Sept. 17th, 2021
Miles Hiked: 7
Features: bear scat & tracks, ski slopes, a terrible chocolate croissant
I wake just before daybreak, my watch reads 6:45 and it is barely light enough to fetch my bear canister without a headlamp. Fetching my bear canister each morning has the ring of Christmas, you know how you gingerly approach the tree, tiptoeing along with a certain expectancy? Except in the back country, rather than hoping to discover gifts, I am merely hoping to see that my food is still there. I mean, imagine if one day it were just gone? Fortunately, I have never had it messed with before, but it always feels like there’s that potential. Usually, there are just a few mouse turds on top of my cooking pot. I’m telling you, mice are worse than bears!
My cooking fuel is 98% empty, just like last week. I’m thinking I can suck the last little bit of fuel out just to make a semi-warm coffee, but today it’s really not possible. I light the flame and within two minutes, it’s dead. Today, I get lukewarm coffee at best, and have to settle with that. But it still tastes good and so does my cold breakfast of oatmteal with ginger turmeric granola and goji berries (thank you Trader Joe’s).
The crystalized ginger tastes so bomb, I devour it. As soon as I finish it, I move on to polishing off the last of my Backyard BBQ Kettle chips. Yum. I think I have a little case of the hiker hunger. Coming to terms with this, I am feeling the pull of civilization, pining for a real egg breakfast and a real hot cup of coffee, so let’s get going!
The guys in camp #1 are still tucked in, fast asleep when I walk past them, heading toward the lakeshore. The water is moving toward me in soft ripples, and the sun just barely crests the ridge, warming me up. I gather just a liter of water and thank the lake for it’s beauty and gift of hydration. As whenever I leave the wild, I miss the natural water that I am so fortunate to get to drink every day.
There is a sign at the trail junction indicating a bridge that is under construction and that it’s not possible to walk all the way around the lake. I’m not sure how that affects my hike, so I pour over the map looking for every possible alternate way to get back to Teton Village without walking the road. All I can come up with is the main trail which I’m already on. Hopefully I can just get through on the bridge, even if it’s a scramble, I am sure I can do it right? I just hope it’s not the same place I heard those rocks falling last night. Eeek!
Shortly I am crossing the creek which is the inlet to Phelps Lake. There is a little footbridge, in perfect condition. Clearly this is not the bridge under construction. I turn to witness the morning light glittering on the surface of the flowing waters against a backdrop of early Fall colors. I’m going to miss this…
I make my way above the lake, and there are no issues with any bridges, it must have been further down the trail along the shoreline of the lake. A little relief washes over me now, knowing I won’t get diverted.
My body feels content climbing in the early cool air. I hear sounds of airplanes and boats and start to realize just how close I am to civilization. Then I think about the fact that I last took a shower ~8-9 days ago. That thought makes me think of hygiene, when did humans in the course of our evolution start using hygienic practices?
On top of the ridge I stop for a pee and take in the final views of the lake before I descend the other side, dipping ever closer to civilization. Suddenly there is a long string of bear tracks, unmistakable bear tracks. And, they are the size of my hand and foot. I am totally engaged in watching the pattern and loving how the tracks perfectly follow the sandy trail. I see two fresh piles of bear scat as well and begin to feel a little giddy that I might just see a bear.
The only people I see all morning, are two women out for a day hike. We stop and chat for a good 10 minutes, and of course they ask if I’ve seen any bears. This is the #1 question I got from all the humans I’ve seen since Jenny Lake. And I saw a lot of humans and I got asked a lot. “Did you see bears?” people would blurt out nervously. “Nope, no bears, but they are out there” was my standard, uninterested answer. I don’t mean to make it sound like I could care less about bear awareness, it’s just the panicky way most people ask that annoys me. Im sure all the signage around the busy park trails might have something to do with it.
I have been very bear aware the entire time while hiking in Wyoming, about 14 days worth of solo travel in the back country. It is always my desire to have the special opportunity to encounter a wild majestic animal in it’s native habitat from a safe distance. I really feel it is a gift and consider the wildlife medicine, messengers of Spirit.
I think the big difference here, is that grizzly bears are much more consequential if you have a surprise encounter or you’ve somehow gotten too close to them. However, I am not convinced that the liklihood of an encounter is any greater than other places where I’ve hiked. And in places where bears are habituated to getting food from humans, that’s really when it becomes a big problem, for both humans and the bears. Perhaps there are more bears in the front country for this reason?
In grizzly territory, in the back country, you do need to be more aware, more on alert, more fastidious at keeping your food properly stored and you can’t get lazy. If your standard practices in bear country are polished, from my experience thus far, I think that chances are, you will be just fine. But, I still have a lot of ground to cover in this realm, so maybe ask me again in a year. I have heard stories of hikers being charged by a grizzly so please don’t mistake my musings to be cavalier.
But the thing is, I have learned, bears are not just lurking behind a tree or rock, waiting to pounce on us, and that’s what it seems like our fears convince us of when we lack experience. I do speak from some experience and from witnessing others, and we know too, that most of our fears are really just trepidation about the unknown.
If you asked me about bears back in 2013 on my first solo JMT hike, I would have told you they were there waiting to pounce. I was terrified at every little sound in the deep, dark woods. Since then, I’ve learned a lot. With 10,000+ miles of backpacking under my belt, one of the best lessons of the trail, is there’s nothing better to quell your fears, than to face them.
I part ways with the two women, heading back into the overgrown forest of Aspens. When I reach the ski slopes I am surprised to find they are so much flatter than I’d imagined. From looking at the map, I had assumed the ski slopes here were going to be similar to the ski slopes on the other side of the mountain, back where I started. Remember the double black diamond on day one? Not the case here. This is literally the bunny slope!
There are suddenly noises of machines from construction and big trucks parked on the open grass. Fancy deserted houses line the slopes, waiting for the snow. When the snow comes, the people come here too, right?
I try to imagine what this place looks like in the snow. I find myself walking on tracks through the forest that would be really fun, narrow ski trails in Winter. I am almost running along them, sweeping from one steep side angle to another. Then, I realize, these are mountain bike tracks in the Summer, this is really fun.
There is a cute little stream running through the forest adjacent to the trail, and I stop to fill up my bottle one last time. Thank you mountain water, I Love You.
It’s after 11am when I arrive at the finish, and before I take my cell phone out of airplane mode, I snap a few photos next to the Bridger Gondola. There are plenty of humans out and about, but I am the only one here who just emerged from the forest like a feral cat. I’ve been in the woods a while, I am dirty, hungry and a little skittish around people!
There is a little gift shop/coffee shop right in Teton Village that I pop into. I immediately spot baked goods, eyeballing the chocolate croissant in the pastry case just sitting there glowing. I order it from the friendly clerk and pay too much money for it. Stepping outside, I break open the pastry and take my first bite. It’s terrible! Unfortunately, it’s totally dry and has no flavor whatsoever. I think they forgot the butter. But I have to laugh! I don’t trash it either, I simply wrap it back up and shove it in my pocket. I’m sure I can choke it down tomorrow morning with some coffee.
The first order of business it to drive to town and get myself a real breakfast. I find a perfect place that serves breakfast food all day and pours Starbucks coffee, which I’m normally not a huge fan of, but today, it sure hits the spot and I consume several cups.
As I sit in the busy cafe, sipping coffee, enjoying every bite of my veggie omelet and people watching, I reflect on my week in the Tetons. I’ve become increasingly aware of my time in the wilderness coming to an end. As always, it feels much sooner than I want. But it’s never not been this way.
I feel, as I usually do, that this dirtbag gypsy life is something I want to keep within my grasp, even when I do return to civilization. It’s the ever-present goal to maintain this sense of freedom and wildness within my enery field and never forget that blissful state of living life on the dirt.
And even as I will return to my “other” life, time after time, the wilderness is and always will be the place I call home, the place I will return to forever, because the wild life of the trail is the most real life I know.
Back in town, I find the local Rec Center to go take a shower. Let me just tell you how amazing this feels! I even washed my hair! Then, I make my way over to do laundry on the other end of town and have a nice, long chat with my Mom while the clothes are being rid of their trail grime.
In the evening, I scout a place to car camp in the Gros Ventre area, barely making it to camp by dusk. No surprise there! I received great news from my friends, the Wander Women, that the PCT in CA is re-opening as of tomorrow! Whoo hoo!
So, that means they are going back to their PCT thru-hike, and I will be joining them in just three days. I couldn’t be more excited for this opportunity. This means tomorrow I drive. It should take me a day and a half to get to CA. I’ll be picking them up at the Reno airport and we will get on trail together at Sonora Pass, headed southbound. I feel so fortunate that this is all working out… from one adventure to the next.