Breakfast today was a good meal – partly because it was preceded by a Black Bear, but also because of the conversation.
I slipped into an empty booth between a man of retirement age thumbing though a Peterson Field Guide and a middle-aged couple. I asked the Peterson Man whether he was a birder and he said that he was really a photographer, but it started the conversation going. He’d seen what was probably the same bear yesterday so we talked about ‘our’ Black Bear for a while. He seemed quite clued-up so I broached the subject of Grizzlies and Peterson Man suggested a couple of locations to try.
The couple then joined in the conversation and I found that they, Skip and Barbara from Pennsylvania, had followed a similar course to my own – through the Badlands, the Black Hills, Devil’s Tower and to Yellowstone.
Barbara loved Prairie Dogs (I didn’t mention the plague problem – I don’t think she would have liked it) and Skip said that ‘She’ had ‘about a million’ photos of Prairie Dogs. Barbara and I agreed they were very cute.
Skip told the story about one Prairie Dog that Barbara was going to photograph which turned its back on her, groomed its hair, and then turned round again to be photographed.
Skip and Barbara were, shall we say, generously proportioned. In fact, they were of the proportions that explain why so many Motel rooms have two Queen-sized beds in them. Skip had been a truck driver and was now retired so they were visiting lots of places that he had been close to but never had the chance to visit when ‘Every load had to be delivered yesterday’ as he put it.
They were a really nice couple and were going to be spending many days in Yellowstone before wending their way back to PA laden with presents for the grandchildren. But for now they were camping.
As we all exited the diner I noticed the enormous trailer behind their motor – bigger than many a student room in college – and revised my picture of them under canvas under the stars.
I set off in the direction that Peterson Man had suggested and made slow progress as there was plenty to look at. The day was sunny, the views of frozen lakes, icy rivers, snowy mountains were spectacular and there were plenty of birds to stop and identify.
But as I travelled I saw a lot of cars by the side of the road. Lots of cars mean star wildlife so I joined the throng and looked in the same direction as everyone else. This was easy as there were now about 100 people training binoculars, telescopes and cameras on a brown shape in the middle distance – maybe 400m away. It was a Grizzly Bear – the large size and prominent shoulder hump made that an easy enough identification. And it was just on the near horizon so I was lucky to have caught her before she disappeared from view – except that she started heading towards us all, and brought her two cubs with her. These were great views of a large mammal – and one of the star attractions of Yellowstone.
There are rules about approaching wildlife in the park. For wolves and bears you cannot approach within 100m – well who would want to? and who would have the chance anyway? But this bear didn’t know the rules, or knew that they applied to us but not to her, so she kept on coming giving us all – maybe 200 people now – amazing views.
The mother bear didn’t seem to look where she was going most of the time. She shuffled along with her snout down on the ground, pushing through the sage bushes of the flat wet ground that lay between her and us. The two cubs followed her. Occasionally she stopped and looked rather vaguely around and then started snuffling again.
She was coming straight towards me and my car. All the literature warns you about how unpredictable bears are, how mothers with cubs are the most unpredictable, how they can outrun humans, are immensely strong and how you shouldn’t get in their way. But this Grizzly had decided she was coming straight at me. Occasionally her shuffling and snuffling would take her in another direction temporarily but she was coming straight towards my car or the one ahead or behind me.
She was about 100m away now and some of the more sensible photographers were moving from the roadside into their cars having got the photos of their lives already but wanting to keep their lives. The road was mostly quiet except for the sound of motordrives and clicking shutters – and still she kept coming. A wildlife sight to remember forever – whether one had a camera or not. A mother Grizzly and two cubs down to 25m distance when she decided to about turn and head back the way she had come. There was a slight sense of relief that she wasn’t going to lead her cubs through my hire car after all.
What a sight. What an experience. And you can understand why Theodore Roosevelt was so inspired by a visit to Yellowstone that he set up the National Parks Service. Nice Teddy.