Grizzly track in the mud on the way into base camp
Image Credit: Bill Schaefer, Idaho State Journal

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Close encounters

Research in bear country comes with risk

There's something about a grizzly bear's size, claws and teeth that sharpens the senses of a person traveling by foot through Yellowstone's backcountry.

One afternoon last August, Idaho State Journal photographer and writer Bill Schaefer and I backpacked for about eight miles to upper Cache Creek in Yellowstone National Park.

At Cache Creek, we were to meet up with a group of Idaho State University researchers who were completing a study of the effects of the 1988 wildfires on stream ecology.

About a third of the way in, we noticed what we thought might be bear tracks. Instantly, our "bear-dar" went on high alert. About a mile later, while crossing a small creek, we spotted a fresh bear print. But just how fresh?

The prospect of being in the company of Ursus arctos horribilis spurred a lot more banter between us over the next couple of miles. I made sure to keep Bill in view. That was a challenge, since my wide eyes were continuously scanning the landscape.

Then, in the light of late afternoon and early evening, I saw more bear tracks on the trail. They were so fresh that I could clearly see the outlines of the veins in the pads of the bears' feet. There was a set of large prints, and a set of much smaller prints. A sow and cubs?

Meanwhile, a few miles farther up the trail, the researchers we were to meet were returning to their base camp. It was about a mile upstream from where the South Fork and main Cache Creek converge.

They were in two groups. One was comprised of the team's three oldest members, all in their 70s. Among them was Wayne Minshall, Ph.D., co-leader of the group, his wife, Judy, and volunteer Jim Morris.

The trio had started back early and were across the valley on the west side of Cache Creek. The remaining group was on the east side of the creek, about a quarter-mile away.

"From where we were, we could see across Cache Creek and see Doc (Wayne Minshall) and the other group heading down the trail back to camp," recounted Colden Baxter, Ph.D., who was with the trailing group. "Suddenly, we see the brush moving above them, and out charges a sow grizzly with two cubs, heading up-slope from our folks, who were completely unaware that the bears were there."

Fortunately, the bears sprinted up the hillside and away from Minshall's group.

"Seeing the bear move so quickly was nerve-wracking," said Melissa Lamb, a former ISU graduate student who helped organize the research trip. "It reinforced making sure we did all the little things you're supposed to do while in bear country, like hang your food, and not keep anything scented in your tent.

And it's funny how things can get into your subconscious."

Lamb was one of two members of the trip, along with Spanish visiting postdoctoral student Iraima Verkaik, who said they'd dreamed of the encounter that night.

"The bears were a little too up-close and personal in our dreams than we wanted," Lamb said.

Baxter focused on how special it is to see a grizzly in the wild.

"This is something you're treated to," Baxter said. "When you do wilderness research, these types of memorable experiences happen routinely."

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine