Today, I finished paying off the 400 dollars that I have owed to the federal government for over a year. I do feel pretty relieved. But with that relief comes the revival of the memory.
I returned to Yellowstone a few times after I left it. Partly because of the great people and partly for the beauty that it has to offer (the boiling river, the hoodoos, ect,). Late July, my sister convinced me to return to the park to hike a portion of what is known as the Howard Eaton Trail. Two of her good friends had train rode into town for adventure. We were about to have one.
We got there later than expected. When we got our bikes, a storm blew in and it hailed on us the entire bike ride to the mouth of the trail. Because of the late start and crappy weather, we decided to make camp just a couple miles in. May I now mention that the entire time we are on this trail we have no back country permits, are carrying a small dog about the size of a rat, and are dirty travelling people.
The Trail begins in alternates between rolling green pasture and heavy pine groves. When the river begins the land morphs into jutting hills with deep denslly wooded forest to the North and the river in a valley to the south shimmering in the sun light. We are hiking West. A couple of miles past the river is the road shimmering with siny cars rather than rapids. This road, and the people who drive those shiny cars become an integral part of the story. The terrain pretty much stays like this, covered in buffalo wallows and trails until the start of Canyon.
The first night we hear howls in the distance as we eat our dinner a quarter mile from our tentsite. We fall asleep to their calls, a shot of whisky in our bellies to keep off the chill.
In the morning the little dog, El Caption proves his worth, growling a couple of minutes before a massive buffalo wanders up as we’re breaking camp. Put on the alert we are able to sidle off just as the bull starts snorting, realizing he’s not alone. Little known fact, buffalo have terrible eyesite. They rely a lot on sense of smell and hearing.
The next day is the big one, we have the remaining 14 miles to go. There is a storm coming in and we spend the whole day hiking ahead of it and then getting caught in it when we break. We have to start using iodine tablets for water from the river because we had only planned to be out for one day. We are continuously getting turned around on buffalo trails and since its mating season, we have to skirt large herds of them who bellow when the breeze blows our scent. We almost walk into trouble with them several times along the trail, saved only by their strong scent as the males roll in their own urine to smell desireable to females.
As the terrain changes into more of a canyon, we begin to see large prints on the trails in the dirt, and I notice piles of bear scat. Lots of bear scat. We have the brunt of the trail behind us when we see the sign, it shows a map of the area. The trail behind us is clear. But all before us is shaded black. In Sharpie on the sign it says, “TURN BACK NOW!!” Two exclamation points, all caps. Just like that. We’d been nervous before. Now we were scared. Its either turn back and camp where we saw signs of bear, or keep going and hope we hike out before dusk. We choose the evil we don’t know. Morale is low, but we press on.
We lose the trail again. Damn buffalo. My sister hikes ahead alone to see if she can find it. She comes back her face the most terrified I have ever seen a human being. I have my spray out and am waiting for a massize ugly bear to come over the hill before she even catches her breath.
“I-I saw a wolf!”
She saw a huge black wolf. Just over the hill in the trees. At first he ran away, then stopped and looked at her before continuing to trot off.
“Lets stay out of the woods.”
We cross a stream. Then hear a loud growl behind us. I literally whimper. I have my hand on the trigger for the bear spray. We keep going quicker now, despite ourselves. Then we see her. A beautiful, terrifyingly massive, silver wolf comes over the hill to the south. She stares at us, unsure of our intentions. We are at a standstill.
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Should we keep walking?”
“I don’t know.” She’s still standing, watching us with yellow eyes.
“If we move away we may lose the trail again.”
“Then lets just keep going on it. Slowly. Don’t run, don’t panic.”
She is less than fifty yards away and we begin walking. She paces us, no further, no closer. After about a hundred yards she runs ahead, then stops and sits back on her haunches watching us. The wind is blowing South East. Once we pass the wolf, a huge gust blows and I turn and watch her take a deep inhale. She looks interested, but she stays where she is as we continue on. I imagine dinner bells in her eyes.
We were way off schedule, terrified, dehydrated a little, maybe hungry, definitely exhausted. What should have taken six or seven hours had taken all day because of the buffalo trail mixups. It is dusk. According to the map we are still three miles away when we start hearing the howls.
Listen to them on the television, or even snugly in a sleeping bag in a tent, but they will never sound as real or as hair raising as they do when you are surrounded by their calls on foot in the dark. When you believe you may be the thing they are hunting.
So this is why when we are just two miles from the end, have lost the trail again and are seriously considering climbing a tree to escape the wolves, we are delighted to see a park ranger.
We think we are victims being saved. Turns out we are criminals.
We learn that we were being watched by people from the road on their fancy telescopic lenses. They know we have a dog, cleverly hid in a bag for most of the hike. We learn that the trail we were hiking was closed due to bear, wolf, and buffalo activity. We were being trailed by a 700 pound grizzly bear. And, we came within fifty yards of the wolf alpha female’s pups, which is why she was checking us out. Wolves in Yellowstone have not been known to attack people. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. But the wolves were probably the least of our concern.
The rangers slapped us with ten tickets between four people. I have rarely been that sure I was going to die, but I will never forget the calls of those wolves over the canyon.