Saturday, December 30, 2006

Black Bears and hiking

I frequently see black bears when hiking both in National Parks, mostly Yellowstone, Glacier, and North Cascades, and in forests. I enjoy seeing the bears and get a thrill of excitement when when I do but usually am not anxious about black bears or alter my hiking plans. I've settled on a rule of thumb, if the bear doesn't move away when it sees me if we are close, I will move away.

A few years ago I was hiking in the Wenatchee National Forest and heard noises ahead of me. Thinking it might be a bear, I called out several times but continued. As I came around a bend, I saw a large, golden (black) bear tearing a log apart just above the trail. I stopped and considered how to detour around but decided against it since I wasn't familiar with the trail. My next thought was to take a picture but my camera was in my pack and watching the bear who was about twice my weight rip the log convinced me I should turn back on the trail. A few minutes later, I heard a large animal coming toward me through the brush, fortunately it was a deer.

More recently I was hiking down into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone from the Blacktail Deer Plateau and saw 2 bears ahead of me. Because this was grizzly country, I was more careful but got to a position where I could watch them. I was reasonably certain they were black bears but they were also moving across the entire trail and there was no good way to go around. I finally decided to go back and take the Resue Creek trail.

In both of the cases above I'm sure the bears were aware of me, I wasn't that far away and had been making noise. I've wondered what I would do if I were to meet a bear on the way out of a trail. I guess I would just do my best.

Some of my bear encounters have been funny, at least in retrospect. I was coming down Specimen Ridge in YNP one warm sunny day and as I came down a gully, I heard a scrambling just behind me. I looked back and a bear had come down almost to the same point in a different gully. It scrambled away while I stood there with my mouth open and fumbling at my bear spray. I looked down the trail and saw 2 hikers getting up off the ground so I met them and we talked. They had laid down once they saw the bear so it wouldn't see them. Later on the hike I saw the bear again a few times and verified it was a black. I've seen black bears several times around the Yellowstone Picnic area and Specimen Ridge trail but didn't expect to see one up on the treeless ridge.

One fall day I was coming down from the Thunderer in the northeast of YNP when I walked off the trail a few feet to take a picture of something. I almost stumbled over a black bear I presumably startled out of its day bed, I was less than 15 feet away at the closest. I had my camera in hand and took a picture but the picture is blurred, I wasn't still.

The last 2 encounters were amusing but also a reminder that I need to be aware of my surroundings. I could easily have gotten too close to a variety of animals and gotten hurt. I am lucky that the bears were not aggressive.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Grizzly encounters

I often see bears when hiking both in National Parks and in other areas. Seeing a black bear, of whatever color, is thrilling and enjoyable but seeing a grizzly is much more exciting. I carry pepper spray when hiking in grizzly territory and make noise but I still hike alone and I've seen grizzlies a few times, mostly at a good distance. I've twice encountered grizzlies at less than 100 yards when hiking and while I treasure the memory, at the time I mainly wanted to get to a safe area. Both encounters were during the day, in bright sunshine.

The first close grizzly encounter I had was in Glacier National Park on the Oldman Lake trail. Shortly before, I met a couple of hikers who warned me of the grizzly but said she was not close to the trail and other people were near. I readied my pepper spray and continued. When I saw her and 2 cubs of the year about 100 feet away, she was clearly agitated, moving back and forth and huffing. I rapidly turned around and went back down the trail, looking over my shoulder as I walked, thinking "don't run and don't fall". She didn't charge or follow and I decided not to continue on the trail that day even after I met other hikers who planned to continue. I could have walked with them but was too spooked, spooked enough that when I saw another grizzly much further away, I rapidly left the area.

My next grizzly encounter was in Yellowstone National Park on Swan Lake Flat about 1/2 mile from the trailhead. I had done a loop trail through the hoodoos and over Snowy Pass and was returning to the trailhead near Golden Gate. As I came around a hillside, I saw 2 grizzlies trotting toward me about 70 feet away. I walked toward the nearest climbable tree while watching the grizzlies (female and 2 year old) and getting my pepper spray ready. The bears soon saw me and stopped, then they moved slightly away. I found a better tree and watched them and put new film in my camera. Of course I had taken the last picture on the roll earlier in the hike. I spent about 10 minutes watching and taking pictures before moving on. Obviously I wasn't as frightened this time, probably because the bears were not aggressive. I was amused that I could watch cars on the main road go by at the same time I watched the bears who were not visible from the road.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Yellowstone National Park

My favorite place to hike, although not my favorite trails, is Yellowstone National Park, at least May through October. I've gone there at least once a year for the past 12 years. Friends have asked what draws me back to the same place so often and I am not sure. Of course Yellowstone is a very special place, it would not have become the first national park if it were not. Still, why do I like it so much? It doesn't have the spectacular mountain views common elsewhere in the western US nor does it have the amazing colors and canyons of the southwest.

I enjoy the thermal features, geysers, hot springs, and pools but they aren't my primary goal. The falls and grand canyon of the Yellowstone are magnificent but I don't view them every year. Yellowstone lake is pretty but I grew up by a mountain lake, it isn't that special to me. Part of the attraction is that Yellowstone is wild and minimally changed but Glacier, and other Parks, are arguably wilder and less changed. Probably the main attraction is the visibility of wildlife. I will see bison and elk, probably will see deer, pronghorn antelope, and coyote and can anticipate seeing bear, wolves, bighorn sheep, moose and a variety of birds and smaller animals. Most of these animals are found elsewhere but they are most visible in Yellowstone. I usually hike in the prairies and meadows when in Yellowstone because the terrain is different than my usual areas of hiking in the Cascade mountain forests. Yellowstone also has more easily accessable trails than I can hike in a week, there is always another trail I want to hike.

Maybe it is everything, the thermal features, the wildlife, the scenery, the variety of habitats, forest, prairie, meadow, and mountain.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Performance garments and 'cotton kills'

I really like the wicking performance garments for hiking and other outdoor activities. I was quick to adopt the various types of polyester and have several tops and bottoms of various fabrics, thicknesses and lengths. I wear these not only as base layers but also use the heavier tops especially as a sweater. Even in the warmest, driest weather I usually wear a coolmax tanktop under my cotton tee-shirt.

A little searching on the Internet will find many references to 'cotton kills' for outdoor performance clothing. I'm not suggesting that anyone should wear cotton for hiking, but idea that cotton itself is the problem is overly simplistic. When I started hiking, snowshoeing, and x-country skiing in the late 1960s, nearly everyone I knew used 100% cotton waffle-weave long underwear. There really wasn't much else readily available, wool and silk blends were expensive and hard to find and often the wool was too uncomfortable to wear against the skin. Cotton jeans and flannel shirts were also common and parkas were cotton/nylon or all cotton. Hikers, hunters, etc. regularly spent extensive time in the backcountry dressed largely in cotton with some wool and they didn't all die of exposure (hypothermia). I don't know whether the proportion of backcountry users which had problems with hypothermia was greater then or not, I do note that people still succumb even with better clothing. Like many things, people need to be aware of limitations, think, and be prepared for the unexpected. The last couple of times this topic has come up on Usenet's rec.backcountry, others have commented that cotton has its place for outdoor use.

I still use a cotton tee-shirt for most hiking, to protect against abrasion from my pack, against insect bites, sun, and wind. I often use cotton jeans in dry areas. Cotton is tough, wind resistant, cheap, and in low humidity disperses sweat better than many other fabrics. I really do like my wicking underwear and performance fleece and use wool blend or polyester blend pants for wetter, colder hiking. And again, I would not advise anyone to go out into the backcountry with cotton garments, but I don't like the overly broad statement that 'cotton kills', unpreparedness kills.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Favorite gear and gadgets - Fun stuff

Some items I take hiking with me are more for my enjoyment than because I need them. They are useful but certainly not necessary.

I particularly like my monocular; I carry a 8 x 20 monocular in a case on my belt nearly always when hiking and use it for bird and animal watching and simply to enjoy the scenery. It is useful at times for route finding or to determine whether the dark object ahead of me is a bison, grizzly, or rock. I often use it in Yellowstone National Park to look for the orange route markers or cairns when hiking in open areas. And I have seen grizzly by using it, at least once causing me to change my hiking route. I don't use binoculars because the monocular is less than 1/2 the size and weight of binoculars and because I'm happy with single eye view.

I also enjoy my Casio altimeter/barometer watch. I like having an idea of how much elevation I've gained or lost and it can be helpful in correlating to a position on a map. I also like the barometer history function where it displays graphically the barometric pressure changes over the last 18 hours. If I'm not changing altitude, this gives me a nice clue to upcoming weather. I do wish it weren't so large, I have a small wrist and it is oversized. I sometimes attach it to my pack instead but I like the convenience of it on my wrist.