Paradise city in grizzly bear country
“Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty. Take me home. Oh, won’t you please take me home.”
Apparently those few lyrics from the Guns ‘N Roses 1987 hit song Paradise City are the only parts of the song I know and also the only song I know the lyrics to. I can’t even recite the Star Spangled Banner. But singing in a false seagull strangling soprano while hiking and camping in grizzly bear country was my way of not creeping up on a bear and surprising it and thus becoming bear food.
However, there was no amount of preparation I could have done that wasn’t immune from my own self-inflicted anguish and anxiety. Learn from my failure: when camping by yourself in bear country never ever ever ever read a book about grizzly bear attacks while you’re trying to go to sleep in your sleeping bag. Sleep just doesn’t happen with that running through your mind and every little sound in the forest is sure to be a grizzly bear on its way to attack you. And for God sakes, skip over the parts about the bear’s mating habits.
Last week I spent a whole week camping by myself in Yellowstone National Park doing a story about the environment of the park. Seriously, how cool of an assignment is that? Growing up in the west and having a Dad that loved the outdoors, I had been to the park many times. But this was an opportunity to travel the park by myself. That meant being able to get up before the crack of dawn and staying out late well past the end of the good light to get the shots I wanted and not having to worry about inconveniencing others. But it also meant a lot of time to think about what a bear would smell like up close and what I would do if in the middle of the night I found myself confronted by one. “Would the bear eat my arms first? Wait, I read they disembowel their victims to get to the good stuff. Does bear spray really work?”
But I had been given an opportunity to do an assignment that most people would kill for. The park is full of photographers, but most are there on their own dime. I was actually getting paid for this. So after the first night alone I put the book away and it will not be pulled out again until camping season is over. I towed my Burro camping trailer (a glorified fiberglass shack that can be pulled by car or a cyclist with great quadriceps) with my Subaru and set up camp in the Canyons campground which is centrally located in the middle of the park. I was able to sleep well most nights in it and I could cook my own meals. The layer of fiberglass gave a false sense of protection from bears… or at least would slow them down… I thought.
Most days I would get up before the sun and hit the road or trails in search of wildlife in the park or head towards some of the geothermal features the park is known for. The park sits, for the most part, inside the caldera of a still active super volcano and is literally alive. Everywhere you turn there are either geysers, springs and wildlife.
There was not a day that I did not see wildlife like bison, wolves or bears or some truly amazing volcanic activity happening. By traveling alone I was free to head anywhere I wanted when I wanted and I didn’t have to take into account others desire for a food break or to even find a shower. I showered and shaved once on the second day of the assignment and never did it again. It took too much time away from exploring and shooting all there was. And I still didn’t have the time to shoot everything I wanted. The park is huge and I drove over 1,100 miles just inside the park looking for art. If I needed to be on the east side of the park at dawn I was there, then I could hike around or travel to a completely different part of the park in the middle of the day and make more art followed by racing off to the west for a sunset shot. And that’s how I did it and I could have been going for several more weeks and still not covered it all.
As the week went on I felt more alive and more confident as my Man Musk (body odor) became stronger. I witnessed buffaloes swimming, a big horned sheep stare me down, a black bear swimming, coyotes hunting, a pack of wolves devour an elk, interviewed the head geologist of the park on a bench under a tree and watched Old Faithful erupt under the stars.
But one thing that had eluded me was a publishable shot of female grizzly bear and her cubs. I had seen a female and her cubs over and over again but they were nowhere near close enough for me to photograph and I know enough about bears to know to never approach a female grizzly with her cubs unless you want it to be the last photos you ever take.
On my last full day in the park I was determined to get the grizzly shot I wanted and headed out before dawn. But I would soon return to camp to change my underwear after an unplanned close encounter with a black bear. He simply wanted to walk over the hill I was on and didn’t seem to care I was standing atop it no matter how much I sung about the paradise city. While in camp I resolved to decompress and go over my whole take.
After reviewing it I felt I couldn’t walk away from this assignment without a grizzly shot. No one at Reuters had asked for a grizzly photo but they were paying a lot of money to have me here and I have prided myself on seeing grizzlies in the park almost every time I came. So as the sun began to set one last time over the park I decided to head to part of the park I had heard rumors about the grizzly being in but had not witnessed it myself on this assignment.
After about an hour of driving and scanning the opening spaces I spotted what I was after. I was in the Hayden Valley portion of the park and there she was, a female grizzly bear and two cubs. The light was beautiful and I made nearly 6 gigs worth of pics of the cubs playing and their Mom watching over them.
I finally went back to camp feeling like I had accomplished all I had wanted to do during my time on this assignment. I emailed a copy of the photo to an editor as soon as it was downloaded from my card and reveled in the success of the trip. I opted not to shower before heading home and basked in my pungent Man Musk as if it was scent left over from being doused in champagne after winning the Tour de France.
However, upon my return it became apparent no one wanted to sit near me to look at my photos until I hit the showers. So with that I headed to the bathroom for one of the loudest and most torturous renditions of the one verse I know, “Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty Take me home. Oh, won’t you please take me home.”