Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Bear Essentials and Jackson's Hole

Above Left: Morning over Jenny Lake. Above Right: Inspiration Point above Jenny Lake

Another early morning. Per my request, the lodge desk called at 5:00 AM. It was all I could do to force myself creaking out of bed. I had prepared everything the night before: backpack, clothes, hat, glasses, camera, food. Without switching on a light I was out the door and driving before I had time to fully wake up.

The first signs of light were gently illuminating the east, giving the Grand Tetons an other-worldly glow against the western night sky. Stars blazed bright over the jagged peaks, fading by degrees as I headed toward the starting point for my morning hike, a half hour south along the empty highway.

As I drew closer to Jenny Lake, the formidable range of peaks grew in stature until Grand Teton alone reigned supreme over earth and sky. Parking at the Jenny Lake trail head, I began a fast paced march following the trail around the south end of the lake. The blue-violet glow of morning filled the eastern sky, while only the most stubborn stars remained visible over the towering peaks above.

It's a relatively easy two-mile hike from the parking lot to the Cascade Valley trail. Most people use the $10 round trip ferry across the lake to avoid the hike. As I crossed the bridge over Cottonwood Creek, the ferry sat silent and motionless in the early morning light; the calm before the storm. In a few hours it would be packed full of hikers, tourists and day-trippers boating over to enjoy the splendors of Hidden Falls and Inspiration point, but for now, I was blissfully alone.

Reaching the far side of the lake, the impending sunrise mirrored to perfection in the tranquil waters. As I approached the Cascade Valley trail, the steep moraine abutting the left side of the trail opened to a vast valley piercing through the rocky peaks while the sounds of nearby cataracts echoed through the pines.

Stopping to take in the morning air, I melded into the surroundings, becoming part of a seamless, timeless nature that enveloped from all sides. Continuing along in this exalted state, I was pondering the lofty ideals of Thoreau and Whitman when I came around a corner and nearly soiled my drawers.

There, not 20 feet ahead, tooth and claw, square in the middle of the trail, stood the ass end of a full grown Ursus Americanus, more popularly known as the American Black Bear. Where's your Thoreau now, I thought.

Above Left: Ursus Americanus, my friend the Brown Bear looking for breakfast
Above Right: The much less frightening and adorably Chinchilla-esque Pika. Don't you just want to cuddle!

I tried to recall the "bear essentials" I had read twenty or thirty times around the park. My favorite: if the bear charges you, lay down and play dead. Not easy to do when you're screaming and writhing while being eaten alive. Luckily, this bear seemed to be just as astounded by my sudden appearance as I was by he, she, it.

I quickly checked the bushes for any bear cubs, handy advice I had learned from watching Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Bear cubs pretty much assured instant death by mastication, that much I knew.

While my brain continued to work feverishly through a foggy list of recommended actions and counteractions, the bear simply turned off the trail, walked up the hill, turned left, and pausing to to stare briefly, crossed no more than 20 yards above me. A clever ploy, I thought, to sneak up and eat me from behind.

Luckily, I was able to snap a photo during the melee. Don't let the fuzziness fool you...I was steady as a rock. I quickly moved on, checking to my rear every tenth of a second or so to make sure I wasn't being followed for desert. Less than a minute later, still thinking Bear, I nearly dove into the lake when a Long-tailed Weasel leapt from a boulder nearby and scurried up the trail.

Above Left: Grand Teton (middle) and Owen Peak (right)
Above Right: View from Jenny Lake

As the sun finally breached the mountains to the east, I reached the Cascade Valley trail and began my ascent to the sublimely beautiful Hidden Falls. From there I continued up another couple of miles past the inspirational views of Inspiration Point into the beautiful high mountain meadows of Cascade Valley.

No photo can do justice to the soaring beauty of this pristine mountain canyon, framed on one side by Mt. Owen and Grand Teton, and on the other by the soaring cliffs of Mt. Saint John. I was all alone in dazzling morning sun, able to take in the beauty with only the gentle whisper of distant winds, nearby streams and thoughts of bears to keep me company.

Above Left: Cascade Valley. Above Right: Hidden Falls

On my way down from Inspiration Point, I saw the first boat of the morning crossing over from the ferry dock. By mid-afternoon, the lower half of the trail would be as crowded as Central Park. I was well on my way back around the lake before the ferry arrived. I returned to the Lodge, checked out and was on my way to Jackson Hole, 35 miles to the south by 10:00 am. Awesome morning!

Driving south through the beautiful, elongated buttes of the Snake River Valley, the Grand Tetons provide an ever changing vista of stunning peaks and valleys above the golden plains. Roughly twenty miles south of the Jenny Lake, the road begins the long decline into the storied valley of Jackson Hole.

The town of Jackson, often mistakenly referred to as Jackson Hole, lies at the base of the valley, just in front of the venerable Storm King Mountain and ski resort. The commercial center of town is a beautifully stained and shellacked log cabin of a place garnished by towering stacks of bleached white Elk horns.

This high-priced tourist and entertainment mecca is full of interesting local shops along with the usual suspects of trendy brand name stores and outlets. Like Gatlinburg, TN and Estes Park,CO, Jackson is the tourism capital of the region, offering plenty of distractions for those on their way to or from (or avoiding altogether) the parks.

Nestled in along the main drag as you enter town from the north is Valley Bookstore. This great new book indie offers a broad selection of general titles and an exceptional collection of Jackson Hole area history and authors (along with a few souvenirs to boot). Right in the heart of the main town, this gem of a store has been serving the good people living and passing through Jackson for 45 years! A true staple of the community.

Above: Jackson Hole Book Trader

Speaking of staples, continuing south out of the tourist center and into the local shopping district along West Broadway lies the oldest used book store in town, The Jackson Hole Book Trader. Operating continuously since 1978, this fabulous store offers in an incredible selection of vintage books on local area subjects and by local authors along with a great selection of general used titles suplemented with new local interest books and guides.

Above Left: Jackson Hole Book Trader co-owner Cindy Parker with Lucy the Store Havanese. Annie, the store lab, was on hiatus that day. Above Right: inside Jackson Hole Book Trader

Mother-daughter team Cindy and Alisson Parker took over the store in February '08 and have done a great job revamping the store from top to bottom. With an expanding number of titles, exhibits by local artists, free coffee and chocolates, it's a great way to wile away an afternoon or two while adding to your collection of books.

With daylight starting to wain, I headed south out of Jackson to cover some miles before dark. I was headed south to Utah, to the city of Brigham Young and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Continuing from Jackson on highway 89 down and through the beautiful Grand Canyon of the Snake River, it was obvious that this beautiful stretch of river must have been the Holy Grail of rafting. There were literally hundreds of rafts being being towed around on trailers and school bus loads of pre- and post-rafting enthusiasts filling both lanes of the highway and every turnoff along the way.

With night approching, I pulled in to the first quality eatery I spotted below the canyon, just on the edge of Alpine, WY. This was a auspiscious decision. The dinner I enjoyed at Brenthoven's Restaurant at the Nordic Inn was one of the highlights of the trip.

Sitting outside, enjoying a pre-meal Stoli Martini "up" with olives as the sun set behind the surrounding hills, all was right with the world. The pumpkin soup was out of this world and the freshed grilled trout main course tasted as if it had just been pulled from the river.

Tired and satiated I headed into town to find a cheap place to sleep. I chose the Three Rivers Motel, mostly because it was there and met my price criteria of under $60 a night. An aging, bearded and distinctly alcoholic biker with a tatoo on his neck checked me in with a rasping wheeze.

The Three River Motel...SWEET!

The L-shaped courtyard was full of Harleys, Pickups and a few lone mini-vans parked outside the doors with an interesting group of what appeared to be ex-prison inmates milling about with cans of Pabst two rooms over. The room decor had obviously remained unchanged for decades if not centuries, with cowboy silhouette shades on the lamps and and a nasty velvet painting of impossible mountains and waterfalls adorning the paneled wall above the bed.

The carpets were badly stained from I-don't-want-to-know-what, but the room was quiet and comfortable enough and I was too tired to care. Tomorrow I would swim in Great Salt Lake, striking off #894 of my 1000 things to do before I die. It had been a long day, and already the Tetons were fading into distant memory...with the exception of the bear, who appeared two or three times in my dreams, once wearing a top hat.

Next Post: Fast Times in the Land of Mormon.

Until then,

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