Exhausted and happy — isn’t that that the best way to end a work day!?
Dave’s day started very early at 5:00 am — getting up to write and post the RV Weather forecasts, before preparing for his first day as the New Guy Trainee with the Wildlife Brigade. Lunch packed: check; uniform with name badge: check; park service truck with flashing lights: check; radio for super secret wildlife brigade communications: check!
At 6:30 am he headed off to meet his new boss and coworkers by 7:00 near the Willow Flats area below Jackson Lake Lodge. Today was to be a training day, but by 7:30 “all hell broke loose,” when the internationally famous Grizzly bear known as 399 strolled into the meadow with her four yearling cubs in tow. The roadsides were immediately clogged with cars pulling over and people hanging out car windows, standing on truck beds, and setting up monster tripods with T-Rex sized telephoto lenses mounted on pivoting gimbal heads. Armed with cell phones, point and shoots, and big rig cameras — everyone is hoping for THE shot.
That quickly, training was over and Dave was now part of the team making sure visitors were safely off the road, the crowd was a safe distance from the bears (they have a range finder to help make sure they are accurate in their estimates and consistent). And of course, there were lots of questions to field from visitors to answer!
Dave could not help noticing that the first hour was the million-dollar photo time. Momma grizzly was out in a wide grassy field with her rambunctious cubs rolling in her wake, the sky a gorgeous blue, the early sun warm on the sharp white snow of the mountain peaks rising in the background. The stuff of nature calendars, posters, and National Park Service or Chamber of Commerce advertising brochures. And of course Dave can’t take pictures of the animals while working, but he said, “I will carry those images of 399 and her cubs with me forever.” <3
Eventually Momma wanted to take the family across the road, working their way in that direction. Dave and the other volunteers started prepping the crowd that if she got much closer they would have to open a path through folks to allow her to cross. As it turns out, one of the cubs was not keen to go, and so the little family turned around and disappeared into the willows. Show over. Some of the visitors remarked how much they appreciated Dave and the others letting them know what they planned to do if the situation changed.
Dave’s boss used this break to show him around the office space they use as a headquarters in the Colter Bay area (near the northern most section of the park). A short time later, at about 11:30, the call went out, bear jam back at the Jackson Lake Junction! So Dave returned to work a full afternoon of crowds watching 399 eat grass and biscuit root flowers and bulbs while the kids roughhoused before their adoring crowds.
Kathy on the other hand had a much more sedate start to the day. I will be working to support the housing office this year, the details of which are still being worked out. About the time Dave was starting his second bear jam management session, I drove up to Moose, eventually getting a Post Office box sorted out with the government, and then meeting my boss Alex. Alex was a huge help training us last year, so it was really terrific to see him again!
One of the projects I will be working on is updating information on all the housing in the park. Some work will involve photographing properties. Other tasks include reviewing park maps and architecture blueprints to verify accuracy, or update the maps with the current ground truth information. But they weren’t quite ready for me to do that, so I had the rest of the day off. But I will be back at the office tomorrow.
Thinking I was going to be working in the office today, I had packed a lunch. It was now noon. Rather than head straight back to camp, I thought I would go up to Windy Point Turnout inside the park and have lunch. I sat on the truck tailgate to eat my ham and swiss. I rarely take selfies, but I couldn’t resist having a go, with the snow covered mountains behind me.
Of course, because I am wearing a uniform that is very similar to a ranger’s, I start getting asked questions by visitors in the parking lot or passing on bikes. One fellow asked about trail conditions ‘on the ridge’ and I had to disappoint him, saying that I have not been briefed on all the hikes, but I had heard that someone tried to hike the loop around Jenny Lake (ground zero in the park) but they couldn’t find the trail because of all the snow and false trails by others who couldn’t find it either. (I asked Dave later about the hike the fellow wanted to do — turns out the earliest it is easily doable is August!)
12:30. All dressed up and no where to go. Even though I have plenty of projects in camp requiring my attention, I am reluctant to head back. The gas gauge says I have 90 miles of range, but that seemed like a good excuse to drive up to Colter Bay to get fuel — the one place in the park selling diesel. It is a gorgeous day for a drive — lets go!
Taking the inner park road brings me right through the middle of Dave’s bear jam! I do see him, but it is hard work to pilot the big truck through the chaos of cars trying to squeeze into a parking spot, someone trying to leave a spot, people with cameras of all sizes dashing between cars to cross the road, or even just step backwards into traffic. Assuming I would be working in the office at headquarters all day, I didn’t bring my camera. I had a point and shoot in my backpack, so it didn’t seem worth trying to park — the cars were wrapped around the intersection!
In Colter Bay I passed the convenience store. The doors were open — to the delivery guys moving enormous cardboard cases of merchandise into the building. Down by the marina, plumbers were working on preparing for the season and turning on the water services with long pipe wrenches. Snowbanks taller than me lingered in a few shady areas. The parking lot was nearly empty, and yet there was a buzz of excitement in the air as folks worked to prepare for the new season of visitors.
1:30pm. Okay, time to head back to camp. I swing by our favorite sunrise photo location of Oxbow Bend to see what it is like there. We had seen recent social media posts showing ice on several of the lakes, so I was curious if the slow moving water of the bend might still be in ice. No ice, but I did get asked several more hiking questions.
One fellow wanted ask about bears — his wife is very afraid of bears. He wanted to make sure that keeping food in his truck was safe — which it is. I shared a few tips for picnicking safely — and where they could (and could not) take their little dog.
Passing back through the junction the bear jam seems smaller but it is crawling even slower than before. I look between the pickups and Rent America RVs to see some dark brown dots moving in the open spaces of Willow Flats. I can’t believe it! It is 399 and her four cubs! I grab the point and shoot and aim it out the window every time the stop and go traffic stops. If I count the bears we saw on the drive to the park Saturday, we’ve now seen eight grizzly bears in three days! I am liking these odds!
As I roll by, I spot Dave and he sees me. He tells me that the brigade members think 399 is moving west, and if I park beyond the “no stopping” section I may see her come my way. So I find a spot, next to the Authorized Vehicles Only sign at the foot of the Jackson Lake dam. And wait. It is sunny and unusually warm, just over 70 degrees. I could be in camp enjoying the same weather, or here with a chance to see a grizzly. Tough choice!
Soon a brigade volunteer comes to clean up the parking situation near where I am. Seeing my volunteer uniform, she asks me to keep an eye on things and ask folks to move on if they try and park in the area she wants clear. I asked her if folks came on foot to set up their cameras, was that allowed? She showed me a line she didn’t want them to cross, and left. I am glad I asked! As soon as she pulled out to return to the main mob, four guys with big cameras on tripods came to ask if they could set up there. I was relieved to be able to say yes, over there is fine.
A photographer from Gardiner, Montana set up his camera near our truck. Gardiner is the gateway town at the north entrance to Yellowstone. He has a gallery there, but likes to be out in the field in the spring when the bears come out of hibernation and babies of all species are out. Although he mainly photographs in Yellowstone, he likes to visit the Tetons for one week before he heads back to work in his gallery all summer. He taught me some interesting things about bears as we chatted. For example, grizzly naps can last three to five hours!
399 had disappeared into the willows and a lot of people moved up to our section of the road, anticipating her emerging in the open area in front of us. Even the bear management rangers thought that was where she would go. Much of the crowd gave up, but Chris, my photographer friend, said that he had seen, many times, the bears wait for the big crowds to disperse before they came back out again. I know that happened several years ago when we were photographing an offspring of 399’s referred to by locals as “Blondie.”
And so as we waited, I fielded a lot of questions from visitors. Are there really bears in there? [yes, a mom and her cubs] Are they tagged? [not this family] How do you know where they are? [rangers know where the bears are by all the cars on the side of the road] How are they tracked? [some get collars that record their movement and fall off so the rangers can get the collar and download all the information about where they go] Where are they going now? [if I knew, I would be there] Is there a ranger somewhere with a computer that knows where every bear is every minute? [no] Where can I get a picture of a pelican [I knew of two not well known spots below the dam where I like to go to] Where is a good place to photograph the Milky Way [good question, I am not sure]
Sadly, after more than two hours of patiently waiting, we looked over our shoulders and up to the far side of the dam — where we could see a wildlife brigade truck with flashers on blocking the parking area and river walk trailhead. Ah! 399 must have crossed the road where we couldn’t see her and is probably moving to cross the river. So we missed her. Funny thing is that I spent a lot of time in that area last year in hopes of seeing bears — that is where my merganser photos and the osprey fighting an eagle photos came from. I had the right idea, just terrible timing!
Dave had seven hours of the 399 circus, and I had a great afternoon. We both had lots of fun sharing things about the park or its animals that visitors didn’t know. I drove home with a big smile on my face. Dave was already back at camp and equally eager to share his day with me.
Happy and exhausted we sat down to dinner and to tell our tales, and now share them with you!