*please note that the pictures used in this article are not my best work and are being displayed for storytelling purposes only. I do not claim that these pictures are any good. In fact, most of them are rather crap*
I arrived in Jackson in the evening and managed to stay up with the help of the ladies behind the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (where I would be volunteering in about 10 days). After sleeping through my jetlag by a good night’s sleep I set out to pick up my car, do my grocery shopping at Albertson’s, pick up some other camping supplies at K-mart and sports authority, and some final things from Browse n’ Buy (2nd hand shop) in town.
Jackson Hole is the epitomy of what we would consider mid-West, and part of its tourism thrives off of this image, which the town plays every bit the part of. Everything is made from wood, with raised boardwalks and signs hanging off of metal hooks. Photo galleries galore give away that it is well-off town (don’t miss the chance of visiting Tom Mangelsen’s gallery), and its western-ness shines through the leather boutiques that sell boots and hats aplenty.
I was meeting a friend from Montana so I decided to drive up to the Lamar valley straight away and then make my way back down. It’s a good 160 miles up there and the speed limits (45mph in the parks) as well as the stunning landscape will make the journey a good 5 hours at least. I got to the Yellowstone southern border by 16.00 but found that all the campsites up north were already full!
September is supposed to be the off-season you see, so the bigger campsites that have 300 or so sites were already closed, but as the numbers have been increasingly high in September the smaller campsites with only 20-30 spaces fill up by 10am. There were only 2 campsites, which were in the lower loop of the park (less wildlife) that weren’t full, and I’m sure that if I had been a bit later visitor demand would have outstripped campsite supply.
By this point I spotted a bald eagle fishing in the lake and started to get very excited about what the park would have to offer.
I set out in the morning from Lewis Lake campsite at 6.15am to get to my desired location – Slough creek campsite in the Lamar valley – in time for a spot so my friend would know where to meet me. Data connectivity is very sparse in the park unless you are in some of the tourist hotspots. After being held up by roadworks and bison traffic jams (both fairly standard) I got to the campsite and was able to get the last spot at 09.30.
The African safari experience
After settling in I set off to find me some wildlife! After stopping to see some wolves (though too far to see them with the naked eye) and some ospreys I stumbled upon a bison carcass with ravens on it. Me and some others decided to stick around and watch what happened. The sun came out and so did the heat haze, but nothing happened. People would stop and look and move on.
At about 16.00 the ranger who had been with us left and said that with this heat nothing would show up, barr the odd coyote we had seen sniffing the carcass nervously. About 10 minutes later, while we were still trying to figure out why the bison had died in the first place, this massive male grizzly comes out of nowhere and runs up to the carcass. He starts eating away at the thing, followed by some systematic digging and burying (to cover up the smell from the wolves and the ravens) and at one point he even straddled it! By the time I left, at about 19.00, he was still using it as a pillow and would camp out there overnight.
By the next day, word had got out about ‘my’ grizzly. The car started causing traffic problems and all the ‘pros’ started showing off their gear with their 500mm and x2 converters. I have never seen more high-tech camera equipment in the same spot in my life, and didn’t really enjoy the comments it brought on.
I was with my friend at this point and we decided to take a break from watching this male grizzly by taking a drive around. We came back by 16.00 and saw another car jam not too far away from the original carcass (carjams are an indicator that something is up). We stopped and got out, only to find a sow (aka a female grizzly) with 3 cubs trying to cross the road. There were too many people about and she was getting nervous, which I felt really bad about, but soon enough she caught the carcass’ scent and ran off with her cubs. The male grizzly was still laying claim to the prize, and so the sow decided to camp out there the night with her youngsters.
On the morning of day 3 my friend and I set back out the carcass only to see the male grizzly just get up and walk away. He had most likely eaten himself silly and needed a break, so gave up the feast amicably. The sow and her three cubs continued the destruction of the heap of flesh and bones. Some 30 minutes later, out of nowhere, these 5 wolves appeared. One by one, we counted 4 grey wolves and a black wolf appearing out of the sage brush. They paced around the carcass and came incredibly close but never really attempted a charge as they knew it was pointless.
As if seeing these five wolves wasn’t enough, one actually came down towards us and drank from the creek between the valley and the road!! And as if all of this just wasn’t enough to satisfy ones appetite for a spectacle – at one point, just chilling out in the background, was this bald eagle.
What. a. scene.
I decided to drive off to a different park of the park the next day because I my friend had had to leave and despite the miraculousness (is that a word?) of what was happening in front of my eyes, it wasn’t particularly good for photography; one of the reasons I came to the park in the first place. However, I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye so I made a short stop-off at the carcass.
As if the male, then the sow and her cubs, and the wolves and the eagle just weren’t enough, on day 4 the male had come back, and was feasting off the (by now probably putrid and puss-filled) flesh ALONGSIDE the sow – I’m talking 5 bears all eating off the same carcass! And with the wolves still doing their meek dance around the what can now only be described as a sleuth (the collective noun of bears, apparently) of brown, furry powerhouses.
No surprise then that apparently by day 6 the carcass had gone.