It got above fifty degrees in Missoula yesterday, and even though we are far from being out of the woods in terms of winter retreating for a few brief months, the reprieve got me thinking about sunny and longer days, summertime in wild places, and the crazy and unexpected things that happen there when I choose to linger in a place without any expectations in particular. Here’s a summer snapshot from Yellowstone, and enjoy the summer imagery! I
A Grizzly Encounter
His thick brown silver-tipped coat helped him hide among the wildflowers and chaotic deadfall on a slope cascading off of Mount Washburn, not far from Antelope Creek in Yellowstone. The sub-adult grizzly feasted upon a mid-summer banquet of biscuit root, cow parsnip and other abundant treats sprouting park-wide after nearly two months of steady rain and cool temperatures. He weighed about 250 pounds, and we suspected that he was now carving out his own home territory, after being booted out by his mother earlier in his third Yellowstone summer.
The grizzly’s tell-tale high shoulder hump arced as he gracefully plowed up the ground for a summer meal with his long, curved claws. Children and their parents, mesmerized by their first ever sighting of this wild bruin, observed him through spotting scopes, taking in what clearly distinguished him from a black bear: his dished-in, or concave face, heavily rippled shoulder hump muscles that allowed for powerful digging, and his presence out in the open deadfall, far from standing live trees black bears wisely stay close to when living in grizzly country.
The bear paused, then stood up and sniffed the air, moving his massive head from side to side several times before returning to gorge. It suddenly stopped and reared up again, swaying slightly, balancing its unsteady imposing frame on two back feet, alert for potential danger, or perhaps opportunity. At first we noticed nothing unusual that may have excited or worried the bear. Scanning a nearby meadow for such signs, we saw a pair of mated sandhill cranes feeding below a prominent mound, perhaps oblivious to the omnivorous, ever-hungry adolescent predator.
Being mid-July, we suspected that their colts, or young, were not far away, and still vulnerable to predation. The grizzly rushed around the mound, now slicing his distance between the cranes in half. The bear skidded to a halt; perhaps he had never encountered such strange creatures before. The cranes froze, waiting silently for him to make the first move. As he lumbered closer, one crane distracted him by flying to the top of the mound, about 30 feet above the drama. The grizzly loped, and then charged toward the remaining crane.
Rather than fleeing to distract the grizzly from devouring its young, the crane stood its ground, then flexed and forcibly flung its wings towards the bear, chortling and squawking at the predator. The bear backed down. With flattened ears and a submissive posture, he fled at high speed, covering several hundred yards before daring to glance at the fierce animal that had defeated him. He slowly crept back to get a closer look.
The two crane elders reunited atop the mound, thrusting their necks forward, scratching and kicking at the dirt with their spindly legs, rejoicing in an end-zone dance of sorts, celebrating their unlikely victory over one of Yellowstone’s giants.