Out on the Razzle in America

United Kingdom
Freelance writer, literary graduate and minor lad. In America for pleasure, not business. I've never been before, so I thought I should. Should I have done it all at once? Can it all be done at once? Only one way to find out...

Thursday, 3 September 2009

More Montana, bear worrying and off to Yellowstone

Sitting on the shores of an alpine lake, just into Montana, was where I saw that big bear print. Apparently they are more dangerous around elk season, when they come in for the gut piles. So I am reliably informed by a mustachioed gentleman packing enough heat to take down a small comet, let alone an animal. "I've never seen one round here", says Rambo, "but I always carry a firearm, just in case". In the background, his wife snorts an enormous clod of snot and fires it off into the woods. With that kind of firepower, I wonder why he needs the gun at all. Along the shoreline, his two skinny, pale, bespectacled boys are fishing for small trout, getting terribly excited, and terribly sunburnt I presume - they are only wearing jeans and baseball caps. The walk back down to the campsite is three miles of high altitude mountain trail, burnt out several years ago, though wild raspberries are dotted along in patches, which makes the activity far more bearable. No pun there, so don't look for one.

Leaving Montana, and its bear-infested campsites (though we've yet to see one, so there are rumours of it being a big ruse, especially given the no-show after a very smelly salmon pie last night), we pass over the Beartooth mountains at 11,000 feet, pockets of snow and the occasional wolly marmot indicating that we are very high indeed. It is all downhill after this. One of the group is nauseous, probably because of the cumulative effects of dehydration, lack of sleep, altitude, desert hiking, followed by mountain hiking, heat, cold, and bear-related worry. Then the road into our campsite in Yellowstone is closed, meaning a two hour drive around the loop, punctuated by elongated stops for jay-walking bison and the rubber-neckers who have only seen a few hundred and are yet to become as outrageously complacent as we are.

It's not as if there is actually that much wildlife in the park, or America at all. We've only seen some bison, about ten elk, six sheep, a coyote and three crows. The absence of birdsong in the states is remarkable, whether in deciduous or coniferous woods. It's hard to work out what Yellowstone is: wildlife preserve, reserve, recreation ground, geological experiment or wilderness. It's all and none of the above and I'm not sure it really works. A well-paved highway with occasional bison crossing the path of innumerable Harley Davidsons, campsites where the hum of occasional ten tonne RVs has replaced wolves, or watering holes where people paddle in hot springs, or walk their dogs over elk tracks.

The geysers are undeniably beautiful and impressive, as is the wildlife when it does get stumbled upon, but it doesn't feel wild until you push far, far into an isolated trail. There is no traffic cap, you can walk anywhere, you can fish in most places and outside Old Faithful is a four lane highway. I had a great time in the hot springs, why keep anyone from an area like this, the idea of a national park is a park for all 250-odd million US citizens, but how much of it can be exploited? Coming out of the long-drop toilets an elderly woman remarked to me that "It's not the Ritz Carlton". Of course not, and I should bloody hope that it stays that way, but it is easy to get the sense that with such great, real wilderness areas as the Beartooths, Yellowstone is being used so that America's true wilderness can remain wild, while old ladies in massive RVs can say they slept near some wolves and took a pee in the woods.


  1. I would like to make a few corrections for you regarding Yellowstone National Park, a favorite subject of mine. First, Yellowstone is a vast area of 2.2 million acres, not including all of the surrounding National Forest land. Roads cover less than 10% of this. With the exception of a few dozen very popular trails, it is very possible to find complete solitude, even during the peak tourist season, by simply walking a short distance...over a short hill for example.
    Eight or ten years back a couple of gentlemen decided to do some exploring in Yellowstone. They discovered over two hundred new waterfalls that had never been recorded before. Invisible from the sky due to the forest canopy, and never recorded on any map, journal or document; it is possible that some of these had never been seen by man before. They surmised that there may be more still, waiting to be discovered. Yellowstone contains the farthest point from a road in the lower forty eight states. I think that qualifies as a wilderness. One of the nice things about Yellowstone is that you can enjoy it on many levels, a seventy year old woman can enjoy an RV vacation and see the road sights, while an adventurer looking for a challenge and complete solitude can find that as well.
    Often called the American Serengeti, Yellowstone has every single animal present today that was there when Columbus landed. It is the only completely intact temperate ecosystem in North America, and one of the few in the world. There are large herds of elk, bison (the only 100% pure, wild bison herd that has descended from time immemorial left in the US), pronghorn and mule deer. There are significant numbers of bighorn sheep, moose, wolves, grizzly and black bears, coyotes, fox, beaver, otter, badgers and over 150 species of nesting birds (including bald and golden eagles, trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes), as well as dozens of others who fly through. That you would see only a few of these species on a summertime, tourist season drive-through is understandable, especially given the immense size of this ecosystem. Many ungulates retreat from the summer crowds (from about mid June to mid to late September), as well as the summer heat, to the higher elevations where succulent new grasses are just emerging even in late summer. Predators, by nature, follow them. Since birds primarily sing during breeding season in Spring, the lack of birdsong in September would be perfectly normal.In June the Park is alive with song. Yellowstone is one of the greatest, and most successful wildlife preserves in the world.
    I might add that it is against the law to "paddle in hotsprings" and to walk your dog more than 100 feet from the road.
    I would encourage you to return to Yellowstone in late Fall or early Spring; or perhaps even during the Winter. Spend some time. You will find that it is worlds away from the short summer tourist season.
    I live, year around, thirty miles north of Yellowstone.

  2. I did say to my travelling partners that I would only return to Yellowstone if I could push far into the isolated trails, or if I could be there during winter, which I have heard is fantastic and totally RV free. As for the hot springs, I meant the Boiling River, which one can paddle in.