GRIZZLED AMONG THE GRIZZLIES IN A HOT TUB TIME MACHINE
By Mark Neikirk
Click Link For Pics: https://tinyurl.com/mx7d4sbp
The trail toward the astonishing river for which everything in this corner of Yellowstone National Park is named begins at the historic Bechler River Ranger Station, laces through a forest of impossibly straight pines, then falls into in a meadow on its route to an intersection with the Bechler River.
Within the first mile, the trail passes through a sandy patch with a hole dug into it and the sand banked above the hole.
“Foxes,” a ranger on horseback tells us when we ask what animal might live there.
“No,” he replies, then explains.
There was a pack here but its members wandered outside the park boundaries, including into adjacent Idaho, which permits unrestricted hunting and trapping. Hence, the pack was “harvested” – a euphemism the ranger uses to avoid offending anyone.
To enter the park at the Bechler River Ranger Station requires a drive over a gravel road interrupted at times by cattle grates and fencing because just outside the park cattle graze in the woods as if they were elk or moose. They sometimes lumber down the road, calves nursing as they go. They are easy prey for a wolf pack. As you might imagine, Idaho rangers are not in love with wolves.
Thirty-one gray wolves were relocated from western Canada in 1995 to Yellowstone to restore balance to the park’s ecosystem, which got out of whack after the park’s native wolves were exterminated – the last one in 1926. The decision in the 1990s to bring wolves back was divisive. The division is not resolved to this day.
All such tensions dissipate when you come to this place, just as do the other polarizing debates that tear at America’s seams. Disputes that matter in town are irrelevant here. Masks and vaccines have us snipping and sniping at each other right now. Here, it is impossible to go indoors, with or without a mask and nearly impossible to be within six feet of anyone. The Bechler River Trail is in Yellowstone’s largely unvisited southwest. Now and again over five days, someone or a small group passed us but mostly not.
There were faint signs of humanity at the ranger station. A construction crew building new quarters for the rangers. A small island of trees shading a couple of picnic tables. Two outhouses. Both of those are gender neutral – probably unintended but nevertheless a concession to leaving the culture wars behind including matters of the behind. Here, no one cares when you evacuate whether you are a boy, a girl, neither or both. Just wait your turn, do not steal the toilet paper, and put the seat down after you do your business – not because it is polite to women, though it is, but because it accelerates decomposition.
Up to a point – the ranger station being that exact point – civilization is slowly erased on the way here. In the tourist town of West Yellowstone, you can still buy a Bud Lite or an IPA. Still buy the breakfast special or pizza. Still buy groceries. Still buy a snooty, look-at-me Patagonia hat. Still buy gas at city prices. Thirty miles later, the main retail businesses are tackle shops and gas stations where the price per gallon if $4.49. Supply and demand. The real business is potato farming. We were buzzed by a crop duster. Where else in America does that happen? Visions of North by Northwest.
Once the left turn toward Yellowstone is taken and the road goes from blacktop to gravel, civilization’s main representation is the occasional RV along the roadside, someone’s personal paradise. Other Yellowstone entrances have lines of cars at a checkpoints and extra staff to keep things moving. Here, it is more like a church parking lot on Monday morning.
Just beyond the ranger station is a time-space barrier where civilization disappears completely. What’s ahead is beauty difficult to describe, not because words fail necessarily but because there is so much of it.
The forest is the first example but not the most impressive. As forests go, it is above average but nothing any veteran of woods and waters has not seen before. The forest, however, is a doorway to the Bechler River Meadow, and were I to describe in the language of our times, that is, in a text message, it would be OMG!
It lies before you, this sea of tall grass vast in the way that places are vast in Wyoming and Montana, which is where this is. In every direction, this fertile, lavish flora stretches to some ending – either too the edge of a forest, where the pines and spruces and firs and aspens and cottonwoods command the horizon, or to purple mountains majesty.
The grasses are in living colors of green, brown and gold that blend into one amber wave that actually is a wave when a breeze passes through, bending the tips. If music could be seen as well as heard, this is what it would look like: billions of blades of tall grass dancing to the beat of the wind beneath a sky bluer than the bluest gemstone.
“I could walk through this every day for the rest of my life,” John Curtin said. “It’s beautiful.”
CHAPTER ONE: SIGNS OF TROUBLE
Do you believe in them? I would rather not, but it is hard to ignore them. This trip began with a few bad omens. First, Delta lost one of Bob Pauly’s boots between Cincinnati and Bozeman. I, meanwhile, arrived with two left boots, one a Keen and one a Lowa. They looked alike in the dark when I was packing.
And then there was breakfast on Saturday at the Center Ice Café in Belgrade, Montana, near the airport. We should have read Yelp before we went instead of after: “The woman owner was rude to us. We came in from the cold. There were three tables, so we sat down. She came unglued, raised her voice and yelled that we should have waited to be seated.”
She has not changed.
When three of us entered, there was a scrawled sign about waiting to be seated but no one in evidence to do the seating. Bob, Bill Ankenbauer, and John Hennessy took a seat at a booth that left room for my wife, Kate, and I. We were five minutes away. The unglued woman appeared from nowhere, scolding:
“You have to wait to be seated.”
“There was no one to seat us, and this table was open.”
Actually, all of the tables were open.
“It’s for a big group. You only have three people.”
“We have two more coming.”
The table sits six, squeezed.
“We have to sanitize the tables before you sit down.”
“Has this one been sanitized?”
Someone had brought along a paper cup with coffee. This violated a café rule, too, and our hostess then read that section of the riot act. She closed by saying she just wanted us to know the rules so that we would not violate them the next time we came. Next time? She might be rude but at least she is an optimist.
That was on Saturday. On Monday, after we made it to Yellowstone to hike, the omens came again. I lost my titanium drinking cup on the first day. I had taken it out and, I thought, clipped it to a carabineer on my pack before crossing the river. The next morning, I crossed back over and found it lying on the riverbank in plain sight. That seemed a good omen.
Same day, Mark Goetz’s sleeping pad sprung a leak. The modern blow-up pad is a thing of wonder. With the ground serving as a box spring, a good pad is nearly as comfortable as a home mattress, especially when combined with an Ambien and a compliant bladder. But if the pad goes, so does a good night’s sleep. The next day, the Ankenbauer brothers, Bill and Jim, who between them have more widgets and wares in their packs than an Amazon warehouse, found some patches and plugged the hole. Unfortunately, the fix was not permanent. By Tuesday night, Mark Goetz was sleeping on the hard ground again, to the extent he was able to sleep at all.
On our final day, Friday, Bill Ankenbauer lost his iPhone.
We were crossing that same river where I had misplaced my cup, this time on the way back. Bill is our official photographer because he is very good at it. His day job is as a camera operator for WLW-TV’s morning news. His second job is working a camera at the Reds games. His lost iPhone would be our loss, too. Gone would be five days of very good photographs, the best record of our trip. And Bill would be out the $800 that an iPhone costs.
He searched every pocket of his pants and his backpack and his fanny pack. Bill does not travel light. He found no phone. A couple of us had a bar or two of cell signal, so we called Bill’s number hoping to hear a ring. It went straight to voicemail, as a phone might do if it was at the bottom of a river. Bill took his boots off and waded back into the stream, walking slowly with a forlorn stare toward the bed of the river.
On the shore, Dave Heidrich pointed out that whenever someone loses something, it nearly always is in a pocket even if the person has checked his pockets –the masculine pronoun is proper in this instance. Women do not seem to make this mistake so often.
“Hey, here it is,” Jim Ankenbauer shouted to his brother. “I found your phone.”
“What? Where was it?”
“In your fanny pack.”
“But I looked there....”
CHAPTER TWO: A LOGISTICAL MIRACLE
You know that Dylan song, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry? I always liked the title though I was never sure what it meant. But it seems like a good title for what it took to get to the Beckler River Trail.
We were all due at the West Yellowstone KOA by Sunday, August 22, so we could drive Monday morning to the Ranger Station where, if we did not arrive by 10 a.m., our permit could be given to someone else.
We had 12 people and six different travel itineraries. I flew Thursday morning to Bozeman on Delta with Kate, who was spending the week with our daughter, Anna, while I hiked. We went out to dinner on Thursday night to catch up: Anna, her husband, Nils, Kate and I. Very nice evening.
Most everyone else was arriving on Friday but not all at the same time. Mark McGinnis and his son-in-law, Eric Beck, flew in on American and arrived Friday morning. They took a shuttle the Holiday Inn but were too early to check in. I borrowed a car from Anna, brought them and their bags to her house, where we stored the bags until check-in, then took them to downtown Bozemen with its breweries, coffee shops, gear shops, fly shops, record store, honey store, and guitar store. Bozeman is where they make Gibsons, and its Music Villa is the unofficial showroom for the factory. They’ll let you play anything on the shelf if you dare.
How could anyone get bored in such a place? But as McGinnis would put it later, “Eric and I were stranded at the hotel, rescued by Neikirk only to be set loose in Bozeman to fend for ourselves.”
Redemption came after Bob, Bill, John, Brandon Zembrodt and his father, Paul, arrived on a later flight from Cincinnati, rented a couple of mini-vans, and drove to Bozeman to meet Eric and Mark at a rooftop bar – “beer heaven,” Mark called it. Kate and I drove back into town to join them.
Saturday, we packed the mini-vans and drove to the KOA, stopping at the West Yellowstone airport, which is the size of postage stamp, to pick up John Curtin, who was flying from Rapid City, South Dakota, after spending a week with his wife, Maryanne, seeing the Badlands and other sights in the Dakotas.
Jim Ankenbauer, who lives in Florida but has fled the state because of his COVID-denying governor’s policies, drove up from his second home in Durango, Colorado. He came directly to the KOA.
David Heidrich and Mark Goetz flew Sunday directly to the West Yellowstone airport, where they rented an SUV and drove to the KOA while Bob, Brandon, Paul, John H., John C., both Ankenbauers, Mark, Eric, and I got supplies in town.
By Saturday night, we were all in tents at the KOA, huddled around a Duraflame log and some charcoal in the fire pit because wood fires were banned due to the West’s great drought this summer.
Again, I’ll quote Mr. McGinnis, who properly saw the arrival logistics as a metaphor for the hike ahead: “This was a BIG trip with a BIG group. There was a core plan but with a lot of variations on either end and differing expectations. There was always something happening both together as one group, and in separate and varied groups as we hiked and played.” It all worked out. Good omen.
CHAPTER THREE: LESSONS OF LOVE
In a place of beauty, the beauty of friendship and family took its rightful place on this hike. Part of that was because of two very special pairings. The Patio Boys are a plus or minus group 45 people, mostly men but not entirely, and with a core group of a dozen who make a majority of the hikes. A hundred or more nights out have been recorded by each of the most dedicated members. Down the list, a couple of fringe members have just one night out. Backpacking wasn’t their thing.
There were a dozen of us on this trip but not the core dozen exactly. Two cancelations by Patio Boy stalwarts opened slots for Paul to come and hike with his son. Paul had five nights out but they were recorded years ago. McGinnis invited Eric. Those two pairings, one a father and son, the other a father-in-law and a son-in-law, gave our group a new texture – one that would prove to be especially meaningful.
Eric had a deeply important family reason for taking this trip. After college in 2011, Eric came home to live with his parents for a time and he and his father took to watching the cable television show Finding Bigfoot. Sasquatch became a sort of Beck family inside joke, drawn from the campy mystique of the show. It extended into their hikes together, which became frequent. Eric and his father would “see” signs of the Squatch at every bend in a trail. They began to call anything that was peculiar “Squatchy.”
They took it for granted they would do this all of their lives together. Father and son. Which they did. Only their lives together would turn out to be much shorter than either expected. Pancreatic cancer is without mercy and cares not a whit about a father and his adult son bonding over Sasquatch.
John Beck died on Feb. 17, 2019. He was 58.
Eric wore a trucker hat to Yellowstone that read “Gone Squatchin.” In Bozeman, he paid $1.50 at a fly shop for a great little sticker of Sasquatch holding a trout.
It was only around a makeshift campfire (a consequence again of the drought and fire ban) on our last night when we decided to pass around a question that we all learned the meaning of Eric’s hat. The fire was a Nalgene bottle filled with pinkish Crystal Light backlit by a headlamp that the ever-technical Bill Ankenbauer rigged inside the fire ring. It projected no heat but its light was strangely effective in creating a mood. Props to Crystal Light’s strawberry-banana mix.
The question posed was: What saying did your father use that you heeded and perhaps now say to your own children? Eric prefaced by telling us that his story was not a saying exactly but did involve this bond around the legend of Big Foot.
He and his father had been planning a big hike. Destination? Yellowstone. So when McGinnis told him there might be an opening on this hike, “I didn’t hesitate.” He brought some of his father’s ashes and dispersed them at a bend in the Bechler River.
In Eric’s own words: “Dad still goes with me on backpacking trips. I leave behind a little bit of his ashes at each of my campsites and any stopping point that has a feature that I know Dad would love, like wildflowers, big rocks, or a beautiful view. I do this for a couple reasons. First, because I wish we had more time together to take more trips into the backcountry. And second, because I hope Squatchy is really out there, and that he may just pay Dad a visit”
As it turns out, Eric is not the only one of us to have lost a father too early. We spent some time on this, the Crystal Light fire still aglow. Lives are changed when a son loses a father young. Plans are averted. Life lessons go to the rewrite desk.
I was fortunate to have my father’s love and counsel into my 51st year of life. He was not so fortunate. He was barely 17, and with 11 siblings, a widowed mother and her uncertain pension. He needed to do something to relieve the financial pressure on the family so he lied about his age, joined the United States Army and found himself in the frigid mountains of Korea, driving a tank and serving in the 1st Calvary Division.
These days, I wish I had asked him more about his father and about the young man who left Irvine, Ky., and his sweetheart to fight an enemy he could not have known much about and a cause that John Prine would later succinctly capture in Hello in There, “We lost Davy in the Korean War, and still I don’t know what for.”
Father stories migrated to father-in-law stories, and the question was posed: Did you ask your future father-in-law for your future wife’s hand in marriage. Mostly, we Baby Boomers, did not. John Hennessey is an exception.
Raymond “Bud” Tormey was a New Yorker and an intimidating man. John Hennessey, though a tough kid, was understandably nervous when he approached Mr. Tormey, whom John described as bit like Archie Bunker. Bud liked to set in a lawn chair in the garage with the door open, wearing shorts and no shirt, smoking a cigar. Lord of his domain.
“Mr. Tormey,” John said, approaching with respect, caution and a nervous stomach, “could I ask you something?”
“About what?” came the gruff reply.
“I can come back.”
John mustered his courage: “I would like to ask for your Jackie’s hand in marriage.”
“When?” Bud Tormey shot back, as if the timing might be faster than a father attentive to his daughter’s virtue would care to tolerate.
“Next year, sir,” John replied.
Relieved, Mr. Tormey gave his blessing, but added with his New York accent fully deployed. “No guarantees and no retoy-ens.”
It will be 40 years this November, and John has not returned Jackie nor she him.
You think you know your friends. Then, in the tranquility of a clear night under the stars with only a backlit bottle of Crystal Light to illuminate the people around you, their depth and humanity is illuminated as never before.
CHAPTER FOUR: ERIC EXPERTISE
Though listed on trail guides as “difficult,” the Bechler River Trail is not. The trail is well-marked and mostly flat, rising atop a ridge over the river now and again but never strenuously so. The only real challenge, beyond the logistics of getting here (airplanes, hotels, rental cars, permits) is the required river crossings.
The first crossing appears suddenly, almost hidden by tall grass. The trail abruptly ends at the river’s edge and can be seen to pick up on the opposite bank. This, however, it not the crossing. Horse and pack mules cross here. Humans need not. Off to the left, a less evident trail leads to a well-engineered swinging footbridge. Mark McGinnis made the discovery, and then led us across. There were four of us who arrived first, and we determined we would cross over, then settle on the other side opposite of the trail’s ending and pretend to be putting our boots back on – as if we had just waded across.
Sure enough, the rest of our group arrived, saw us tying lace, and prepared to remove their own boots and put their wading sandals on. Their questions came quickly. How was it? Cold? Slick? How deep? Well, we told them, it is best crossed naked. Quickly enough, they recognized the ruse before, thank you Jesus, any one undressed.
The next crossing, however, did require wading, with water deep enough and cold enough to chill what Bob Pauly calls one’s chota. Don’t look it up. This is Bob’s own word. All I can tell you is that biological males have chota parts. Biological females do not.
Our Day One campsite was a few hundred yards after the crossing. We settled in there, pitching tents, pumping up air mattresses and pillows, and spreading out sleeping bags. The Yellowstone fire ban spared us one chore. As Bob announced more than once during the trip, “One thing I don’t miss is collecting firewood.”
With time to spare before dinner, each of us retired to whatever leisure activity most appealed to us. Smoking a cigar. Reading a Kindle. Eric quickly rigged and went fly fishing. I followed him to river. We both caught a few small rainbow trout. He caught three, I caught two, setting a pattern for the rest of the trip. He was always ahead of me in getting to the stream and always ahead of me in fish count. As McGinnis teased: “You are always being outfished by someone named Eric.” He has a point. His reference was to his son-in-law and to Eric Krosnes, who was to have made this trip but could not because his plantar fasciitis meant every step like walking on nails.
Had he been with us, I’m certain Eric would have caught more fish than I did; having fished with him for the past 35 years, that’s what happens. But he cannot take this away from me: I hold the unrecorded world record for the largest northern pike on light line (4-pound test). At 48 inches and 25 pounds, the next best fish on such thread-like line was not even close. Records are no longer kept by line strength but that changes nothing.
Also, I should point out that Eric was in the front of my canoe in Quetico Provincial Park on that fall day in the 1990s, just below Chatterton Falls at Russell Lake. With paddle mastery, he followed that fish all over the bay where I had hooked it. Without him, the pike would have snapped my line and be lost to history. Furthermore, until the quirk of that giant taking my lure, Eric had outfished me all afternoon, catching one smallmouth after another.
So Mr. McGinnis, sir, you have point: If your name is Eric, fish with me. You’ll do well.
The Bechler River is a famous fishery among those who pursue trout with a fly rod. It also is famously difficult to succeed here. At the Park City Fly Shop in Gardiner, right outside the northern entrance to Yellowstone, proprietor Richard Park, whose father Merton, started this unpolished gem of a shop in 1953, told me that those who catch trout in the Bechler do so by combining stealth, long leaders and perfect presentation. None of us exactly accomplished those three facets and, hence, none of left the river with a trophy cutthroat.
But don’t think we left the river empty-handed. To stand in or by a beautiful river and cast to rising trout beneath a blue sky with lazy clouds is vastly superior to most pursuits in life, whether or not a fish takes the fly. To do this in Yellowstone, miles away from its tourist attractions, is an amplification of the experience. If you think that sounds like an excuse, then you have not done it.
CHAPTER FIVE: SEEING SITES, SEEING PEOPLE
Four million people visit the Yellowstone every year. Four F’ing million!
What they see is worth seeing. Old Faithful, though surrounded by so much park service infrastructure as to seem like a shopping mall fountain, is still a wonder of the world. Visiting a couple of years ago, Kate and I walked back on a moonless night to our cabin in the Old Faithful compound, a little lost in the darkness. We looked over toward the geyser and saw buffalo nestled around it and silhouetted by the horizon’s hint of light. For a moment, we were taken back to America’s aboriginal days before Europeans found this stunning place that native people already knew and preserved not by legislation but by stewardship.
Yellowstone’s attractions constitute a long list. The falls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The Grand Prismatic. The Norris Geyser Basin with its Porcelain Basin and the Steamboat Geyser – the park’s largest, spewing 300 feet or more on those rare occasions that it spews. The Obsidian Cliffs. The Lamar Valley. We stopped to see some the sites on Saturday, the day after our hike ended.
All are worth seeing.
So are the people who come to see them. It was no wonder that when both Johns, Bill and I decided to walk over and see Steamboat Geyser, Bob parked himself beside a gazebo and said, “I’m going to people watch. It’s what I like to do.” Oh the parade!
It being 2021, there is an inordinate number of people in their 20s with purple or lime hair and piercings in what look to me to be uncomfortable places. There also was on young man who had the belly of whale. He wore a particular t-shirt that I did not know could be purchased. It was black. Its top was solid, its bottom fishnet, which surely kept him cooler in the August heat but also put that whale belly on display for all passersby. Hmm. Not for me.
There is a perverse fun to seeing such an assembly of humanity. We are, as a population exposed while vacationing as too fat, too ready to wear our opinions on our t-shirt and tattoos (“God, Guns, Glory” – whose theology is that?), too fond of the headgear of professional cowpokes, too ready to overspend from the L.L. Bean catalogue. It is easy to laugh, just not out loud. Someone might be carrying concealed, though probably not the guy in the fishnet t-shirt.
If the people were interesting, so were Yellowstone’s thermal features. The park’s extraordinary geography looks like another planet. Heated below in inner Earth’s molten hell, water boils through the surface, filling steaming ponds of water that take on the color of the bacteria that have adapted to these odd conditions. Turquoise. Orange. Crusty white edges form on the ponds, as if a bakery chef had frosted them.
So yes. See all that. By all means.
But if you get a chance, do what we did, too. Get a backcountry permit and take off walking. It will, at times, take your breath away and at other times give you serenity. Our second day had some of both. The trail left the meadow and followed the river’s path through a forest. We were walking upstream, which also means uphill, as the Belcher quite well plunges, pooling in a few places but mostly moving over falls and rapids.
Some of the waterfalls could be their own state park. Iris, at 45 feet in height, looks like a miniature Niagara. Just below Iris, Colonnade Falls drops 35 feet. From the right vantage, you can see both at once. Together, they are stairsteps over which the Bechler’s water rush in curtains of white, cascading water. Other falls are slopping sleds, with the river dancing over slick, smooth rocks and then crashing into a pool below before swirling into a complex pattern of eddies that finally straighten themselves and proceed downstream to the next dramatic tumble.
I am a lover of rivers, and when I encounter water like this, I hear Roger McGuinn’s Ballad of Easy Rider, which plays at the end of the film:
The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes
That's where I want to be
Flow river flow
Let your waters wash down
Take me from this road
To some other town
All he wanted
Was to be free
And that's the way
It turned out to be...
CHAPTER SIX: YELLOWSTONE’S HOT TUB TIME MACHINE
We awoke on Day Three with one mission: Go to Mr. Bubbles.
There is no way that sentence makes sense to anyone who is unfamiliar with the benefits of the Bechler River Trail. Everyone else will wonder what hiking in Yellowstone has to do with “America’s favorite bath-time buddy!” which comes in pink plastic bottles with a ridiculously happy, google-eyed bubble staring at you: “He’s the perfect playtime pal for kids of all ages, making sure getting clean is even more fun than getting dirty.”
Ah! Not talking about that Mr. Bubble. And not talking singular but plural.
Mr. Bubbles is 15 miles from either end of the Belcher River Trail. On one end is the ranger station where we started. On the other end is the Old Faithful with its hotels, cabins and concessions. Most people never make it to here, where you can see pots and pools every bit as colorful and awesome as the ones tamed elsewhere in the park by boardwalks and interpretative signs. Seeing these out in the wild is as close as you can get to being a modern-day Lewis and Clark, though those two quintessential explorers never made it to Yellowstone.
A side trail takes you to Mr. Bubbles, which is what a hot tub looks like, and feels like, when nature makes it. The twelve us, fortunate to arrive at Mr. Bubbles when no one else was there (fortunate for them, at least) stripped to our hiking shorts or underwear and stepped in. One must be very careful when taking that first step, as some spots are too hot for human flesh. Others are 110 to 120 degrees, which is about the temperature of a very hot bath.
A heated stream intersects with an unheated one. The merging streams fill a pool about three to five feet deep and perhaps 20 or 30 yards across. Bubbles, emanating from a hole roughly centered on the pool’s floor, animate the water. As the hot and cold water blend, there are instances when you are sitting in chilled water, then hit with a swirl of hot water. It’s relaxing. It’s unique. It’s intoxicating. It also smells of sulfur.
We would learn later from rangers that a momma grizzly with two cubs was living near Mr. Bubbles and bluff charging the bathers. Imagine that if you can. You are nearly naked and a 700-pound, top-of-food-chain predator bluff charges you. Bluff charge? What’s that even mean in the few seconds you have to think about it? We carried bear spray into the woods but not into Mr. Bubbles. Had we known about this before we soaked ourselves, we probably would have kept a sentry on the shore. Or stayed away. Who knows?
It’s a scary thought, but so is the thought, and the reality, of 12 semi-naked men, ten of whom are well over 50 and most of whom are well over 60. The flab, the grayed and frayed chest hair, the wet and too-tight boxer shorts, and the pale white skin flecked with moles, age spots and pimples is not a pretty site. It was best just to lean back, close your eyes, soak, and forget about the other people and the bears.
Later, walking back, we would encounter a young and beautiful woman, walking alone to Mr. Bubbles. Fantasies were abundant though none was hers.
CHAPTER SEVEN: SAVORING THE FINALE
We left Mr. Bubbles, hiked back to our night two campsite, where we would happily have stayed another night. It was near the river and good fishing, had a gurgling brook on its backside, and was inordinately roomy for our 12 tents. Alas, our permit allotted us only one night on that site, so we had to move about a mile down the trail.
What would be our night three site was our lamest of the trip. The only water was a shallow stream you could step over. The tent sites were cramped, which meant we would be sleeping in a blizzard of snores. And it rained.
In a week of gorgeous weather, this Wednesday night thunderstorm was the only glitch and I hesitate to call it that because I like a good thunderstorm in the wild. I love the way the thunder resonates against the mountains. It’s like the mountains are a mouth tasting a newly opened bottle of red wine. They take the thunder and slosh it about to taste it. The sound lingers and is more pronounced. It softens with each ricochet off of a mountainside, and is tossed from one to the next until quieted.
Lovely though it was, it came with rain and so we hurried into our tents. It was 8:30 p.m. The storm was short and most everyone went back outside afterward. I read another chapter of The Sun Also Rises –Hemingway is always appropriate in the woods and this a trout fishing novel, at least for little while – and then drifted off to sleep.
It was here, too, that the Sasquatch, aka, Big Foot, the Yeti, Yeren, Yowie, slipped into camp and removed a carabineer belonging to McGinnis from a rope belonging to McGinnis, and attached it to another rope. McGinnis was not amused, and failed to realize the mischief of the Squatch. My theory: The big ape meant to steal Mark’s dinner while we were all sheltered from the storm. When the storm came and went so quickly, the poor Squatch, in his haste to put everything back in place, just got confused about which rope was which. We may never know. Kind of Squatchy.
Thursday morning, we moved on to the next campsite, not quite four miles away. We left early, giving us time to meander if we so desired. John Curtin and I walked slowly, stopping to fish a few times along the way. The forward crew hurried along. They would pass a bear grazing on berries above the trail. He seemed disinterested in the hikers and trotted off, leaving some Patio Boy nerves on edge but also with a story to tell. It was a black bear, not a grizzly, so less dangerous but still capable of damage.
Johnny C has a surefire way of keeping the bears at bay. He bayed. That is, he sung, usually Do Wah Diddy:
There she was just a walking
Down the street singin'
Do wah diddy diddy
Dum diddy do
Dum diddy do
She looked good
She looked fine
She looked good
She looked fine
And I nearly lost my mind...
This worked. No bears.
Our next, and final campsite, was on Belcher’s main branch, so we could fish again on Thursday evening. Once more, Eric did well, catching the week’s best fish, a 12-inch rainbow.
This also would be the evening of the glowing strawberry Nalgene bottle, accompanied by the stories of our fathers. I took out a small notebook and asked each person to reflect on his experience. Let me sample it for you:
“A great experience.”
“Relaxing in the warmth of Mr. Bubbles!”
“I had high expectations ... this has blown them all away.”
“Great weather, great trip, great trails, great campsites, great conversations, great music (we had Bob’s antique iPod and the Patio Boy Playlist), and best of all – great friends.”
“Best hike I have ever been on.”
EPILOGUE: WORDS OF WISDOM FROM TIN MAN
The trip was ending now, and you could feel a little sorrow among us at the recognition of a great adventure winding down and the eminent return to jobs and lawn mowers and email and pressed clothing and mask wars and poison politics and Afghanistan news (13 U.S. soldiers dead, a president under fire for doing what we all wanted done but not exactly doing it well).
We would be retracing our steps out of the woods along the river, then back across that beautiful meadow, and finally into the woods for a final few miles of a Yellowstone that few see.
In my pack was the notebook, and in the notebook were words from Paul Zembrodt, which I found the most eloquent of all the reflections recorded. Bob Pauly bestows trail names on each of us. Paul didn’t have one yet or, if he did, it was long forgotten. He has two artificial knees, an artificial hip, and a few screws and a metal rod in his lower back. Meet the Tin Man. Really, one of Bob’s best trail name selections, is it not?
Brandon’s trail name was “Tadpole” since he was a young fellow when he first hiked with us. Now all grown up, he has graduated to just “Pole.” Tin Man and Pole especially savored the grace of be being on this trip together, father and son.
Here is what Tin Main wrote:
“I came on this trip to see Yellowstone for the first time, and to spend some quality time with my son, Pole. It’s been a great week to see the park from the inside, where most people don’t travel. It has met all expectations, and I hope to be back again.
“I don’t know how many of these types of adventures are in the future. I relish the time here, and the time spent with Pole has been special.
“Thanks to everyone for the time together.”
ABOUT THIS HIKE
Hikers: Bill Ankenbauer (Billy Goat), Jim Ankenbauer (Guru), Eric Beck (Squatch), John Curtin (Silver Pops), Dave Heidrich (Scout), Mark Goetz (Buff), John Hennessey (Bull), Mark McGinnis (Tarp), Mark Neikirk Captain), Bob Pauly (Mooch), Brandon Zembrodt (Pole), and Paul Zembrodt (Tin Man)
Dates: August 23 to 27, 2021
Trail: Belcher River, Yellowstone National Park
More info: www.yellowstone.co/ranger/bechlerdayhikes.htm
Campsites: Bechler Ford (9B2); Upper Bechler Canyon Ford (9B8); Talus Spring (9B7); and Ouzel Falls (9B4)
Mileage: 6.2 on Day One; 5.8 on Day Two; 8.1 on Day Three; 7.4 on Day Four; 7.2 or 8.3*
Total Elevation Gain: 1,084
Weather: Perfect. Mostly in the 60s and 70s by day, chilling into the 40s at night. About 10 minutes of rain one evening.
*Note: Four of us took the longer route out, which followed the river rather than leaving the meadow and re-entering the forest, which was the way we came in. The alternate route was a little longer.