While I was in the visitor center the rain changed from sprinkle to shower, and the mountains adjourned behind the clouds. The park ranger initially recommended that I hike the trail to Amphitheater Lake, but he second guessed that suggestion after he heard the rain rattling the roof. In no hurry to walk out to my car just yet, I toured the geological and historical exhibits to gain some context.
The Tetons are the youngest mountain range in the Rockies.
Most of their uplift occurred over the last 2 million years, and it’s estimated they gained a foot in elevation every 300 – 400 years. Their range stretches 40 miles, oriented north-south, and the tallest mountain among them, The Grand Teton, reaches an elevation of 13,775 feet, which is about 7,000 feet above the valley plains. After learning about their relative youth, I couldn’t help but assign personality to them. They proudly line up, chests out and posture focused. These are the young upstarts of our great American mountain range. They are the proteges.
I was asked by a group of 5 or 6 Chinese people to take their picture with the mountains in the background.
I could think of a few better places to take pictures from than the parking lot of the visitors center, but I wasn’t about to brave the communication barrier to explain that to them. They asked that I take both portrait and landscape pictures with each of the two phones they handed me. While they continued to take a few solo photos of each other, one of the men approached me and pointed in curiosity at my “special shoes”. I showed him the high ankle support and pantomimed rolling my ankle while giving the thumbs-up sign. It seemed like that made sense to him, but after looking at my boots for a few more seconds an excitement overcame him, and he pantomimed a shin high karate kick while repeating “for bear – for bear..”
“Uh.. no” I responded, but by this time he got the attention of the rest of his group. I stood as his talking piece for a minute and then diffused back to my car. Now you can say that if you ever hear the Chinese rumor of Americans karate kicking bears off the trail, you know how it started.
The weather was looking better and better on the drive to the trailhead, and I began hiking around 11:00am. After only an hour on the trail, I came close to needing those karate moves.
The bear was too close to the trail for me to comfortably hike by.
I unholstered my bear spray and began talking loudly and whistling at him or her – No response. I picked up a branch and knocked on a few trees and rocks with it. The bear humored me with a single disinterested glance in my direction, and then went back to eating berries. To be honest, I felt slighted. After five minutes the bear had wandered far enough down the hill for me to pass. I’ve had a few bear encounters before, but they were further away and I wasn’t alone. Maybe I wasn’t in any immediate danger, but my senses were on high alert for some time – I was happily delirious with clarity.
Five minutes up the trail I was asked to take a picture of a father and son. As the dad wound up his disposable camera I asked what he would like to have in the background of their shot. He smiled, taking his son’s shoulder in his hand, and replied “I don’t care what’s in the background – so long as he’s in the front-ground.”
Not wanting to scare his kid, I calmly mentioned that I saw a bear 100 yards down the trail. The kid tensed up and fixed his eyes back the way I had come. As I began to hike on, the dad stopped his son, crouched down to eye level with him, and I heard him say, “Hang on buddy, we need to talk about how to behave around bears.” Something about a father and son sharing a bear encounter sounded so cool to me, especially considering how the dad handled it.
I admit, I had an uncommon moment of parenthood envy.
The trail turned into steep switchbacks overlooking Bradley and Taggard Lake. The wildflowers were rocking, and more than once I stopped on the trail to pick up what I thought was a piece of trash only to find that it was a torn petal, flushed yellow, orange, or purple.
Five miles in and 3,000 feet up I came to Surprise Lake.
A quarter-mile later I stopped to have lunch at Amphitheater Lake. I’ve never regretted bringing a can of beer on a hiking trip.
The hike down was mellow, as hike-downs tend to be. I drove south into Jackson to meet up with a friend of mine from college.