Jamie kindly drove me the 35 miles from Driftwaters Resort to West Yellowstone. From what I'd been told by the cyclists I met the other day, on the way I hoped to see Bison and possibly Grizzly. Jamie told me he'd driven this road many times and always had seen Bighorn Sheep too.
We saw nothing but a lone Elk and some miserable Mallards.
West Yellowstone is the gateway town situated at the Western gate into Yellowstone. Once again a town that needs a museum, to help to uncover the curious history of its naming.
I went into a supermarket to buy the bear pepper spray that numerous hunters and fisherman had told me I must buy. $50 but it could save my life. I spent several days contemplating the maths, but decided that yes, it was probably a gamble worth taking.
The last guy to tell me to buy this stuff came into the bar at Driftwaters. He looked very much like the piano player and singer, Dr John. His story was of walking to a river to fish, and before he'd cast his first fly, he saw a female Grizzly with cubs to his immediate right. Before he had chance to reason with Yogi, it was bounding towards him. He said that measuring the distance away of the bear, and the wind direction before using the spray was difficult (which is what you are supposed to do). The bear refused to wait, so he just sprayed in the bear's general direction, covered his eyes, and waited.
The bear ran away, probably from the pepper spray, but possibly also from the scent Dr John was producing from inside his waders!
This saved his life undoubtedly. I read that some people have not read the instructions that accompany the various bear pepper sprays. So they've decided to spray their tent, clothing and all equipment with them. Unfortunately some bears like the added seasoning! If they're in their sleeping bag when the bear comes calling, so much the better. These bears like nothing more than a nicely peppered breakfast burrito.
After having a nice breakfast of veggie omelette with toast at the Three Bear Lodge (one of these, possibly a female, was running the waiting on team from behind the till). I set off the few hundred yards to the Park entrance.
I queued patiently in line behind the RVs and SUVs until it was my turn to buy a ticket to the park. Thankfully the Park Ranger selling me the ticket, was able to give me much needed reassurance about my personal safety in Yellowstone.
"You're brave! I hope you got your donor cards up to date?" Were the old ranger's calming professional words to me. I kid you not! I'm sure he thought my name is Job. Naturally I looked carefully into his eyes to see if he was joking. I asked him was he referring to the traffic? "Mainly" grinned the Comforter.
The words from a hunter I met in Baker City were echoing through my head - "You won't go anywhere in the USA where the wild animals are more dangerous than in Yellowstone. There's been no hunting for nearly 150 years so those animals aren't scared of human beings". Within 2 miles of cycling I came across a sight that made me feel a little less vulnerable. A man walking through the park approached me asking how far to the gate. He looked to be in one piece, and wasn't carrying gun that I could see nor wearing a suit of armour. He's dafter than me, I thought.
The first buffalo I saw was absolutely huge. Athough it was about 100 yards away, this was the minimum distance recommended to be from one of these beasts, so I didn't stop to take a photo. A couple of passing bikers turned around though. They had the advantage of a turn of speed much quicker than my legs could manage. By the way, I'm not joking about the size of this bull Bison. Both me and the car I drive at home, could fit inside it.
Inisde the park, there was only one place to stay that was a reasonable cycling distance, the Madison campground. I'd also been told by Mark from Germany to stay there because it was a good site, and you get free coffee in the morning. Only 15 miles, so perfect.
My eyes whizzed nervously from side to side as I peered into the forests looking for the seemingly inevitable attack from, or a combination of, one of the following:
- Grizzly bear
- Mountain Lion
This is the order of likelihood of fatal confrontation according to the hunter from Baker City, confirmed by many hunters and fishermen I met after that. The RV drivers who'd just rented one for the first time, and consequently were likely to struggle with spatial awareness, were also probably the biggest danger.
Anyway, I didn't see a single Moose, Grizzly Bear or Mountain Lion. The photos in my Yellowstone album do show that I came across a few hundred Bison though.
Now, dear reader, you're probably thinking that I've blown all of this predator/Moose fear out of all proportion but I have a couple more anecdotes picked up on my journey here regarding two of these vicious killing machines:
Moose - a news report I read in the Missoula local paper (The Missoulian, May 25) when I was staying in Hamilton, Montana. A woman had been out in the woods walking her 4 or 5 dogs. With remarkable stupidity, she'd decided to ignore the rule that states specifically all dogs must be kept on a leash when being walked in the National Forests. Her dogs happened upon a mother Moose and its calf. They attacked the moose, their idiot owner then tried to get them off (to save her dogs!). Mummy Moose noticed she wasn't doing a "great job" so kicked her to the ground. Amazingly, and I'm not making this up, the authorities decided that it wasn't the fault of the Moose so they weren't going to kill it. It was just trying to protect its calf. Remarkable that they should have to even contemplate this. The newspaper report's first paragraph was more about this decision than the irresponsible behaviour of the hospitalised woman:
"A moose that kicked a woman trying to save her dogs on Blue Mountain on Thursday night will not be put down. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said Friday"
Mountain Lion - a Belgian touring cyclist dropped in when I was staying at Driftwaters Resort. He told me he'd been delayed on his journey travelling the Great Divide Trail. I asked why, and he'd lost his passport and other things so had to get a new passport. He'd been cycling along, and hit a bump or bumps in the road, and one of his panniers had fallen off his bike. It bounced on the road and down into a ditch. So, he got off his bike, peered into the ditch, and there was a Mountain Lion looking back up at him. He said he made himself look as big as he could, then backed away from the edge of the road, ran back to his bike, and shot off down the road not looking back. The chances are the Puma had been stalking him, possibly for some time. So, a lucky escape. I suspect the reason why it didn't continue after him was because of its interest in the contents of the pannier. There are unconfirmed sightings in Brussels of a Mountain Lion carrying a Belgian passport stalking the streets. Similary unconfirmed are, probably not unconnected, reports of the Mannekin Pis unexpectedly adding another bodily function to his arsenal.
A couple of miles from the campground I saw a Bison walking towards me just off the road. It had just walked passed some seemingly unconcerned fly fishermen.
Then, there was what is known as a "Bear jam" up ahead. Vehicles stopped ahead with tail lights shining. Immediately my adrenalin kicked in, as my body realised more quicly than my mind, that unlike those people in tin cans ahead, I had zero protection from whatever it was that was in the road forcing them to stop. What do I do? Carry on towards whatever it is in the road, and risk my life? Or do I stay here or return to West Yellowstone? These last two were not options, being so close to the campground. Anyway, I didn't have the stats to hand showing when the last cyclist killed by a wild animal on the road in Yellowsytone was. So, I continued to the jam.
The Bison walking towards me was enormous (turns out they all are, except the calves). I managed to get alongside one of the cars as it slowly drove past the behemoth. Wow, my heart was pounding and my senses working overtime. Boy, did it smell! By the way, that was the Bison and not me, before you start drawing conclusions.
The herd of Bison I photographed were nearby. I regret not videoing the calf running up and down the meadow, clearly loving the warm sunshine and feeling perfectly safe despite all of the humans pointing cameras toward it. It was a beautiful sight.
I cycled the last couple of miles, and joined the queue to check in at the Madison campground. The man checking in at the window in front of me asked had there been any recent 'activity'. Yes, the ranger said, a young Grizzly came through the campground on 2 occasions last week. They chased it off, but it had come in because someone had been disobeying the food rules.
It cost me $6.80 to pitch my tent for the night, and the ranger even showed me to the hiker/biker area. What a brilliant place this turned out to be. The hiker/biker area was just behind the office. You get free coffee in the morning, there are tarps already setup over each tent pitch, and there are picnic tables and a separate tarp covered area for group dining in case it rains. It was also well lit so that you could easily find your way from the restrooms to the tent dring the night. In addition being patrolled regularly during the day and night by volunteer staff.
I pitched my tent, and explored the campground. I went over to the river area where it afforded beautiful views of the mountains across the river confluences. Also, there was a ranger station close by where people were trying their luck in the rivers with their fly lines. A couple of times I nearly stepped in the evidence left by Bison so knew I had to keep my eyes peeled (my nose already had).
I sat and took in the beauty for an hour or so. Wonderfully relaxing. Then I headed back to my tent to find another cyclist had rolled in and pitched his tent. I introduced myself to Dan. Dan lives locally (in Ashton just across the Grand Teton mountain range) and turned out to be a fascinating bloke. He offered me a beer, which is usually a good place to start with me, and we got on really well. In fact, we got on so well that we ended up cycling together for the next few days.
Sam Yoong made up our camping tourer trio. Sam arrived a little later, having cycled from Jenny Lake (I think), which was quite a ride. Sam is in his early twenties and from South Korea. Like me, he was cycling the Transam but from the East to the West. He told us he'd been cycling for 42 days which I thought was remarkable.
Our conversation mustn't have been sparkling, because after about ten minutes Sam pitched his tent and went to sleep. We didn't see him again until late the next morning. Sam slept for 14 hours straight, not surprising when he confided that tomorrow would be only his third day off the bike since he left Yorktown Virginia.
Camping in bear country is risky if you have food with you. So, you have to tie it in a tree at least 100 yards from your tent, and ten feet up or more. When in Grizzly bear country, the campgrounds provide steel boxes that you MUST put any food in. But not just food, anything that has a man-made scent so that's toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorants, perfumes, even water bottles as well as food. You'll get thrown off the campground if you are found not doing so by the staff. I'd rather this though, than a Grizzly catching me as I'm dabbing some eau de parfum behind my ears. How embarrassing that would be.
If those boxes were easy to open from the inside, then I would have slept inside it. Just like the old aeroplane's black box joke. Anyway, I just threw in everything except my sleeping bags, valuables and headtorch. I slept surprisingly well that night considering.