I was trying to think of a phrase to describe the past week or so — and the first one that came to mind was the mantra of our one-and-only ballroom dancing (samba) lesson instructor: Quick, quick, slow…
Soon followed by the military aphorism, “hurry up and wait.”
We put a lot of patrol miles on the car again this week. The world is newly coated in a fresh layer of snow, once again hiding the first brave blades of grass to push their green shoots above ground.
Early Monday, a fox trots down the double yellow line of the highway, crosses a bridge, and quickly disappears into the gray and white gravel slopes of Pilgrim Creek. The sun is still so low that the fox’s shadow stretches across a full lane of asphalt. Our one jam is at 9am where six cars pulled over to watch a coyote hunt in a broad field. As one car leaves, another takes its spot. Pretty low key, and no need for us to monitor. The rest of the day is spent cruising.
On Tuesday we pass ten moose in the early dawn light as we make the drive to the north end of the park. We see a few elk for the first time on the upper slopes of Lozier Hill near Pacific Creek. The sun often paints their tan coat with golden color making them glow against the gray-green sage the elk are munching. This is the farthest north in the park that we have seen them this year. They better get a move on to reach the calving grounds — calving season starts in seven days. We clear a few more small animal carcasses from the roadway.
We haven’t had a bear jam since we started working this year. Other teams are joking that they don’t want to work with the Titleys! However our no-bear jinx is broken mid-morning by a call from dispatch to investigate a wildlife jam south of the Jackson Lake Junction.
We arrive to see a dozen or so cars parked on both sides of the road and people standing on their car roofs to see over the tall willows. They tell us they see a grizzly bear foraging. Several photographers with telephoto lenses tell us there is a person back there, getting close to the bear!
Suddenly, a large dark bear shoots across the road in front of a car, just south of the jam. It looks like a black bear. The photographers can still see the grizzly, so this is definitely a second bear.
While Dave gets the traffic and parking sorted, I walk along a back road to see if I can find the visitor. I don’t get far before I spot a grizzly in the sage, far closer than it should be given where the cameras were aimed! So I turn around and leave, even though I never found a person out there.
A short time later, something spooks the grizzly everyone is watching. We still have not seen it because we are not going to stand on a car roof. It starts running north, toward Willow Flats along the river. Dave is able to spot it through breaks in the willows and moves his car to another corner of the intersection to get ahead of leap-frogging cars.
Meanwhile, Dave alerts dispatch we may have someone where they shouldn’t be. A law enforcement Ranger arrives, finds them, and has a chat. In a nutshell, she’s let them know to stay away from the area where we have a bear. Great!
The new jam builds in anticipation of the bear breaking out of the trees and either crossing the road or foraging roadside. Cars line the road for about a half mile. Other brigaders have joined to help and all four of us are busy with visitors. The bear pops out of the evergreens for a few seconds, looks at the line of people and cars, and ducks back into the woods. Immediately, visitors on foot and driving by are informing us there is someone in the field where the bear was last seen. Ugh.
We find him later standing on the roadside and attempt to have a conversation. As you might guess, it isn’t fruitful and we break off after the insults start. Law Enforcement returns for another chat. We are delighted to discover that this Ranger is an ex-rescue swimmer for the Navy. You should have seen her in her full gear to go into the brush to find this guy! We look forward to working with this Ranger on future shifts. We learned a lot.
The rest of the day is very quiet.
My alarm is now set for 4:30 am to be on deck for our six am shift start. Masterpiece sunrises are very helpful in quelling early start yawns.
Adrenaline works too. Just after seven we are called to a wildlife jam near a turnout. Its about thirty-two degrees and mostly cloudy with a chill breeze. I am grateful I have long johns, and every outer layer of uniform issued to me!
Between 250 and 330 yards out, foraging in the sage and snow, is a grizzly bear family. Momma is likely to be bear number 610 with her year old triplets. She does not have a collar or tags, so there is no way to be 100% sure. Our powers of description get quite a workout as we attempt to explain to visitors, especially those without binoculars, exactly what they are looking at and where the bears are in the brush and trees.
The through traffic on the road is thankfully quieter than we expect for most of the morning. The cars again the line the road for about a half mile on either side. Some photographers we recognize from jams last year, and have a little catch-up. Many of the visitors are full of questions which we happily answer. Several times I am asked if I have had breakfast, do I need an energy bar or something to drink. A few retires want to know how to get my job. And I am happy to give out my first bear sticker of the season to a young girl watching with her parents. The turnover is steady so the parking doesn’t get too difficult to manage all the way through noon when the bears lay down under an evergreen and have a nice long nap.
A law enforcement Ranger stops by and asks me how things are going. “It’s a dream jam,” I explain. The bears are a couple hundred yards out, people can see them, the parking is going well, and it’s gorgeous weather. “Good to hear!” “Thanks for coming by to check on us!!”
Around one o’clock the afternoon shift arrives and we brief them on what has happened and how we set up the parking, cones, etc. And then….
And then … Momma Griz starts walking across the snow towards the road. I am calling out the distance in my range finder to the other Rangers. She is walking with purpose. The cubs follow part of the way. There are a lot of swales so it easy to lose sight of the three independent minded cubs.
We scramble to move the cars on the bear side of the road to start opening a space if the bear wants to cross. Guess how popular we were! The sow stops 50 yards from the side of the road and starts digging. Likely she is looking for the food stored by pocket gophers, or maybe trying to get lucky and snatch a gopher for a protein snack. We clear more cars and establish do-not-cross lines that all the visitors must stay behind to get their pictures. Of course there are those that test our resolve. My jaw dropped when a tour bus stopped and let off a load of visitors. More is not always merrier! But it turns out, the group had a lot of questions about bear biology, feeding habits, etc. which I was happy to help answer.
A young girl timidly approaches me and asks if she can borrow my binoculars. It turns out she is with a group of other young of young girls, it seemed each from a different country. I passed on the chance to question them more about where they were from or how they came to be in GRTE — as they were busy squealing with delight to see the grizzly and pass my binoculars to each other. Sometimes they put their heads together so each girl had a view through one eyepiece! THIS is the best part of jams.
At this point we’ve completed over nine hours of an eight hour shift. Our colleagues have the the deck and the conn, and it is time to go. The last glimpse we have is of 610 running to the river, calling for her missing cubs. [We know she found them because every afternoon shift has been busy with the family!]
We spent two hours Wednesday morning with another grizzly mom and her twins near Oxbow Bend. Her foraging zig-zagged across the plateau near the river, but she never came closer than a few hundred yards. The rest of the day was quiet. The afternoon shift kept busy with nine bears in total!
Oh, and at the end of the day, after triangulating positions, we decide that we had three unrelated bears all at the same time in the willows on the Tuesday morning jam — two grizzlies and a black bear!