Now, where was I?

Oh, yes! Mickey and I are camped right next to the woods, with stoves and plates full of delicious, hot, steaming food on our picnic table, enjoying the serenity of the evening, with our thin layers of clothing, short, dull canines, clipped fingernails, nearly hairless bodies and NO natural defenses to speak of within reach, aside from one military issue ka-bar knife stashed under the driver’s seat, when

ALL OF A SUDDEN —

rangers tear into the camp on speeding wheels! They hop out of their jeeps, vests on, blinking rapidly, and head off into the woods just next to us! One of them has a gun! He’s sweating through his shirt! He meets our eyes for a split-second, and manages to get out, “Secure your food!” before high-tailing it into the lodgepole pines.

And, from my proximity on the picnic bench where I’m kneeling, spatula in hand, WHAT do I see not 50 yards from me, a bullseye, straight ahead of my skinny bones, there in the patch of woods???

THIS!

A large and hulking Yellowstone grizzly as they come, stalking us, freshly made pesto on the brain!

No, I did not take that picture. If I did, it might’ve been the last one I ever took. And no, the grizzly I saw was most definitely NOT this close. Imagine this grizzly engulfed in tall, lodgepole pines, a bit lighter in color (think golden wheat, with a cinnamon stripe along its spine), stalking and walking to and fro on colossal paws.

“Mickey! Mickey! GRIZZLY!” I half-whispered, half-rasped, smacking him on the shoulder in a fit of baby bird panic. By the time he’d craned his neck around, the rangers were already pushing her back into the woods; all he saw was her rump. His eyes ballooned. “Let’s get everything into the car!”

In the space of 3 minutes, the camp was in chaos. Some idiots actually FOLLOWED the rangers AND grizzly into the woods, hoping to get a peek. Some stood on top of their RVs with cameras, some just jumped up and down. A little girl near us burst into tears, afraid that the rangers would kill the grizzly because it came so close to us.

One ranger, newly arrived on the scene, assured Mickey and me that they were familiar with this particular grizzly, that she was not tagged, nor trackable, but that they had been tracing her movements lately. “She covers a lot of ground, that one,” she nodded. “Pretty bear, she’s got beautiful coloring. I’d say she’s 200, 250 pounds. They’re just gonna scare her away, yell at her, shoot some sand-filled bean bags at her butt, make sure she understands she won’t have any fun if she comes back to this campsite.” Her gaze hardened. “You two be VERY careful tonight. Wash all your dishes in the dish room by the restrooms. Don’t leave anything out. No water bottles, chapstick, food scraps. You hear?”

Mickey and I nodded rapidly, well aware of the protocol when camping in bear country. Food lockers aren’t exactly few and far between in Yellowstone, but they aren’t guaranteed at each campsite. We’d been securing everything in our car (as secure as that can be). It crossed my mind that the wool jackets we were wearing, by that point, surely reeked of delicious vittles. We’d planned to sleep in them, naturally.

“Y’all have a nice night!” she grinned, and drove off.

Here's a nod to the first woman ranger/naturalist ever to wield her sharp wits in Yellowstone (1927-1930), Herma Albertson!

When the rest of the rangers returned from their bean bag blasting, whoop-and-hollering grizzly hootenanny, they assured the gathering throng that they’d chased off a “little black bear,” and that he was long gone by now.

“Oh, good!” exclaimed one mother. “Just so long as he wasn’t a grizzly!”

Mickey and I gaped at each other, then winked. I guess white lies are the price you pay to keep the public from lapsing into panic attacks. At least WE knew! We’d seen! We’d heard! And we knew what was dangerously what!

We later attended a “Ranger Talk,” complete with a savvy powerpoint presentation projected on a large screen on the edge of the woods, where we listened with delight to one of the most humorous, eccentric and enthusiastic “wildergeeks” we’d ever encountered. He giddily informed us of the raw, audacious wonders of “Winter in Yellowstone.” Our ranger’s favorite catch phrases were: “Imagine! 3 million annual visitors in the park, all crowded into the park in the months of June, July and August! It’s insane! Go to Old Faithful at high noon on any summer day and you’ll hardly have any elbow room! So many people! That’s just crazy! It’s insane! Can you imagine? The native monkey flower is the first flower to bloom every year, in the dead of winter, growing just on the edge of hot springs in the park! Flowers blooming in winter! That’s INSANE!

Said monkey flower.

Growing sleepy, we headed back to camp and skipped the conclusion of the presentation, and the Q&A, where I’m sure at least a dozen campers must have picked the ranger’s brain about the potential dangers of “little black bears.” Oh, my.

At long last, we bundled up in our zero degree sleeping bag and down comforter, respectively, and sank into a deep sleep. We had seen the last wild creature on our wish list, though not from behind the safety of car doors. I don’t even know HOW the rangers knew where she was, and when. If they hadn’t swooped in at that precise moment, who knows what would have become of our food, cooler, camping stoves, car, or us! It was, essentially, an unexpected thrill.

Thanks to our lucky stars and a few Wyoming-based leprechauns, we woke up…unmauled!

It was time to bid Yellowstone farewell. But we didn’t quite have it in us.

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