Poison Ivy in Yellowstone and the Tetons

While backpacking in Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons, you can pretty much forget worrying about poison ivy. It is extremely rare in both of these national parks.

Yet “rare” is not the same as “absent”! Poison ivy is a deciduous shrub with a skin-irritating oil with which most folks are familiar. It grows in temperate climates with adequate moisture, which excludes much of the arid and high altitude West. Since most of the Yellowstone and Tetons region is above 7,000 feet, and those areas that are lower are mostly semi-arid, this region is not conducive to robust populations of poison ivy (“poison oak” is a variety that grows mostly along the Pacific coast).

Over the years, I have hiked much of the Teton Range and have never seen poison ivy there. I have, however, read that it does occur at the foot of the mountains along the western shore of Jackson lake, a relatively low elevation area with plenty of moisture. By contrast, in Yellowstone I have seen poison ivy — but only in one location: a low-elevation south facing slope with spring-fed moisture near the confluence of Hellroaring Creek and the Yellowstone River. And that’s it. Nowhere else. Yet I have read that poison ivy is absent from Yellowstone, which obviously isn’t true. But that small patch of Toxicodendron radicans may be the only population in Yellowstone, though it probably is not.

Anyway, again, don’t worry about it while backpacking in Yellowstone. Keep your eyes open, sure, but be much more vigilant about drowning, falling, lightening, bison, bears, falling trees, and most important, the always dangerous drive to the trail-head!


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Swimming and Water Safety on Guided Yellowstone Hikes

Yellowstone’s greatest danger for humans is driving through the park. Beyond that, the biggest statistical chance for your ultimate demise while visiting Yellowstone is not bears. Not by a long shot. No, the most likely thing to earn you a premature entry into the nitrogen cycle while backpacking in Yellowstone is water, the stuff that makes up about 70% of the human body and that covers three quarters of the planet (though that figure is increasing with climate change)! In Yellowstone, drownings are legendary.

Here is some simple advice: Don’t slip and fall into an icy raging torrent! And don’t stay in the lake so long that you succumb to hypothermia. Hypothermia is the lowering of the core body temperature usually to some combination of cold and wet. Hypothermia, which will be discussed in a future post, can reduce your brain function to the the level exhibited nowadays by the U.S. Congress! And in deep water, that can be deadly! Here is some more salient advice: don’t go canoeing with the Boy Scouts. If you must canoe on one of Yellowstone’s icy lakes, hug the shoreline and eschew the temptation to take that shortcut to camp by crossing the icy open waters of Shoshone Lake! Again, hug the shoreline!

On a guided Yellowstone backpack trip, though, stream crossings pose a particular hazard, especially early in the season when runoff is high. I have dealt with stream crossings in a previous post, so for now, I’ll simply repeat that folks should follow the instructions of the backpacking guide.

Yet many drownings have occurred simply by folks falling into rivers or drowning in a lake, either with or without a canoe. If swim you must, avoid deep water and always swim with a buddy, never alone! The rich, high altitude Yellowstone landscape is as much about water as it is about the land and wildlife. Shoshone Lake is the largest completely back-country lake (not accessible by road) in the lower 48 states. You will camp along its shore on our Southwest Yellowstone Bechler Waterfall Wonderland treks. Yellowstone Lake is our largest high altitude lake. Heart Lake is magnificent. And the Yellowstone, Snake, Gibbon, Firehole and Gardiner Rivers plus many more constitute the lifeblood of this magnificent land. Don’t reach for a Darwin award; don’t let these beautiful waters naturally select you out of our albeit excessive human population!

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How to Avoid Getting Lost on a Guided Wilderness Trek, Part 2

There are plenty of reasons to go for a walk on the wild side without your guide. Some folks might wish to meditate. Or to have a spiritual experience one way or another. Some head off by themselves away from camp to do photography or to go fishing. Again, as noted in my previous post, we are guides, not babysitters!

Another important reason to head off by yourself is the simple quest for solitude, because solitude is an important wilderness value, one of the defining characteristics of a true wilderness experience. To be alone or nearly alone in wild nature is a  necessary antithesis of the lifestyle that most folks live in their generally urban and hectic and crowded daily existence. One enters the wilds first and foremost to experience primordial nature, sure, but being alone or nearly so in the wilds provides another rich layer of wild experience that is difficult to attain while chatting with others around the campfire. Alone in the wilds, time slows down. Your senses become heightened. Self-awareness increases. So does your closeness to the friend or family member with whom you are sharing the peace and quiet. And those moments of solitude, away from the group, allow you to notice things that might otherwise slip your attention.

Even the Wilderness Act specifies solitude as an important wilderness value by including “an opportunity for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation” as part of the definition of a Wilderness area. Here at Big Wild, we want you to have a real wilderness experience, and we do not discourage folks from seeking heightened levels of solitude. But remember, tell the guide where you’re going and when you’ll be back, stick with the plan, and bring your daypack containing water, fire, warm cloths and rain-gear. And pepper spray in griz country. Always!

Anyway, although we’ve had a couple of close calls, in 40 years of guiding we’ve never lost anyone without quickly finding them. And we plan to keep that record intact.

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How to Avoid Getting Lost on a Guided Wilderness Trek, Part One

Why is getting lost even a consideration on a guided backpack trip? After all, our guides are professionals, experts in wilderness navigation. But they are wilderness guide/naturalists, not babysitters. Which means that there will probably be times while backpacking in Yellowstone or in any other wild area, that our clients are off by themselves for various reasons, which I will discuss shortly. But first, hear this: Never leave camp to go on a walk without the guide, unless you first tell him where you are going and when you plan to return. This is important, and non-negotiable! And stay with the plan. That way, if something happens such as you don’t remember how to get back to camp or if you break your ankle, our guide will know where to find you.

Also, with or without the guide, never leave camp without your pepper spray (in grizzly country) and day-pack. Inside your day-pack should always be a warm layer such as your fleece pullover, your rain suit, water and matches/lighter. No matter the weather! Even on a sunny day, mountain weather can and does change rapidly, so don’t take the fair skies for granted. Remember the 6 P’s: proper planning prevents piss poor performance! Be prepared! Don’t become a victim of natural selection on a Big Wild trek. Plan properly, even for short hikes away from camp.

OK, why go off on your own (or with a friend or family member) without the guide? Lots of reasons. First and foremost is to relieve yourself and I can promise you that none of our guides wish to witness this very basic mammalian act! OK, for this one there’s no need to bring your day pack — but don’t forget the pepper spray, as folks have had encounters with bears while in a compromised position! That said, it is not impossible to get lost while on a bowel mission. Really. It has happened. While backpacking in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness on a layover day, one fellow disappeared with the orange shovel shortly after breakfast and quite some time later he had not yet returned. In the open ponderosa forest, he had walked a long ways from camp in order to be completely hidden, so far that he couldn’t remember the way back to camp! Fortunately, he remembered my pre-trip instructions to stay put if you get lost. He did. And I easily found him by simply walking in the the direction in which he was seen sauntering off with the orange trowel to his private location. In the next installment, we’ll look at a couple of other scenarios that illustrate the potential to get lost on a guided wilderness backpack trip. Stay tuned….

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How to Avoid Blisters While Trekking in Yellowstone, Part 2

OK, we’ve covered the paramount importance of proper-fitting hiking shoes. Don’t buy them from a catalogue; go to a store and try them on! And when in doubt, get the bigger pair! We’ve also admitted that in the wilderness, even a pro can occasionally develop blisters under the right circumstance. But next to getting the proper fit, nothing is more important than breaking in your new boots prior to your guided backpacking tour in Yellowstone or elsewhere in the Mountain West. Or for that matter, anywhere that you might take a hike. “Break-in”, by the way, does not mean just wearing your new hikers around your living room. Or to your kid’s basketball game. Or to your monthly meeting with your parole officer. No, to break in a new pair of hiking shoes you need to wear them for miles, over uneven terrain, preferably on a real trail or bushwhack!

Of course, the heavier the boot, the more breaking-in you’ll need to do. Ultra-light hiking shoes or trail runners don’t need much, if any, break in. But leather and even most nylon or other fabric-type shoes usually do! Personally, I’ve had enough foot injuries over the years to require a sturdy pair of leather hikers. So when it’s time to replace the old with the new, I break them in for hours on backcountry trails before I even think about hoisting my guide pack. If you don’t have any back-country trails available, wear them dancing. Or running. Or running up and down a staircase. Use your imagination! Especially if you live in Kansas or Florida or anyplace with minimal topography, you’ll still need comfortable well-broken in boots when you hit the trail in Yellowstone. Don’t let sore feet ruin your wilderness experience!

And don’t let your experience be more about dealing with pain and discomfort that enjoying the fruits of being immersed in the magic of wild nature.

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How to Avoid Blisters While Trekking in Yellowstone

On any of our guided backpacking trips in Yellowstone — or for that matter in any of the other wondrous wildernesses that we explore — we want our clients to have fun! And few problems can rain on a great wilderness experience more than blisters. Usually caused by poor-fitting or stiff new boots, blisters can be dealt with with on the trail, but not easily, and the best treatment is to prevent their formation in the first place. Various circumstances can produce blisters, even for experienced hikers.  Such as a pack that’s too heavy, extremely uneven terrain, hot weather that exacerbates afternoon foot-expansion or wearing cotton socks (don’t). But in general terms, foot problems can usually be boiled down to two major considerations: fit and break-in.

Our clients often ask us what kind of hiking boots we recommend. Our reply: great fitting ones! That’s because every pair of feet are unique, and the brand or style or even the weight of a hiking boot is unimportant compared with fit. A model that is a great fit for me might not be for you. There are many quality brands out there. The choices are much greater than they were for Lewis and Clark. Just get a pair that fit.

Most folks in modern society buy cloths that fit snugly, because, after all, looking cool is paramount. For wilderness travel, though, loose fitting cloths breathe better and also insulate better due to trapped air pockets that don’t exist in skin-tight threads. But that’s another column. Back to boots. Like wilderness clothing, boots should not fit snugly, especially when you try them on at the store! Forget your street shoe size. Or remember it and then add at leas another half size for what you’ll try on. Remember, on a hot afternoon after a few miles with a 40 pound pack your feet will expand. In the store there should be plenty of toe room so that when going down a steep incline your toes won’t hit the front of the shoe. And your heel shouldn’t be too snug either! Above all, the boots should be very roomy and comfortable in the store. Try them on with the exact sock combo that you’ll wear while on your guided backpacking tour: preferably a medium weight wool sock worn over a thin synthetic or wool liner. But again, whatever you do, do not let the salesperson sell you hiking shoes that are too small or that don’t feel great in the store!

In the next installment, I’ll discuss importance of breaking in your hiking shoes.

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Wyoming Wilds: Backpacking the Wild Absarokas

Soaring above Wyoming’s Wind River Valley and extending northward along the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, the expansive Absaroka Range continues well into Montana on the east side of the “Paradise Valley” (of the Yellowstone River). The Absarokas are a volcanic highland, one of the most expansive ranges in the rocky Mountains. And they are every bit as magnificent as the nearby Wind Rivers or Tetons, but far less well-known — except to locals.

Formed by Eocene volcanic lava eruptions and flows, the Andesitic Absarokas are an alpine wonderland of rugged forested valleys and canyons flanked by sheer-walled volcanic plateaus topped by rolling tundra. Much of the range is above tree-line at altitudes over 11,000 feet! Franc’s Peak rises above the Absaroka plateaus, soaring to 13,153 feet. Yet despite the rarified high elevation atmosphere, our guided backpacking tours in the Wyoming Absarokas can vary from moderately easy to strenuous, due to the great variety of terrain, trails and trail-less routes available. Our annual scheduled Absaroka Range backpack trek is rated as “fairly strenuous”, and due to the altitude, we recommend (but we don’t require) that you get to Jackson Hole a couple of days before the trip to begin the acclimation process.

The Absarokas are full of wildlife. Grizzly and black bear abound. So do elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer pika, marmot and many other creatures of the high Rocky Mountains. Expect part of the trek to be off-trail or on unmaintained rarely-used trails that our guides know, but most backpackers don’t. This year’s trek is coming right up, from July 16-21, and we still have a few openings available. If you like dense coniferous forest, flower-strewn meadows, rugged cliffs and peaks, and Alaska-like expanses of rolling tundra — with big vistas almost continually — you’ll love our guided wilderness backpacking tours in the wild Wyoming Absarokas! And the southern Absarokas are part of one of the largest chunks of roadless wild country in the lower 48 states, with most of the area protected as designated Wilderness!


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Wyoming Wilds: Backpacking the Wind River Range

Next to the Grand Tetons, the Winds are the most famous mountain range in Wyoming. The reason is obvious. It is the highest range in the Rocky Mountains north of Colorado, and it cradles the largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains south of Canada. Much of it is above tree-line, with this caveat: there is still a wild fringe of lower elevation forest and meadow country that surrounds the fortress-like alpine peaks, ridges and plateaus. On our guided Wyoming backpack trips in the Winds, you will experience both the subalpine forest and the alpine peaks! “Alpine” means the terrain above tree-line, not just any high mountain area. When folks think about backpacking in Wyoming or backpacking in the greater Yellowstone region, they typically envision the soaring granitic landscape of the Wind River Range high country. The alpine zone. And it is a wondrous landscape.

So it is not surprising, then, that parts of the Winds can get a bit crowded during the brief summer hiking season. We at Big Wild pride ourselves in getting away from the more popular hiking paths, so our Wind River Range treks explore the little-known northeast corner of the Fitzpatrick Wilderness. The Fitzpatrick towers above the wide open high and dry valley of the Wind River, and it encompasses much of the east slope of the Winds. This protected area of the Shoshone National Forest is extremely rugged high country. It also is part of the million-acre greater Wind River Range Wilderness, that includes two other contiguous Wilderness areas (separated only by administrative boundaries) plus a protected chunk of the Wind River Indian Reservation. For our route, access is a remote forest “road” that often requires four-wheel drive. For obvious reasons, I will not divulge the exact location!

Once out in the wilds, however, expect to experience seldom-used trails, a lot of off-trail tundra hiking, big rocks, colorful wildflowers and spectacular views from alpine lakes and ridges. In addition, on one day you’ll carry your backpack over the summit of a 12,000 foot mountain, weather permitting! We often see elk and bighorn sheep, but most every animal common in the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is also present. This is a high altitude wilderness second to none, and as I type this blog we still have some available openings on this year’s trek, from August 19-25. It is not for the faint of heart, though, but if your really fit and looking for a strenuous adventure, don’t miss out!

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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 Yellowstone 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 National Park, 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 National Park 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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