Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Greater Yellowstone Loop

Yellowstone National Park is iconic. Tourists pour in by the busload to catch a glimpse of  bison munching grass in a meadow, watch Old Faithful erupt, or fish in the crystal-clear waters that flow through the park. Yellowstone is classic Americana.

But for the backcountry wanderer, Yellowstone really isn't that great. When I hiked through the park in 2018 on the Continental Divide Trail, I observed that most of the route was either burnt (remnants of the disastrous wildfires of 1988 and more recent burns) or crawling with tourists. I know I'm not the only CDT hiker to have been disappointed by Yellowstone. Even the areas of the park well away from the CDT aren't particularly great backpacking destinations.

But what if we expanded our view of Yellowstone? The park itself is large - 2.2 million acres - but it's dwarfed by the huge complex of National Forest land that surrounds it. The park therefore is merely the centerpiece of a vast ecosystem that's almost entirely wild. For my money, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the largest chunk of mostly-protected land in the Lower 48. 

The park itself isn't very mountainous - that darned supervolcano keeps blowing them up every million years or so - but it's ringed by jawdropping ranges. Some of these mountains are well-known, like the Tetons or the Beartooths. Others, like the Wyomings or Absarokas, are more obscure. Regardless of popularity though, the ranges of the Greater Yellowstone are all magnificently beautiful. In the summer of 2020, I combined them all into an 800-mile Greater Yellowstone Loop (GYL).

Fast Facts:
  • Miles: 800
  • States: 3
  • National Parks: 2
  • National Forests: 5
  • Wilderness Areas: 9
  • Wilderness Study Areas: 2
  • Backpackers seen: 5 (excluding National Parks)
  • Bears seen: 7
  • Backpackers attacked by: 0
  • Bears attacked by: 1
  • Days: 61
  • Zero-days: 19 (all bear-related)

History of the Route

I spent a week or two backpacking in the Greater Yellowstone each summer from 2014-2017. In 2017, while searching for information on an extremely remote corner of the Absaroka Range, I came across a book by Phillip Knight, Into Deepest Yellowstone. As far as I can tell, Knight (joined for long stretches by his wife Alaina) is the first person on record to have hiked a loop through the Greater Yellowstone, around 1990. His journey was about 600 miles. 

In 2018, my pal Pepperflake set out to do a Greater Yellowstone Loop. His route meandered a bit more than Knight's, visited more mountain ranges, and included a huge amount of scrambling, peakbagging, and rugged travel. His route clocked in at over 1,000 miles.

As with any iconic landscape, there have been many other Greater Yellowstone routes proposed in recent years, many of them conforming to the current "High Route" backpacking trend. None of those point-to-point routes grabbed my interest though. I wanted to do a full loop of the Greater Yellowstone for two reasons:

1) To illustrate the underlying unity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - to walk all the way through the mountains that almost completely encircle the park
2) To avoid the need to arrange transportation to the termini - I could simply park my car and walk in a circle, ending back at my car. 

As May turned to June and it became clear that my planned Pacific Crest Trail hike simply wasn't possible in the midst of a pandemic, I contacted Pepperflake, who graciously shared the maps from his 2018 hike. I spent a few weeks familiarizing myself with the maps and updating the route to fit my own preferences. The result was an 800-mile loop, starting and ending near West Yellowstone, MT. While much of the route was on-trail (at least in theory), a significant minority of the mileage (at least 30% was off-trail, usually along ridges and over peaks. I planned for slow travel due to snowpack, bushwhacking, and off-trail navigation.

I was not the only hiker on the GYL in 2020. About a week after I finished, a group of three hikers (Stargate, The Darkness, Jukebox) finished their own loop, also having riffed off of Pepperflake's route.

Coronavirus Considerations

For me, COVID-19 required a significant re-thinking of what a thru-hike looks like. While hiking itself (being outdoors and away from other people) is very low-risk, all the ancillary parts of a of a thru-hike aren't quite so simple. I was unwilling to put myself or others at risk of infection just for the sake of a vacation. I identified solutions to three problematic parts of a thru-hike - where social distancing is impossible or unrealistic:

1) Transportation to/from the termini: This one was easy. I'd simply drive to the trailhead (a fairly quick trip from my home base in Salt Lake) and hike a loop back to my car. I contacted a local private landowner, who graciously allowed me to park my car for a couple months.

2) Hitchhiking into town for supplies: Rather than hitching, I spent a few days before my hike driving to various trailheads and caching supplies. I placed everything inside odor-proof bags, closed them up in bear-proof containers, and buried them underground. I cached not only food, but other supplies as well: replacement shoes and socks, DEET, headlamp batteries, toothpaste, toilet paper, first aid supplies, etc - in short, everything I needed for two months in the backcountry.

On a few occasions, I contacted guest ranches that were directly on my route, and they were happy to hold packages for me - where I could mask up, walk in, grab my package, thank the owner, and walk out - all in thirty seconds. These maildrops worked well and seemed very low-risk from a COVID standpoint, but in retrospect I would have preferred to just place caches there instead. In addition to marginal COVID risk reduction, I could have left myself more niceties instead of jamming the essentials into a USPS flat-rate box.

3) Hanging out in towns: Hikers love to loiter in towns - spend a few hours in the laundromat, get a hotel room, drink 17 cups of coffee at the local diner, etc. I figured that the only way that I could resist these temptations was to avoid town entirely. Instead, I was careful to leave "Town-in-a-Box" in my caches. 
  • Restaurant: I cached a couple thousand calories of heavy, impractical, yummy food (pop, canned fruit, pudding cups, etc) - things that were shelf-stable but not my normal lightweight backpacking food. I could eat that food right there at my cache.
  • Laundromat: I left myself extra gallon-sized zip-lock bags and little tiny vials of Dr. Bronner's soap to wash my filthy clothes in the backcountry (well away from the water source, mind you!).
  • Post office: I used my cache boxes to swap out clothing and gear. Anything I no longer needed I simply reburied in my cache and picked it up at the end of the hike.
  • Grocery store: I intentionally cached a little extra food so I could "shop" in my box as my tastes changed over the course of the hike. In retrospect, I wish I had done even more of this.
There was one town I had to pass through - Mammoth Hot Springs, WY - only because that section of route was in the National Park itself, which prohibits food caches. But Mammoth Hot Springs is a crappy nothing-town, with not much more than a post office (in-and-out in thirty seconds!) and a to-go short-order grill where I phoned in an order outside the building. 

All in all, my preparations for the Greater Yellowstone Loop were more akin to a polar expedition than a backpacking trip. I tailored both the route itself and my hiking style to be compliant with every conceivable social distancing guideline or best-practice.

An Important Caveat

As most readers of this blog already know, I was attacked by a bear at about the midpoint of the hike. This resulted in a trip to the hospital, and nearly three weeks of recovery before I could resume my trek. During that interregnum, I let my social-distancing standards slip a bit. Part of that was unavoidable - I had to rely on the generosity of folks to get a ride to the hospital, find a place to mend up, etc - but part of that was me just getting a little sloppy with my choices. 

Even though a bear attack is a literal one-in-a-million event, the experience showed me just how easy it is to backslide when it comes to rigorous social-distancing austerity measures. Even for the best-intentioned, most iron-willed folks, it's somewhat likely that we'll let our guard down if given the opportunity. Given this experience, I'm not sure whether or not I'd try another austerity-style hike during the pandemic. While my experiment was largely successful while I was on-trail, that off-trail interregnum does gnaw at my conscience a little bit. 

Section 1: The Tetons

After parking my car near a manure spreader on a ranch near West Yellowstone, I hopped on my old friend, the Continental Divide Trail for a few days. These days were spent walking over largely featureless plateau, one of only two gaps in the mountains on the entire GYL. I had timed my start strategically, starting in a lowlands environments to give the snowpack a few extra days to melt before I entered the Tetons themselves. 

This turned out to be a horrible miscalculation. In early July, those lowlands were swarming with the worst mosquitoes I've ever seen. At one point, right after I fording the Bechler River in the southwestern corner of Yellowstone, I killed seventeen bugs with a single handclap in front of my face. I covered up from head to toe - long pants, long shirt, headnet, and even rain mitts for my hands - and sweltered in the hot July sun. I am not exaggerating a bit here: I had to keep waving my hand in front of my face just so I could see through the cloud of bugs trying to land on my headnet. It was that bad.

After a few days though, I climbed into the Tetons, where the bugs and the views improved dramatically. I walked along the crest, at points walking a knife's edge with spectacular scenery all around. After a few days of storms, including decent-sized hail, the weather improved and I wouldn't see another drop of rain for weeks. 

The snowpack was burly in the Tetons and progress was slow. I was prepared for the snow with ice axe and microspikes, but I still couldn't make quick progress, particularly once the snow softened up each afternoon. It was so beautiful though that I didn't care how slow I was going. After more than a week in the backcountry, I popped out at Teton Pass and dug up my first cache, tired, but confident I could tackle what lay ahead.

Section 2: The Snake River and Wyoming Ranges

This section contained a pair of often-overlooked ranges south and east of the town of Jackson. I didn't find the Snake River Range to be particularly enthralling, though I took a sub-par route after correctly deducing that Pep's route followed a trail that was in horrible shape/didn't exist at all. Still, I cruised plenty of ridgelines and glided through ridiculous fields of wildflowers. On most other trails, this section would have been a highlight, but by GYL standards, it was pretty humdrum.

By contrast, the Wyoming Range was magnificent. I followed a  circuitous route through the area, but it was unquestionably worth it. I walked a sharp ridge that was two-toned in color - gray and orange - with spectacular views of the Tetons, Snakes, Gros Ventres, and even the Winds to the east. While this section of the Wyomings doesn't carry any special Wilderness protection, it was one of the most wild sections of a hike that had no shortage of them. I also glimpsed massive numbers of elk - so numerous in fact that they seemed to be damaging sensitive alpine areas with overgrazing. So if you happen to draw a Wyoming elk tag, maybe help a brother out and hunt there please!

The section concluded with the nastiest bushwhack on the GYL - a 4,000-foot trail-less descent down a ridiculous steep ridge with ridiculously thick vegetation, ending at the Hoback River, which divides the Wyomings from the Gros Ventres to the north.

Section 3: The Gros Ventres

The Gros Ventres flank the town of Jackson to the east, opposite the Tetons. Because they're not the Tetons though, they're obscure and seldom-visited. In my opinion though, they're nearly as spectacular - but without the people and the red tape associated with National Parks. The ridgewalk along the crest of the range, followed by some more off-trail travel on incredible "shelves" just below a series of jagged peaks, proved to be one of the highlights of the entire trip. I cruised through recently-glaciated terrain, across lingering snowpack.

I was  reluctant to leave the heights of the Gros Ventres, but all good things must come to an end. The last two days of the section involved the longest roadwalk on the entire route, followed by a few miles on the CDT through relatively low terrain. I've long held that the CDT through the Greater Yellowstone takes the worst of all possible routes; the Divide itself just isn't very scenic. The GYE bore this out: the least interesting parts of the route were where it joined the CDT in Sections 1 & 3. 

Section 4: Absarokas South

The Absaroka Range is the largest single sub-range of the Rocky Mountains, stretching from west-central Wyoming all the way into southern Montana. They're beautiful mountains, almost entirely protected by designated Wilderness areas, and a wanderer's paradise. It therefore seems strange that the Absarokas are so obscure that nobody can pronounce them correctly (the "o" is silent). As befits a huge range, I spent several sections there. 

The section began with an incredible walk along the Continental Divide on the expansive Buffalo Plateau, an expansive tabletop above treeline, cut by deep glacial valleys. On day 3, I left the Buffalo Plateau behind, climbing Thorofare Peak, the most remote peak in the Lower 48 (as measured by distance from a road). Atop the peak, I peaked at my phone and - yep, I had a bar of 4G. Thanks Verizon... I guess. Needless to say, I put that contraption back in airplane mode. No need to spoil a wilderness moment with technological intrusion. 

Following my ascent of Thorofare, I dropped down into a series of large valleys, connected by vague scraps of trail-like substance. After a while I joined good trail briefly before veering off onto a nifty elk trail beneath some cliffs on an off-trail pass. I'd previously scouted this area in person a few years ago and knew the elk trail to exist. I was surprised, though, that Pepperflake was able to find it (presumably on satellite) and knew to route himself that way. 

On that elk trail, I turned a corner and met an unhappy grizzly. I was stitched up by the fine folks at the hospital in Cody. I had to take about three weeks off before I could carry a backpack comfortably enough to continue hiking. After healing up, I resumed my trek at the beginning of Section 5. I missed the last 40 miles of Section 4, but I think a bear attack qualifies as a pretty good excuse. I really do want to go back and do those 40 miles at some point though; the scenery looks outstanding and it's the very quintessence of "big wilderness". Someday, hopefully. 

Section 5: Absarokas North

In truth, this section was a bit of a dud. The first half of the section was in nice montane terrain, but much of it was burnt and nasty. I must say, though, that a brief walk along the eastern border of Yellowstone was fantastic. A nice trail follows the crest of the Absarokas for a few miles before the route dropped east off the main ridge through a huge burn area and down into some unremarkable lowlands. 

The latter half of the section entailed a circuitous detour down the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River. The Clark Fork is a marvelous canyon that cuts deeply through the Beartooth Plateau, but for the most part, the trail I was on stayed out of the inner gorge and just wasn't that scenic. When it finally dropped down to river level, the mosquitoes were so hellacious (Bechler River-bad!) that I couldn't really slow down and enjoy the scenery. If I did this route again, I'd probably stay up on the Absaroka crest. While I had off the ridge due to "sketch factor" a few years prior, I think I'd probably give it another go in the future in a better mental state. 

Section 6: The Beartooths

This section was probably the most beautiful section of the entire hike - and considering the competition, that's high praise indeed.

Pepperflake's original route through the Beartooths was rugged, demanding, and doubtlessly incredible. It conformed pretty well to a route that I've been itching to do for several years now. But it involved some class III scrambling and a "horrible bushwhack from hell", and given that I still couldn't lift my arm above my shoulder, that was obviously a no-go. 

Instead, I opted for a lower, mostly on-trail route across the Beartooth Plateau, a mostly above-treeline plateau dotted with hundreds of fantastic lakes. I got a little carried away through here though, and ended up going off-trail and doing some light scrambling. I just couldn't help myself! It was too enticing! Trails themselves are pretty vague in the Beartooths, and just about everything is passable. Navigating the landscape off-trail is like a maze - but it's a maze where nearly every path is a winner, and every winner is uniquely beautiful. I met a kindly gentleman who's spent 25 years exploring the plateau and he still hasn't been everywhere yet. 

I planned to traverse a glacier, but it was far too melted out, revealing a 20-foot sheer drop that I just couldn't traverse. This involved a major re-route, and I was glad that I had a large map corridor on my phone. 

Section 7: Beartooths West

This is a complete misnomer, as this section is actually back in the Absarokas - the northernmost Absarokas, but too many Absaroka names get confusing, so I'll follow Pepperflake's convention and stick with "Beartooths West". 

No matter what you want to call it, this was an alright section. I'm intentionally damning it with faint praise here, but for good reason. Pepperflake ran into huge issues with blowdowns and torturously slow travel through burnt areas, so I re-routed the entire section onto trails that actually exist. The scenery was good but not great, especially as compared to the majesty of the Beartooths that I had seen in Section 6. Near the end of the section, I entered Yellowstone. I'd been on its peripheries twice before on the hike - both for less than a day, but this marked the only time I'd spend any significant amount of time in the park.

One highlight of this section was running into Stargate, Jukebox, and the Darkness, three hikers who were also doing an adaptation of Pep's route. I'd met them in near Jackson while I was healing up, and seeing them again was a treat.

I walked into my only town on the route, Mammoth Hot Springs. Most of the place was shut up tight as a button anyhow - closed visitors centers, etc - and I wasn't at all bummed about that. It made it very easy to keep my social distance and stay out of enclosed spaces.

Section 8: The Gallatins

This section was entirely on-trail and made for easy cruising along the crest of the Gallatin Range. Despite being up high, I saw almost nothing in this section, owing to thick smoke that had drifted in from fires burning to the west. Everything was tinted with an eerie yellow glow. But the miles came fast and I enjoyed the mental break from the craziness that the GYL occasionally dishes out. 

As I descended out of the range down to the Gallatin River, I came across a huge field of avalanche debris. Fortunately, there was a Forest Service sawyer crew doing some work with an outrageously large chainsaw, so I didn't have to thrash around for long. It's incredible how much force avalanches can generate - snapping thousands of full-grown trees like pencils. It's a useful and sobering reminder for those of us who backcountry ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile.

Section 9: The Madisons

This section was another gorgeous one, but the weather really fell apart on me. I'd had very little bad weather since Day 3, nearly two months earlier, but it finally caught up with me as summer turned to fall. I had a couple of soaking rainstorms, a few days of on-and-off showers, and generally just enough crap to make things a little iffy. That was particularly bad timing, as this section involved quite a bit of very exposed travel over long ridges and steep slopes with no place to hide. On one occasion, I watched several bolts of lightning hit a high peak I was currently detouring around. The weather just wasn't stable enough to allow me to do the route I wanted to do. My lower route ended up being alright, but not the world-class beauty I expected on the higher route. 

On my last morning, I woke up to snow flurries, which quickly turned into a cold, driving rain. I did ten mostly-miserable miles parallel to a highway into the town of West Yellowstone, completing the route. It was an anticlimactic finish to what was the most beautiful route I've ever walked. Nonetheless, I thank God for the opportunity to walk the Greater Yellowstone Loop, and that I didn't become the grizzly's bedtime snack. Some day, I'll go back and do those 40 missing miles in Section 4. For now though, what a journey!

Smokey was on hand to welcome me to West Yellowstone... and to warn me of fire danger in a driving rainstorm.

Overall Impressions

The Greater Yellowstone Loop was absolutely fantastic. It's without a doubt the most beautiful route I've ever walked, and the only thing that comes close is the Hayduke. That comparison came to mind frequently - like the Hayduke, the GYL is an 800-mile, very difficult route through extremely remote country. The route is entirely on public land, visiting iconic National Parks and equally-astounding places far from the beaten path. Nearly every day there's something that will make your jaw drop. Of course, there are maps and a guidebook and secondary literature available for the Hayduke, and absolutely none of that is available for the GYL.

A full loop of the Greater Yellowstone probably isn't in the cards for most folks - it's just too big of a planning challenge and some sections are very arduous. Instead, I recommend that backpackers pick a range or two and research it in great depth. Then go out there for a week and explore! A few bite-sized ideas that come to mind immediately:
  • Hike the Teton Crest Trail, but instead of dipping down into deep canyons at Hurricane Pass, stay on the Jed Smith Wilderness side of the crest and follow trails all the way to the north end of the range
  • Instead of the Beaten Path in the Beartooths, try mapping your own route that wanders around the Beartooth Plateau
  • Hike the Gallatin Crest Trail, traversing the length of the range
  • Do a 3 or 4-night overnighter in the high elevations of the Gros Ventres
  • Make a loop out of the parallel ridges of the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges
Really, there's no way to go wrong in the Greater Yellowstone (unless you get attacked by a bear, in which case, you've gone very wrong. Trust me!). Dig into Caltopo, let your imagination off its leash, and you'll almost certainly reap the rewards.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Grizzly Bear Attack: A Breakdown

This post details a bear attack I was involved in during the summer of 2020. It's very light on the pictures and heavy on the words. I hope you'll stick with it, as I think it's an instructive incident even for those who never venture outdoors.

“But what about bears?” It’s probably the second most-common question that hikers get, trailing only “do you carry a gun?” While bears are certainly a real danger in the outdoors, they’re not even close to the top of the list. Lightning strikes, drowning, getting lost, or getting hit by a car on a roadwalk are all far more likely to happen than a bear attack.

Reliable bear attack statistics are really hard to come by. One study I found noted about 14 brown bear attacks per year in North America. Brown bears (of which grizzlies are the primary subspecies) are distributed throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and Cascades, large swaths of Canada, and most of Alaska. While I couldn’t find any good black bear statistics, black bears tend to be more timid than their bad-tempered grizzly cousins. Though their habitats are more extensive, they pose less of a threat to humans than grizzlies do.

When you consider the number of recreation-hours spent in bear habitat each year in North America, and the tiny number of actual bear attacks, it becomes clear that bears hardly ever attack humans. But on July 21, 2020, I was attacked by a grizzly bear.

The Attack

The attack happened at about the midpoint of a self-supported 800-mile loop hike I was doing through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I had staged food and supplies beforehand at various road crossings so I wouldn’t have to go into town and risk contracting covid-19. This was a remote hike, full of off-trail mountain ridges, scrambling, bushwhacking, and all sorts of high adventure.

As I descended an off-trail pass in Wyoming’s Absaroka Range, I picked up a nifty elk trail that wound through a cliffy area. I was singing, as I often do while in the backcountry, especially in grizzly bear territory. I ended one verse and paused to recollect the words to the next verse just as I rounded a corner.

“Instantaneous” doesn’t do it justice. The grizzly, camouflaged behind a scrubby pine, immediately charged from about 7-8 feet away. He swiped at me, spinning me around as he passed me, slammed on the brakes, and charged again from about 4 feet away. I jabbed with my trekking pole, catching him square in the eye as he came toward me.

At this point my memory is a little hazy, but somehow he knocked me down, and I rolled under a tree. Recognizing it as a defensive attack, I played dead, covering my neck with one hand while deploying my bear spray with the other. I aimed it behind me, ready to give him a face full of spice, but by that time he had huffed over me twice and took off. The whole incident took no more than five seconds.

Boonie hat is no match for a grizzly claw

The Aftermath

I laid there, remaining motionless, bear spray at the ready. But as the sounds of bear faded away, I could hear him whimpering, presumably from the eye injury. I looked at my watch: 9:46AM. I resolved to lie there for a full ten minutes to make sure he wasn’t waiting for me to get up. I also took stock. I could move all my limbs. I was bleeding from the chest. Disgustingly, I could see flesh hanging out of my shirt. The wounds were deep, but I didn’t think I was in any danger of bleeding out. As I laid there waiting for my ten-minute probation to expire, I contemplated three options:

1. Activate my Personal Locator Beacon, aka my “Helicopter Button”. I figured this wasn’t necessary. My walking ability wasn’t compromised, I wasn’t going to bleed out, and I felt confident I could improvise a bandage. Still, it was an option for later on – at any sign of trouble, I wasn’t going to be shy about hitting it. I’ve been crystal-clear with my emergency contacts that I will not hit activate it unless it’s a matter of life-and-death and I need an actual, literal helicopter sent.

2. Clean out the wound, stitch myself up, and keep going. I was only about 40 trail miles from my next resupply point – a remote guest ranch along a major paved road. I considered this option for a moment – until I dared take a second look at my chest and saw how deep the wound was. I felt confident that I could stitch myself up, but wanted the wound properly sanitized by medical people with medical knowledge. If you think I’m crazy for even considering this possibility, I agree with you. More on that later.

3. Bail out a side trail and get to a hospital ASAP. After thinking for a minute, this became the obvious right answer. Not only did I have maps for the entire area on my phone, I had actually gone down a nearby trail a couple of years ago when Yogi tried to steal my pic-a-nic basket and ended up ruining all my food. I knew the trail was obvious, well-trod, and popular with horsepackers – who frequently carry satellite phones. And I had downloaded cell coverage maps before my trip, which showed I’d have cell service as I approached the trailhead.

I chose Door #3. My ten minutes expired and I got up, bear spray at the ready, hollering the whole time so my grizzly adversary would maintain proper social distancing. He was nowhere to be found thankfully, and I backtracked along the elk trail, back up to the off-trail pass, and downhill to the maintained trail I intended to bail on.

Once I reached the trail, I finally allowed myself to sit down and do some first aid. I figured that if I was going to pass out, it’d be better that I pass out on a well-used trail rather than off-trail where I’d never, ever be found. I stopped the bleeding, cleaned the wounds as best as I could, and squirted most of a tube of Neosporin into them. I changed from my completely-saturated orange shirt into my long-sleeve “bug shirt”, just so I wasn’t quite so bloody. As I climbed over Deer Creek Pass, I made sure to walk slowly, keeping my heart rate under control so I wouldn’t bleed too badly.

I descended the other side of the pass, still on excellent trail, and met a group of horsepackers after about an hour. They looked at me in sheer horror, suddenly reconsidering their stance on the reality of zombies. I asked them to borrow their satellite phone, but owing to the narrow canyon, it had no reception. I assured them that I was fine-ish and kept hiking, meeting another group of horsepackers about 2 hours later.

Finally, a few miles before the trailhead, I ran into day hiker named Dave. Like the others, he looked at me wide-eyed and asked what happened. When I briefly shared the story, he decided that it was probably turnaround time for him anyway and offered me a ride from the trailhead to Cody, where I knew there were medical facilities. I gladly accepted and we hiked together back to his car.

While we were en route to the hospital, we were pulled over by a Wyoming Game & Fish officer, who’d been paged after one of the horsepacker groups got out of the canyon, got sat phone service, and called 911. He took one look at me and told us he’d follow us to the hospital. So we all caravanned to Cody where Dave, my good Samaritan, dropped me off. Thanks Dave!

Five hours, a blizzard of tests, and 37 stitches later, I was released from the hospital, very grateful to God for sparing my life, to Dave for the ride, and to the wonderful hospital staff for their hard work in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The Recovery

Almost immediately, I received a huge outpouring of support from the hospital staff, long-time friends, and people I had literally never met before. By hook or by crook, people pulled strings to make sure I had places to stay while I mended up, and one incredible person – former stranger and now treasured friend – even drove me 5 hours round-trip back to my car when it became clear that my injuries would be incompatible with wearing a backpack for a few weeks. Thanks Barb! I can’t possibly credit everyone here – either because I never caught their name, don’t want them to get in trouble with their bosses, or whatever, but you know who you are. I thank God daily for his wonderful providence and you were key parts of that. Thanks, more than I can even express.

What’s Next?

Only time will tell. I’m healing nicely, and the risk of infection has subsided (something the doctors were very concerned about, given that grizzlies dig around in rotting stuff all day). I still can’t carry a backpack quite yet, so I’m taking some time off and just letting my body heal.

Somebody must be watching out for you.

Indeed. There aren’t too many people who are able to literally walk away from a grizzly bear attack. I believe all things come to us not by chance, but as a result of God’s providence – and this is no exception. I am very grateful for him sparing my life and further injury – and for all the wonderful people he put in my path when I needed help. God is good!

So, why did the bear attack you?

Simply put: wrong place, wrong time. “Personal space” is a big thing for grizzlies, and I was in his. He was just surprised and cornered on the edge of a narrow ledge, so he attacked. When I played dead, demonstrating that I was no longer a threat, he got out of Dodge in a hurry. Other than not forgetting the words to my song at that one very precise moment in time, I don’t think I could have done anything differently to prevent the attack.

And you got him in the eye.

Well, yes. That certainly didn’t hurt my cause, as he didn’t press the attack after the exchange where I got him in the eye and he knocked me down, but it’s tough to say if that helped discourage him from harming me further. The Game & Fish guy didn’t have a clear answer for me on the question either. I have a sneaking suspicion that it did help in the very specific circumstance that I found myself. It seemed like he was more interested in licking his wound than inflicting more wounds on me. But I certainly wouldn’t advocate, in general, fighting back during a defensive attack. I think this is the point at which general principles start to break down and the details start to get murky.

You should have had a gun.

A gun likely would have resulted in a claw gash to my chest and a bullet wound in my foot. He slashed me near where my holster would have been, and if he had gotten me while I was drawing a gun, I almost certainly would have shot myself. More generally, study after study has shown to bear spray to be a far more effective deterrent against bear attacks than a firearm.

My driver Dave was carrying a rifle for protection on his hike. On the way back to his car, he asked me if he would have been able to stop the attack with his gun. I told him that if he had coincidentally pointing it in the exact right direction, and if he had been hiking with the safety off and his finger already on the trigger, then maybe he could have stopped it. Maybe. But nobody does that, because it’s incredibly dangerous.

What did you do right?

I’m generally pretty pleased with how I reacted to the attack. I attribute my responsibility in a good outcome to three key factors:

1. Get the right equipment. I had bear spray. And although I couldn’t have possibly deployed in time to stop the initial attack, I had it out and ready in case he followed up once he had knocked me down. There’s a good chance that, if he had continued to maul me, I would have been able to dissuade him with some good old-fashioned capsaicin. More generally, I bear bag assiduously. I had my Personal Locator Beacon. These things didn’t necessarily help in this particular situation, but had circumstances been slightly different, they would have been key.

2. Get the information. This is often more important than equipment. In this case, I knew how to diagnose a defensive versus predatory attack, and knew what to do in each situation. I had a huge swath of maps downloaded on my phone, so when I had to bail down a side trail, I knew which way to go. I knew that Cody was a town with medical facilities. I knew that I’d have cell service as I approached the trailhead. All of this helped me make a good decision and execute on my plan relatively quickly.

3. Practice. It’s incredible how fast the whole thing happened. There’s no time to fumble with bear spray, try to figure out how to remove the safety, which way it squirts, etc. I’ve practiced drawing, arming, and aiming it hundreds of times over the years. Similarly, I’ve visualized defensive bear attacks many times over the years, and visualized myself getting on the ground and playing dead. When the real thing happened, my reactions had to be instantaneous - and they were.

So basically, you survived because you did a lot of things right.

Not at all. I survived because I did a lot of things right – and because God saw fit for me to keep living. The grizzly slashed my chest/shoulder and my hat. If he had split the difference and slashed my neck, I would have done a lot of things right and still bled out within minutes. Doing things right increased my odds of a good outcome, but they didn’t guarantee my safety.

What did you do wrong?

Like I said, I’m generally happy with my actions and attitudes throughout. But this incident definitely showed me one of my blind spots: I slightly downplayed the severity of a bad situation.

I know exactly why I did this: it’s a survival mechanism. In order to buckle down and focus on what I need to do, I can’t focus on how bad it hurts, how deep the wound is, or how much medical care will be required to fix me up. I just need to focus on the important thing – bandaging myself up, getting out of here, and getting help. But sometimes, not dwelling on the severity of the situation has its downsides. I offer three examples:

1. When I was playing dead and considering my options, I seriously thought about just stitching myself up and continuing on as planned. A stupid, ludicrous idea, but one that I didn’t dismiss as quickly as I should have. I made the right decision, but shouldn’t have even considered this option.

2. While hiking out, I was debating whether, once I got into cell range, I should call 911 or just call a local rafting company or outfitter to see if they could pick me up. I reasoned that I could walk; this was not a true emergency, even though it was urgent. I didn’t want to cause trouble, didn’t want to waste the time of emergency responders, typical Midwestern diffidence, blah blah blah. DUDE. YOU WERE ATTACKED BY A BEAR. It’s okay to call 911.

3. When I got to Cody, Dave wanted to take me straight to the hospital, but I insisted that he take me to Urgent Care – cheaper, quicker, and less Covid-y. He thought I was crazy, and I was. Urgent care took one look at me and told me to go down the street to the ER immediately.

I told myself I was fine so I could do what I needed to do. But in the future, I need to watch out that my “I’m fine” line doesn’t interfere with me actually getting the help I need to be fine.

I bet you’re emotionally scarred from this

Time will tell, but I really don’t think so. I’ve always known that it was possible (albeit extremely unlikely) that something like this can happen. And I’ve visualized it happening, visualized my reactions, just as basic preparedness that comes with being a backcountry user. I think an honest acceptance of catastrophe as a remote possibility makes us better able to deal with such catastrophes when they arise. And frankly, a firm faith in the providence of God really helps as well. Whatever happens to me – whether I live or die, I belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). That gives me great comfort in a time of great uncertainty.

Let’s talk Covid-19.

Uh, okay. There are a lot of similarities between what I’ve gone through and what we are going through as a species right now. Allow me to share a couple parallels:

1. We need to trust the experts, even though they’re fallible. I listened to expert advice (play dead in a defensive attack, fight like a hellbeast in a predatory attack) and it likely saved my life. But bears are individuals with their own proclivities, and expert advice may in some cases be the exact wrong advice. Nonetheless, the advice that they’re giving out is a lot more informed than your opinion or mine, and is certainly more informed than the drivel that Great Aunt Edna reposts on Facebook. Trust the experts, because they might be wrong, but you and I are almost certainly wrong.

2. We should ignore those opinions that need to be ignored. There are going to be people who read this post and still tell me that I need a gun. Or I need two guns, or bigger guns. Or that I shouldn’t hike alone. These people are not worth listening to – the wise-in-their-own-eyes types. The same thing applies to the coronavirus – whether it’s people saying that “mask requirements infringe upon my liberty” on parts the political Right, or the parts of the Left that demand we abstain from having fun because This Moment That We’re Living In necessitates that we be somber and morose.

3. Habits are important. I always make sure my bear spray is oriented the same way within its holster so it’s easy to pull blindly. I always sing when going through narrow defiles, thick brush, or other places where bears might be chillaxing. Do we keep our mask laying on the dashboard so we never forget it? Is there a bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it? Have we trained ourselves to just skip the busy aisle at the grocery store and come back to it later? Perhaps these little tiny habits will never change a dang thing. I don’t even know another human who’s been attacked by a bear. But it’s an easy change to make, costs nothing, and could save your life – like it saved mine.

Any final thoughts?

I want to reiterate my gratitude to Dave, Dan from WY Game & Fish, each member of the hospital staff, each person who picked up (or offered to pick up) part of my various tabs, those who gave me a place to stay, and most of all to Barb, who went above and beyond to help me when I needed it most. I thank each person who’s written a note of encouragement or prayed for me. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:16). Without a doubt, I was spared by the grace of God.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

In Memoriam: Abandoned Cars

Surrounded a loving phalanx of jackrabbits and tumbleweeds, Rusty the Janky Jalopy has slipped peacefully into eternal retirement.

Rusty was born in the Dearborn Assembly Plant just outside Detroit, Michigan in 1951. His parents are unknown, but were said to be of hardy, almost steely disposition.

During the Korean War, Rusty served with honor and distinction as a maintenance vehicle at the Pinyon Ridge Mine #3 near Panamint Springs, California. He was active in several community organizations including the Panamint Springs Fire Department. Colleagues at the VFD remember him fondly for his machine-like work ethic and outspoken horn.

In 1967, Rusty joined the household of Stan and Loretta Hendricks, who survive him. Asked to pay her last respects to the venerable truck, the aging, green-haired Loretta exclaimed, "Oh, that crappy old clunker? Maaaaaaaaaaan we had fun with that thing. Drove it to a Jefferson Airplane concert on two flat tires. I don't really remember what happened - I'm sure you understand - but somehow we ended up cruising through Santa Monica with ten shirtless hunks riding in the back handing out acid samples. Groovy, dude."

We had to cut Loretta off right there, as the rest of the anecdote is not fit to print, but suffice it to say that Rusty was well-loved by everyone who knew him.

In 1978, Rusty suffered a great indignity when his transmission failed in the middle of the desert during what sources describe as a "mind-bending rager, dude". The gearbox having seized up, Rusty was simply abandoned and left to rot in Death Valley. Stan and Loretta left their vehicle and their wild lives in the desert. Stan became the manager of accounts receivable for General Electric and Loretta began a nationally syndicated column on parlor etiquette, which is just as dead nowadays as the newspapers it's printed in.

It is a fitting tribute to Rusty that he ended up in the middle of nowhere, far from any road. It is unclear how he got there in the first place, as you'd have to be really, really off your rocker to try and drive him there in the first place. Then again, Stan and Loretta fit the bill.

Aside from Stan and Loretta, Rusty is survived by his brother Lincoln and his snotty cousin from the big city, Bentley.

Visitation will be whenever you feel like it. Bring a good pair of shoes, your backpacking gear, and eight liters of water.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Five Pretty Pictures

Many of us are sick of talking, thinking, and worrying about the elephant in the room. So let's distract ourselves briefly with five blasts from the past - five vignettes of trail life.

1. Red White and Blue Castle (Uinta Mountains, July 2015)

The Uinta Mountains are known for their high, sweeping alpine terrain and long ridgelines thousands of feet above treeline. Technical or jagged terrain? Not so much. But Red Castle is an exception to this. Though it sits in the shadow of higher peaks, some soaring to more than 13,000 feet, Red Castle's distinctive shape makes it a popular backpacking destination.

I first visited Red Castle over the 4th of July a few years ago. I crossed several high passes, caught a fish or two in a few alpine lakes, and got really sunburned. And I climbed up a nearby peak to have a look at the area.

By the way, am I the only one who thinks that Upper Red Castle Lake looks like a toilet seat?

2. Brief Botanical Beauty (Beartooth Range, August 2016)

Names sometimes say it all. In this neck of the woods, one could visit Iceberg Lake, the Snowball Lakes, Cold Lake, Avalanche Lake, and my personal favorite, Froze-to-Death Lake. The Beartooth Range isn't exactly the most hospitable of places. Snow hangs around until at least the end of July, and just days after this photo was taken in late August, a snowstorm moved through, dropping several feet of snow and closing Beartooth Highway for the winter.

Wildflowers in the Beartooths really need to make their summers count. In July and August, whole meadows bloom all at once in a tremendous display of color, as if a tornado ripped through a craft store. For those few weeks of glorious summer, there's no place I'd rather be.

3. What Offseason? (Lake Michigan, December 2018)

There aren't too many stretches of Lake Michigan shoreline that remain truly wild. This is one of them. We walked the beach for miles and saw nary a person. No passing speedboats, no overpriced houses perched on the dunes, not even a footprint. Visit here in the middle of winter and we're almost guaranteed to have the place to ourselves.

Except for this little piece of a driftwood. A drift-tree, really. It's a temporary visitor, deposited by the fabled gales of November. The next time the wind builds and the waves swell (tomorrow probably), our drift-tree friend will resume its journey to wherever-it's-going. Perhaps to Chicago or Milwaukee, or north to Traverse City. Summoning up ambition, perchance it can sail through the Straits of Mackinac, through Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and out into the North Atlantic. Someday. Maybe.

In the meantime though, we're glad it's honored us with its presence. We must admit - it looks rather dashing in its stylish ice skirt.

4. Lock Screen Magic (Canyonlands National Park, November 2015)

I've undoubtedly glanced at this photo more often than any other. That's because it serves as the lock screen on my phone. Every time I see it, I smile a little inside.

I snapped it a few years ago on a trip to Canyonlands with my sister. We did a three-day backpacking loop in in a popular and spectacular part of the park. I'd done a very similar loop a few years before and knew of a place where a series of overhung rocks provide excellent natural shelter - which came in handy when the weather started to deteriorate on day 2. We hiked quick, racing the incoming storm, and made it to the rock garden right as it started to rain. And good thing, too! It rained for hours and hours. We sat in our tents underneath the rocks, dry and cozy. Boredom gave way to word games, which gave way to more boredom. But it was sure better than walking all afternoon in the pouring rain.

Before the weather moved in though, I snapped a photo in the Chesler Park area between two of the famous "Needles" - tightly spaced hoodoos of striped sandstone. I will never tire of this view.

5. Heartache (Glacier National Park, September 2018)

The end of a thru-hike is a funny thing. What was once months and thousands of miles away is now only weeks and hundreds of miles away. All of the sudden, you need to book your bus or plane ticket, and that means you need to figure out your finish date. For months, people have been asking you when you plan to finish, but you've always been vague about it. "Early September" has always been sufficient. But now you need a date. September 4. Take the miles remaining and divide it by your daily mileage. How many days is that? You check and double-check your math, making sure you're not being too aggressive with your itinerary. You add a couple of days, just to be safe. September 4. You're going to finish this trail on September 4.

You're in the best shape of your life, but your body is beat up. Uphills are effortless, yet you hobble around each morning, wincing with every step. You do 30 miles in less than 12 hours, crossing three alpine passes and gaining thousands of feet of elevation. For months, you've kept your daily mileage steady, never doing too much, always keeping a little in the tank for tomorrow. But your number of tomorrows on-trail is quickly dwindling. Time to let it all hang out.

The last few weeks seem like a dream. You develop tunnel vision: if it's not related to forward progress, to getting to that goal, it's just irrelevant. You sleep in weird places. You decide you really don't need to do laundry in this town. Your momentum gathers as you roll "downhill" toward your goal. Three hundred miles left. Three days later, it's two hundred. You start passing lasts: last resupply point, last developed campground. Last road crossing. Last full day on trail. Last night on trail.

None of it seems quite real. You can't comprehend not walking, not continuing forward. What do you mean, there is no forward to continue on? You're quickly approaching the edge of your world. Will you fall off?

The last day is a blur. You maintain three miles per hour on easy trail, and as you sense the end getting closer, three turns into three and a half. Three and a half probably turns to four, though you're certainly not clocking yourself.

Finally you see it. Flags flying. A clearcut in the woods. French on the border crossing sign. You're here. And you're not sure what you feel, or what you should feel. Mostly, you just want to continue north - north on a trail that doesn't exist.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Briefly Enchanted

Following the conclusion of my Ouachita Trail adventure, I headed out to Arizona to begin the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET). Starting just outside Phoenix, the GET meanders nearly 800 miles through the highlands of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico to its terminus in Albuquerque. The GET is definitely a route rather than an official trail, much like the Hayduke Trail, Deseret Hiking Route, or Lowest to Highest.

The route begins by winding its way through the Superstition Mountains. After about 25 miles, it joins up with the Arizona Trail (AZT), following it south past the towns of Superior and Kearny before departing to the west, New Mexico-bound.

From the very beginning it was clear that this was not a typical Arizona backpacking trip. The Phoenix area had been soaked by several inches of rain over the past week, and as the sun set and the temperature dropped, dew collected heavily. I set up my shelter each night on trail. Water is ordinarily a scarce commodity in the deserts of the Southwest but was flowing in the bottom of each little gully and drainage. I certainly didn't expect to spend most of the time hiking with wet feet, but then again, it's been a strange, wet, cold spring.

Near the trailhead, the trail underfoot was wide and smooth. As I got deeper into the wilderness, trails gradually deteriorated, becoming increasingly faint and brushy. I hiked through several areas that had burned in the 2019 Woodbury Fire. In such areas, the trail was next to non-existant. Catclaw tore at my legs, leaving me with classic "desert pinstripes" - lines of scrapes and scratches.

But my oh my, the Superstitions were lovely. I'd hiked through the Supes before as part of my AZT hike in 2019. I'd been a little disappointed in the Supes my first time around, as the trail stays largely in the eastern, higher part of the range, in pinyon forests. They were alright, but not quite as pretty as I was expecting. By contrast, the GET passes through the lower, western part of the range before joining up with the AZT. Despite being lower, I found the western Superstitions to be more dramatic and scenic than their eastern counterparts. I hiked over a few high passes, up tight box canyons, past fields of wild poppies, and within eyeshot of the iconic Weavers Needle and Four Peaks. All in all? A wonderful stretch of not-quite-trail.

When I joined up with the AZT, trail tread immediately and dramatically improved. The AZT is probably the easiest (aside from the completely-flat Florida Trail) long-distance hike I've ever done. The trail is built to modern standards and is mountain bike-friendly. In the wake of the Woodbury Fire, volunteers have already cut back the burnt and fallen trees and kept the encroaching post-fire brush at bay. It was a true joy to walk on and a testament to the strong community support that many of our most beloved long trails enjoy. I saw quite a few AZT thru-hikers hiking toward me on their own long-distance journeys. They were headed north toward the Utah border while I was heading (temporarily) south, eventually toward Albuquerque.

As I met these AZT hikers, I was surprised and not a little dismayed by the flippant attitude that many showed toward the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Certainly, some of it was due to being disconnected from larger society, where the situation was rapidly evolving. Some of it was due to selection bias - the large majority of people who were taking things seriously weren't out here - because they were taking seriously the guidelines about non-essential travel that health departments were just starting to issue. Still, I was a bit distressed by some people's sneering attitude of invincibility, even as I pondered what to do about my own hike.

Eventually I got cell service and spent a few minutes catching up on what was going on with the world. Even if a hike on the little-used Grand Enchantment Trail is relatively low-risk (it's hard to catch the bug when the nearest person is twenty miles away), resupply in tiny towns at the end of a long and fraying supply chain is bound to be a challenge. What if that small town post office is closed because the one and only postal employee is sick, or if governors issue shelter-in-place orders? In a quickly evolving situation where society is bound to be impacted in unpredictable ways, could I have any confidence that I wouldn't get stuck hitchhiking on a deserted road dozens of miles away from my resupply point? Furthermore, when (not if) my plans got blown to bits and I had to improvise, that would put me in a lot of contact with a lot of people. And getting sick and becoming a burden to a town without any medical facilities is not an option.

I think there's a lot of fear-based decision-making happening right now and frankly, the parochial attitude of some folks is getting a little tiresome. But in evaluating the situation as dispassionately as I could, I concluded that the most prudent parth in an uncertain situation was to hole up in a place with good supply lines and medical facilities. So after three days and 40-something miles on the Grand Enchantment Trail, I quit. I hitched a ride into Superior, AZ with a passing motorist, who happened to know somebody who was headed into Phoenix tomorrow. After staying the night, I caught a ride to Phoenix and got on a plane.

Here I sit in the Midwest in self-imposed exile after having traveled by air. Though I'm bummed not to continue the GET, it's hard to feel too sorry for myself. I've lost the opportunity to take what's essentially a vacation with a fancy title. Others have lost their jobs, their health, or even their lives. I'm going to do my part, stay home, and not make things worse. I'm going to respect both the letter and the spirit of the various public health orders and guidelines that are being put forward. As far as I'm concerned, "only the essentials" means "only the essentials". And I don't really need that much.

Let's not end on that note though. Let's instead end with a pair of mediocre photos of a lovely field of poppy blooms that I found in the Superstitions. And let's keep in mind one of my favorite Dutch hymns which reminds us that God is still in control and still cares for us:
We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.
Yep. That seems about right.