Wyoming odyssey: Grizzly country
“Their population and territory is expanding in western Wyoming.”
These, the words of a Wyoming Division of Wildlife staff person when describing the presence of grizzly bears.
Despite having called Colorado “home” for four decades, I had spent less time exploring Wyoming than any of Colorado’s neighboring states. Finally, in late summer, 2013, Kathy and I rectified that situation with an 18-day Wyoming hiking-camping trip, including a week of backcountry exploration of the Cowboy State’s grizzly inhabited mountains.
Decades ago, we backpacked in the Canadian Rockies, hiked extensively in Alaska, Montana and northwestern Wyoming’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks; all prime grizzly habitats.
Years later and presently in my mid-60s, I felt more anxiety when entering grizzly country than in my youth.
Fortunately, we’re well-versed in the major differences between grizzly and black bear etiquettes, knowing how to respond if a grizzly is encountered. So, despite our anxiety, we still intended to climb, by ourselves, several mountains of interest, including those with grizzlies.
Frequently, people in Colorado ask us if we carry firearms when hiking in black bear country. The answer is a resounding, “No,” for I’m uncomfortable with firearms. This was true in past years when hiking in grizzly country and we did not intend to start carrying firearms in summer 2013.
Complicating the issue was our desire to have Lucy Chocolate Lab accompany us on this trip. Normally, dogs in grizzly country are not a good mix, but Lucy is an exceptional animal, the most mountain-wise and obedient outdoors dog we’ve ever owned.
Throughout our Wyoming journey, she understood what was expected and always stayed close when requested to do so.
While the campground and trailhead for climbing west-central Wyoming’s 11,378-foot Wyoming Peak had signs mandating safe food storage practices in bear country, there were no specific postings cautioning people about grizzly presence.
This perplexed me for the wild terrain, with abundant fresh bear droppings, seemed ideal for grizzlies as well as black bears.
Only after our grueling, but uneventful ascent of Wyoming Peak, did a state wildlife official admit to me that grizzlies do roam the Wyoming Range, but not in significant numbers.
Three days later, in what appeared to be an unlikely grizzly environment; there was no doubt about their presence in the Red Hills-Lavender Hills east of Grand Teton National Park.
What a surprise to find a sign with bold red lettering reading, “Warning! Grizzly Bears Frequent this Area,” illustrated with a snarling grizzly photo.
I thought, “Grizzlies aren’t supposed to be in an environment described by Bill Hunger, author of Hiking Wyoming, thusly, “Some of the oddest and most striking land formations in Wyoming; a colorful, but desolate and barren landscape” whose “quirky badlands make for hot and hard hiking.”
Stunned, we began hiking through a high desert corridor between sharply peaked, fiery red hills.
Barely noticing the chilly mid-morning temperatures, I scoured the shadowy slopes, imagining a brown giant lurking in the shrubs.
Our senses were hypervigilant as Lucy walked obediently between us.
The footpath eventually proceeded through a lush woodland, an out-of-place micro environment amidst the desert.
The terrain steepened and upon reaching an open ridge, we beheld the pale gray, striated Lavender Hills.
How odd to see two geologically different badlands, one above the other.
Wearing only T-shirts in the hot, dry weather, we relaxed for there were no signs of grizzly activity.
Climbing an even steeper second ridge on our horseshoe shaped route, we arrived at a modest 9,150 foot summit which Bill Hunger described as, “the earth’s most secluded and glorious view of the Tetons.”
After looking down upon the Red Hills badlands, we scanned the Gros Ventre Range to the south before taking in the jaw dropping splendor of the Tetons.
Bill Hunger had not exaggerated.
Several of our trip’s destinations were not found in guidebooks, but discovered by studying maps.
Mount Leidy at 10,326 feet fit in this category and we had second thoughts about climbing the mountain after turning onto its access forest service road and finding this posted warning, “Bear Attack! Are You Prepared to Avoid One? Bear Activity Increasing in this Area!”
Did we still want to camp in this remote country after a 20-mile backcountry drive and climb Mount. Leidy the following day?
Cautiously, we located a campsite and after a night of grizzly dreams, wakened to a grim, gray morning.
Somber Lake Leidy reflected the lowering heaven’s dark mood.
This was legitimate grizzly country; a long meadow bordered by a thickly forested ridge.
Were grizzlies near?
Walking on a muddy track, we remembered the essentials; don’t surprise a bear, don’t appear aggressive, never run.
From a distance, the mountain looked deceptively easy.
Luckily, we found a primitive footpath threading a twisting, occasionally steep route up a narrowing ridge.
Unexpectedly, we met another couple who assured us that the grizzly warnings were not exaggerated.
Showing us their ultimate defense, a potent pepper spray aerosol, they said, “You should have one.”
Avoiding slippery roots while clambering over windblown obstacles, we struggled steeply upward to an open summit offering misty views of lonely meadows, narrow ridges, forested mountaintops, and an approaching storm.
Our hurried descent in a bone-chilling rain had one unanticipated positive; the weather was too nasty for grizzlies to be out and about.
After Mount Leidy, we needed a shorter, less intense hike in better weather. The following day gave us better weather and a shorter hike. I found Pilot Knob, southeast of Togwotee Pass, on a map giving us the impression that the Continental Divide Trail crossed its summit.
However, instead of a trail stroll, the CD Trail was poorly marked and useless, meaning our hike involved confused, off trail route finding in another prime grizzly habitat.