Jeff Hammer: Encounters

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    Just this past Sunday, which would be Mother’s Day by my calendar, my wife and I decided to lace up the not so old hiking shoes and hit a trail close by. Even though there are a plethora of trails near Lander from which we could choose, a favorite of ours has always been the trails in Sinks Canyon. They are close and usually not too crowded, so our less than serious trek began at the trailhead at the Sinks Canyon Campground. 

    I’m not sure what it is about a trail, but in my opinion, there’s not a day bad enough that can’t be improved with even a short hike or bike ride on a trail. This hike proved to be no different. The day was warm but not overly so, the trail mostly dry, at least at the beginning, but most gratifying to me was the presence of the first wild flowers of the year. 


    I’m not an expert in the field of wildflower taxonomy, but over the years, I’ve learned the names of a few. Just a few minutes into our hike, we started noticing buttercups here and there, and as we gained a little elevation, we encountered a few shooting stars. Later, after turning a corner at the highest point in our hike and heading downhill, toward the trailhead, we ran into some blue bells.

    On every hike, the expectation is that we will encounter wildlife in some form, which of course enhances the hiking experience, but on this hike not only did we not see hide nor hair nor feather nor scale, we did not even notice any tracks or fresh scat. On this specific trail, we have previously seen deer and moose, and I kind of expected to find evidence of their passing. Nada.

    Not until the last mile of the hike did we encounter any wildlife to write home about, or maybe just to write about here. We had just finished a wooded steep downhill section full of pesky rocks, and had entered a fairly level and relatively smooth section when I noticed a hen blue grouse in the trail before us about 75 feet away. 

    As we approached, with me in the lead, she sauntered off the trail to the right about 20 feet in order to give us right of way, which is behavior one expects from blue grouse. But as we drew even with her, she abruptly turned downhill parallel to the trail and to us and matched our speed for twenty to thirty yards, which is not behavior I have ever seen from a “fool hen”. 


    Then she suddenly veered left, and in less time than it takes for me to type this out she was directly behind us, making threatening noises and acting as if she wanted to teach us a lesson in wildlife etiquette. By this time, my wife had passed me, taking the lead, leaving me to fend off a pissed off blue grouse.

    I turned around and bent over toward her trying to make myself look big and intimidating, which seemed to ratchet up her aggressiveness even more. She flew up toward my face at point blank range, surprising me with the level of her tenacity. Earlier, I had taken off an outer shirt, as our exertion increased, and with that garment in my right hand, I waved it toward her while she was airborne, which seemed to make her realize, somewhat, that perhaps she should disengage with the situation. She then backed off and moved off the trail to become hidden in the taller bitterbrush and sage, as we continued down the trail.

    She was obviously protecting a nest nearby, but the level of her aggressiveness and tenacity was unlike anything I’ve experienced from a bird of any kind…quite unlike a small group of blue grouse we waded through on the Beaver Pond Loop Trail near Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park one sunny summer afternoon a few years ago.


    That year, a warm and dry summer turned many of the trails into ribbons of dust. With every step, plumes of dust rose around our hiking shoes. When we found ourselves in the midst of a small covey of grouse, one trusting bird approached us to within two or three feet, as if to offer us a good afternoon, but promptly plopped itself down in the dusty trail at my feet and proceeded to raise a cloud of dust with its wings, giving itself a dust bath while making distinct sounds of pleasure.

    I walked around the bird, giving it a wide berth, all the while questioning the bird’s mental stability.

    Over the years, my wife and I have hiked and biked many hundreds of miles, many of those miles in Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks, so we’ve encountered all kinds of wildlife, but surprisingly few grizzly bears: only one in each park. Those meetings turned out to be unremarkable, but not so with black bears.


    One afternoon, my wife and I were riding bikes on the Grand Teton Bike Trail, which parallels the Grand Teton Park Road near the Taggart Lake Trailhead. As we rode over a small rise, we almost immediately heard a vehicle sounding its horn from the road to our left. The vehicle’s passenger stepped out and yelled at us to look out for a black bear close by. We stopped and looked where she was pointing, and sure enough, a small bear appeared not far away looking in our direction. It immediately took off for parts unknown, which has nearly always been my experience with black bears.

    Nearly always.

    One October evening over a decade ago, as I was walking back to my pickup on an old abandoned logging road in the gathering darkness from an afternoon elk hunt near Little Rock Creek, I heard brush breaking ahead of me from a large animal seemingly running away at my approach. I was a little concerned that I didn’t hear the sound of running hooves from a large ungulate, so I decided to wait a few moments to listen for any other movement. When none occurred, thinking the animal was gone, I continued up the incline toward an open park where my truck was parked.

    By now the darkness was nearly complete, with a little light showing in the west through the trees. I had proceeded about fifty yards, when off to my right to the west, about fifty feet away, I heard the distinct sound of a bear snapping its jaws together one loud time. I had never heard that sound before, but instinctively knew what it was. Snapping the safety off my rifle and snapping my head around toward the sound simultaneously, in the fading light through the trees, I saw the silhouette of a bear moving slowly parallel with me up the hill, but rather than an aggressive growl, it emitted a series of low, almost pitiful moans as we kept pace up the hill. Keeping my eyes on him, with my rifle at the ready, he eventually moved far enough away that I could no longer see him, but the sound of his moans continued until I exited the trees and entered the open park where my truck was parked.

    Not long afterward, I hunted the same area and passed that way along the same trail in the daylight. A short distance from where I had encountered the bear, I came across an area cleared of brush with a couple of lawn chairs placed behind a makeshift blind, in order to view a bear bait down the hill from where I disturbed the bear.

    Besides bears, the animal that can really ruin one’s day, especially in national parks, is the bison. Although plains animals, bison seek out shade on a hot summer day. In Yellowstone, my wife and I have had to detour around individual bison who lain down in the trail ahead, minor inconveniences at worst.

    A little more daunting was an encounter with the shaggy beasts in Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota a few years ago on a hot and muggy summer afternoon. With temperatures in the 90’s, we hiked through miles of open country where we were told we would see bison, but the stubborn beasts had not yet put in an appearance. To add a little more anxiety, the available park literature on the area also indicated that rattlesnakes were present as well, which I didn’t particularly mind as, on a trail, I can generally see ahead of me. Rattlesnakes are not, as a matter of course, aggressive when encountered…but neither are blue grouse.

    Toward the end of our hike, sweaty, sun-beaten and tired, we topped a small ridge to see a herd of about thirty bison parked directly in the trail as it topped another small ridge in front of us. With no other option, knowing we should not sashay through a buffalo herd, we left the trail, bushwhacking through tall native prairies grasses, ever higher up on the ridge until we felt we would be safely above them. 

    The earlier warning of being in rattlesnake country held center stage in my mind as we continued to move. I’m not a fan of placing my feet where I can’t see them in snake country, but there was no other option. The brutally high temperature also wasn’t helping my sweaty disposition. 

    Then we dropped down into the drainage between the two ridges, climbing much higher on the next ridge on which we had first seen them. While we were doing that, the stubborn bovines had moved over that ridge out of sight. Now committed to a strategy of seek and avoid, we topped the ridge to see the herd of bison off on the other side still stubbornly straddling the trail as if trying to make a point of claiming ownership. 

    Not willing to mount a dispute, eventually we were able to safely maneuver ahead of them, and I was more than grateful when we again intersected the trail and trudged back to our pickup, more than ready for a shower and a cold adult beverage.

    Now we begin another season of hiking and biking, and I’m sure my wife and I will experience more encounters with what I hope are many different kinds of wildlife. Most will likely be uneventful, but hopefully Mother Nature will provide a little something unexpected, but not too dangerous. I don’t want to be that guy you read about in the news section of County 10.


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