This dispatch isn’t about fire. But it is about weather, and luck.
I promised my editor the story on Glacier National Park would be the last from a weeks-long trip from California to Montana and back, but in discussing that story a different editor told me to check out Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park one day, and I said I had, but the view had underwhelmed.
After driving south from smoky Glacier to Bozeman through intermittent rain storms I spent the next week between my mobile office in the back of the camper and covering courts in small Montana towns, and then fulfilled a dream by camping at the Hyalite Reservoir, featured in this dispatch.
On Sunday I hit the road before my friends could banish me, but not until I patched up a headlight that had come loose from the housing with band-aids, later fortified with duct tape.
While the direct route to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area skirts the edge of Yellowstone National Park before entering Idaho and meandering southwesterly into Nevada, I couldn’t resist the chance to stare slack-jawed at the famed mountains in Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone.
I glided past cars waiting to enter full parking lots in Yellowstone, the boardwalks crammed full of visitors. At a pullout on secluded Lewis Lake near the southern edge of the park, a young woman strummed a guitar and sang quietly to herself.
I tried to enter the camper to get water, but the key wouldn’t turn in the door. I muttered something not suitable for publication to myself and wondered if I could tease one of the side windows open and reach the inside handle. Not seeing anything nearby that could prop my pint-sized body up to the six-foot-high windows, I slapped the lock on the door in frustration and heard a click. I tried the key once more. The door opened.
Towering peaks greeted Klaus the dog and I soon after entering Grand Teton National Park. We clambered out of the truck at a spot a few miles beyond the entrance where a couple were looking not at the mountains, but at the water’s edge a few hundred feet away.
“Can you tell what that is?” the woman asked me.
“She thinks it’s a bear,” her male companion said. “It’s a log.”
I zoomed in with my camera. Log, I thought, but I couldn’t be certain.
“Oh, just get the binoculars,” she told the man. When he returned, she grabbed them and stared at the object.
“Yep. Just a log.”
“But it could have been a bear,” I replied.
“Yes, it could have been a bear!” she shot back before they headed to their car and drove off, leaving us alone with the mountains, and the log.
At more than 13,000 feet, Grand Teton is the highest peak in the Teton Range. 19th century French trappers called the three biggest “les tres tetons,” which means the three teats, a name later anglicized and shortened.
Home to the rare Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout coveted by anglers, as well as gray wolves, cougars, moose and bears grizzly and black, the ecosystem hasn’t changed much since prehistoric times.
The afternoon was getting long when we pulled into a campground at Colter Bay Village on Jackson Lake. Though I had planned on staying at least a couple days the forecast called for rain starting that evening and lasting through the next day. I paid for one night, taking the chance my spot might be reserved by the following morning.
After setting up camp I put on my hiking gear and set off for the woods, stopping to buy some overpriced bear spray from the campground store on the way.
A young woman emerged from the trailhead. I asked her how the hike was. Her eyes wide, she replied with what I think was a Spanish accent that she had seen two bears.
The trail meandered along the coast before heading into the woods, where the only sounds were the slight rustling of the wind through tree branches and the crunch of my shoes on the ground.
Just beyond a clearing a young man approached, his eyes also wide. I asked him how the hike was. He said with what I think was an Indian accent that he was freaked out. He hadn’t seen any bears, but he was afraid he would, and he regretted hiking alone.
I carried on.
A young male deer stood next to a small bay populated with fallen trees and other vegetation. He stared at me, and I at him. He cocked his head as if he heard something further up the trail, but otherwise didn’t move. I eventually plodded up the next hill, and the next. The sky darkened as I passed what appeared to be part of an old electrical transmission system near the shore. A solitary boat was tied to a nearby tree.
I turned back, reaching the trailhead at dusk as two boats motored into the campground marina. The occupants walked up the ramp with coolers laden with what I assumed was that day’s catch.
Hours later the first rain drops danced on the roof of the camper as I faded into slumber. They were joined by thousands of others.
By morning the steady rain had dwindled to a drizzle. I took advantage of the improved weather and went for a run.
Once outside the campground signs admonished me not to hike alone, and above all not to run. This was bear country.
Forever tempting the fates, I carried on.
Approximately halfway down the peninsula that encloses much of the bay a large, white bone sat in the middle of the wide, paved trail. A bear must have dropped it there, I figured. But it was too clean. No sinew or meat, and it sure looked like a cow femur. Concluding that somebody was playing a joke on hikers, I carried on.
If you’re expecting a harrowing flight from a bear, dear reader, sorry to disappoint. I saw no trace of a bear, but I did breathe a sigh of relief once back in the campground.
By then large dark clouds had gathered in the distance. The promised rain came in short order, and in large volume. The unstable weather pattern made for impressive sights as I drove through the park, but clouds covered ever more of the mountains as the storm enveloped the park.
I followed signs for Jenny Lake. Some of the most iconic views of the park come from the shore. I told Klaus he had to stay in the truck, but his plaintive eyes made me relent.
It didn’t take long for the poor pup’s sweatshirt to soak through. (His raincoat was back in dry California.) But he didn’t care. Even at his elevated age, at home he still chases squirrels in the pouring rain until I make him come inside.
We walked to the part of the trail that I knew would have the best view, looked across the lake and saw the base of the mountains and, above that, low-hanging clouds.
“We tried, little buddy. Maybe next time.”
I returned to the truck and headed south.
I considered spending the night in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but the relative opulence and crowds, and the forecast of more rain, convinced me to cut my losses.
Though the going was slow and occasionally treacherous through the mountain passes near the Idaho border we made it to the valley on the other side before the barreling rain turned to snow.
But that, and an early evening encounter with a friendly local cop at a campground in Pocatello, Idaho, are stories for another time.
On second thought, the latter might be a tale best left untold.