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  • Writer's picturecharlesjromeo

Rethinking My Relationship with Yellowstone

Updated: Jun 12

When I first ventured into the Yellowstone backcountry, I found it threatening.  It was in June in the early 1980s when Terry and I squeezed into Huk’s van along with him, his then wife, Shiela, and her younger brothers Joe and Ed.  We headed for Fawn Pass Trailhead in the northwest corner of the park.  The plan was to hike to Fawn Pass, bag a peak in the southern Gallatin Range, then hike back out. 

We all traveled in the backcountry surrounding Bozeman and were accustomed to being out in the wilderness.  Still, the large orange metal sign that greeted us less than a mile up the trail sent a shiver through us all.  “Warning: Backcountry Travel only Recommended with Groups of 5 or Larger,” or something to that effect.  We all looked at each other, feeling trepidation as each of us made certain that our number was in fact 6, then we continued up the trail.  A thunderstorm hit a short time later.  I set up my North Face Oval Intention tent right off the trail and all 6 of us huddled inside to wait out the storm. 

Once the storm abated, we quickly packed up the tent, and continued our hike.  That’s when we started noticing bear tracks everywhere.  It was muddy.  Many of the tracks sunk in deep and were filled with water as though the bears walked through during the storm.  We moved forward cautiously, and as we did we started running into snow patches that grew steadily larger.  By the time we reached the trail that connects Fawn Pass Trail with Bighorn Pass Trail the snow filled the basin and proved too deep to continue.  We turned onto the connector and camped in a small meadow on a ridge.  That’s when things got freaky.  We could hear bears.  They stayed out of sight, but they were nearby.  We kept the fire going well into that, thankfully short, June night.  None of us slept much.  In the morning, we packed up, headed to Bighorn Pass Trail and turned in the direction of the road. 

As we approached Bighorn Pass Trailhead, there was another connecting trail to Fawn Pass Trailhead that ran along the forest meadow interface only a hundred meters or so off the road.  I volunteered to hike this trail and go get Huk’s van.  I walked past some moose that were busy enjoying the greening willow tips.  Shortly after passing them, I decided to cut a diagonal across the meadow.  I knew that I would have to cut across the braided creek that was the headwaters of the Gallatin River by making this diagonal, but I was anxious to reach the van. 

The creek braids were nestled in chest high willows, and I had to find my way through the braids and the willows.  I turned down a promising avenue only to find it blocked by a rather large bird.  It was full grown Sandhill Crane standing more than 3 feet tall.  “Oops, sorry for the intrusion,” I said as I backed away and headed to the next gap in the willows.  The bird flew over the willows, blocked my path and squawked with a menacing “You Shall Not Pass!” sort of vibe.  I tried again.  It followed again, and the “You Shall Not Pass!” squawk was now crystal clear.  I had been moving steadily left.  This time I bolted right, hoping to find another gap and do an end run around the bird.  It though enjoyed the advantage of flight and the straight line of travel that provided.  It once again flew over the willows and stood in my path. I stopped.  ‘I’ it seemed, ‘Shall Not Pass!’  “Okay birdie, this is your home, you win,” and I started to beat a retreat back to the forest.  It followed, flying over me, at me it seemed, squawking its annoyance at my intrusion into its space.  I sucked my neck down into my shoulders each time it passed hoping to put my big round hairy target out of reach of its talons.  When I finally reached the safety of the woods, I turned around, raised my fist, and vented my frustrations.  “Ahhh!!!”  My intrusion, after all, had been unintended.  The bird flew off, the moose I had passed, looked up for a moment, then settled back onto those tasty willows—only 5 months to fatten up before next winter sets in.  I followed the trail to the van.

The experiences on that trip soured me on the Yellowstone backcountry for the next few decades.  The sense that there were bears hiding behind every bush and scary birds did not quickly fade.  Besides, there were plenty of wilderness areas where we spotted the occasional bear, but never felt threatened. 

I moved back to Bozeman in 2020 and Terry and I now make several trips a year into the park.  Mostly, we stick to the tourist boardwalks, but I have done a few trail runs into the backcountry.  Most take me around Upper and Biscuit Geyser Basins and then up onto the Caldera Rim, which is at most, the edge of the backcountry.  Last July I solo ran/climbed Electric Peak (see:  I have seen no bears on the trail, and no threatening birds squawked me into retreat.

Most recently, Terry noticed a post from a Meetup Group.  They were heading into the Yellowstone backcountry for an overnight, Memorial Day weekend 2024.  I joined the group.  There would be 6 of us.  That should satisfy the criteria set by any signage. I have been wanting to backpack more, and I was thrilled to meet some fellow enthusiasts.

We headed up Slough Creek Basin in northern Yellowstone on Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend.  It was windy, cold and threatening to storm.  It made me think that it’s a bit early to be out here, but if the others are game, I ain’t bailing.  The others were plenty game.  They were all experienced backcountry travelers.  The group stayed in close proximity—either we all were laggers or, more likely, we all moved well.

They were an engaging group of folks.  Karen had spent much of her life working in Yellowstone and a few other parks, and was planning to hike the Colorado Trail starting in early July.  Katy and Rodger, our group organizers and leaders, were Yellowstone backcountry regulars, as was Kim.  Sarah, a wildlife biologist and avid fly fisherwoman, knew this drainage well, and talked excitedly about coming back during the summer to exploit its fishing potential.  We all found lots to talk about, and we shared lots of stories.

The snow had only recently melted and Slough Creek Basin was just coming to life.  There were wetlands all about us, the basin was greening, and flowers were starting to bloom.  Spring was clearly, maybe finally, taking hold. 

There were small numbers of large male buffalo throughout the basin, one of which we had to detour around because he chose to stand on the trail.  Sandhill Cranes were busy trilling, making them easy to spot—I kept my distance.  We saw a badger right near the trailhead, and heard the howling of coyotes and wolves.  Sarah explained to us how to tell the howls apart; wolves have a deeper, more continuous howl, coyote howls are higher pitched and they tend to ‘Yip.’

I found that having a wildlife biologist aboard to valuable.  After putting down our packs for the night and setting up camp, Sarah and I punched out the last 2 miles to the northern boundary of Yellowstone.  No particular reason, just one of those "it was there" moments.  Along the way, she pointed out grizzly and black bear prints to me.  “How did you even see those?” I queried her.  Sarah, who is used to being out by herself flyfishing, responded, “I like to know what’s around me when I’m out here.” 

We headed back to camp.  The wind and clouds finally yielded and the night got cold.  We awoke to thick frost on everything and bundled up as we watched the sun’s rays cross the valley until they finally reached our camp.  We hiked out on a beautiful morning. 

All in all, my recent experiences have me wanting to head back into the Yellowstone backcountry.  I loved being in that broad valley filled with a variety of plants and wildlife.  It helps that the animals I saw on this last trip, and the lack of animals on my trail runs, make the park seem less threatening.  It also helped that I was part of a big group, and that we all kept bear spray on hand wherever we went.

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Gary Huckabone
Gary Huckabone
Jun 05

I do plan to get back into backpacking. No, really! I do! September?


Jun 05
Replying to

Hopefully we can get out together. September should work.

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