The Open Maze of Lamar Valley

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Back in Yellowstone, we made our way to Lamar Valley to camp near a sea of bison that would hopefully be chased by wolves. Lamar Valley has herds of over 500 bison, and one of the last surviving wild packs of wolves in the United States. Since this species of wolves eat bison, Lamar Valley is one of the best places to see a wolf hunt a bison in the world. I was excited.
On a previous trip I had witnessed a bison stampede up and down the ridge at the end of the valley, and I was hoping to repeat the experience from a closer and more photogenic distance. My friends however did not know that this was a possibility, and I figured it would be best for them not to let their imaginations get the best of themselves. Bison are enough to worry about as it is, much less a stampede with wolves getting involved. We would be in one of the best places to see an American stampede, but first we needed to find our campsite.

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I stood with my long time friends Anthony Clemente, and Kyle Mangione in front of the stream crossing that represented the divide between the road of Yellowstone, and the wild backcountry of Lamar Valley. We wondered whether we should lock our arms in the Disney movie style the mandatory ranger backcountry video had shown us before beginning our hike. But decided that we didn’t know enough fitting songs for such an occasion, and that I didn’t trust that a less fortunate member of the group wouldn’t pull me down on a misstep.
Calling it a stream crossing though is a bit of an understatement right from the beginning. The water was very clear and looked deceptively shallower than it actually was. As we kept walking, the water rose above our knees first, then dangerously approached the upper thigh before engulfing our hips in the middle. If you have ever taken gym basketball, you will recognize that the triple threat stance was required to keep from being uprooted and tossed down river.
I now realized why the actors in the backcountry movie kept their shoes on during the crossing. I hate hiking in wet shoes, so my shoes were in my hands, while the freezing cold water worked my feet over the different rocks in the stream below. But I would find out that this was just the beginning of our difficulties.

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Safely on the other side, we got lost. Twice. It was now raining. My broken and casted arm was wrapped in a trash bag high over my head, and the wind was blowing hard in our faces.
We didn’t have a formal map, but my friend had thoughtfully taken a picture of the deliberately obscure map posted at the head of the trail. Instead of making it to the small triangle they hid behind the name of our camping site, we made it on the other fork of the trail where the map seemed to want to lead us. If this sounds confusing to you, imagine standing in the pouring rain with a broken arm, trying to figure it out on a screen smaller than a Polaroid picture. The hike was not going as planned, though very little actual planning had been done.

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This is not to say we didn’t enjoy the time we spent getting there. The trail led us through an emerald green field dotted with wildflowers of every color. On either side of us were rolling green hills, and the steam of a hot spring could be seen rising behind the evergreen trees. If it weren’t raining we would have been thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
We also found out that the trail we were walking on might not be the right one. The park’s trail had been made into a web by the many bison trails that ran all over the valley. It took us a while to discover this, but the only way to be sure of where we needed to go was by following a trail of fluorescent sticks that led us towards our site by the river.
In the end, we never found our site but had to make our own. But that is a story for the next post.

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Getting Our Goat: Encountering a Goat On the Sun Road

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After three days and nights in the park, we finally saw our mountain goat as we were leaving. It happened at the top of Logan Pass, on highest point of the Road to the Sun (the road running through Glacier). There was a fenceless area with an overlook that an Australian walking barefoot in the glaciated snow was looking over with his girlfriend. Below us was a massive valley with waterfalls and glacial patches intermingled with emerald green grass. Our goat simply walked around the edge of the bushes and into our laps.

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The goat was completely unafraid of us and came in pretty close. We made sure to stand as still as possible, because TV had taught us that animals, like dinosaurs, cant see a person if they stand perfectly still. We tried to keep our movement down to just the cameras as the goat looked at us quizzically, but I was sure that this was just the goat looking through us. The plan was going perfectly.

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Then a park ranger came by and told us that 15 feet is the generally accepted minimum distance for mountain goats, and let us know that goats have much better sight than humans. We took a few slow steps back.
He walked back and forth across the area, while a group of tourists and myself moved like a sea of fish in a 15 foot perimeter around the animal as he walked around the area. At the pinnacle of his activity, he approached a family filled mini van, forcing the kids and their parents to hop back in before he rammed one of their mirrors off. I believe they were driving a dodge.

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Eventually our new friend walked back to a more obscure section of the area, and we decided it was about time to do the same. Check out the rest of these pictures we took during the drive. Best road in America.

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Summertime Blizzards and Running into a Family of Mountain Goats

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Thousands of feet above Glacier National Park, I had one of those moments when what I was looking for had been almost exactly under my nose. The wind was blowing me like a drunk across the trail, while I held my double garbage bag covered cast high above my head in an attempt to keep it dry. We had come here in search of mountain goats, but now that we were in a hailstorm, we couldn’t see much through the mist, and didn’t want to see much of anything other than the thick tree line we walked through on our way to the top of Red Pass. Somewhere within the 5 minutes we had been at the top, we had practically walked through a family of mountain goats without seeing them.

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It was our second day by Elizabeth Lake. The weather forecast had called for a pretty mild day, but a local guide who we found prepping coffee for his group in the light but sunless morning, assured us that weather predictions meant little to nothing in Glacier. It had been raining in our glacial basin campsite the day before, and had been pretty tolerable. I reasoned that the worst thing that would happen anyways is getting a little wet. I put a full package of garbage bags in my daypack, and got into a tee shirt.

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The sun was making patterns on the mountains surrounding the lake. Red Pass was glowing in the sunlight under a large blue sky. Breakfast was a neat replica of the beans, potato’s and hot dogs we had enjoyed the previous night. It was warmer already. It was looking as though the weatherman would beat the guide. But when we got close to the top a heavy wind began driving through us, and we watched the heavy gallop of a rain storm making its way across the valley. We had just enough time to throw on a light rain coat before the rain joined the freezing cold winds blasting over the pass.

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An hour later we were sitting on a ledge overlooking the valley from a clearing just below the tree line. It was sunny, and our jackets were drying beside us as we ate trail mix. A hiking couple came walking down the trail. I had seen them walking down Red Pass behind us, but it had been too cold and wet for us to want to stop and chat with them.

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Now on our sunny ledge where we felt comfortably like we were hanging out in a postcard, we shared stories with the couple about how awful the pass had been above us. The pass was now bathing in sunlight, looking like a wonderful and inviting place.
“You saw the goats right?” the lady asked. “They must have been right next to you. I looked up and saw a pack of goats standing next to some guy, and when I looked back up from getting my camera, the guy was gone. I thought my mind was playing tricks and I had seen just goats.”
Mountain goats aren’t exactly a rarity in Glacier, but it is always nice to get close to the animal, rather than just see it through a telescope. We had all but ran into a group of goats, but failed to notice because the conditions had been so uninviting.

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The news would have been a lot more upsetting if we weren’t then perched on a warm and comfortable ledge overlooking the basin, eating trail mix and drying off. I would have taken the place we were now, over a mountain goat eating out of my hand and playing a flute. Even though I had really wanted to see a goat, I probably would have turned around in less than a minute after seeing them.

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Full View of Hiking With A Broken Arm In Glacier National Park

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Hiking with a broken arm is problematic. I was told by my doctor that if it got wet, the effect would be the same as a river on a decomposing body, where long story short I would lose all of the skin on my arm. Thinking of zombies, I wrapped my arm with extra trash bags, hoping that it wouldn’t continue raining for the next two days.
The hike had a little bit of everything. We could be lounging in a glacial meadow one minute, and the next walking through a deciduous rainforest with lush green underbrush and strange bush like flowers, not to mention several rusty looking suspension bridges over roaring rapids. But it was just the tip of the ice burg.

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Elizabeth Lake is nestled at the end of a glacial valley. Towering cliff like mountains form a massive bowl around the lake, blowing icy winds over their shoulders to the lake below. These would trade off mosquito infestation with chilling weather. We huddled around our stove with our jackets pulled tight, and hats under the hoods of our rain jackets.

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It was 10 o’clock, but it still wouldn’t get dark for another hour. We watched our dinner of beans, potatoes and hot dogs come to a tantalizing simmer. It was a meal that I realized would be great with spices and vegetables back in civilization. When there was no wind we spent our time swatting the mosquitos away from the sides of our face, and when the wind came we danced around for warmth. No fires were allowed in the area.

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Above us was a red faced mountain known as Red Pass. It had been clear when we arrived, but was now lost in a swirl of snow white clouds. As I stared into our red pot of beans, I wondered if the weather would permit us to get that high the next day, and if we could see anything when we got there.

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I took the garbage bags off to make sure that the cast was still dry. It was, but my arm had started to go numb from being over my head. Now completely full, I tried to make myself comfortable in the sleeping bag. It was a three dog night, which means sleeping with three dogs is necessary to keep warm. But all I had were coats to throw on top of myself. Without a fire, there wasn’t much to do but try and keep warm. We went to bed early.

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Running Into a Bear: Woods Encounters of a Furry Kind

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The first thing Yellowstone Park does before releasing backpackers into the American Serengeti, is sit them down to watch a movie about bears in the backcountry. Friendly backpackers clap their hands and call out greetings to the bear, saying hello as they walk around the woods clapping and smiling. This is most likely because singing, “Better Run Through the Jungle” would be violating some copyright laws, and we were assured that all of this noise would scare the bears away.
With this in mind, we began Northwest Yellowstone trail of Black Butte (Black Beauty). We did our best to sing, talk loudly, and making the coolest beats ever on our car camping stove and water bottles. But we only seemed to attract the bears, as we walked around a corner and found one looking up expectantly as though he were enjoying the music.
In a flash my long time friend Anthony had the bear mace in his hands, while Kyle and I walked backwards trying to pull our cameras out and saying, “Takeiteasy”. Facing off with a bear is both terrifying and enthralling at the same time.
With all of the beautiful music gone, our bear soon lost interest in us and returned to eating whatever it was he had found.
We never had to use the bear mace, and this had a lot to do with our reaction. The best way to avoid scaring a bear is by keeping calm and giving it the space it deserves. Since they don’t acknowledge us as food, we are a kind of mysterious nonsensical creature that doesn’t pose a threat, but also isn’t food. We, as a species, are in the grey area.
Amidst the panicked feeling that we should probably leave this bear to his woods and return ourselves to the safety of a bar with a good story, we pulled ourselves together and walked in a large loop off of the trail and around the bear, and had a wonderful camping trip.

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