Being Bear-y Aware

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The beautiful mountains on my way into Jackson

Everyone who has asked me about my family vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming has gotten the same answer: “it was magical”. Whether the words I spoke were actually magical, or substituted with similar adjectives such as perfect, amazing, or beautiful, they all describe an experience that was remarkable. I’d been to the area once before, when I took a life-changing camping trip out West 6 years ago, but I didn’t have the time then to really explore Jackson Hole like I wanted to. Therefore, this time around, I made sure to do as much as I could in the historic area as possible.

Now, when I say that I wanted to do everything there, that also included spending an excessive amount of time drinking my morning coffee outside, alone and listening to the animals rise with the sun. That’s one of the many beautiful attributes of Jackson Hole. The quietness of being surrounded by only wild animals and flowing streams for at least a mile around is what makes this place so special. Untainted by the noise and grime of tourists and commercialization, Jackson Hole is a place where nature is still considered king. Of course, the actual town of Jackson does have a bustle of activity at nights and on weekends, but where we were staying in the neighboring town of Wilson, we got to experience Jackson Hole as “locals”. With un-obscured views of the Gros Ventre Mountains from one end of the house and another full view of the Grand Tetons at the other end, our home for the week was absolutely perfect. We were lucky to have visited during the spring, because even though rainstorms were frequent, we were able to see the foliage in full bloom and a plethora of baby animals, fresh from their mothers’ wombs.

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A view of our home from the back

Aside from the breathtaking views and tranquility of being surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, another one of my favorite things about Jackson Hole is the endless opportunity to go outside and explore. During our trip, my family and I spent every day hiking various trails within the Grand Teton National Park. Each day, we were presented with the unknowns that come along with a new trail: new terrain and new wildlife. On the second hike of our trip, our adventure turned into one that we would never forget. The previous day, we hiked a long trail around part of the beautiful Jenny Lake. Just as we’d hoped, my family saw a ton of animals and even witnessed a mother elk give birth to her new baby. We’d also been warned by almost every local we spoke to about the danger of bears, and the necessity of bringing bear spray with us on every hike; but in the back of our minds, we knew the possibilities of us running into a wild bear was very slim. Still, on our second hike, deep into the forested mountain surrounding the less traveled-upon Phelps Lake, my father made sure his bear spray was strapped tightly to his belt loop.

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The mother and her baby elk, taking its first steps

As we started hiking in single file through the elevated trail, we were entertained by the random sprinkling of flowing streams and small animals we passed on the way up to the highest point overlooking the lake. Seeing no fellow hikers on our way up made the trail feel especially quite and untouched; however, it also kept our minds a little more alert for any big animals lurking around. After about an hour and a half hike up the mountainside, we found the clearing, marking the highest point overlooking the vast Phelps Lake and the end of our trail. After snapping a few photos and soaking in the view, the darkening skies and thoughts of the long hike down led us to start heading back to our car. This time around, we walked a bit faster, prompted by the declining slope and our nervousness from the quiet surroundings. My sister, who has watched endless documentaries about hiking these areas, started clapping her hands in effort to alert any nearby bears of our presence. The rest of us found this disturbance a bit annoying but were quickly about to realize how important these precautions were. As I lead my three other family members down the trail, I suddenly heard a noise, almost like a deep huffing sound. Immediately, I stopped and alerted my family of the noise, which they soon heard as well. To our extreme surprise, a few seconds later, we came upon a clearing below our narrow trail and saw two black bears running along the grass. My heart leapt out of my chest and I immediately froze. My entire family stood in complete silence, shocked, and then slowly my father whispered to us to start heading down the trail as quickly and quietly as possible. I’d known from previous reading on the bear awareness signs at trailheads that the best thing to do is avoid running from a bear; but of course, all I wanted to do was run as fast as possible.

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A quick snapshot of the two bears we stumbled upon

Luckily my brain started functioning again, and after watching my dad snap a few quick photos of the amazing sight, I lead my family down our trail once again. When we made it back to our parked car, the nervousness of the situation we’d just experienced had finally dissolved into excitement. I can’t explain how it felt at the moment, realizing that the huffing sounds I heard were actually the sounds of two agitated bears less than 200 feet away from me, but it was a moment full of emotion. This close encounter not only made feel lucky to have experienced such a rare moment, but also gave me a wakeup call in terms of interacting with wildlife. Wild animals are beautiful and fascinating to see but everyone needs to realize that it is dangerous to interact with them while in their territory, even with other people nearby. With the recent upsurge in news about shark, bison, and lion attacks, I couldn’t think of better examples of our ignorance. When we in the territory of wild animals, such as the ocean or a wildlife park, we need to respect any rules put in place to keep us and the animals safe. It hurts me to hear that animals are getting punished and sometimes killed for doing what’s in their nature to do.

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I just had to get a photo of this, thinking “now this is how you get hurt”

With newly heightened awareness, my family and I embarked on the rest of our hikes in Wyoming with an extra can of bear spray and increased appreciation for the annoying precautionary antics of my older sister.

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