Thursday, June 5: hiking in Lamar River Valley
We packed up our backpacks with the clothes, food, and supplies we would need for the next two days and nights, and then put everything else in the car. It was time for our backcountry excursion, the few days of our trip of which I was the most excited about and also the most nervous. We had picked Lamar River Valley because it was known for being a great spot to see wildlife; luckily, the day before when we picked up our backcountry permit, the ranger had said that they hadn’t had any reports of bear activity in the area recently. Still, I knew that we would have to be extremely careful of wildlife encounters. It turned out that bears weren’t the ones we had to worry about.
We parked our car at the trailhead with our permit number displayed in the windshield, locked it up, put on our heavy packs, and said goodbye to civilization. Our hike up to the campsite wasn’t especially challenging (about 4 miles), but wearing a loaded backpack definitely takes its toll. We kept our water bottles and bear spray in our easy-to-access side pockets. The hike took us through an open meadow then behind a large ridge, where the road disappeared from sight. Almost immediately, we spotted pronghorns and bison grazing in the grass. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny in the high 60’s.
When we turned the corner and climbed the trail up through a narrow passage flanked by some trees and creek to the beginning of the ridge, we made a startling discovery: there were bison EVERYWHERE. All over the trail, up the hill, down the valley, and closing in behind us. Though bison appear docile, they are known to be aggressive and will charge and gore humans who come too close. Many of the female bison had young calves at their side, so they were going to be especially protective and wary of intruders on their turf. We knew that we were to keep at least 25 yard away, but there was absolutely nowhere for us to go. This meant that we had to either take a detour around them (which was pretty much impossible as they were as far as the eye could see in all directions), or wait for them to move along off the trail. So we took of our packs, sat, and waited.
The herd had noticed us, and an inquisitive bison took a few steps toward us. We looked behind us for an exit, but more bison had moved up the ridge. Two males were engaged in a fight, smashing into each other’s large skulls while brandishing their horns. We were completely surrounded. The narrow entrance we had taken into the meadow was blocked by bison. While some of the animals meandered up or down the hill, you could tell that the herd had no plans to go anywhere anytime soon. Our only choice was to somehow pass through the herd.
My heart was pounding as we very slowly put our packs back on. We moved carefully and quietly, trying not to call any attention to ourselves or appear threatening. We had waited until a moment that the path was clear enough that we could mostly shoot straight through the center of the meadow to meet back up with the trail. When we noticed a bison or calf wander close to our route, we would pause and wait. We kept our eyes lowered, avoiding eye contact, and talked to each other softly in calm voices. The walk through the herd was about 75 yards and felt like it took an infinity. Finally, we reach the edge of the herd and got back onto the trail. A lone bison wandered right behind us, watching and huffing as if to say “and don’t come back now, y’hear?” We heard, loud and clear.
Luckily, the rest of the hike was uneventful. We walked over some gentle rolling hills, but for the most part the trail was pretty level and we had a clear eye line in every direction. The trail reached the end of the ridge, and we descended down into the valley, stepping carefully to maintain balance with our heavy packs on the steep footing. We reached the river and walked alongside it until we found our campsite, designated by a small marker and a fire ring made of large rocks next to a pole for hanging up our food away from bears.
We enjoyed a few minutes of rest without heavy packs, then got to work setting up our campsite. After selecting a good spot to sleep 100 yards away from our cooking area, I set up the tent and laid out the sleeping bags while Kurt gathered fallen twigs and sticks to make a small fire. Our little site was in the middle of heaven, with mountains framing the gorgeous backdrop all around us. As sunset approached, mule deer wandered down the ridge or crossed the river near our site, which appeared to be a popular animal crossing. The bison weren’t done with us yet; a group of four walked up to our site, stopping about 30 yards away and gazing at us curiously. Two of them inspected our tent while one gave us a good lookover. Eventually, they continued on their way. As the sun set, we enjoyed a bota box of wine and scoured the horizon for more animals with our binoculars. When the sky was too dark, we strung up our food and supplies and went back to the tent to enjoy our first night’s sleep out in the true wilderness.
Wildlife sighted: so many bison, elk, pronghorns, mule deer