8.1 Lions, (no tigers), and Bears
On the map Yellowstone, our country’s first national park, is immediately north of Grand Teton National Park, sharing a common border segment. So it is an easy mistake to think that it is but a short drive to go “next door” to Yellowstone from where I was in Jackson, just outside of the Tetons.
In fact, it is a full day’s project, at least the way I travel, compelled to stop at large vistas, beautiful waterways, and intriguing natural phenomena like mud pots and fumaroles, not to mention the traffic stoppages from encounters with elk and bison. And such hazards to rapid travel are everywhere in these parks.
I thought about the pictures I might be able to take in Yellowstone. Among them was a nighttime shot of a geyser, its plume of water against a backdrop of stars. It occurred to me that I had carefully arranged to be here when the dark skies would not be intruded upon by the interfering light of the moon. Yet the subject I had in mind, the momentary appearance of an airborne column of water would be un-illuminated. No matter how “white” the steam and water might be, with no light other than starlight, it would be invisible to the film in my camera. Perhaps I would not be able to realize the view from my mind’s eye. Well maybe I could get some nice compositions with trees and mountains, or do some more deep sky photography, easier on a moonless night.
With my late start after a few hours’ sleep from last night’s session at Glacier View, I was able to make it to the enormously popular Grant Village Campground by late afternoon. Even with its zillions of campsites, the popularity of Yellowstone places one at risk of encountering a full campground if not ahead of the pack. I had no reservation (the thought of campground reservations still seems a little contrary to the outdoor carefree and spontaneous living style I associate with camping), but I was able to secure a site as a walk-in.
As I completed the campsite registration, I noticed a leaflet in the handout materials that identified the various wildlife present near the campground. I had seen many of these before, but this time, in addition to the usual admonitions to not approach bison, moose or elk, and to keep your food locked up away from omnivorous bears, there was also a warning about mountain lions. I asked the ranger, “Ranger Bob”, assisting me with my paperwork about this.
“Yes, there have been some sightings of a young mountain lion wandering through the campground some weeks back. Not sure if it’s still around. Normally the big cats are pretty secretive, you know. We post this to keep people’s awareness up.”
I thought about this for a moment. I wanted to know more, but I wasn’t sure what. I normally don’t insist on telling people about my odd nighttime plans, but maybe I should explain to this ranger what I had in mind.
“I’m hoping to go out tonight and setup a telescope and take some nighttime pictures. Do you know of some good sites where I can get a good view of the sky? I was thinking somewhere near the top of the pass would be good. Oh, and what do I need to know about mountain lions? I’m familiar with all the advice for bear encounters, what’s different?”
The friendly, customer-processing face of the ranger now showed a mild concern. Suddenly he was no longer processing just another RV-contained road tourist, but someone who had a larger potential for getting into trouble.
“Well, I don’t know if I can really recommend anything, and in fact, I can’t officially recommend that you be out in the wilderness after dark, but if I were you, I’d try to find something not too far off the main routes. It’s a rare occurrence, an encounter with a mountain lion, but there is always a chance.
“And the main thing to realize is that to a bear, you are just something that might be in-between the bear and its food. To a mountain lion, you ARE food. They look for isolated and easy catches, so the more you look like trouble, the more likely they’ll just move on to something easier.”
I realized that a lone man, sitting quietly, or standing motionless at a telescope, in the dark, away from other human activity and traffic, unable to see much around him, would probably qualify as “easy” rather than “troublesome”.
“And if you do have a run-in with a mountain lion, don’t play dead the way you do with a bear, fight back! It’s your only chance. Make the cat think you are much bigger than it, be fierce and fearsome. Do you have anything you can fight it with?”
“Uh, …” This wasn’t something I had thought about.
“Well, I have a tripod.”
“A tripod. Ok.” A pause. “Well, like I say, I can’t recommend that you do this, but if you decide to go ahead, notify someone where you are going to be.”
I thanked him for the lion lesson, and said I wasn’t sure what my plans were exactly, but I would follow his advice. I headed to my assigned campsite to think a little harder about my plans for that night.