Ben: Bree and I have been talking about escaping for a weekend in the Grand Tetons ever since we have returned from our dirt trip. With the weather turning colder and the campsites within the Grand Teton National Park closing up for the year, we had one more chance before the snow rendered our visit all but impossible.
On Friday I flew in to Salt Lake City from San Diego where I was on business for a few days. Bree picked me up at the airport, and after grabbing a quick bite of dutch oven catering at my work’s company lunch, we loaded up and began the long drive up to Jackson Hole.
We arrived in Jackson well after dark, and decided to stay well outside of town at the KOA since finding a campground in the woods, setting up camp, and adding an hour to our drive didn’t sound too appealing. Our site was beautiful and felt very secluded, allowed easy access to Jackson Hole and the park, and was quite inexpensive as far as Jackson is concerned. The site bordered the river, so while the temperature was somewhat cold overnight, we thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful stars and sound of the water as we settled in for the night.
Morning came quickly, and we waited around until 9:00 when the KOA office opened. Since we arrived so late, we had to pitch without checking in. Bree went into the office to take care of it while I stayed outside and did some last minute research on what we wanted to do before our internet access would be nil.
Bree came out beaming – apparently the lady at the desk gave us a discount because we “froze our tooshies off in a tent”!
The drive into Jackson was fairly quiet. We saw a few moose out in a meadow, but other than that the wildlife was limited. I was somewhat disenchanted by how dry the Tetons were – I was not expecting expanses of sagebrush to hug the mountains that have been given so much fame. It took some time, but I did get over my original expectations of expanses of forest and became once again happy to be outside with the colored leaves and the fresh air.
We arrived at camp early and upon inspecting the massive metal bear boxes that accompany every site in the wooded campground bordering Lake Jenny decided that we should set up camp minimally and leave most of our gear in the car. Before long, camp was set up and we were off on our bikes down the beautifully paved 8 miles stretch to the park entrance.
Upon reaching the entrance to the park, we took a detour onto Moose-Wilson road, which is famed to be quite a beautiful drive (which usually indicates an even better ride, assuming it isn’t too steep). Before long we reached a pullout with a big sign labeled “Moose Habitat”.
There were no sign of any moose, but as we stood above the ravine scanning the water and fields, a car pulled up and out stepped an older couple. The lady first asked if we had seen any moose – and of course the answer was no.
She then proceeded to talk to Bree about the fire that was burning on the hillside and mumbled about how much the smoke was irritating here eyes. Sensing that the irritated eyes might have more to do with trying to adjust to the dry desert air than the smoke, Bree asked where the couple was from. “New Orleans” was the answer.
As we talked with the couple on an extended national parks vacation, another man approached us with his camera. “Are you guys interested in a black bear?”
Seriously? Is that even a question? Of course I’m interested in seeing a black bear! He pointed us about 3/4 of a mile down an old jeep trail which had become overgrown with yellow grass. We were also given instructions for driving, which would have been more useful if we had been traveling by car instead of bicycle.
The couple from New Orleans, however, was interested in driving in order to avoid 20 minutes of hiking. Asking if we wanted to join them in the bear hunt by car, citing that a bear attack was far less likely when hiking in a bigger group. Bree and I briefly weighed the options of leaving our bicycles unlocked at the busy outlook with the chance of seeing a bear. Again, an easy answer as far as I was concerned.
We left them propped against a sign and climbed into the couples car as we headed down Moose Wilson road to what appears to be an abandoned home. We climbed out to find another lady named Peggy, dressed in a brown pant suit with her red hair pinned tightly to her head carrying two cameras. She explained that she had been tracking the bear for several hours but that he had just disappeared in the brush. She seemed to have quite a skill for finding them.
We spent quite some time peering and looking for the berry bushes and for any sign of bear before our friends from New Orleans (bear spray in hand) proclaimed that they had to be on their way. A little disappointed about not seeing a bear but not at all surprised that the wildlife hadn’t cooperated to our expectations, we got back in the car while hoping that our bikes would be there when we arrived.
Our bikes were thankfully exactly where we’d left them. We said goodbye to our new friends and after exchanging contact information and they even invited us to stay with them in their guest house in New Orleans! Looks like we have our excuse to head down south sometime.
We had plenty of time, so we decided that we may as well take one last look along the ridgeline before heading back toward camp. Taking our bikes this time, we started riding along the bumpy trail.
Before long we ran into our bear tracking acquaintance. We talked to her for a minute, she told us that while the first bear we searching for had made a run for it, there was another black bear taking a midday nap in a cottonwood tree near the house where we had originally begun our bear hunt.
After ditching the bikes near where the trail veered away from the ravine, we picked our way through the sagebrush until we reached the area where she said the bear had been spotted.
Bree: Ever the fearless adventurer, Ben was ecstatic about the prospect of spotting a black bear in its natural environment. I, on the other hand, had done my bear research before we left and had read about plenty of bear encounters gone wrong. Bear spray is strongly recommended for hiking in the area and bear experts warn that hikers should make noise to avoid surprising a bear and avoid getting too close to the animals. The irony of this was weighing on me as we walked quietly down the trail in search of a bear.
As we approached the only cottonwood tree in the area that the bear spotting photographer had told us about, I suddenly realized that she wasn’t talk about a far off tree at the bottom of the ravine. By the time we spotted the cinnamon colored bear, we were standing no more than 20 feet from the majestic creature who was peacefully napping in the crook of the tree. Our arrival woke her up and she glanced up at us and then curled her head in and went back to sleep. We quietly snapped a few photographs and then hit the trail back toward the bikes. It didn’t seem prudent or respectful to bother her any longer. Our short encounter left us beaming for the rest of the day.
Once we returned to our bikes, we attempted to take a shortcut trail back to the main road which ultimately ended with the trail dipping under three feet of water. We retraced our pedal strokes and were soon on our way back to camp, enjoying the beautiful evening light and smoke dancing on the jagged mountains as we cruised down the trail.
Back at camp, we realized we still had a lot of daylight left, so we packed up the bikes and hopped in the car for some scenic driving. We headed toward Jackson Lake and set up our stove to make some curry at a table overlooking the lake. We ate, chatted, and enjoyed the fresh air, savoring life on the road just as we used to do on our bike tour. I felt renewed down to my very soul to be spending time outside, taking pictures, and enjoying uninterrupted time with my life companion, even if only for a couple of days.
Our drive back to camp provided us the most spectacular views of the setting sun and we pulled over every five minutes to take in the views and make some feeble attempts at capturing them, marveling at the incredible evening. As soon as the light had faded for good, we rolled into camp and crawled into our trusty sleeping bags, feeling as though it must be midnight. Ultimately, we dozed off somewhere around 8:00 PM with the crickets lulling us to sleep.