During its debut year as a National Park, at least 3,000 bison and mule deer were poached in Yellowstone. The first superintendent, Nathaniel P. Langford, was commissioned with neither a salary nor a staff to protect the newly founded park. After five years on the job, he was replaced by a man with a helluva name, Philetus Norris. This time around, the new superintendent was given the means to enforce federal law. In 1877, when little thought was given to environmental preservation elsewhere, Yellowstone (the first national park in the world) was recognized as an irreplaceable natural treasure.
The 3,468.4 square-mile park now boasts America’s largest public bison herd, a diverse collection of endangered and threatened species, and the nation’s greatest predators: gray wolves, mountain lions, and the 900 lb. grizzly bear. But, perhaps the largest population is the 3 million Homo sapiens that flock to the park yearly. By RV, SUV, or hybrid, tourists crawl down the 370 miles of paved roads, cameras slung out the windows in hope of catching a glimpse of one of the Park’s famous animals.
This is where Rory and I were now headed. We followed the Chutes n’ Ladders spinner across Wyoming. No matter how many times we spun it, the fateful compass always directed us to Yellowstone. It was now Friday the 13th; which, I’m fairly certain, is not a good day to camp in bear country. Ever since seeing Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, I’ve had an unnatural fear/fascination with grizzly bears. One minute they’re casually strolling through a field searching for bugs and the next they decide you’re more interesting than a worm.
The human migration to Yellowstone didn’t begin for another week, so Rory and I had the campground completely to ourselves. We gathered abandoned wood from the neighboring campsites and built a merry little fire for the bears to better see us by.
“I really don’t think we have to worry about bears tonight. I mean, there’s not much down here to attract them,” Rory tried to reassure me.
“There’s people to eat, aren’t there?”
“Well, this doesn’t look like their kind of territory. Besides, no one’s been camping here, leaving their trash around…”
“Did you bring that axe with you?”
“Can I borrow it?”
He went to the trunk and pulled out a menacing looking blade on a three-foot handle.
“You know, it’s not really for chopping. It’s more for splitting,” Rory explained.
“Will it chop a bear?”
“Do you want the tire tool?” He offered me the hefty looking weapon.
“I’ll take that, too! I can whack things with this.”
I stored the axe in the tent and for the remainder of the evening I patrolled the campgrounds with the ten-pound tire tool. That night, I slept with the axe under my head in case a hungry bear decided he needed a post hibernation snack.
The next morning, it was discovered that we had not been attacked by bears during the night.
“Just because we weren’t mauled by a bear last night, doesn’t mean they weren’t thinking about it,” I said.
“They knew you had an axe in the tent.”
“Yeah, I showed them.” *
Several hours later, after stopping in Cody for coffee at The Beta (a wonderful, climber owned café with spectacular espresso and organic egg sandwiches) we were on our way to the North Entrance of Yellowstone. Just a few days earlier the East Entrance had been closed to a large avalanche that cut off a major road through the park.
Our road took us over several high mountain passes, into Montana for a brief spell, and then dropped us straight into the park. A towering rustic gateway greeted us and a chipper young woman in the ticket booth offered us bear warnings and maps. Now this is more like it. Seeing a bear from the safety of your car is far superior to one ripping your tent open in the middle of the night.
Yellowstone is undeniably beautiful, but I began to notice an aura akin to that of an amusement park the farther in we drove. Though it was nowhere near as crowded as during the peak season, droves of tourists tooled down the roads. The majority of these people never left their car. If they did, it was only to walk briefly along the roadside, snapping pictures.
Barely forty-five minutes into our adventure of a lifetime, we came around a corner and slammed on the breaks. It wasn’t a bear. It wasn’t a moose. It was a traffic jam. Nearly twenty cars were parked on the side of the road and more were joining them. Photographers with lenses longer than their leg rushed up and down the road hoping for a glimpse of…something.
“Maybe it’s a bear,” I squealed. We parked and rushed to join the crowd. I stood on my toes. I hopped up and down. I climbed onto Rory’s shoulders and yet I saw nothing. “Where is it? What is it?”
It was a moose… or had been a moose. He’d been gone nearly ten minutes after growing weary of his fan club.
This became a frequent sight. Rarely did we ever see an animal, but rather the back of a crowd. Though we were pressed for time, hoping to reach Jackson by dinnertime, we ventured along a trail for a brief ways just to escape sounds of automobiles and camera shutters.
What kind of wilderness experience is this? I couldn’t help but think that Yellowstone is more of a spectacle, an attraction, than an immersion into the natural world. Well maintained roads lead to the most prominent of sights: Old Faithful, the Petrified Forest, Mammoth Hot Springs. A typical Yellowstone experience is as programmed as a trip to the zoo.
But that is what Yellowstone was created for. In 1871 Ferdinand V. Hayden became the land’s biggest advocate. Overcome with awe in the face of the spectacular formations and geological activity, he sought to set aside the park as a sort of “pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Since then, over 60 million people have visited the hotel, shops, museums and natural attractions. I have to wonder, is the experience of the young man petting a buffalo on the manicured lawn by the Mammoth Hot Springs the same as that of Mr. Hayden’s?
I don’t mean to be too overly critical here. The majority of land in the park is undeveloped and seldom trafficked. In the 1990’s wolves were reintroduced after a century of massive killing sprees and now nearly all original plant and animal species exist within the park. When combined with the Grand Teton National Park and the Shoshone National Forest, Yellowstone represents one of the last open tracts of land where bison, wolves, and bears can roam freely.
It was now nearly 8:00 pm, getting dark, and a light snow was beginning to fall. I had long since given up hope of seeing a bear. Once we passed Yellowstone Lake and veered south toward the exit on Highway 191, nearly all the traffic disappeared. As we exited through the South Gate late that night, I left with mixed impressions. I have yet to decide whether or not I should be disgusted with the lack of humility displayed by the people greedily rampaging along the roads or feel a sense of awe at the endless expanse of wilderness we had just passed through.
One thing can be said for certain. For all its infrastructure and planning, the land, the animals and the geothermal energy do not operate on human terms. Either that, or someone forgot to queue the bears.
*A park ranger later told us there is at least one grizzly in the Buffalo Bill State Park. Two people were killed in the area last year by bears. So there.
Margaret and Rory have been driving cross country with a 1960s atlas and a Chutes n’ Ladders spinner. See where they’ve been!