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PART ONE: Yellowstone/Grand Teton Country and My Dance With a Bison

 

I’ve spent large chunks of the past twenty summers measuring, studying, and authoring research papers on Yellowstone’s vegetation and ecology, principally on the Northern Range between Mammoth Hot Springs and Pebble Creek. My research involves lots of hiking and aspen stand measurements, but I also try to carve out time each summer for exploration. I’ve kayaked and canoed many area rivers over the years, and favorites include the Madison, the “town run” on
the Yellowstone, the Henry’s Fork, and the Buffalo. This year I’ve brought my Oru Beach LT to explore the waters of Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park.

“Oooh, an Oru Kayak!” exclaimed the Aquatic Invasives tech as I opened the back of my truck at the Grand Teton National Park Moose entrance station. “My Dad has one and he loves it!”

Every boat entering the State of Wyoming/Grand Teton National Park must be inspected and certified to be free of exotic invasive aquatic species, to prevent the spread of nasty invasive organisms such as Quagga and Zebra mussels. Seems that only a few Oru kayaks have passed through this tech’s inspection station so far this year, but she’s happy to see one! Oru’s origami design makes it the perfect boat to throw in the back of my truck for my 30-50 day annual Yellowstone research field season. Space is a premium when I’m living and working 1000 miles from home and Oru’s compact fold-up design allows me to pack my kayak up in the front of my truck box, out of the way while I focus on my aspen field work but right there when I’m ready for paddling. My fieldwork requires great mounds of gear,
and I have found that the compact fold-up design of the Oru provides for much easier logistics than either carrying a boat on top of my truck or trying to constantly shift mountains of research and camping gear around a hard-shell kayak in the box.

I’ve been exploring the Tetons for years, usually staying in the valley of Jackson Hole only long enough to collect my backcountry permit to head out onto the Teton Crest, Avalanche Canyon, or Alaska Basin with my pack. I’ve spent so much time gazing up at the Grand Teton/Mt. Moran and dreaming of backcountry climbing and hiking trips that it only recently occurred to me that there’s a ton of interesting water to explore down on the valley floor! Necessary permits in hand, I decided to start by exploring Jenny and String-Leigh Lakes, created at the base of the Teton Range by terminal moraine deposition from the retreating glaciers of the Wisconsin Ice Age some 12,000 years ago.

If you’re planning on launching a kayak onto Jenny or the String-Leigh Lake chain, you want to get down to the boat landing early, as the small parking lots adjacent to the landings fill early and stay full all day. Jenny is the best known of the lakes with its beautiful (car) campground and position right at the base of the Grand Teton. However, a Tetons paddling trip is not complete without also venturing out onto the slightly further north String and Leigh Lakes. Motors are allowed on Jenny, but String and Leigh are paddle power only and have a quieter and more remote vibe. Leigh also has several campsites on the west shore that are accessible by kayak/canoe only.

Whether by car, foot, or Oru kayak the Yellowstone/Teton area abounds in wildlife, so carrying a quality camera, telephoto lens, and tripod are a must. When paddling I always pack my camera gear in a dry box, since either on water or land strange things can happen fast in the land of fang, hoof, and claw and you need to be ready …

One encounter, in particular, solidified my reverence for this wild place and the inhabitants that call it home.

The sun was unrelentingly hot as I walked upslope through the sage towards Aspen Plot 32 in Yellowstone’s Slough Creek country. Thirty-two is one of 113 long-term ecological research plots I annually measure on Yellowstone’s Northern Range, and as I crested the ridge coming up from Plot 35, I could see 20 or so bison laying in the shade of 32’s aspen. No big deal. If you work on YNP’s Northern Range, you soon learn to dance with bison. But I’m working alone and off-trail this day, so it’s prudent to keep a keen eye on any wild inhabitants in the vicinity.

I observe the herd’s behavior closely as I advance slowly toward Plot 32. Cows and calves slowly wandering and grazing on the understory grass, lots of grunting and groaning, nothing unusual or threatening here. But they’re grazing in a bad spot, right where I need to make my aspen transect measurements. Hmm, not good. I need to get this plot done today, and I slowly advance to see what the bison will do. As I move closer, the herd moves off a hundred yards or so out into the sage and resume their grazing and grunting. Good. Looks like they’re going to give me
space and I’m good to go on 32, but as I approach the aspen, a big bull and 2 calves lying hidden behind some pole aspen suddenly jump up and run off to join the herd. The big bull, however, stops just short and turns to watch me…


Hiking solo and off-trail that day in Yellowstone’s Slough Creek country, I stood off in the sage watching the herd of bison I had just roused from Aspen Plot 32. Twenty years of working in Yellowstone’s Northern Range backcountry has provided me with long experience with bison, wolves, black bears, pronghorn, badgers, and even King Griz himself at close range but without trouble – we’ve appraised each other and went our separate ways. Shouldn’t be any different today I mused, but that big bull was standing just off from the rest of the herd and watching me
intently - he hadn’t taken his eyes off me since I kicked him out of that pole aspen. He wasn’t acting like most bison I’ve danced with in the Yellowstone backcountry, his eyes had an unblinking intensity and focus on me that was unusual and a bit unsettling. I stopped. What to do? It’s a long, hot, and hard off-trail bushwhack back to this plot and I’ve still got a lot of miles and plots to measure before this day is finished.

Silence and 100 yards of space between us, we eyed each other and gauged each other’s intent. But I've got work to do today in 32 so I took a step forward toward my plot and towards the big bull. At the moment of that fateful step, the world
suddenly changed and the big bull wheeled around and came straight for me at a gallop, malevolence in his heart and mayhem in those horns. “Oh, shit…”

 

To be continued...