When my friend Skip and I visited Yellowstone NP we had backcountry camping high on our list. I’ve camped in bear country many times… only thing is, Utah is black bear country, and nowhere near as intimidating as the grizzly country of the the Stone. Our first night out we had the luxury of sleeping deep within the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone… a place where the grizzlies weren’t very likely to show face. But our second foray into the wild was also into the heart of grizz country- the Shoshone Lake area.
Our initial plan was to camp on the shore of Heart Lake in southeastern Yellowstone. Once we discovered it was completely booked, alternate plans had to be made. Shoshone Lake was our next hope. We were thwarted again due to its popularity. There was an open site, camp 8M1, about 2 miles away from the lake; we decided it would have to do. As we filled out our paperwork, we asked the backcountry ranger about any recent animal sightings.
“Oh yeah… we had to close the Lewis Channel Trail because there was an aggressive grizzly feeding on an elk carcass.” He had our full attention. “But don’t worry… rangers got rid of the carcass. We’re not sure where the bear went but he probably left the area.”
You can imagine our thoughts: there was an aggressive and now hungry grizzly unaccounted for somewhere in the area we would be hiking in. We put thoughts of a bloodthirsty man killer out of mind for the time being. When we arrived at the trailhead the next day, we saw that the trail was still closed. Two signs featuring a large grizzly indicated that the bear danger was considerable. Neither one of us made too much of it; the Dogshead Trail would take us to the right place, and it was still open… it must be totally safe, right?
We trekked though the partially burned forest and 5 miles later we arrived at Shoshone Lake. We stripped off our boots and splashed around in the water with some other hikers. It was gorgeous. Skip took a look at the ranger cabin further up the shore while I basked in the sun. We both voiced that we really wanted to camp on the lake. But rules are rules, and before long we geared back up and forded the Lewis Channel on the way to our campsite.
The trail climbed through some dense forest and skirted a large, swampy meadow. Skip spotted a cow moose just off the trail. She stared at us from the shadows and we hoped it would be the closest wildlife encounter of the day. Two miles later we arrived at 8M1, our home for the night. The site was nice enough at first glance. It was located deep in the woods with a sturdy bear pole and several flat spots for our tents. The big drawback was the distance from the lake; there was a small stream close by but Shoshone was not even visible from our position. We didn’t think much of it… we cracked open the whiskey and dipped our feet in the icy stream. The famed mosquitos of the park did their best to work us over as we ate our dinner. We tied bandanas around our head and donned rain gear to slow their assault, but they were out for blood and would not be deterred.
We were able to last until dusk by continuous movement; Skip devised a game for us to play in which we threw rocks and sticks at the bear bag for points. This kept us moving and occupied until night began to fall. That’s when our imaginations began to get the better of us.
As darkness crept in we started to get a bit uneasy. All of a sudden we remembered that we were very deep in the woods with the aforementioned grizzly. Was he hungry? Angry that the rangers took his carcass from him? Would his blind rage and thirst for flesh lead him to us? We decided not to stray too far from each other, even during pee breaks. As the first stars showed up on the horizon, we decided it would be an early bedtime. I crawled into my tent and began to write in my journal. The sounds of the nighttime wilderness began to amplify. Every time a stick broke in the distance we went on high alert. We heard some rustling in the bushes close by… “Did you hear that? What the hell was that? That sounded big!” were just a few of the short exchanged between two frightened campers.
I decided to shut off my headlamp which only allowed my mind to take total control of the situation. Sitting in the darkness I imagined all sorts of unsavory demises for me and Skip. We would surely be toast before dawn. I felt a familiar pressure on my bladder… and told myself there would be no bathroom breaks until first light. The next few hours were basically spent laying wide awake in sheer terror fighting the ever growing urge to pee. Really fun stuff. Sleep finally came, albeit broken, and my dreams provided no relief. Several times I awoke to Skip’s frantic voice asking if I had heard the latest sound outside our tents.
When I opened my eyes to the first misty morning of dawn I was elated. We had survived! I grabbed another hour of the only restful sleep I found that night. When we emerged from our tents we hastily bagged everything up and beelined it for the lake. Two miles later we sat in the sun and drank coffee on the shore. We recapped the night and decided the biggest animal out in the dark recesses was probably nothing more than an elk or deer… a far cry from the murderous beast we had been imagining. As we enjoyed a gorgeous breakfast view, we laughed at ourselves. It turned out that the most dangerous thing we encountered in the backcountry was our own vivid imaginations.