Summer is emphatically here in the Tetons, breaking both average high temperatures and visitor attendance records. We are often 5 to 10 and even 15 degrees above the normal average temperature for the park, making for tough duty standing in the sun for six to eight hours at a go. June numbers from trail cameras around String Lake show a 25 to 40% increase from 2019, and the number of hikers on Dave’s favorite canyon hike are up 119%!!
What brings folks here?
Our visitors come to the park for so many reasons. Families introduce the second or third generation to a park of their childhood. Anniversary vacations retrace honeymoon trips. Families hold bi-annual reunions. Bucket list trips and social media induce travel to duplicate someone else’s adventure post, be it to complete a hike to a ‘secret’ location or see a single, specific bear. Some come to propose, some to wed, and some to leave the ashes of a beloved to fulfill a last wish. Some visit to challenge themselves in the mountains, camping and traversing the rugged backcountry (some trails currently still require crampons and ice axes!) to sleep under the stars. Many set themselves the mission of seeing every National Park, Monument, and Seashore in the NPS system. Locals come to picnic, hike, bike, camp, photograph, paddle the lakes, fish the streams, float the rivers, or swim in an effort to beat the heat. Some visitors are ‘just passing through’, to or from Yellowstone. We’ve met them all.
Our jobs really are jobs
All of which means that our jobs are keeping us very busy this summer. I have completed the first phase of my assignment for housing by taking exterior photos of all the residences, metadata tagging them, and renaming the files with descriptive names [Exterior 4235 HS666 401 Lupine Fryxell actually means something in park speak!]. Around 4500 photos in all. I am currently working on graphics for Jess, Alex, and now Lost & Found. My biggest challenge is to design a sticker that is both informational regarding the best human reaction to a bear in a picnic (developed) area but looks cool enough folks will read it and maybe even keep it, putting it on a cooler-chest or waterbottle to keep the message in front of them. A challenge for four square inches! 😀
Three days a week Dave leaves the trailer at 05:45 to report as “In Service” with the Wildlife Brigade by 6 am. For whatever reason, grizzly bear activity near the roads as calmed down when compared to our first weeks here in May. There is more time for patrolling campgrounds and finding opportunities for food security education, as well as the occasional animal jam mitigation when the bull elk Hollywood/Fabio decides to put in an appearance near Signal Mountain. Grizzlies do still create “viewing opportunities,” but it is the black bears that seem to be everywhere and into everything in June.
Dave enjoys working at the “edge of the empire” as he calls it, meaning the border with Yellowstone. Many days find him in the northern district keeping an eye out for the relocated grizzly that has returned to the area where it first got into trouble. It has a distinctive pair of bright yellow ear tags. Having a bear in the general area that has previously received a food reward, it is even more important that campers in the area are vigilant about food storage safety. And so Dave works with campers and camp ground managers to keep the nearness of the bear in their minds. There are some very remote campsites up there! One afternoon he had a grizzly pop out of the bushes along the road section known as Huckleberry Hill, managing the jam on his own for awhile — it takes time for reinforcements to reach the kingdom’s borders!
And of course, we work at String Lake each Sunday.
Host and Patrol
Duty at String Lake is shared between five and six people over a twelve hour day. We have several main areas of responsibility that we rotate through during our shift. As hosts, a volunteer is posted at the nexus of the main parking area, restrooms, trail to the lake, and most importantly, the trail map. Visitors arrive with an enormous variety of intentions, preparation (or lack of), understanding, and expectation, and we attempt to accommodate it all. A bit like a hotel doorman & concierge, we welcome everyone to the lake and answer questions about hike options & recommendations, trail conditions, recent wildlife reports, and confirm that yes those are the bathrooms in the log building. Standing there, I have been asked
- to point out which peaks are which
- is the white stuff actually snow [yes]
- where are the glaciers [let me show you on the map]
- where is the fault line [standing on it]
- what kind of beetle is in my cell phone picture [darkling ground]
- my son had a leech after swimming, what should we do [wash with soap & water]
- “What’s the deal with dogs in National Parks?” [let’s talk about danger]
- my child wants a picture with a real ranger, can we take your picture [Sure!]
- there aren’t really bears here are there [daily]
- what hike — should I do, has most animals, is prettiest, shortest, flattest, best views, etc. [let’s look at a map]
- where is the road to drive to the top of Grand Teton [there isn’t one]
- where is the closest coffeeshop [20 miles back in the town of Jackson]
- how old are the mountains [11,000,000 years old]
- am I allowed to camp at the empty campsite I saw on my hike [reservations required]
- can I take my RV on __you name the road__ [if you are asking, then no]
- do I need a license for my boat/kayak/paddleboard [yes, the rules are …]
- what animal makes poop that looks like ___ [usually, a horse]
- where is the closest place to eat [Moose or Signal Mountain]
- is this wild asparagus and can I eat it [maybe and no]
- have you found the missing hiker [sadly, no]
The comments are nearly as amazing:
- I am not going to hike because I am afraid a bear will kill me
- I left my bear spray in the car (85+ degrees!) because I am afraid of it
- I didn’t think that sign meant me
Weekly we get reports from hikers that they saw a grizzly on the trail. We ask them to describe the animal and what it was doing. Many of our black bears are (confusingly) not black, so not all brown bears are grizzlies. But some hikers are adamant that they “know [their] bears, and that was a grizzly.” It isn’t that we are trying to burst their bubble, but we want to have an accurate picture of which species are where. It is delicate thing to try and work out what exactly they saw. In the end, if they are happier believing they saw a grizzly, then that is what they will tell their friends.
The next and most important duty is to patrol the shoreline of String Lake, about 1.5 miles in length which is considered a developed area. Here we are on the lookout for food and other items with odor attractants being properly managed by the visitors. Ideally this would mean that the food is out only when being eaten, otherwise it is stored in a bear box or in their car. Not kept close at hand. If this is not what we find, then we are there to educate visitors in why we ask them to keep their food locked away, or if no one is there we gather up their abandoned food and take their picnic to a bear box, leaving them a note as to where we stored it. We are also keeping an eye out for safe behavior, kids in boats with life jackets, no dogs, no fires, and similar type issues. When time and manning allows we also patrol the three miles of coastline along adjoining Leigh Lake.
The last areas to patrol are the three parking lots. Here we are trying to manage the parking circus and catch folks before they can break rules such as parking in a no parking zone, taking their dog on a trail, or leaving food in their open truck bed.
When the parking lot fills and lots of cars start circling in hopes of a parking place, we implement a Greeting Line out at the main road turn off. We stop the cars turning into the lake area to let them know that the lot is full and ask what their plans were. If they are coming to picnic, we suggest other places to picnic, for hikers, other trailheads, etc. We are always amazed at how many people are lost, and we can just direct them to their intended destination, saving us and them from circling the lot. Of course, if they are feeling lucky, they are welcome to drive in circles looking.
One fellow pulled up at the curb near the map and asked me if there was valet parking … did I want to earn a little extra money. Ha! I said I could sympathize, but he had arrived at noon, on a Federal Holiday, at the most popular picnic spot in the park, during a year of attendance records being broken, did I say at high noon? But if he was heading south I could recommend … Funnily enough, one of the first ‘rules’ my boss gave me in training is that Lakers are not parking valets!
In June, Dave and I have talked to over 1900 visitors in String Lake alone. By the time we make it back to camp on Sunday evening, we have just enough energy to pull a made-ahead cold pasta salad out of the fridge and sink into a comfy chair.
Black Bear Antics
Yesterday Dave’s Wildlife Brigade duties brought him to String Lake. A cinnamon colored black bear sow and her two cubs, well known for their appearances around the lake to our south, Jenny Lake, came to visit the canoe launch area of String Lake. The Lakers on duty did a fine job of clearing the waterfront of visitors and their food. Dave arrived with another (actual!) Ranger to take charge. Unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the waterfront, Dave took the lead. Lakers refer to locations along the waterfront by the Bear Box number, a unique system if there ever was one. Momma was heading her family back south so Dave and the ranger were there to encourage that choice.
Dave told me that often the cubs would climb a tree, and then pick fights with each other in the tree. Momma did not seem as amused as the humans. Sadly for the visitors, this was not a good “viewing opportunity” as the bushes are quite close to the trail where it would be easy to lose sight of the bear, allowing it to pop out someplace unsafe for visitors.
Eventually the sow got her cubs out of the trees and on a small beach where she wanted them to swim. The cubs were not excited about the prospect, and quivered on a log in the water, mewling and moaning about it. Momma growled back. Eventually one of the kids submitted and launched itself in a brave bellyflop (of all of about a foot) into the lake. Oh, how I wish I could have seen that!
Dave has heard stories from the lead ranger about an experienced black bear sow living around Jenny Lake. He was able to witness her cubs swimming lesson in crossing one of the fast streams nearby. The cubs wanted to take the foot bridge as usual, but Momma wanted them to swim across. Lots of moaning and huffing was involved in their conversation. Eventually, this smart Momma stood midstream, downstream of the crossing, to catch a cub if they became swept up in the current. Apparently, stream crossings is a common way for bears to lose cubs. So far, she still has the two she started the year with!
Lest you worry that this volunteer gig is all work and no play, we do actually make time for fun things! Friends we met on duty in Japan — lo those many years ago! — were able to visit Grand Teton on Fourth of July weekend. John and Suzanne indulged our passion for the park and allowed us to take them on a twenty-stop driving tour of the park! I admit that in addition to scenery highlights and out-of-the-way picnic spots, we did have hopes of some specific animal sightings. We did not get the hoped for bear or moose this day, but we met some animals in unusual spots.
We spotted the bull elk Hollywood early in the morning — usually he appears in the afternoons. Male Common Mergansers were paddling around the dam outlet — I have only ever seen the females in the park. For the first time ever, we saw four river otters frolicking in String Lake! On a little hike back to a set of cabins from one of the original settlers of the valley and a place we have picnicked before, we found a Yellow-bellied Marmot sitting on the stoop. We’ve never encountered them outside rocky mountain slopes before. Best of all, sitting around our campfire, John got to add a Mountain Bluebird to his Bird Life List, bird number 200!
I don’t know where Dave gets his energy from! In addition to keeping up his daily weather forecast duties for RV Weather, and on top of Wildlife Brigade and String Lake, he got up at 2am to make the 45 minute drive to String Lake to photograph the Milky Way over the mirror still waters. He achieved a couple of gorgeous photos and learned a lot. It will be August before everything ‘lines up’ again for another astro-photography session!
The temperatures continue to be hot and hotter. This week we are in the low 90s. Smoke from fires in the Pacific Northwest is collecting in the valley and beginning to obscure the mountains. Our bosses continue to support us, answering our many questions as each week seems to bring a new situation or encounter with visitors. As well as morale boosters ranging from texting Thank You and ‘atta girls’ to stopping by the lake on their day off bringing ice cold drinks during the heat of the day (out of their own pocket I am sure).
Next week we are joining an evening ranger walk sponsored by the Grand Teton National Park Foundation. We hear the local wolf pack is back in the area. We look forward to learning more about them and maybe getting lucky enough to see them through spotting scopes. Fingers crossed. We’ll let you know!