Once upon a time I took a trip where I traveled, successively, by car, water, car, feet, and car again. I would love to tell you about the water part (river rafting, 100 rapids in 100 miles. Wow!), but that is another story. And someday I really ought to write down the story of how I was nearly arrested in Arco, Idaho, but that, too, is another story. Instead, I’d like to talk about the Grand Tetons.
Most mountains are approached gradually, with rising foothills covered by trees hiding the peaks until they just begin to be momentarily visible through the branches. Even when you finally get to see them whole, the peaks stand like snowy codas upon the slopes they rise from.
Not so the Tetons. They are revealed to you, whole, with the sudden drama of someone drawing back a curtain. You are already in the high country, so no rising ground surrounds them and diminishes them. They seem to erupt right out of the plain, growing straight up in snowy majesty. As a sort of breathtaking extra, there is a lake that runs across the base of the mountains. If you come in the early morning, before the wind rises, you see this incredible wall of mountains seeming to spring directly out of the water, with the reflection of each perfect spire pointing back at you.
It is so flawless that you almost want to applaud the artist. No wonder the indians thought them sacred.
Alas, this time I was not in the mood to get the sort of lift they usually give me. After the exhilaration of the river run, simply sightseeing seemed a grey anticlimax. I suspect I had a touch of some bug or other, because I wasn’t feeling very good, either. Besides, it was afternoon, the clouds were lowering and the wind was up. The reflections were gone and I was feeling cranky and somewhat sorry for myself. Sometimes to be in the midst of beauty when you are not in the mood makes it worse.
I had been staying in unknown motels every night and I was pretty sick of it. I was also pretty tired of the eternal presence of my fellow man. Even in early June, the roads and stops can be pretty crowded.
I had thrown my backpack in the trunk before leaving, but had seen no place I wanted to use it. As I drove along, grouching to myself, I saw a sign for the ranger’s station. A notice said this was the place to make camping reservations. Knowing the Tetons are booked months ahead, this was no real use to me. But, being in the sort of temper where confirming a negative gives some obscure satisfaction, I pulled in.
To my surprise, they told me they had an open campsite. More surprising still, it was one that could be reached with an afternoon’s hike. One side of my soul darkly wondered what would go wrong while the other started to perk up a bit. The campsite was by a lake, they said, which implied crowds to me, but they assured me there were only three campsites on the entire lake. It really did seem it was one of those times when God gives you things to raise your spirits.
I got a topo map, strapped on backpack and boots and started up.
I say up because the first thing I noticed was that there was a reason this lake was off the tourist route. It was on the other side of a high rise, with a steep, switchback path as the only access. As I said, the clouds were lowering down and the humidity was around 110 per cent. It was chilly, but soon the sweat was soaking my clothes and dripping elsewhere. There was no way it was going to evaporate.
The doomsaying side of me rather enjoyed that. Nothing to darken the mood when you are tired then a nice, sweaty hike straight up when you are already high enough that the walk across the parking lot starts you breathing heavy.
Then it started to rain. Goody.
By the time I walked down to the lake, I was tired and depressed enough that the warning sign to hang provisions above bear height seemed sourly appropriate. The lake was as darkly beautiful as you would expect in the Tetons, but some genius, with an entire lakefront at his disposal, had put all three campsites within fifty feet of each other. Lovely.
I found my campsite and discovered, from the noise, that my nearest neighbors were in a party mood. To say I was grumpy does not come close. Setting up a tent in the rain is never fun. To do it hungry and tired with night coming on, with the expectation that your neighbors will keep you awake until late makes it far less so. Knowing I had yet to rig a sling for my food in some distant tree was just icing on the cake.
Finally, I managed it. The next task was to convince my SVEA stove to heat some water. (For those unfamiliar with it, the SVEA is a stove so compact that backpackers use it despite the ungodly time it takes to make anything hot.) This involved huddling in the rain, shielding the stove while trying to keep it going long enough to find out how long it really takes for a watched pot to boil.
The water was finally starting to boil when the last straw broke. I heard someone blundering through the bushes. One of my jolly neighbors, no doubt, out for a drunken stroll. Worse, they seemed to be coming my way. Perhaps the idiot wanted to chat. As I heard behind me the noise of someone pushing through the last bushes right into my camp, something inside me just snapped. Without getting up, I pivoted on my heels to tear the head off this gregarious moron.
I found myself staring up…way, way up. At a moose.
Now I have read that a moose can stand over six feet at the shoulder and weigh upwards of a thousand pounds. Poppycock! From my own personal experience I can tell you that from ground level they are lots bigger than that.
This was a female and a more ugly, ramshackle, put together out of left over parts creature I have never seen. Nor a more impressive one. And it seemed I had a very long time to contemplate how impressive she was as she calmly ambled right past me, majestically ignoring the gibbering idiot on the ground.
I don’t know how long I remained, frozen in that position, but she was out of my campsite and nearly down to the lake before I remembered my camera. I fumbled with all the waterproof zippers into my tent, grabbed the camera and ran after her.
I assumed she had come down to the lake to drink, but I was wrong. Without a hesitation or any change of direction, she walked right into the lake and began to swim across. I chased after her, madly taking pictures in the dusk.
To give you some idea of how coolly I was reacting, it was quite a while before I realized I had set neither the shutter speed nor the lens opening. [To prove it, I still have a number of almost black negatives, followed by a few pictures that I can bore my friends with while saying, “See that little speck almost to the far side? Well, that is a moose!”]
It was an adrenalated end to a very full day. Eventually, I got some dinner made and crawled into my tent, tracking the minimum soggy pine needles in to keep me company. The good news is that by that time I was so tired and drained I didn’t care how much noise my neighbors made.
The next day was sunny and beautiful. My food had not been disturbed. I ate and felt better. I felt so much better that when I met a ranger on my way out and he was looking for a little help, I volunteered. He had an enormous section of steel sewer pipe that had been converted into a bear trap. Turns out that one of the reasons campsites were available was that they had been having so much bear trouble that year.
With the help of another camper we wrestled it down the latest problem area, baited it, and set it…at my last night’s campsite.