Soggy sagebrush and bear detours

Day 98: Spring in woodbox near Ley map note 5 (WY10) to ridge west of Tripod Mountain, ~mileage too hard to estimate

I don’t own a television and rarely read the outdoor magazines brimming over with hyperbole and adrenaline dripping type. The “extreme” and “epic” experiences filmed for cable programs and penned for tell-all feature stories aren’t my diet. So I’m not sure what is exciting or epic or extreme for the average person.

On the CDT, as well as through Cascades endeavours, I’ve learned it doesn’t take me much to feel that we travel amid some wild places. Often remote, I’d rather avoid extreme or epic experiences. 

For me, all it takes to be exciting is seeing two bear cubs romping about the sagebrush… 200 feet from us. Then coming toward us, curiously, with mama/sow bear no where in sight. This interaction, followed by a detour away from the CDT onto a road then to brushy trail then cross country to bushwack through wet willows. All in late afternoon/early evening after hiking all day in drizzle, well, that gets my adrenalin going. It was “excitement” enough.

Our day of hiking under overcast skies reminiscent of weather back home and bushwhacking in the rain across relatively mellow terrain took an exciting turn around 5:00 pm.

Gabriel and I had just finished hiking through several miles of wet sagebrush on muddy clay trail when the rain stopped (for the first time since 8:00 am). We were relieved to be walking along a nice gravel road and appreciating how our pants were at last starting to dry. Squirrels and sparrows who had been undercover all day were hopping about the ground and shaking off the wet. We were chatting about our plans to get into Dubois early, maybe even for breakfast. It was turning into a pleasant evening of uneventful walking.

That’s when Gabriel commented, “Are those coyotes in the bushes?”

He wanted them to be coyotes or badgers or anything but what they were. Bears. Bear cubs. Two cubs, not full grown. Brown ears and backs just above the sage. We stopped walking up the road. The cubs having noticed us did the classic bear pose: stood up on their hind legs, looked up with paws folded out and sniffes the air. Brown ears, blonde faces looking at us.

They were adorable. Like teddy bears. And incredibly disconcerning. We started talking loudly, looking in all directions for their mom, backing away from them. Gabriel had our bear spray- the canister we’d purchased four days prior-out of the holster and ready. We really didn’t want to use it this soon, or ever!

As we backed away, the cubs ran toward us and then stood up again in classic bear stance. They came closer, but stopped at the last spot we’d stood, sniffed our tracks, and ran about 30 feet back into the sagebrush. But they had no intention of leaving the road and we still didn’t see their mom. They sat in the brush doing their thing and watching us. We stood there not making any forward progress up the trail.

Argh! We wanted that road and the easy walking it promised. But we knew it wasn’t a possibility with bear cubs and their mom nearby. (At the time we weren’t sure if they were grizzlies or not, now looking at the hastily captured photo we realize they were black bears with blonde coloring.) A quick study of the GPS suggested a road walk alternate around the west side of Tripod Mountain.

We thought it would be a few more miles of road walking. It ended up being more than that. Both in miles and terrain.

The next few hours of detouring had us pushing. Back into wet brush. Hardly on road. Just faint trail. Talking loudly about nonsense. Noting the abundant bear scat and tracks on the paths we were taking. We were on alert.

The interaction with the cubs was no more than five minutes and one where none of us had to get defensive. But it was more than enough bear action for us.

No longer in the grand mountains of the Wind River Range or official wilderness, we were most certainly in wild, remote country. This area doesn’t require any human constructed designation. These gentle hills of spruce, lodgepole, sagebrush, and WET meadows are indeed wild. A place where humans are not at the apex of the food chain. Walking along and knowing this shifted our mental state. Not negatively. Somewhat humbling. A little nerve wracking. Adrenaline flowing. More reason to be alert and focused on the world around us (not on plans for breakfast in town).

Getting to Towgotee Pass was all the more welcomed the next morning; even if it was at 11:30 and not 8:00 am. Later in town, I found out that the CDT has been routed east of the Divide in this area because of more bear activity to the west. Our detour awayfrom the cubs had put us further into bear territory.

I’d wanted to hike the CDT while it was still wild. It is indeed.

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