— our first two weeks in the park —
Already life in Pennsylvania and the crazy efforts to get packed and across the country seems like months ago. Our favorite camp site is reserved for us and most of the snow is already plowed off. After shoveling a stubborn ice & snow bank, set up takes almost no time at all. This year a Flicker (woodpecker) greets us from the cottonwood tree outside the trailer instead of a mountain bluebird. One unexpected bonus is that colleagues from the Wildlife Brigade are staying in Gros Ventre while the campsites in the north are cleared of snow — so already we are reunited with friends!
The overnight temperature is 23 degrees! For the first time this season, the weather this week finally convinces the rangers that Spring is indeed on its way. Sunshine and warmer then normal temperatures are in the forecast. But the lingering cold has kept the snow pack longer than in recent years. We are anxious to see what the park looks like blanketed in snow, so we get up early and drive to the north end of the park.
Yowzah! Despite reading the weather reports all winter, it has been hard to imagine what the conditions looked like in the park. Apparently it was rough on infrastructure and roofs. Campgrounds and visitor centers alike are up to their windowsills with snow!
At Colter Bay, we tried walking from the main parking lot down to the waterfront, but we kept postholing — sinking up to our knees or even mid-thigh in the snow. After thirty yards we give up and turn back. We don’t see any bears, despite knowing that a few grizzlies have been seen the previous week, but we do see moose, herons, elk, and a few bluebirds. And maybe a loon in the Snake River at Moose. We also check the mailbox — last opened in October.
All winter, the inner park road is closed to vehicle traffic and groomed for skiers and snowshoeing. Come spring, a section at a time, the road is cleared of snow and opens to bikers and walkers. In a few days the transition will be complete and the road will reopen to vehicles. Dave takes advantage of the opportunity to bike the inner road. I drop him off at the south end – unprepared for the chaos the popularity of the activity causes. It is nuts!!
While Dave is enjoying his bike ride, I check out Cunningham Cabin and Elk Ranch Flats, where a grizzly family has been spotted in the last week. Nothing here but Unita Ground Squirrels. Further north at Oxbow Bend, I meet a woman who has just completed a job working on wolf research, and will now be assisting summer research on Prairie Dogs and Ferrets for Fish and Wildlife. She has no home and lives from seasonal job to seasonal job. I am in awe of her ability to live without a tether. We chat so much I forget to take more than one picture, and now it is time to meet Dave.
On my way, I see cars pulled over at Willow Flats — the scene of a massive bear jam on my first day working last year. Not a bear this time — it is a coyote hunting pocket gophers or mice. His is quite a distance out, but I can still follow its procedure of stepping quietly, tilting its head back and forth to locate prey with its hearing, tensing for the jump, leaping in a high arch into the air, then diving head first into the snow, tail waiving madly as it digs and traps dinner, before raising its head and gulping its meal whole. I indulge in a few photos and head off to pick up Dave.
Ahead I see a large Class C camper parked in the north bound lane, flashers on. Door open, steps down, and someone sitting on the steps. There is a wide shoulder, by the way. I am not in uniform, but I roll up to the driver window anyway, get him to lower his window, and in my best volunteer ranger voice ask, “Are you OK!? It looks like you are broken down in the road. Can I call for help or a tow truck?!”
“Uh, no. There is wolf over there we are watching!”
“Yes, I know there is a coyote hunting over there. However, you cannot stop and park in the road. Please make sure all four wheels are over the white fog line. You are blocking traffic! Thanks!”
And so it begins.
Our morning shift this year runs Sunday to Wednesday. For now, we roll out of the campground at 6:30 to be “in” the park before 7. Our very first patrol task is to clear a bird carcass from the middle of the roadway so that a predator doesn’t come to feed on it and risk being hit as well. The less glamorous and more troubling aspect of the job. There are so many animals hit each season, the park has a roadkill database. There will be more before our first week is over.
The day is very quiet as we put nearly 200 miles on the car patrolling for bears and jams. We see a fair number of elk, slow to leave the free food at the National Elk Refuge (they stopped the free buffet a week or so ago), making their way north to their calving grounds in Grand Teton. The Yellowstone herds left earlier.
Below the Jackson Lake dam, we spot two moose in the willows nibbling the branch ends. A woman on the dam is excited to take pictures of them on her cell phone, and motions as we roll by to make sure we see them. We cruise through the lower boat ramp area — a place we have seen bears before — and see several birders enraptured with a Flicker woodpecker in one of the trees. We roll to a stop, wish them a good morning, and alert them to the fact that they are not all that many yards from two moose. “We are?” they exclaim. “Yes, we didn’t want you to surprise them. Have a great day!”
We stop at Elk Ranch Flats for lunch. In between bites I use binoculars to observe the far tree line for any animals that may be there. This field is home to elk, bison, dude ranch horses, and occasionally bears, coyotes, sandhill cranes, crows, hawks & eagles, and more. The afternoon shift a day or so prior had a grizzly with two cubs here. Are they back?
Sitting in our marked car, we attract visitors with questions of course. Most of the questions today are along the lines of, “Have you seen anything good today?” or “I saw you looking at something, what is here?” We tell all of them simply, “Grizzly.” I love the startled look on their face, although I am not sure why they are surprised. Did they not know grizzlies were in the park? Are they surprised we’d tell the truth? But from there, the conversation can go in many directions. Today, when we mention this location is a good place to find bison, each person does the equivalent of an eye roll and tells us they came from Yellowstone and the bison were “Every-Where!” Okay then, don’t mention bison.
As we finally finish our sandwiches, we get a call from our boss. He’s had a call from one of the senior rangers of the park reporting a bear on the inner park road, which you may remember is still closed to vehicles and only open to people on foot, skates, or bikes. No car for protection from wildlife! And how many do you suppose brought bear spray with them on this sunny 70 degree spring day? We get the gate code, and go to investigate.
Near the location of the report, I think I see a bear, about 500 yards out. I look at it several times — a cinnamon brown color in the middle of a sage covered hillside. As I am mulling this over, Dave gets a forwarded cell phone image of the backside of a cinnamon bear climbing the hillside we are looking at. As I stare at it, I really, really think I see it moving its head — like it is watching the bike traffic roll by. So we let Dispatch and our boss know we think we have it, and we will stay to make sure it doesn’t come back to the road where the visitors are. It seems like the perfect viewing opportunity and the afternoon shift promises to bring a spotting scope.
Naturally being in uniform with binoculars roadside, we attract attention. Some bikers have their own binoculars and others ask to borrow ours. Some people say, “I see a bear and it looks like it is eating!” Others say, “I see a stump.” Dave is a little concerned the bear hasn’t moved much — but we’ve seen bears in the past settle in for a nap, even on top of a carcass.
Our colleagues arrive to take over for the next shift and set up the spotting scope. You never saw a more bear-like stump in your life! It was a gorgeous stump! But – it was not a bear.
I can tell you it is a lot funnier several days later than it is that afternoon. My colleagues are very kind and either neglect to say a word, or they try to console me with, “It happens to the best of us.” One ranger let me know that there was a guide/outfitter that was famous in the valley for calling out animals he was convinced were hunting trophy worthy animals, only to find out it was a shrub or stump. They became known as “brush-bucks.” I had my first brush-bear. (I still can’t figure out why I was so sure I saw it move!)
It was quite a first day. Our second day is the annual lecture hall orientation day. At the end, I think we all agree we’d like to have heard more about the research that the Science and Resource Management division is involved in, and less on housing issues. 😀
Day three is long on miles and short on animals. On one stop a visitor approaches me and asks where the next big town was — Jackson is “kinda small”. His only real choice is to head south, go over the Teton Pass and cross to Idaho Falls, in, unsurprisingly, Idaho. A trip of roughly 100 miles. At first, he seems to think I am kidding, but I ask if he has a road map, I will show him.
The conversation moves on to animals. “We haven’t seen anything. Where are the animals?”
“What time of day do you go out looking?” I ask.
“Yesterday and today we got out around 11 and nothing!”
“Well, that is a part of the issue right there.” And follow up with what animals are out at approximately what times (dawn and dusk) and in what general areas of the park you can most commonly expect to see critters.
“I don’t need bear spray!” he announces as he steps toward his car. (I haven’t even mentioned it) “I wear bear repellent — Old Spice!”
“Interesting. Did you know that bears are attracted to smells like our cosmetics and perfumes, not just food?” His wife jumps out of the car. “What?! They are?” I think they may pick up a can of bear spray in town.
On our last morning we are lucky enough to see a fine male grizzly about 300 yards out, near Yellowstone, digging for pocket gophers or their food cache. The rest of the day is amazingly quiet, with few animal viewing jams. The wildest thing all day was to see just how quickly a herd of bison could disappear. We patrolled north past Elk Ranch Flats — nothing. Patrolled again southbound and the herd was out, near the road with every one pulled off in a turnout so there is nothing for us to do. As we drive north again, about twenty minutes later, there isn’t a sign, neither hide nor hair of those hundred or so bison! They have either gone into the forest or are down by the river hidden in the thick red and orange willows. Poof! they appear, and Poof they disappear.
Oh, and the afternoon shift gets the grizzly family where we had waited and had lunch at Elk Ranch Flats!
Our four day week is over. The snow is receding from the edge of the main roads. Directional signs are slowly poking their heads above the snow banks. Side roads into attractions and small campgrounds are progressively being cleared. Campgrounds in the north are playing beat the clock to not only get a plow run through each camp site, but to also dig out the bath houses, picnic tables, and power poles. They have some frantic days ahead.
Knowing that rain is moving into the lower valley, we take advantage of our first day off to see if we can get some pictures of animals. We head to the east entrance in hopes of either catching another grizzly family seen on the slopes, or at the very least capture some photos of the ospreys we’ve seen in the nest every time we patrol by this past week.
No bears. One Osprey on a phone pole. I catch motion down on the river out of the corner of my eye. The muddy bank starts to collapse and the brown blob scampers and then dives into the water. When I check the photo later, I confirm the animal was a beaver. Cool!
At Oxbow Bend, Dave gets some A-Ma-Zing photos of a bald eagle that snatches a meal from the river and flies across the mountains. I capture a Blue Heron bringing his mate branches for their nest. There are eight Trumpeter Swans in a northern bend in the water. A woman remarks to me that she is shocked to see swans in Grand Teton. “I can’t believe it! It’s wonderful!” she says. They don’t stay for long, so it is indeed a wonderful thing to see. One pair in particular was conducting what I assume is its mating ritual dance.
The next storm’s clouds are rolling in and the lighting is becoming muted. We still have things to do at camp, so we walk the quarter mile back to the truck. I see a woman scanning around with her camera in her hand. The river is low, and at this end there is mostly mud and ice. So I offer, if you haven’t been to the other end, pointing north, there are eight swans close to the bank. Eye roll. “We have swans at home *all* the time.” You just never know what will get a visitor excited.