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Yellowstone Beyond The Pavement

by Mitch Kaplan

Photo by Mitch Kaplan We were hunting scat. Yes, that's right - poop, dung, droppings, fecal material.

"You can tell a lot about what's going on from scat," proclaimed our guide Nancy Proctor. "What kind of animals are around, what they've been eating, even how healthy they are."

We also hunted bones, footprints, wear patterns on tree trunk bark and good, old-fashioned live animals spotted in the distance. Exploring Yellowstone National Park through The Yellowstone Institute's "Lodging and Learning" program will have you doing things you're likely to have thought would gross you out.

An educational arm of the non-profit Yellowstone Association, the Institute offers field courses that provide an inside look at Yellowstone National Park. More than ninety percent of visitors to major national parks like Yellowstone never wander more than a few feet from the main roads and attractions. But, these programs mix education and recreation - we did lots of hiking - that get you beyond the road and let you peek at what goes on in the park's vast wilderness. And, no matter how many piles of scat or bones you peruse, come evening, you eat well and sleep comfortably in one of the historic park hotels.

But, back to that scat. Nancy had zeroed in on a dried-up pile that looked to be growing fur. "What kind of animal do you think left this?" she asked.

"Coyote," I proclaimed without hesitation.

"Why?"

"It's got lots of fur stuck in it," someone said, "like it's from a carnivore."

"It's relatively small, and it looks kinda canine," added another.

Indeed, all these factors and more pointed to coyote. I'd been correct!

"How'd you know it was coyote?" Nancy asked me.

"It looks just like the stuff we saw yesterday, and that was coyote scat," I said. Well, that was enough evidence for me!

While no coyote was in sight just then, we had seen one earlier. It was sauntering through a meadow alongside the road, looking as if it were late for dinner and mom was going to be mad. The fact that you can see so many animals along the road may be one reason that so few people ever leave the macadam. In three Yellowstone days, we'd seen bison, elk, coyote, mule deer, black bear, maybe the hugest beaver I've ever seen and a variety of birds, including something called an avocet. (Like many downhill skiers, I thought an Avocet is a brand of watch that has a built-in altimeter, not a small water bird. Maybe these birds had built-in altimeters of their own?)

Photo by Mitch Kaplan And then there was the grizzly bear.

The grizzly bear attracted much attention. Cars lined both sides of the road, and people watched from the meadow's edge armed with binoculars, sighting scopes and cameras of all descriptions. Another "bear jam" in Yellowstone National Park. We'd set out to look for wolves, actually. But, when we came upon the parked cars, we knew something big was afoot. Nancy had mentioned reports of two recent elk kills in that area and, spotting the bear, she quickly reported that it was "working on one of those carcasses." Not long out of hibernation, it was pretty hungry.

"Is that Number 264?" Nancy asked Greg Wright, our attending naturalist.

"Think so. She dropped her [radio] collar a little while ago, but I think that's her."

Scopes were quickly set up and soon we were taking turns studying this imposing animal as it dined. Awesome. So awesome, in fact, that it suppressed my well-ingrained fear of bears. I'd earned that fear camping in national parks before things like bear-proof garbage cans were invented, and before it was commonly understood that doing things like feeding bears was wrong (they quickly acclimate to human food - which is so much easier to find than their natural fare - and become habituated to it). I never felt safe in a tent when bears suffering the munchies were roaming the campground. But, here, this incredible grizzly was tearing into what once had been an elk and, with the scope, I was close enough to be the waiter at her table.

The opportunity presented itself, then, for a lesson about grizzly bears, their feeding and lifestyle habits, how well they're faring in the park, and - as always comes up when bears are around - what to do if you meet one face to face. "Bison!" someone shouted, pointing left. Six husky fellas ambled nonchalantly across the road and into the field in which our grizzly so voraciously dined. The bear immediately took an alert stance. The bison continued, slowly closing the four hundred yard gap between themselves and the bear.

Now, bison pose no threat to a full-grown grizzly, but our lady apparently wasn't doting on such details. She suddenly ran off in the opposite direction. Talk about sprinting speed. Her long strides gobbled up ground by first-down lengths, and then - uh-oh! - she turned ninety degrees and headed straight towards us.

This boy edged to the van door.

Just as suddenly, ol' 264 stopped, stood tall on her hind legs, perused the meadow, and then bolted for a nearby hill where she disappeared into the trees.

Much discussion followed: why would the bear abandon food to avoid bison that weren't a threat to her? No good answer could be offered. And that's nice; it's good to know that there are many things we don't understand about animal behavior...

The next morning found us hiking along the Yellowstone River, a completely different environment. We rambled for half an hour along a paved path that paralleled the water as it gradually dug its way deeper into the earth. A waterfall - the Upper Falls, they call it - provided preamble to the coming geology lesson. Soon the river had burrowed so deeply that it had no banks. Rock walls rose hundreds of feet, punctuated with colorful reds and yellows. This was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Photo by Mitch Kaplan We came to a parking area and an overlook. Dozens of people milled about, looking, snapping photos, taking in the now-distant waterfall, and generally doing what tourists do. We walked on, following the trail head beyond the cars and, within five minutes, we were alone again, following the river as if no one was within a day's ride. Solitude reigned just a quarter-mile away from the cars.

Eventually we left the river. We came to a place where the trail was still muddy from recent rains, and in the mud - tracks. Bird tracks, bear tracks and more coyotes, too. We walked along Clear Lake. Well, though it, actually. Half of it had dried up. Here we found fumeroles - small holes bubbling and smoking with extremely hot sulphuric water. They were, well, fuming. By the lake's wet half, we discovered a small skeleton and bits of fur. Fascinated, we began to piece the animal back together. A pair of hip bones, the skeletal paw pretty much intact. What was it? How had it come to be here? And why was no skull to be found?

The answers were largely conjecture, of course, but we created a tale that worked well enough to make sense. We then carried on until, a hundred yards from the parking lot where the van awaited us, the overland route was blocked. A pair of huge bison stood precisely in our way. We detoured along the nearby paved road instead. At the parking lot, snow remnants stood in small piles. A snowball fight broke out in the June heat.

And that's the wonder of this place - in an afternoon you can wander a spectacular canyon rim, see geologic thermal features bubble, trod arid spots and play in the snow. We'd done all that, and had only scratched the surface. Tomorrow - up we'd go to the top of a small mountain shaped like an elephant's back to see breathtaking vistas in which huge Yellowstone Lake lay with the Grand Teton Mountains standing like an exclamation point in the distance.

Yellowstone For Families/Summer is offered twice a week at Mammoth Hot Springs and twice a week at Grant Village during the summer. Ages: 8-13.

  • Location: four nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, or four nights at Grant Village.
  • Activity Level: Moderate.
  • Rates: check their website for current rates.
  • Reservations: Yellowstone National Park Lodges at 307-344-5566.
  • Information: Yellowstone Association, www.yellowstoneassociation.org.

    ...... Mitch Kaplan is the author of "The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids," a contributor to "The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids," and the author of "The Cheapskate's Guide to Myrtle Beach" and "The Golf Book of Lists".

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