Danger in Yellowstone?

In previous posts, we’ve noted that the most dangerous part of nearly any guided wilderness hiking trek is the drive to the trail-head. We stand by that! And backpacking in Yellowstone is no exception.

Once out in the wilds, however, many folks will be surprised to know that bear attacks are way down on the list of potential catastrophes. Not that any of the things that might befall a careless wilderness walker are likely to occur, but danger stalks the unwary. On a multi-day guided backpack trip led by a Big Wild professional, though, injuries are rare because we put safety above all other considerations.

I said that bears rank low on the potential danger list. In fact, in the Yellowstone back-country, the National Park Service has calculated a 1 in 200,000 chance for a bear-inflicted injury for any given night spent out in the wilds. When you consider that most injuries and deaths have occurred to individuals traveling alone or to those who’ve committed overt acts of idiocy (stalking Mr. Grizzly with your camera, camping illegally and being sloppy with food; running when confronted with Ma Bear etc.), those odds probably drop to less than one in a million when traveling in a group led by a professional guide. I am not aware, though, of any official statistical conclusion for your odds in lieu of stupid acts. I’ll also mention that since the inception of Yellowstone, there have been exactly zero bear-induced fatalities on guided treks.

In fact, in the entire history of Yellowstone, 1872-2018, there are just 8 documented bear-inflicted deaths inside the park, most or perhaps all being grizzlies, and again, most being associated with human ignorance or carelessness. Compare that with drowning (119!); falling (36); suicide (24); airplane crashes (22); burns from falling or jumping into thermal pools (20); horse accidents (19); freezing (10); and murder (9). OK, it is true that falling trees (6), snow avalanches (6) and lightening (5) all rank below bears in Yellowstone’s tally of fatalities. The only thing here that surprises me is that there have been so few lightening debacles, given Yellowstone’s frequent and sometimes severe spring and summer thunderstorms. Apparently, the lack of exposed alpine terrain reduces the incidence of humans acting as functional high altitude lightening rods!

The other thing I take away from this is that the biggest danger in Yellowstone is one’s own poor judgement. Don’t jump into a boiling pool. Avoid falls off cliffs. Don’t drown. And realize, too, that statistically speaking, in the park as a whole you are more likely to be murdered by a fellow human than killed by a bear. That should make you sleep well at night, deep in the wild and beautiful back-country of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park!



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Wyoming Wilds: Backpacking the Gros Ventre Wilderness

The valley of Jackson Hole Wyoming is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is flanked by the world-famous Grand Tetons on the west and by the less well-known but locally loved and even wilder Gros Ventre Mountains on the east. The town of Jackson sits at the south end of the valley. The Gros Ventres (pronounced Grow-Vahnt) are a magnificent mountain range of soaring sedimentary peaks rising about magnificent mountain stream valleys. And this protected Wilderness Area encompasses some of the best mountain wildlife habitat on Earth!

Our scheduled treks in the Gros Ventres are usually in June, before the hoofed animals have spread out over the high summer ranges due to the still-melting snow-pack. So we usually see a lot of wildlife along our mid-elevation route! On this trek a few years ago, we watched a doe mule deer chase a wolf right past our group as we stood open-mouthed on the trail just a few yards away! We’ve seen hundreds of elk on this guided hiking tour, and most years we also see moose, beaver, marmot and occasionally bighorn sheep, mink, bear (both flavors) and a diverse abundance of bird-life, too!

The trail gradients are generally pretty mellow, especially for a high mountain trip, though in June, there are usually some wet and muddy sections. But it is worth it! The peaks are seriously snow-capped and the valleys are a brilliant spring green, laced with wildflowers and punctuated by colorful red and gray sedimentary rocks. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore one of our great western mountain Wilderness Areas! And, I am proud to say, yours truly is one of the folks responsible for getting the Gros Ventres protected as designated Wilderness back in 1984.

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Streams and River Crossings on Guided Backpack Trips, Part 2

As mentioned in the previous post, when you get to a river crossing, let the guide do his job. Don’t crowd him! Don’t start making suggestions! And bring your hiking stick or trekking pole(s)!

Depending upon the situation, on any given guided hiking trek in Yellowstone or elsewhere, our guide will usually go first. He may test a potential crossing location. He may instruct the group to pair up and lock arms or even to go in threes, arms locked, with the weakest link in the middle. On smaller streams, he may locate a log or rock crossing that will keep your feet dry, but remember: when he is assessing the situation, he is not just looking for a place where most of the group can safely cross, but where all group members can safely do it. That’s why we don’t want folks blurting out suggestions or looking on their own while the guide is assessing the situation. Log and rock crossings can be dangerous, and our guides will only OK them if they are truly safe for all of the members of the group! Remember, a broken leg is far more inconvenient than wet feet!

I have often been in situations in which well-meaning clients start saying things such as “what about over there?” “How about that log?” In most situations, I have already considered or rejected those options. Many folks don’t realize, for example, that finding a narrow crossing location usually means deeper, faster and therefore more dangerous water! Usually, with some exceptions, the wider the better. Wider usually means shallower. Again, give the guide time and space and he will nearly always come up with the safest option.

On all but the easiest crossings, in addition to listening to your guide, remember to unhitch your hip-belt and sternum straps. If you go down, you do want to be able to get out of your pack! But do try to remain upright. It makes for a much more pleasant rest of the day!


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Stream and River Crossings on Guided Backpack Trips, Part 1

One of the great features of most of our wilderness backpacking treks is an abundance of cold clear mountain streams and rivers. This is especially true for our Yellowstone backpack trips, because the Yellowstone region nourishes the headwaters of some of our nations’ major and most iconic river systems, including the Snake/Columbia, the Green/Colorado and the Yellowstone/Missouri/Mississippi! And on some of our guided Yellowstone hikes, we explore either the upper Snake, the upper Yellowstone or other named and unnamed streams and rivers.

Even on treks outside of Yellowstone, in the Gros Ventre Wilderness or the Bob Marshall Wilderness, for example, river fords can be tricky, depending upon high elevation snowpack and weather. Big Wild Adventures has a long-standing policy against clients being swept away by raging icy torrents, and so far, after 39 years, we have held Darwin’s most famous theory at bay with regard to rivers.

In order to keep them from being swept into the evolutionary stream of natural selection, we ask a few basic things of our clients. First, bring a pair of lightweight but sturdy shoes for river crossings. Classic river shoes are lightweight and quick drying.  Sneakers are heavier and slow to dry, but they are the sturdiest option. And of course, if you don’t mind wet boots, just cross in your hiking shoes. Removing your socks first will allow your boots to dry fairly quickly once you are back on the trail with dry socks inserted.

Most important, though, we want our guests to follow the guide’s instructions! Each crossing is different, and our guides have vast experience in getting our clients across streams and rivers, large and small, so please, do what they say! This includes waiting for our guide to assess the situation. When you first approach the crossing, be patient! Let the guide consider all options! Do not immediately start making suggestions or looking for a log crossing or testing the waters on your own. Remember, you paid us a lot of money for your trip, so allow our guides to do their job. They are good at it, and safety for the group, with particular consideration for the weakest or least coordinated hiker, is first and foremost in the mind of the Big Wild Adventures guide!

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Dead Trees and Safety in the Yellowstone Backcountry, Part 3

First, look around before you get too invested in a tent sight. On thing that’s guaranteed to ruin a good night’s sleep in the wilderness is to be crushed or skewered in your tent by a falling tree. And in loud enough wind or rain or both, nobody will even hear you squeal!

The easiest way to avoid falling trees is to camp in the middle of a meadow. One problem with this is that it is usually colder, dewier and windier out in the open, so this may not be a great option. Or, it is snowing or raining like hell. Do you really want to be out in the open, exposed? Also, in Yellowstone (but not on our trips in national forest Wilderness), we are required to camp at designated sites, many of which do not include the meadow option. So. What to do? Here’s what I suggest: Look around and use your common sense. If a snag or even a live tree is leaning in one direction, don’t pitch your tent in its trajectory! Don’t try for a Darwin award, at least on a Big Wild trek!

It is also useful to learn some tree identification. Beware of leaning lodge pole pines and also Engelmann spruces. Aspens are a safer bet, as are Douglas-firs which have deep root systems and are therefore less likely to fall at any given time. But less likely does not mean “unlikely”. Really, it is best to pitch your tent where the surrounding tress will fall away from your location. Consider both wind direction and leaning angle. I have seen (and heard) many trees fall in the forest. Occasionally I’ll see or hear one go down when there’s very little wind and soil that is not saturated. Sometimes it is that tree’s time. Like us, trees eventually fall, independent of external factors. And so our job as campers on a guided wilderness backpacking trek is to make sure that when they do, we are unlikely to get squished or skewered. Yes, bears get most of the press when it comes to danger out in the wilds, but it is the more mundane hazards that are more likely to do us in while backpacking in Yellowstone: falling, drowning, lightening, driving to the trail-head, and yes, getting plonked by a falling tree.



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Yellowstone Entry Fees, Still Reasonable, for Now

Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, established in 1872. And Big Wild has organized and run guided Yellowstone backpack trips since 1979. Because the Park Service has built too many roads and facilities in Yellowstone, and because it encourages motor tourism above all else, it costs them a lot of money to provide the amenities needed by over 3 million annual tourists, most of whom rarely ever leave the roadside. Even though over 90% of the park is back-country de-facto wilderness, over 90% of its human visitation is front-country. These tourists demand gasoline, restaurants, stores, cell towers, parking lots, campgrounds, electricity, WiFi and roadside bison and bears that will cooperate with cell-phone photography.

Who pays for all of this habitat fragmentation? We do. We as taxpayers, that is. Yet as Congress continues to cut budgets for the national parks, agency managers are looking for ways to augment funding so that we can have wider roads, fewer potholes, more cell towers and spiffier lodges and visitor centers. In other words, the National Park Service needs more funds to accommodate more tourists since our country has more people each year (the population bomb has exploded) — and more international travelers, too. More more more. More of everything is deemed to be better. Ask the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. But of course, when it comes to wild nature, more humanity is not better.

As I type this missive it still costs 15 bucks a head to enter Yellowstone, or 30 dollars per automobile. Not too bad a deal, really, although just a few months ago the Feds wanted to double the fees. That produced an outcry, and rightly so, because such entry fees would be a hardship for many. So for now, public outrage saved the day. The fees are scheduled to go up by just $5 this June: to $20 per person or $35 per auto. But I’ll wager that within a year or so, they will go up again. And then again, incrementally. For now, though, a Yellowstone vacation is still affordable, thanks to public outcry. But I do wish that we could garner the same level of public outrage for the lack of designated Wilderness in Yellowstone, or for killing bison, or for the tragic upcoming Wyoming hunting season for grizzlies on public lands outside the park…..

Actually, what I really wish for Yellowstone is that the Park Service and its supporters would re-think the basic premise of  the park. Perhaps we might reconsider the placement of some of the roads, like the one through Hayden Valley, one of the greatest temperate zone wildlife habitats on Earth. Roads can be removed and wildness restored. Let’s re-wild Hayden Valley! Let’s also get rid of the L.A. Freeway-style four lane cloverleaf monstrosity at Old Faithful. Let’s limit vehicles. Let’s remove back-country power line corridors (yes, theses insults do exist!) — bury them along the roads. I’m for more grass, less pavement. Fewer humans and more bears. More silence and less motor noise. None of these suggestions will be easy to accomplish, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Let’s ask: what do we really want for Yellowstone as the 21st century unfolds? So until we begin to debate the very premise of unlimited motorized industrial tourism in Yellowstone, I will continue to oppose more funding and bigger budgets for the Park Service, whether they come from increased entry fees or a well-meaning but misguided budget increase enacted by some future Congress.

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Dead Trees and Safety in the Yellowstone Backcountry, Part 2

If a tree falls in the forest and a Big Wild group is there to hear it, then it definitely makes a noise (If a man speaks in the forest and there’s no woman there to hear him, is he still wrong?). And if the Big Wild group is there to hear the tree fall, our strategy is to prevent our guide or clients from being in the landing zone at the inopportune moment!

How do we do this? I’ll get to that. First, let’s be clear that both live trees and standing snags fall over, though snags are more vulnerable. In 1988, about half of Yellowstone National Park was within the perimeter of one of the 7 or 8 named wildfires, though only about half of that acreage burned hot enough to kill most of the trees. Still, that’s a lot of land and a lot of dead trees. Now, thirty years later, many have fallen but millions still persist as snags. And of course,  at least a few wildfires burn in Yellowstone every year, not just in 1988. As noted in the previous post, from an ecosystem perspective, a forest with lots of dead trees is not “unhealthy”. Many wild species benefit from an influx of dead wood into the system. Lightening-ignited wildfires have been burning in western and northern North America for thousands of years, and our forest and range land ecosystems are well-adapted to this natural disturbance. And although live trees also blow over — usually influenced by strong winds or saturated soils —  snags are the greater hazard, because their roots die and rot and no longer hold the tree in place.

On our Yellowstone backpacking trips, lodge pole pine is usually the most abundant tree. It is also very shallow-rooted, depending upon a flush of spring moisture as the snow melts and then upon the frequent but usually brief afternoon Yellowstone thundershowers, which usually keep the high plateaus well-watered. Lodge pole forests are beautiful, often with grassy under-stories, but because these shallow-rooted trees are susceptible to wind and saturated soils, they can be dangerous for those who are careless in selecting a tent site. In the final installment of this series, I’ll recommend some basic safety procedures for staying safe in a snag-filled forest.

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Dead Trees and Safety in the Yellowstone Backcountry, Part 1

It may be counter-intuitive, but dead trees are indicative of a healthy forest. Note that a forest differs from a tree-farm. A forest is diverse, usually with plenty of dead downed wood, standing snags, living trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs. Wildlife is usually abundant due to the diversity of habitats provided by the forest and its woody and leafy structures. By contrast, tree farms are impoverished, with many of the aforementioned forest features eliminated in the quest to maximize cellulose production. In a tree farm, dead or dying or twisted or multi-branching trees are a waste. That’s because in plantations trees are an economic product, not an important facet of biodiversity. To an ecologist, though, dead trees are habitat.

Our guided Yellowstone backpacking treks explore forests, not tree farms. As do our guided hiking tours elsewhere in the West, including Wyoming and Montana, Utah, New Mexico and Alaska. Because we backpack in untrammeled wild roadless country that has never been logged or heavily manipulated by industrial humans, expect to encounter dead trees. And that’s a good thing.

Standing dead trees are called “snags” and they often stand for decades before they fall. While they stand, they provide food, nesting and roosting habitat for dozens of bird species, including various owls, woodpeckers, nuthatches and more. Squirrels, marten, fisher, black bears and many other mammals also utilize snags, especially when they are partially rotted out with nesting or denning “hollows”. Snags provide shade for re-growth after a forest fire. When the snags fall, they provide cover for elk, moose, bear and many other species; and once on the ground they provide “drumming logs” for ruffed grouse and hunting routes for marten. And, as they rot, they can become a “nurse log” for tree seedlings. Rotten wood also captures and retains critical moisture in ares with dry summers, like much of the Rocky Mountain region. They recycle nutrients back into the soil. When they fall across slopes, dead trees also reduce erosion. When snags fall into streams and rivers, the dead wood forms pools which are great trout habitat. They also stabilize stream-banks and releases nutrients into the aquatic ecosystem. This is all just a general outline on the value of dead trees. I’ve barely scratched the surface. But you get the picture. Do not let a forester tell you that a forest with lots of dead trees is “unhealthy”. It is not!

In the next installment, we’ll begin to discuss safety among dead trees, because of course, eventually they do blow over and when they do, we don’t want them to land on our clients.


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Wildlife Safety in the Yellowstone Backcountry, Part 3

OK, now you know: give any large animal plenty of space. But what about the smaller critters? Well, the same rules apply, if for no other reason than when it comes to native wildlife, while backpacking in Yellowstone you are the visitor and the wildlife is at home. Simple courtesy dictates that our goal should always be to minimize disturbance.

Speaking of smaller creatures, there are rattlesnakes in Yellowstone. However, due to the cold climate in most of the park — and indeed most of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)– rattlesnakes are absent from most areas. In Yellowstone, the only habitat that supports this fascinating venomous creature is the lower portion of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, along the northern border of the park near the town of Gardiner.  That area is the lowest elevation with the warmest and driest climate in Yellowstone, the only area of the park that can support these reptiles. The local species is the prairie rattlesnake, and it is the only venomous snake in the Greater Yellowstone. It occurs at the lower elevations around the fringes of the ecosystem, mostly east of the Continental Divide. When in rattlesnake country, keep your eyes and ears open, avoid dense brush, and don’t put your hands on rocks where you can’t see what might be curled up in the sun, just out of sight!

Other venomous creatures that are abundant in the warmer climate of the American Southwest — such as scorpions, centipedes and black widow spiders — are generally absent in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with the exception of black widows. These dangerous spiders are now established at the lower elevations mostly around the ecosystem fringes, but probably not in the park. Old timers say that their appearance is a recent development, because the colder climate of “the old days” kept these spiders out of the region. As climates continue to warm, poisonous creatures will continue to expand their ranges upward in elevation and northward.

There you have it. For now. Again, living safely with wildlife while backpacking in Yellowstone is mostly a matter of being alert, giving animals space, and using your brain. Really, it’s mostly common sense. Enjoy!




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Wildlife safety in the Yellowstone Backcountry, Part 2

When it comes to wildlife safety on a guided Yellowstone backpacking trip, most of our clients think of bears. And that’s understandable, since Yellowstone grizzly bears do occasionally chomp on folks — usually those who precipitate the ursine action with some overt act of human stupidity: like closing in on the bear for a photo. Or running. Or being careless with food. Yet as we saw in the previous post, any large animal can be dangerous, so give them space!

At our hour long pre-trip safety/orientation meetings, our guides spend about 20 minutes discussing bears . Although the danger from bears is over-rated compared with driving to the trail-head, falling, drowning or getting zapped by lightening, this part of the safety session takes extra time because it is a complicated subject. Bears are complex, intelligent and individualistic animals. A comprehensive tome on safety around bears is beyond the scope of this brief post. I suggest you begin your bear education by viewing our Bears in the Big Wilds web page. For now, though, know a few simple rules: Be careful with food! A clean camp is a safe camp. Never bring any food inside your tent. And never run from a bear, even if you know you can out-run your hiking partners! Leave your deodorant and scented soap at the motel. The more human your smell, the better. Be alert. And please, leave the bear bells at home. If I were a bear and heard bear bells coming down the trail, I would attack that person just to silence the annoyingly incessant ringing! Also, always carry your pepper spray in a handy location, not inside your pack or day-pack. Don’t leave your tent without it. Don’t even go to dig a cat-hole without it. Clients have had encounters with bears while squatting over a cat-hole (though no physical contact has ever occurred between bear and human great ape on a Big Wild trip)! Again, these are just a few things to think about. Your guide will  provide comprehensive safety instructions and then once you’re on the trail, you’ll also learn by doing. It’s not rocket science; it’s mostly common sense, and our safety record with big mammals is perfect. And we plan to keep it that way! We also supply the pepper spray along with instructions on how to use it. Yet we’ve never had to discharge pepper spray at a bear in all of our years.

Again, though, it’s not just about bears. Bison and moose can be dangerous. Even a mule deer can do some damage with a swift kick. So use your telephoto lens. Listen to the guide. And the chances that you’ll be naturally selected out of the human population on a Big Wild trip will be infinitesimally small.

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