Monday, September 29, 2014

Close Encounters in Yellowstone

Last week we stopped for a few days in Gallatin National Forest, just outside of the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park in Montana. This is an excellent, well maintained campground and the price is right at $22 a night (electricity included). We chose to come here because we wanted to scratch Yellowstone off of our bucketlists. So, off we went to explore this world famous park. (fun fact: Recent online rumors state that roads were melting in Yellowstone due to volcanic activity. These rumors are false. They have closed some roads but the closures are due to bridge upgrades.)

We decided to start at the visitor center and then make our way to Old Faithful. Along the way people were stopping and causing traffic back-ups whenever they saw an animal. Bison are the main attraction and people act like typical tourists when they see one on the side of the road. They stop, get excited, then hold their iPad out the window and get their photos. It got annoying really fast.

Then we walked along a boardwalk that took us through some geothermal stuff. Hot springs, geysers, and stuff you would expect to see in the Yellowstone lowlands. The boardwalk was covered with tourists, fighting for position in front of the geysers in an effort to get their cheesy photos. There are also a LOT of Asian tourists in Yellowstone and the stereotype about Asians and cameras is alive and well. If you think I am being racially insensitive, let me remind you that I am half Korean so deal with it.
Number of Pizza joints in West Yellowstone = 1. Number of Chinese restaurants = 4. I didn't research camera shops but I bet there was one or two. 

We got to Old Faithful and waited for the eruption while eating our bag lunches. It was pretty cool but, again, tourists. This time, sitting on benches and holding their iPads in the air. I was quickly starting to feel unimpressed with Yellowstone. This place is so well marketed that they killed themselves by attracting tons of annoying car tourists who all want to get the best seat, best picture and best campsite. It’s a rat race. (fun fact: Old Faithful is NOT the tallest geyser in Yellowstone NOR is it the only on that can be predicted on a reliable schedule)
Old Faithful

We went inside of the Old Faithful Visitors Center and inquired about some day hikes. They were all carefully drawn out hikes with pamphlets and boardwalks. Pedestrian hikes. I started thinking about all of the iPads and I decided we weren’t going hiking. I was convinced that this place was a tourist trap and the only way to get a decent look at the nature here was to take it to the backcountry for a night. This would prove to be a SERIOUS underestimation...

We went to the backcountry office and registered. We picked out site #OD4. A large site on the prairie lands in the shadow of the Twin Buttes. A short 4 mile hike in and a 3 mile hike out. After we registered we were required to watch an 18 minute, backcountry safety video. I imagined all of the old ladies in straw hats who stumbled into this office with their iPads in hand saying, “Oooooh, backpacking, won’t this be FUN?!” This video was clearly made to deter them.

The first 15 minutes of the video talked about how to handle an encounter with a bear, the last 3 minutes talked about the basics. The video kept repeating the phrase, “Your safety is NOT guaranteed.”

Ha, they really try hard to scare the tourists out of backpacking. Good, hopefully we can find some seclusion and enjoy ourselves.

The next morning we loaded up the truck with our backpacking gear and headed to the trail head. When we arrived, we ate some sandwiches, lifted our packs onto our shoulders and headed off to see if Yellowstone could redeem itself.

The trail was interesting. First we walked past some cool geothermal features. These ones didn’t have a boardwalk or warning signs. These ones were undisturbed in their natural setting and we didn’t have to share them with anyone.

Our trail turned to the west and we hiked through bison rich prairie lands. These were OUR bison. We didn’t have to share them with people in rented RVs. They pretty much just eat grass and shit all day but hey, it’s not every day that you get to walk amongst massive herds of buffalo.
Prairie Hiking
We arrived at our campsite just before dinner time. There were two buffalo grazing in the area designated as our site so we waited for them to move. They weren’t in a hurry to get out of our way so we just setup camp in some trees nearby. This is the backcountry. You gotta improvise.

We had supper and then sat around the fire enjoying the beautiful scenery. This was more like it. A Jack London-esque backdrop in a totally secluded prairie. Just us, our two buffalo and some tents. Yellowstone was really starting to impress me.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Noah started crying. The boys sleep in a different tent just outside the front zipper of our tent. The whole camp is covered with a tarp and we keep our gear between the two tents. The boys LOVE sleeping together and it gives us a break from them. Anyhow, Noah is crying that he is cold. Jessica heads ‘across the hall’ to their tent and helps him get bundled into his sleeping bag. She slides back into our tent and lays her head down and this is the PRECISE MOMENT when shit got crazy. All of the fears we keep in the back of our minds about camping came RUSHING to the forefront and sleep was suddenly out of the question.
We heard a noise, immediately outside of our tents that sounded like growling and heavy breathing. I grabbed my bear spray, removed the safety and clutched it as I quivered with fear. Jessica heard it too and assumed the same thing, grizzly bear. She kept whispering, “Mikey? What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?”

I thought the best course of action would be to blame it on the Bison. I acted cool and said, “Don’t worry. It’s a Bison. Go to bed.” She eventually calmed down, the noise stopped and after explaining why I thought it was a Bison (I said I heard hooves) she was comfortable enough to fall asleep. I was still clutching the bear spray but I was calming down. I started to nod off.

Suddenly, out from the east, I heard a LARGE pack of wolves. I could tell it was large because wolves always howl in different pitches to make themselves sound like a bigger pack. If you listen close, you can pick out the different pitches and count them. I stopped counting at 7. I wish I could say these howls were off in the distance but I could hear them howling, playing and, at one point, I heard them fighting over something…probably another cocky backpacker.

The howls got closer and closer and I was getting worked up again. I kept telling myself, “calm down. Wolves avoid people. Wolves are afraid of you. They know you’re here and they don’t want anything to do with you.”

As they made their way into the hills I started to feel calm again. Then I heard simultaneous grizzly and coyote activity. I was having an anxiety attack. I just wanted it to be morning so I could hike to my car, grab my iPad and go see stuff from the safety of a boardwalk. Then, on the opposite side of my tent, I heard a lone wolf. Howling, then walking, then stopping and growling, then walking. HE WAS CLOSE. My stomach was in my throat. Let me be clear, I DO NOT scare easily in the wild. But this, this was different, Yellowstone comes to life at night and the animals are in charge.

I sat, wide eyed, as the sun came up. I wanted to go outside, start a huge fire and stand guard with my pocket knife and bear spray but early morning is a common time for bears to go looking for food. Everyone else was asleep so I sat and waited. The boys managed to sleep through the whole thing. Ah, to be a kid.

At 7:30 I decided to go outside. I grabbed my knife and bear spray, put on my shoes and walked over to a rock and relieved myself. Then, I put my foot on a log and proceeded to tie my shoes. Just as I finished lacing up my last shoe an animal walked out of the trees 30 feet from me and stopped in his tracks. A gray wolf. The lone wolf. This is his territory. I caught him off guard. Catching a wild animal off guard is the beginning of every animal attack story out there. So there we were. I was crapping my pants and the wolf was staring directly at me. Sizing me up? Checking to see if I was a threat? Scared of me? I don’t know. All I know is that my initial reaction was to go back inside of my tent and disappear.

I crouched under the tarp, between the tents and whispered to Jessica, “Hunny, there is a wolf out here and I need to come back insi….”

Suddenly a wolf’s face appeared. This time is was 15-20 feet from me. He was positioned in such a way that all I could see in the space between the top of the tent and the bottom of the tarp was WOLF. He had his front-right leg slightly off the ground with his paw curled back. The way a domestic dog does when he is fully engaged in stalking something. That something was ME!

So, with a weak and shaky voice I said, “Never mind hunny. I have to draw him away from these tents.”

Every ounce of my physical being was telling me to stay there between the tents and curl into a ball. Meanwhile, my paternal instincts kicked in and I felt the safety coming off the bear spray and the blade was being flipped out on my pocket knife. Then, with a wolf just feet from me, I stepped into the open prairie. Just him and me with nowhere to go. Him with his jaws that are 100x stronger than mine and me, dual wielding pepper spray and a 2” blade.

My first priority was to draw him away from the tents. So, I slowly and deliberately started moving toward the fire pit. I thought I might be able to find some sticks and coals that I could use in my fight. I kept hearing in my head: YOUR SAFETY IS NOT GUARANTEED…YOUR SAFETY IS NOT GUARANTEED. Stupid video. 15 minutes on how to handle a bear encounter, ZERO advice on how to handle a wolf encounter. You know why? Because people don’t encounter wolves. It is SO RARE that Yellowstone doesn’t even cover it in their backcountry safety video.

Ah, but I DO KNOW what to do. Thanks to Ranger Britney at Porcupine Mountains State Park in Michigan, I know a lot about wolves. She never covered what to do in an encounter but she explained how their minds work. This wolf DOES NOT want to fight me. I caught it off guard and it is determining IF it needs to defend itself. So, look non-threatening. Avoid eye contact, don’t turn your back to him. Show him that you made a mistake and now you are moving on.

He continued his stare and was still just FEET from the place where my family was sleeping. As I walked toward the fire pit I kicked up some dirt and gravel and he took a good 15 steps away from me. It surprised him but he was not attacking. I started making more noises. Throwing sticks in the fire pit, kicking dirt. Each time he took a few more steps and then stopped to stare at me. He got to the edge of the field and stood staring at me for a while. I walked back to the tents and woke everyone up. I said, “Hey guys, if you slowly come outside, you can see a wolf off in the distance.”

It’s almost as if he heard me say this because right after he finally turned and ran off into the hills. My heart was pumping. I decided we would skip coffee and hot breakfast and eat some cereal bars and break camp. Every 30 seconds I found myself scanning the horizon for animals. I was scarred.

I feel like the ‘lone wolf encounter’ was natures test to me. I was being neurotic and paranoid all night and I was truly scared. Then, as I left my tent in the morning, mother nature said, “Here, face your fear.”

Something inside of me switched on. It was like one of those situations where nature takes over and you do what you are programmed to do. I don’t know what I was planning to do with that tiny knife and that pepper spray but I was prepared to do it until one of us was dead. So, as much as I want to say I HATED my experience camping in the Yellowstone backcountry, I was able to sharpen my skills as a fatherly protector and when you live in an RV and you’re traveling the country, that’s a valuable experience.
Fairy Falls
We hiked back and the whole time I kept thinking about what I did right and wrong. I managed to get the GoPro to turn on for 20 seconds while I stole some photos in front of an amazing waterfall. We made it back to the car and there were other cars all around us. Asians, iPads, old ladies in straw hats, it was good to see them again. On the road out there was a big traffic jam, people stopping to photograph an animal. You can tell by the size of the traffic jam how rare of an animal it is. This was a big one. I saw the park ranger walking back to his car with his bear spray out and we saw a black bear running into the woods. The car tourists were all having a moment. They got to see a black bear in Yellowstone. 

Ha! Black bears. How tame.


  1. Wow, that is a crazy story! We spent 3 weeks in Yellowstone in early June...just before all the crowds got there. We saw several grizzly bears, 3 pretty close, and a herd of bison swimming across a river....but did not see any wolves despite our best efforts. Of course we stuck to the RV.....that is truly a rare experience you had! (Found your blog via the FullTimeRVing page on FB.)

    1. It's a really awesome park. I wish I weren't so full of fear from the night I had. I might've calmed down and just appreciated the wolf. Thanks for reading.

  2. Wild! Hell of a story man. Worth the font change.

  3. Riveting story - learned a lot from reading this. Glad everyone was ok.