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June 30, 2011 7:45 am

SPORTS GUY: The longest mile

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A long-standing adage in the Yellowstone area states that the longest night of your life is the first one you spend camping alone in bear country. Campers have been known to scale trees in the sake of finding safety above ground when dark skies and strange noises conspire to induce paranoia.

Being father to a child that needed 17 1/2 hours of labor — thankfully, not mine — to enter this world, I know at least one person that might object to the accuracy of that being the longest night. Nevertheless, there is certainly an aura of mystique that goes along with being in grizzly territory.

After the strangest winter and spring I’ve experienced, the arrival of summer-like temperatures last week was more than I could resist. Staying home was not an option. I needed to get outside.

Unfortunately, with it being nearly July, the crowds inside Yellowstone are beginning to approach their peak levels. In a normal year, I would abandon the park until late August and go play in the Beartooth Wilderness and the Big Horn Mountains. Considering that both of those locales are ignoring the calendar and yours truly does not ski, it was the park or nothing. If peace and solace were to be found, they simply would have to be pursued away from pavement.

That explains how I found myself setting aside my normal phobia of being stalked, dismembered and devoured by large free-roaming carnivores and instead lacing up my trail shoes at the Wapiti picnic area near Yellowstone’s Upper Falls. My destination was Ribbon Lake, a simple six-mile in and out according to my map along mostly flat ground.

Initially, things went well. After 3/4 of a mile, I was standing atop a hill and completely out of sight of any park road. To the south, the Hayden Valley opened. To my north, Mount Washburn rose above a forest of pine. Three paths in the woods diverged and I, I …

I only had two marked on my map.

Poring over terrain and comparing the lay of the land with my GPS, I chose the one in the middle and continued to wander, not fully knowing exactly where I was going. To some, this might be cause for concern. To a male, battle-honed from multiple trips to shopping malls and mega-retail stores, wandering without knowing exactly where I’m going or where I’ll wind up is simply second nature.

Another quarter of a mile, I encountered a trio of bison who felt the trail was the perfect spot to relax. They received a very wide berth while my mind played images of that best of ranch signs — “If you’re going to cross this pasture, do so in 10 seconds. The bull can make it in 10.1.”

I was two miles up the trail, having successfully skirted a pair of thermal areas safely and balancing on a log across a creek without falling, when I encountered a group of three backpackers strung out along the trail.

The first two passed in silence. The third, nearly a quarter-mile behind the lead hiker, paused and alerted me that they’d encountered a grizzly bear in the next meadow ahead. He reassured that it was some distance off the trail.

At this point, I’d like to pause my column to deliver the following public service announcement on behalf of backpackers everywhere. If you’re out hiking and encounter a large fuzzy carnivore, that’s information people heading in that direction are very interested in knowing. You should make sure to share it, unlike the first two folks to pass by.

I now had a decision to make. Should I turn around short of my destination or continue forward? Naturally, I set aside my full awareness of statistical studies showing the increased likelihood of bear attack on lone hikers versus those traveling in parties of four or more and pressed on.

There’s a Chinese proverb — “to him in fear, all leaves rustle.” Let me tell you, when you know there’s a grizzly bear ahead and you’re in a Yellowstone forest, a whole lot of things rustle.

This explains why, as I emerged into the meadow, trigger guard off of my canister of bear spray, I probably resembled some sort of wilderness super spy looking this way and that way for signs of the enemy. There was no bear in sight, but a couple sets of extremely fresh tracks in the mud gave testimony that I probably wasn’t alone.

Once safely across, I reached the lake without incident. This being an in-and-out hike, however, meant that I got to relive the drama in the opposite direction.

It may not have been the longest night of my life, but I dare say it was probably the longest half-mile of trail in my life crossing that meadow.

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