"Big bear! Big, big bear! Big bear..chase..me!"
--John Candy, "The Great Outdoors"
I'll get to the part about the bear soon enough.
I don't remember much about Mammoth Hot Springs. The area is similar to Geyser Country, with smoking pools of water in prismatic hues of orange and blue. Like the Plitvice Lakes, which I recently visited in Croatia, the area is formed by sculpted mounds of travertine, a form of limestone that is dissolved and carried to the surface by boiling water and forms layer after layer of steaming rock.
We saw a regal-looking bull elk with an ornate crown, it's royalty only somewhat diminished by the tag dangling from one of its antlers. And I went swimming -- again. This time, the Boiling River lived up to its name. The swimming area is a series of spa-like holes separated by rock walls, where the scalding Boiling River hot spring blends into the cold rushing water of the Gardiner River. You have to skeeter through a jarring mix of very hot and very cold water before you get to a comfortable spot -- it's kind of like taking a shower in England -- but it's worth the effort.
From there, we found our way to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I made the vertigo-inducing trek down the 328 steps of Uncle Tom's Trail -- we had a longer hike planned for the afternoon, so my Dad sat this one out -- where I was greeted by the 308-ft tall Lower Falls. And an amazing rainbow.
After the final hike, four miles past the Lower Falls along the South Rim Trail, we got back in the car and criss-crossed a wide swath of the park we had visited previously: the lush Hayden Valley, the tempestuous Lake Yellowstone, past West Thumb Basin and then south to Grand Teton.
All of which brings me to the bear.
As we approached the Signal Mountain Summit Road, where we spotted two black bears on the first day of our trip, we decided to make one last run in the hope that lightning would strike twice.
At the very top of the road, we spied a small group of people huddled above the wild grasslands that led to the valley below. I couldn't make out what they were looking at, so I asked. A woman pointed to a berry bush not more than 20 feet down. I hadn't looked there because it was so close. And there, much to my excitement, was another black bear, this one looking just slightly older than a cub. It was much closer than the other ones we'd seen, but like the others remained oblivious to our presence.
While looking through the viewfinder of my camera, I noticed that he was making his way closer. He remained unthreatening, blithely munching on leaves and berries. The next photo was taken when he was about 10 feet away. The caption might be, "What big eyes you have!"
Threatening or no, the bear was now a little too close, even for the most enthusiastic photographers among us. Some moved back. Others returned to their cars. I joined 2 or 3 shutterflies who moved to higher ground. I was fiddling with my camera, when I was startled by the sound of rustling in the leaves below the fencepost at the top of the lookout. That's when the bear poked its head through the lowest rung of the fence.
I must have been in slight shock because my first instinct was to take a picture. It's not a very good picture, mind you. But it was taken without amplification or zoom when the beast was not five feet from me. I could have scratched it behind the ears if I wanted to. But luckily, my senses returned and I took five slow, steady paces back.
I walked down from the lookout back to the spot where I first saw the crowd. Those who remained were mostly up near the lookout, trying to capture the excitement from a safe distance. I was more or less by myself -- although people were close by -- when I heard the now familiar, foreboding sound of rustling in the brush. This time, I walked back right away as a second, somewhat larger bear made its way into the middle of the road. It seemed befuddled -- perhaps it was looking for the other bear, a relative? -- before it was shooed off by a Teton fireman who had joined the throng to help ensure safety.
I know it is easy to overdramatize such encounters, as the Onion does hilariously in this parody, but then again, how often does one come within five feet of a bear? I could have been killed! It was a wonderfully adventurous way to cap off a fantastic trip that was full of adventure. As is always true with trips of this kind, exposure only breeds a desire for more -- a wish to delve more deeply, to stay longer and more fully absorb the wonder and purity of this place.
As such, I am left with wonderful memories until I return. Before I finish my travelogue, I want to take a sec and thank those of you who offered invaluable advice and tips before I left, including Donna, Matt, Jim and Laura. Of course, I also want to thank my Dad, who had the foresight and generosity to make it all happen and was a wonderful travel companion for this unforgettable week in the wild. What can I say? Thanks, Dad. I love you.
If you'd like to see more of my photos, go to this link (Unfortunately, the video files are too large to download anywhere but on Youtube). If you see a shot you like that I didn't post, let me know.