Yellowstone August 19 - 25, 2001

Return of the Backpacking Home

Yellowstone 2001, Pelican Valley to Lamar Valley via Lamar River Trail, Approximately 40 miles. Attendees: Ray Ebert (The Planner), Rich Voss (The Deacon), Mike King (The Complainer), Rich Paragas (The Winner), Dave Cataldo (The Quiet One), and Kurt Meyer (The Sprinter).

Well, where to start? I suppose the beginning would be best… This was a big trip, nearly 2500 miles. Of course, most of that was driving. Early on in the planning I knew that if I was going to get everyone to agree to drive 2500 miles I had to make the drive as comfortable as possible. Putting six guys, six backpacks, and six more duffels of extra gear in a Suburban for an 18-hour drive simply wasn't going to fly. Luckily I was able to secure the use of a 30-foot motor home from my very generous brother-in-law.

So when it came time to leave everyone showed up at my house at the appointed time and we loaded up the motor home with more stuff than we could ever use in a week. Music, laptops, videos, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, popcorn, lasagna, coffee, beer, soda and the list goes on and on. With everybody, their gear, and their toys loaded up and with my Jeep in tow we started off.

Heading North on Hwy 15 we had our first excitement just north of San Diego. Some total wank decided to pull in front of me and put on his brakes. A word to the wise, if you get in front of a 20,000 pound motor home with a 3,000 pound vehicle in tow don't play games with them like slamming on your brakes or blocking them in behind cars. You just come off as a total ass! Well this tard eventually got tired of the games and went on his merry way, probably to lurk at some seedy topless bar some where…

So with that out of the way it was off to Vegas. We took about five and a half hours to get to Las Vegas and what a pleasant place to visit in August. Why it was only 110 when we got there. Definitely lounging weather… We grabbed something to eat in the oppressive air conditioning of the Rio Casino. Rich P. picked up a quick $500 while the rest of us made our donations of anywhere from $20 to $100.

After about an hour and a half it was time to hit the road again. I've been on the road between Las Vegas and San Diego many times but have only been past Las Vegas once, and that was at night. So I enjoyed this section of drive a little bit, despite the fact that Kurt was driving… We went through the north west corner of Arizona then on into Utah. If you like the colors that can be found in the desert, this area can be very beautiful.

The sun went down soon after and the drive then became an all out effort to get to West Yellowstone. Somewhere in the middle of Utah we went past an entire mountain that was on fire. We'd been able to see the orange glow in the sky for miles but when we went past the fire we were still shocked by its size and brightness. It looked like a lot of fire fighters were doing their best to protect a lot of homes in the area.

The drive to West Yellowstone was supposed to take around 24 hours, so when I took over driving at 4AM from Dave I was quite surprised that we were in Idaho Falls and only 100 miles from West Yellowstone. It only took 18 hours to get to West Yellowstone; I believe someone was speeding in the middle of the night… Regardless I enjoyed the two-hour drive to West Yellowstone as the sun was coming up. My favorite time of day to drive is before and during sunrise.

In West Yellowstone we enjoyed breakfast at a quaint little diner. Then stumbled back into the RV for the two-mile drive to the west entrance to the park. We got our backcountry permit, our fishing permits, and sat through a 20-minute movie about how to deal with Griz among other things. We probably didn't pay as much attention to this video as we should have considering some of the events we were about to experience.

There is some road construction going on in Yellowstone right now so the road from the west entrance to Madison is quite rough and muddy. This slowed us down a bit but in due time we got to Madison and then Canyon. We had to drop the Jeep off to the north in Lamar Valley, and we were staying the night at Lake Lodge to the south. Only 60 road miles separate these two locations, and 40 trail miles, but it takes a good three hours to cover the distance in a motor home pulling a Jeep. The road from Canyon to Lamar is very curvy and rough. Along the way we stopped at Tower Falls, pretty but a little hard to see, and we stopped to take in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Rich P. mentioned that this was the third Grand Canyon he'd seen and I realized it was the fourth I'd been to: THE Grand Canyon, the GC of the Pacific on Kauai, the GC of the Tuolumne in Yosemite, and the GC of the Yellowstone.

As touristy as the experience is, seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone really is amazing. You take pictures that look just like post cards the scene is so unrealistically beautiful.

We were tired however, and still had quite a drive to go. We finally made it to Lamar Valley, and we prepped my Jeep to be sitting by itself on the side of the road for a week. As we drove away I was really hoping the Jeep was going to be there when we walked out of the backcountry a week later.

We FINALLY got to the lake lodge and got checked in. I immediately took a shower and laid down on one of the beds. I instantly fell asleep but only for an hour or so. We ate dinner that night at the very elegant, for a national park, Lake Lodge restaurant. Dinner was very good but we were all just too tired to enjoy it too much. It's set right on Yellowstone Lake and we had a window table so the view was inspiring.

Back at the room we all pretty much crashed right away. The next morning we were up fairly early and getting our last showers and use of a real toilet for a week. We ate breakfast at the cafeteria, the food is average but at least it's over priced.

We got the motor home to the trailhead and everybody started going through his own pre-trip ritual. With everyone ready and the motor home prepped for a week without us we snapped a few pictures and headed out.

I signed the trail log but it was a funny entry because we weren't coming out on this trailhead, so I wrote "One way trip." Considering the level of Griz activity where we were headed this probably looked odd…

The trail through Pelican Valley is very easy and flat. It is also very narrow and in some places over grown. You walk through rolling grassy hills and you very much feel like you've just stepped back in time to a wilder age. In the distance in nearly any direction you can see large brown animals eating grass. Bison are all throughout this valley but surprisingly they are mostly alone. I had always understood Bison to be social animals. I tended to take Bison for granted until one was only twenty feet off the trail and we had to walk past him with his big upward curled horns pointed at us and his large brown staring eye following our every movement. We gave him his space and he apparently gave us not another thought as he went back to grass chewing.

As the trail meanders through the valley we passed a day hiker walking out with his can of pepper spray in his hand and his head regularly scanning all around. He'd come across some very fresh bear paw prints and didn't feel the need to explore any further. We spoke briefly and I unconsciously checked my own can of pepper spray. We headed on and scanned the trail for these paw prints. Not five minutes later we are walking on almost nothing but nice fresh five toed Grizzly Bear prints. I was surprised at how distinct the Griz print is from the Black Bear print. It's probably twice the size and more defined due to their greater weight. Seeing these prints we too began to scan the valley in all directions and made a conscious effort to make distinctly man made noises.

We never saw Griz that day, but we passed enough animals bones, and sometimes nearly complete skeletons to realize that we were in the territory of natural hunters, and that we could potentially become the hunted. This was a sobering thought but considering our group size and combined backcountry experience we gave this little more thought that day.

We came to a bridge that crosses the Pelican creek and stopped for a break. There was a sign noting various distances with a large Elk rack and skull leaning against it. Not far away was a Bison skull with horns. Hmmmmm…

After a bit to eat and some photo ops we headed out again. This valley allowed us to do something we don't normally have the privilege of doing. Since it was so flat and open we could look back where we'd come from and take in the views from that direction too. Pelican Valley truly is a beautiful place to go for a walk. Our walk continued out of the east end of the valley and up Mist Creek Pass. Not much of a pass compared to anything in the Sierra's but enough to give our legs and lungs a workout none-the-less.

We tried to stick together but when climbing we have to make our own way up at our own paces. Kurt was the jackrabbit of the group this year and spent much of the trip at the front of our group and by him self. Eventually we all made the top of the pass and could look back through Pelican Valley and see all the way to Yellowstone lake about ten miles away.

We caught our breath and headed out again. Camp was now less than a mile away. All we had to do was get to the bottom of this pass. Once at the bottom we all stopped, since the trail seemed to dead end in a small valley with a little creek going through it. We pulled out the map and saw that our camp should be on the south side of this creek so we headed south towards a small clump of trees that looked like a good place to camp. We had to walk through hip high grass, which made seeing the small tributary creeks very hard. Once across the main creek we found a nice little camp and proceeded to set up our gear.

We did our usual camp stuff only probably a little slower due to the eleven-mile hike we'd just finished. We ate dinner, played cards, I forget who one… Then hit the sack.

For some reason Big Rich (Rich Voss) and I are usually the first ones up in the morning. We get up, take a little walk, stretch, and then get some water boiling for coffee. As a courtesy to our camp mates we bring all the food down, hung to prevent bear pilferage, so they can start their own breakfasts soon after getting up. Call this mistake number one.

I had just started the water boiling for coffee and Rich say's, "Hey Ray, there's a bear over there." I come over and sure enough, about a hundred yards away is a bear. He's walking in our general direction but from this distance we can't tell what kind of bear it is, Yellowstone has both Griz and Black bears. Due to the safe distance I go back to my tent and get my camera and Rich does the same. We snap a few photos and I shoot a little video, all the while the bear is still heading in our general direction. We initially thought this was a Black bear and knew from experience that he probably wouldn't come into camp with active people in it. Call this mistake number two.

Realizing that the others, still in their tents, might want to see a bear I went back to the tent area and calmly announced "Bear, Bear" to a chorus of "Don't screw with us this early in the morning…" I convinced them this truly was a bear and walking past my tent got my bear spray out and headed back to watch the bear walk by. The bear was now much closer; perhaps only fifty yards, and I immediately saw his two puffy little ears and pie shaped face. He then turned sideways for a moment and I saw that hump in his back.

I knew then that we might have a problem on our hands. This was a Griz, something none of us had any experience with (except what we'd read and some of the video from the day before…), and he was heading directly for our camp. To add fuel to the fire, I announced to those slowly making their way out of their tents that a grizzly was coming into camp. If you ever need someone to pay attention to what you're saying those words work pretty well!

The next thing I heard was "WHAT THE HELL IS ALL THE FOOD DOING ON THE GROUND???" Try to do some people a favor… Some of the bags we had simply brought down and left connected to the hanging ropes so one or two people went over and pulled their food back up in the trees. Several other bags were not attached to the ropes and the bear was closing in on 50 feet. Mike and I spent some indecisive time trying to decide if we should risk trying to hang the rest of the food. For a lack of anything better to do I went and grabbed my food bag and backed away from the bear slowly. Mike felt the bear was now too close to try that and since I was the only one with a can of pepper spray actually meant to drive bears away, and I was backing away from the bear, I was now behind Mike, he decided to capitulate and turn the camp over to "Boo boo". I initially turned and started to walk quickly to where the others were already viewing from a reasonably safe distance. Realizing my blunder, I turned again and faced the bear while backing away and talking softly to the bear. Mike was right there next to me backing away with an "Okay, nice Booboo, good booboo, it's all yours booboo…"

We got to the small rise behind camp, about 100 feet from the bear, where the others were and stopped to watch what this bear had in mind. Amazingly the bear took a big detour around the food bags lined up on the ground; obviously this bear hasn't spent much time in Yosemite. He went around the edge of camp and came in between some trees on the side of camp, right toward the cooking area/fire pit. He sniffed some pots and pans, I think he might have knocked some over, and then he went over to the boiling pot of water. He must have realized that the pot and stove were hot because he backed away from them. The bear then went over to Rich V.'s chair, sniffed it and knocked it over. Wonder what Rich ate for dinner… I thought for sure that the bear was going to tear the chair apart but he just sniffed it some more then turned to walk away. He stopped once, gave camp another look over then headed out of camp in the same direction he'd been heading as if our camp was just coincidentally in his way.

The bear never looked at us that we could tell. He then stood up on his hind legs to what looked like a height of seven feet and scratched his back on a tree, he also urinated a bit hence the references to "He". I think he was marking the area as his. No arguments here.

He then continued on his merry way apparently never giving us a second thought. We gave him several second thoughts and stationed one person on that side of camp to watch and make sure he wasn't coming back.

That whole morning our conversation was very animated. We had faced down a Griz! We now felt we could handle anything… Especially since he was gone.

By 10AM we were packed up and heading up our little valley to finally meet up with the Lamar River, which we would follow for 25 miles to Lamar Valley and my Jeep hopefully.

After a few minutes on the trail we met up with a couple of guys heading in the opposite direction. We said our hellos and they asked if we'd seen any bears? Had we! We related our story and it turns out that our bear probably invaded their camp the night before and damaged both their backpacks a water bottle and tore up some other items. We felt quite lucky after hearing their story. We gave them some info on the area they heading towards and we parted company.

We continued heading east through some area that was severely burned during the '88 fires. This must have been some of the area that had canopy burns because there was very little standing; most of the trees had already fallen. Not all however. While walking along we heard what sounded like a gun firing behind us, and not 50 yards behind was a dead tree falling over right across the trail we'd just walked on. Based on that noise I'm going to go out on a limb and say that even if no one had been around the tree still would have made a noise.

Our destination for the day was blocked by two barriers, which were kind of one. We came to where the Pelican River joined the Lamar River. This area is a big delta and in early season would be quite impassable. We first had to cross the Pelican River via a down tree going mostly across the river. Using two trekking poles we were each able to get across fairly dry. We then made our way to the Lamar River through soft sand and river rocks. Unfortunately the Lamar had no trees lying across it so we searched for other options. While the leaders were walking all over creation looking for an area to cross on rocks I said heck with it and pulled off my boots and put on my sandals. This was why I brought them after all.

Of course in the time it took me to change shoes, cross the river and change shoes again the others found a suitable place to cross and I still had to catch up to them… Luckily we were but a few yards from camp so I didn't fall too far behind.

We set up camp and put in place some of the learning's from earlier in the day. Before setting up tents we got our food and ropes out and got the food hung. We all felt better with that chore done first. Throughout the rest of the trip we kept this habit of keeping our food hung at all times when we weren't actually getting something out of the bags.

This second camp was small, just barely big enough for six tents, and was quite a hike from the river. This didn't keep us from washing the days trail dust off in the river though, and that was most refreshing.

Again, that night consisted of dinner, cards, wine, somebody won cards but I don't know whom, then we hit the sack.

For some reason on this trip we never seemed to be able to get on the trail at a decent hour. But as we said then, we weren't in any hurry to get anywhere. So the next morning we were on the trail by eleven or so. Time is kind of a relative thing in the back country because half of us kept our watches on San Diego time and the other half had them on Wyoming time. The only thing that really mattered, and it only marginally, was the passage of time itself. We knew how many hours before sunset that we wanted to get into camp so we would have time to clean up, set up camp, relax a little and eat before the evening's games. Depending on the day's hike that sometimes took three hours, and sometimes that took six hours. So time only mattered in that we needed to be on the trail by X if we wanted to get to the next camp by Y.

About an hour into this hike Kurt, who was in front by his self as usual, stopped and waited for the rest us, and for good reason too. Kurt pointed out a large bruin feeding on some sort of carcass down in the river. We all shot some pictures and talked about what to do. We were on a rise above the river and the trail went down a hill and leveled out near the river, not far from where Yogi was eating his elk or whatever. We did what the books say to do; we made noise and tried to keep our distance. Once the trail leveled off we could no longer see the Griz because he was in the river below the bank.

We were looking towards the river trying to catch a glimpse of the bear when up popped a big pie face looking right directly at us. Apparently he'd finally heard or more likely smelled us. Not wanting to disturb his meal, nor become a part of it, we headed up the trail at a motivated pace. After about a mile we started to slow down since we saw no evidence that we were being followed.

As we were walking along near the Lamar River we started to see a lot of Wolf tracks. We were entering the territory of the Druid Peak wolf pack. Our prior research informed us that this is a large and strong pack, but knowing the wolf's propensity to avoid human contact we weren't particularly worried. We did want to try to catch a glimpse of these amazing animals so we stayed alert for any signs of them.

Eventually we made it to our camp three, an apparently new camp, and one obviously used by horse pack trips. This camp was not far from the river and had lots of logs cut into two-foot high stools, perfect for playing cards on. This was also our layover camp so we unpacked knowing we wouldn't have to pack up again for two days.

This was a great camp to have our layover and we really relaxed here. Lots of lounging, card playing, bathing, and just chillin.

The next morning we got a visit from a ranger on horseback apparently making his rounds of the backcountry. We went all through the applicable permits and small talk. We found out that our backcountry permit was a bit confusing and we were actually in the wrong camp. Since it wasn't likely that anyone was coming in that day, the Yellowstone backcountry just doesn't get that much use, we agreed that we'd stay but if anyone showed up we'd move to our correct camp.

Some of the guys then reminded me to tell the ranger about our bear encounters; all bear encounters should be reported to a ranger. I related our story and the ranger told me about two hikers who had a run in with a destructive bear who'd destroyed a water bottle, a sleeping pad and damaged two backpacks. We told him we'd met those guys and it turns out that they'd already relayed our story to the rangers as well. As a result the rangers had closed those two camps to further camping and this ranger was actually heading in to see if he could find our bear and determine his intentions. The effect of the camp closures made us the last group to be able to come in to this area from Pelican Valley, perhaps for the season if the bear stays active. Cool…

No other groups came in to make us leave and we enjoyed another wonderful and relaxing day fishing, playing cards (I think I won here with the highest score of the trip. I think…) and hanging out next to and in the river. We had talked about having some sort of backpacker Olympics earlier in the trip and this was the camp we were supposed to do it at. We'd thought of events like hanging a food bag the fastest, making the fastest fire, filtering a one liter bottle of water the fastest, and stuff like that. But when it came down to it we just weren't that energetic.

The next morning we again took our time getting ready to leave and by 11AM San Diego time we were on the trail. We found more canopy burn area, more Wolf, Bison, and Elk tracks, and enjoyed a non-demanding day on the trail. We crossed a sizable creek and stopped on the far side to relax and eat a bit when a guided pack trip came up behind us. Not sure where they'd come from but they knew we were in front of them because they'd seen our boot tracks for some time. The group consisted of about a dozen horses for three guides and four clients. Some of the horses were carrying some serious loads. The wrangler in the rear jokingly asked us if we might want to swap loads with one of his horses. We gave him a courtesy laugh…

A little while later Kurt radioed back to me that he was in camp and that it wasn't particularly nice, but I couldn't understand wasn't nice about it. Mike and I bringing up the rear eventually got there and didn't think the camp was so bad. I was a bit exposed with few trees in camp and the ground was covered in river rocks but it was big enough that we were all able to find a decent flat spot to set up our tents. This camp was actually on Cache Creek and there was a thermal feature about a mile to our east that we could smell quite distinctly.

I pulled into camp and got out my chair to relax a bit before setting up my gear. Kurt wasn't around apparently he was dropping off some friends at the sandbox. All of the sudden I hear a commotion in the trees to our west and see a large brown fast moving object coming towards camp. I then heard Kurt yelling something about a moose. I stood up and sure enough here comes a large moose funning full steam into camp. The moose evidently saw me, and the others, and decided that it wasn't any safer here then where he'd come from so he nearly fell over himself trying to stop and turn around to head back into the woods. Rich V., Dave, and I grabbed our cameras and headed in after him to try to get a picture. We passed a white Kurt and giggled at his predicament then found and followed the moose a bit before getting into a good position for taking pictures from a safe distance. The moose was obviously already scared and we didn't want to cause him any more concern so we stayed back and used the zoom features on our cameras.

In retrospect it was a pretty funny event and one I'm sure Kurt will remember for a long time…

Our evening followed the normal schedule except that we completed our RatF*** tournament and the winner was……………… Little Rich Paragas. Rich won three of six games, the little bastard...

During the evening's card games we heard, in the valley to our west, wolves howling. We didn't get to see them but we sure could hear them and they were probably less than a half a mile away.

Big Rich and I decided ahead of time that he and I would get up at 5AM and get out of camp at least two hours before every one else so we would have time to pick up my Jeep, drive back to Yellowstone lake to pick up the motor home then drive back to Lamar Valley and pick up every one else.

We left the Jeep at Canyon where we'd be showering and then headed back to pick everyone up. We hit a bit of traffic though, Yellowstone style. Herds of Bison kept crossing the road and stopping traffic. It was pretty funny but since it took three hours not two to get back to Lamar Valley the guys waiting there didn't think it was so funny.

Eventually we got every one back to Canyon and got showered up and heading toward West Yellowstone again. When we got to West Yellowstone it was 4PM and I had been driving for eight hours and had covered nearly 120 miles. Traveling in Yellowstone is very slow and requires patience.

We did some shopping in West Yellowstone and feasted at McDonalds then got down to the serious business of getting home. I had a couple of beers, watched a movie, tried to sleep then got back behind the wheel again at 4AM just outside of Las Vegas.

If we had been able to keep the same schedule going home as we had going out the drive home would have taken about 16 hours. We had really made up some time at night. Of course most of the drive coming back is down hill. Unfortunately 20 miles north of San Diego we suffered our only RV failure. We got a flat tire.

The right outer rear tire had blown and we didn't know how to change it, and I didn't know the RV AAA Card was in the RV. So, we took the Jeep off the back, let the rest of the air out of the tire and drove home slowly on the good inner tire. This added about two hours to our trip.

On whole this trip was pretty epic. I think everyone enjoyed the trip but I don't think we'll be doing an overnight drive again anytime soon. We'll probably be sticking to the Sierra's for a while. Never the less, we all enjoyed seeing Griz, Bison, Elk, Moose, Prong Horn sheep, and all the grandeur that Yellowstone has to offer.