bear; many people tend to aim too high, which could allow the bear to run under the cloud of spray.
- Don't forget that a bear can run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Try to spray early enough so the bear, if charging, runs into the widest bear pepper spray cloud and has time to react to the product. If possible, spray when a charging bear is still 30 to 40 feet away (excuse me whilst I get out my tape measure?!).
And… how to survive a grizzly bear attack (from the website The Art of Manliness):
1. Carry bear pepper spray. Experts recommend that hikers in bear country carry with them bear pepper spray. UDAP bear pepper spray is a highly concentrated capsaicin spray that creates a large cloud. This stuff will usually stop a bear in its tracks.
2. Don’t run. When you run, the bear thinks you’re prey and will continue chasing you, so stand your ground. And don’t think you can out run a bear. Bears are fast. They can reach speeds of 30 mph. Unless you’re an Olympic sprinter, don’t bother running.
3. Drop to the ground in the fetal position and cover the back of your neck with your hands. If you don’t have pepper spray or the bear continues to charge even after the spray, this is your next best defense. Hit the ground immediately and curl into the fetal position.
4. Play dead. Grizzlies will stop attacking when they feel there’s no longer a threat. If they think you’re dead, they won’t think you’re threatening. Once the bear is done tossing you around and leaves, continue to play dead. Grizzlies are known for waiting around to see if their victim will get back up.
How to survive a Black Bear Attack:
2. Stand your ground and make lots of noise. Black bears often bluff when attacking. If you show them you mean business, they may just lose interest.
3. Don’t climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers. Climbing up a tree won’t help you out here.
4. Fight back. If the black bear actually attacks, fight back. Use anything and everything as a weapon- rocks, sticks, fists, and your teeth. Aim your blows on the bears face- particularly the eyes and snout. When a black bear sees that their victim is willing to fight to the death, they’ll usually just give up.
Oh, but this is the best bit:
The Art of Manliness does not encourage people to go out and find a bear to practice these skills with. Practicing on your significant other will not do either.
Now, I don’t know about you… but if a fully grown grizzly was running at me at 35mph, I wouldn’t be measuring and aiming how far it was away before spraying. I’d probably just lob the can at it and run as hard as I bloody could!! And I would probably try to climb a tree. Grabbing a rock, branch or just trying to get Mike Tyson on a bear would not occur to me in my utter terror. The fact is that bears eat roots and leaves, they don’t actually like the taste of human flesh, but they are very bad tempered and incredibly territorial. And at the time we were in Yellowstone there was still a lot of snow in the higher altitudes, causing the grizzlies to come further down than they would in search of food: and most of them were extremely grumpy after being woken by Spring after their Winter nap. Rangers warned about hiking, a bear had been chased out of the campground on the north west corner towards the trail that we were going to hike on.
We walked the Beaver Creek trail – an easy trail that meanders for about 2.5 hours through some gorgeous woodland countryside, with snow-capped mountains all around. So named for the dam that is on the trail, we saw hide nor hair of a beaver, but we did spot elk. No grizzlies or black bears thank god, although part of me really wanted to see one!
There’s plenty of animal spotting to be done in the northern part of Yellowstone. The park has a huge population of bison or buffalo, with more visitors being gored by bison each year than attacked by grizzlies! We saw plenty of bad-tempered bison lowering their heads at passing cars, as if to charge, but they are the most easily accessible animals, with large herds grazing right next to the road. We headed out through the Lamar Valley in the early evening to have dinner at Cooke City, a sweet little town on the outskirts of the park (where it snowed), where we also got to see a moose grazing by the side of the forest. Animals are best spotted at dusk, with Lamar Valley being one of the best places to spot them. We saw a group of people with high-powered cameras and telescopes camped out by their cars, bundled up against the cold, waiting for a family of wolves, called the Lamar Canyon Pack, that habits the area. The lovely lady we spoke to (who kindly let us look at a grizzly through her high-powered telescope – the highlight of my day), spoke with sadness about the Druid Peak Pack, so infamous that people from all around the world came to see them. They contracted mange – a disease easily cured with antibiotics – but the park board decided to let nature take its course and earlier this year the last female in the pack died. Now the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park is threatened, with the Lamar Canyon crew being one of the few thriving packs in the park. They have devoted followers who brave the cold, snow and rain to get a rare glimpse. They know the individuals in the pack, their cubs, their habits. The tenderness with which the lady we spoke to described the pack, the affection she has for these beautiful animals, the heartbreak she had experienced at watching the Druid pack dwindle to a few sick animals, was incredibly touching. The wolf fans all had their powerful telescopes focused on the carcass of an elk the pack had killed the previous day then dragged to the edge of a lake, hoping they’d come down and finish off the meal. It was getting dark and Jon and I had a two hour drive back to Bozeman, so we couldn’t stay around to see if they turned up.
The next day we focused on the mid to Southern sections of the park. There aren’t really any animals to see this far down, but plenty of thermal activity with several hot lakes, geysers and waterfalls. We drove past gorgeous Lake Yellowstone which was partially frozen, ringed with snow-capped peaks.
The real reason to come to this area is Old Faithful. When you enter the park the ranger gives you a number to call, with the predicted times of eruption. Eruptions are roughly 90 mins apart, an interval which has increased steadily since the geyser was discovered. Early pioneers used to put their laundry over the geyser, taking advantage of the 44m spout of boiling water. Benches surround the site, hundreds of people gathered to watch the geothermal phenomenon. On cue, almost to the minute, the geyser starts fizzing, the pressure beneath building up to eventually culminate in a huge spout of boiling water, steam pouring off it, to the amazed gasps of the watching audience. It lasts for a couple of minutes before diminishing slowly. The region is historical, the Old Faithful lodge has been there since the 1800s and booked up years in advance. As National Parks go, Yellowstone has to be up there with the best of them, one of the natural wonders of the world.