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Up a Tree (in Teton)

21 January 2021

Up a Tree

***I wrote this short memoir by request of my current ENGL110 class, who insisted that I contribute to the Scary Stories Discussion Forum. My students seemed to enjoy the tale; it is entertaining and a bit silly. It is, obviously, a true story. This image is the actual sunset selfie (not mentioned in the story).***

“…but we’ve got to hurry; we’re losing sunlight,” I said, glancing west.

“It’s ok – it’s only a 3.5-mile loop. We should be at the westernmost point about halfway through – at most just thirty minutes in. What time is sunset?” Brian asked.

I checked my phone: “8:45 pm.”

“See? Plenty of time.”

“Yeah…But you know it’ll set earlier than 8:45 because of the mountains,” I said, waving indistinctly in the direction of the ridgeline.

“Well, there’s still plenty of time. Let’s do it.”

We paused to check everyone’s day packs. It was a quick jaunt, but we still needed to take precautions. For example, as we stood around the car inventorying, Grant slid his new bear whistle keyring onto his zipper pull. A souvenir, it was both cute and functional. Our water bottles full and emergency snacks replenished, we looked at each other expectantly.

“Ready?” Brian asked.

“Yep!” Thrumming with energy, unable to stand still, Grant was always ready for adventure.

“Sure,” said Keira. She did not appreciate running as much as the rest of us, and the limited timeline sounded like it might force a quick pace. But she would go. Family adventures never failed to entertain.

I snagged the key fob from the side pocket of my rucksack to lock the car doors: “Alright then, let’s go.”

Off we marched, south and away from Colter Bay Visitor Center toward Hermitage Point trailhead. Of all the options in Grand Teton National Park, this was one of the most popular, touristy hikes during peak hours; right now, however, as the sun was well along in its descent, our little family was utterly alone on the path.

About 50 feet into the hike, Grant hollered, “This sign here says watch out for bears, ma!”

“Ah! That’s good to know – Brian, do you have the bear mace?”

“Yep! Right here in my side pocket, so I can grab it quick if needed.”

“Perfecto. Grant, put that whistle where you can get to it,” I said as I repositioned my own whistle to a toggle strap hanging on the front of my right pack strap – just beside my throat.

Without further pause, we took off at a quick clip, not running, but not quite hiking either. It was more like the type of movement you’d see old ladies do as they mall-walk for exercise. Race-walking.

Earlier, at two in the afternoon, we had arrived – later than anticipated – to Teton, hoping to snag one of the few remaining campsites at Gros Ventre campground inside the park. We knew it was a long shot during the peak month of August, but figured we’d try anyway, as the website claimed that the campground generally did not fill before four in the afternoon. We were unlucky; the campground had filled by nine that morning, leaving us up a creek, you might say. There was nowhere nearby with available sites.

Thankfully, this is a common occurrence for visitors to Gros Ventre. The kindly ranger manning the campsite’s lodge recommended to us a remote parking lot frequently proffered to overflow campers – about six miles north. All of this was fine with the exception that the change of plans meant we were losing valuable time to explore Teton.

Hence, we were late arriving at Colter Bay. Hence, we concocted this plan: rage our way out the trail to Hermitage Point and snag a sunset family selfie as the sun dropped over the sawtooth edges of Teton’s western mountain ridge. Sunset selfies are a thing in our family. This was a popular plan.

So, we moved with our old lady walkin’ strides in full confidence that we’d capture our moment – with plenty of time to spare! We talked, we sang, we hooted; we did everything we needed to do to keep the beastly bears at bay.

Brian dutifully tracked our progress on the trail using the AllTrails app on his phone. At some point, however, the app began to lose confidence in our location, giving us a touch of uncertainty about twists and turns, but it would eventually re-locate us and give us our coordinates. We plunged on with little concern, checking the app only when we approached junctions in the trail.

As we progressed and chittered together, we took note of our surroundings: many stones were shaped and colored like giant Easter Eggs. Keira said, “It sort of feels like we’re on a very long Easter Egg hunt!”

A dark tuft, snagged on a branch at about ankle-level near the trail’s edge, captured my attention, making me pause momentarily to inspect: “Guys, look at this. With absolutely no training as a trail guide or park ranger, I’d say this looks like bear fur.”

“Oh my god, it is!” Grant exclaimed, “I just know it is!”

“That is very cool,” said Brian.

We kept on with our brisk pace, appreciating nature’s bounty as it appeared before us. Each time we turned a bend that opened our view to the west, we noted the sun’s continued descent.

“How much further?” I asked Brian. “It seems like this is taking longer than we expected.”

“Ugh. I guess I can’t really tell right now; it’s not giving me accurate information. But we’ve been walking for about fifteen minutes, so we should be at least halfway,” he said.

Satisfied with the logic of this response, but unnerved by the growing dimness of the trail, I decided to take the lead, placing Keira and Grant behind me, leaving Brian to bring up the rear. This way, I could set a brisk pace, and Brian could watch over (and protect) us all. We weaved our way on, past marsh and beach, through bramble and forest, our hearts racing, feet thumping, and voices ringing out in the otherwise remarkably quiet wilderness.

As we came around a blind curve, something caught my attention to the right of the trail – something huge – at least six feet tall, grey like a shadow ghost, with black, beady penetrating eyes.

I stopped short and screamed: “OH MY GOD!” My heart, already racing from the exertion of our haste, nearly exploded out of my chest.

The heavily antlered mule deer, sadly, was just as startled as me; it did not waste any time bounding off into the forest and away from our noise. I collapsed a little, bending over to place my hands on my knees, capture my breath, and reign in my panic.

“Holy moly, that thing scared me,” I said. “Did you see him?”

“YES!” yelled Keira. “He was huge! How cool!”

“Aw man – I didn’t get to see it,” Grant said.

“Next time, man; we can slow our pace on the way back to the car,” said Brian, who also missed seeing the buck. “We have to keep moving, Meg.”

A few turns later, a tiny black blur screeched from a tree trunk to my left, startling me out of my rhythmic pace. The smudge then zoomed across the path, not three feet in front of my feet: a very dark squirrel. Jeez. There went my heart again.

As I slowed for a second to recover, behind me, Grant said, “Oooh what’s this?” He had found a large brown mound just at the side of the trail; we stopped together to inspect it.

“Look at the berry seeds in it. That’s totally bear scat, guys!” I said.

“I bet you’re right; deer scat is pellets. This is different,” Brian agreed.

“Ok, I’m getting scared,” said our anxiety-prone son. “Can we go back?”

“It’s going to be fine. We’re making lots of noise and I have my bear mace. Let’s get to Hermitage Point and we’ll head right back,” said Brian.

“But why is it taking so long to get there?” Keira asked. It was a good question.

“I’m not sure. Let’s move,” Brian said.

At our next juncture, finally, there was a mile marker sign that made our error abundantly clear: the loop was actually a 7-mile loop, not a 3.5-mile loop. 3.5 miles was only halfway. Instead of encountering Hermitage Point after 1.75 miles of hiking, we would reach it at 3.5 miles – twice the distance. Oh, AllTrails, how you have failed us!

“What should we do?” I turned to Brian.

Brian sighed. “Well, based on what I’m seeing, we are, still, technically within a mile of Hermitage Point.” He glanced toward the mountain line and descending sun. “I think we could still make it there in time if we jog.”

Ever wary, but on a sunset selfie mission, we increased our pace to a careful but steady jog, all while continuing to raucously joke and sing. We prayed our clamor would not disturb any nearby campers but figured if it saved our lives by warning off bears, it’d be worth the disturbance. I thumbed my straps and pulled them tight across my chest so that my pack wouldn’t bounce, then plowed on.

“Three-quarters of a mile to go,” Brian began counting down.

We twisted and meandered on the trail, ever-conscious of the fading light – our race against sunset.

“Half a mile left. Almost there, guys, you’re doing great!” Brian said.

“Mom, my pack is giving me a blister on my shoulder,” Grant moaned.

“I’m sorry, buddy, that sounds painful. See how I have my thumbs tucked into my straps to make them tighter, so my pack doesn’t move as much? You can try that…we’re almost there, I promise.” I turned back and resumed my pace, watching closely for tripping hazards like stones or tree roots; my ankles are burdensomely prone to turning.

As the four of us bounded around a tight curve, something lumpy, dark, and fuzzy clambered up a medium-sized tree trunk about six feet off to our left: it was a black bear cub. Its claws scraped at the bark, scratching and scuffling, as it tried to get further up the tree and escape all of our oncoming racket. As I stopped short, my family tumbled into me with a whump, whump, whump, and I saw two giant black startled eyes staring directly into mine.

My face a mask of terror, I screamed at my people: “Oh my god – bear!”

Let me interrupt myself for just one second, here. We were in no way unfamiliar with the risks and protocols surrounding hiking in bear country. We accepted that you should make lots of noise so that they would go out of their way to avoid you, so we did this. We were aware of the value of whistles and bear mace, and so we carried those. We understood the danger of encountering a bear cub alone – that mama bear was likely unseen and nearby – and she would fight to kill to protect her baby. We even knew what you should do if you are confronted by a bear: stand your ground; make yourself loud and large; if attacked, roll into a ball with your backpack on the outside. Never turn your back, and never run.

So, naturally, the first thing my family did when we saw this bear – was to scream, turn our backs, and run.

I jest. A little. Keira and I screamed, and both of us turned our backs. Keira ran back up the trail. I, on the other hand, yelled a litany of obscenities, shoved Grant behind Brian up the trail after Keira, and then shoved Brian in front of myself – between me and the bear – screaming, “Get the bear mace!”

I continued swearing as wildly as I could – it was all I could think of to do to make myself loud and large. My stream of curses was also peppered with important observations and commands like, “Where’s the mama?” and “Grant, get behind daddy!” and “Keira, stop running away!” and “Stay together – mama could be anywhere, but daddy has the mace!” and “Get in front of me, Brian!”

The three of us, Grant, Keira, and I, were, in fact, screaming and yelling and mostly bouncing off one another backwards up the trail. As we backed further away, Brian stood his ground, pulled the pin on the bear mace, and blasted a brief warning shot into the ground at the base of the tree. It came out with an ear-splitting, punctuated hiss. He then began his torturously slow process of backing away (which was probably actually quite fast, in retrospect; it’s amazing how adrenaline alters perception).

I watched him as if in slow-motion: his head whipped back and forth to each side of the trail, seeking mama bear, while his right arm held the canister of bear mace out from his body at a ninety-degree angle, sweeping it right and left, wherever his eyes were looking, as if it were a gun. As he reached us further up the trail, we all snaked our arms around one another and continued our backwards progress as a much larger merged unit, huddled together, trembling. The bend was not much further up the trail, and just as soon as the baby bear was out of sight around that bend, we turned and began to run, now at a sprint, back up the trail the way we had come. Quickly, we fell back into our previously ordained places: Mom, Keira, Grant, and then Daddy at the rear.

As we ran, I clambered for my whistle and began to blow it as loud as possible with every huffing exhale. Grant did the same, and this cacophony became our bear battle rhythm. Running at the front of this group knowing full well that there were actual bears nearby presented for me its own sort of challenge: what lies beyond the next turn? If we run this fast, do our whistles give bears enough warning to get away before we actually fall upon them? What’s that? What’s that? There’s something brown over there – what’s that?!

Then, the sun was so far descended it was about to disappear over one ragged mountain the shape of a dog’s tooth, and our path was growing so dim that shadows in every direction appeared to my eyes as bears. Mama bear here – daddy bear there. Oh – is that another cub? In my mind, we were pursued by hundreds of obscure phantom bears.

On we stumbled, on we ran, to the rhythm of our bear battle cry, holy terror ringing in our ears and thrumming through our veins. We sprinted and watched in despair as the sun slinked down, irrespective of our plight, below the mountain’s ridge, whipping one last, “so long, y’all,” over that shoulder in the form of a few paltry pink rays. How would we protect ourselves in the dark?

Thanks to our raging fear, however, what took us an hour to cover on our way out we covered in half the time on the way back. Before we knew it, tumbling upon one another and tripping over stones and stumps, we caught a glimpse of electric lights up the path: Colter Bay Visitor Center shone like a beacon in the night. Safety! That glimmer was a happy relief in a world of terror, chaos, and bears – but we had not yet arrived, so we plowed forward, blowing a little more gently on our whistles.

Before long, we heard chatter and talking: civilization. I looked at Grant and he looked at me. As if in silent agreement, we slowly, cautiously, tremblingly pulled our whistles from our lips and stowed them away.

Fifty more yards up the path, we passed the “Beware of Bears” sign Grant read to us as we embarked upon our foolish mission, and as we tumbled out onto the pavement of the Colter Bay Visitor Center’s parking lot, relief washed over us all. We had survived.

Numbly, we shuffled the rest of the way and then flopped into our respective seats in the car. For a while, silence pervaded the car’s interior as adrenaline filtered itself slowly out of our bloodstreams. Everyone processed what had just happened.

Suddenly waking from this stupor, I turned to Brian and the kids, a wicked light flashing in my eyes and a giant smile splitting my face, “Guys. We just saw a bear!” It was our first time.

Family adventures surely never do fail to entertain.

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