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Guest columnist: Grand Teton adventures | Adventures

9 min read
Guest columnist: Grand Teton adventures | Adventures

I had a three-week vacation starting in July. As usual, I hadn’t planned a thing — and I didn’t intend to. I like to let the breeze guide my path and my heart lead me where it may.

I went to Crater Lake for a swim and to California to see the giant redwoods. And if by chance we cross paths on the trail, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from; if you love the great outdoors, then we’re already friends.

I drove over 3,000 miles in two weeks and visited four national parks, and it felt like it was a poem.

Grand Teton Adventure

The mountains greeted me with their splendor as I drove along Highway 287 toward Grand Teton.

The silhouettes of mountain ranges were Mother Nature’s sketches. The ranches were like 19th-century European oil paintings; cattle were having breakfast, enjoying their meals.

The sunshine sparkled on everything, and it seemed all the trees, meadows and forests had new clothes. In the east, the deep blue river floated by. All the doors in my heart were open to embrace this beauty.

Driving over 800 miles from Washington, I finally arrived at Grand Teton National Park.

The wildlife, the majestic mountains and the crystal lakes were calling me. I went to the Colter Bay Visitor Center and asked for a backpacking permit.

Shawn, the young man who talked to me, showed me a couple of options and I decided to camp at Phelps Lake and Death Canyon. Shawn was polite, patient and very professional. He left a great impression not only of himself but also of Grand Teton National Park.

I was on the trail and started my journey. It was a popular trail, and also a horse trail. Hikers with different abilities showed different expressions. As I greeted them, I was happy and excited.

From the trailhead to campsite, it was less than two miles with 1,270 feet in elevation gains. It was not very hard, but with an extra two pounds from the bear canister and heat, it was not easy, either.

There was a lot of wildlife there: deer, moose and bears. Earlier, I did some research on how to deal with black bears and grizzly bears in case of an encounter. I also learned how to use bear spray.

Backpacking can be enjoyable but also dangerous. It’s important to exercise caution and intelligence in areas where bears thrive. This was my first time backpacking in such an area.

I arrived at the Phelps Overlook, stood and looked around. Phelps Lake was like a long, blue jade, decorating the high mountains. Jackson Hole stretched into the dense forest. The sky appeared nearby, yet it soared high above.

Walking down to the lake, I picked a few huckleberries to taste. I knew bears would be there.

About an hour later, I arrived at the lake and took a left turn toward the campsite. It was a three-tent site but I was the only one there that night. I set up, securely put the food in the canister and walked to the lake.

I heard youngsters jumping from the 30-foot-high Phelps Lake jumping rock. With each jump, the laughter fell into the clear lake and became circles of ripples that disappeared into the water.

The glacier water was cold, but I felt refreshed. Swimming was a bonus after the long drive and hot hiking.

I swam with the gentle waves, my feelings and emotions floating on the lake. The clear water cleansed my body and soul. The white clouds and green mountains were loyal companions.

I went to my campsite to make beef egg noodles. The day was getting darker, and birds were still chirping.

Knowing that bears were around, I couldn’t sleep as deeply as before; I had to be alert.

Mother Nature woke me and birds were holding a lovely concert with baritones, tenors and sopranos. Two squirrels were fighting for territory. They used different tones and pitches. It sounded funny.

As I walked to retrieve my canister from the bear box, a fawn was having her breakfast. She was adorable. She knew I was nice and she came closer to me. Watching her made my day.

She was strolling as she ate but suddenly stopped, turned her head, her ears moving forward, turned half flat.

I thought something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what.

I heard the loud noise of breaking branches from the bear box, less than 30 feet from my tent. It broke the tranquil environment and was very scary. It felt like earthquakes.

A lady on the trail yelled, “A bear! A black bear!”

I immediately pulled out the bear spray and backed down slowly to the trail from my campsite. My heart was beating fast and I was breathing quickly. I heard the noise, but I couldn’t see the bear. That made me even more nervous. It seemed the bear was by my side.

“The bear was just on the trail,” she said, shaking.

“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you if the bear attacks us,” I said, trying to see where the bear was.

My words gave her encouragement.

“Let’s go up to check out the bear,” she said. She wanted to catch a special moment with her camera.

“No, we can’t approach it, that’s very dangerous,” I said, quietly but firmly.

We walked slowly to my campsite. I was holding my bear spray. The bear was gone.

“My name is Christine Walsh Sanders. I’m from Chatham, Massachusetts,” she said.

Sanders is an avid hiker, international traveler and brilliant photographer, specializing in landscapes and wildlife. After our bear adventure, we became friends.

“The bear showed up way too soon. I was only wearing my hiking shorts, and my underwear was still in my tent,” I said.

“Good thing you managed to slip into your hiking shorts in time,” she said with a chuckle.

I decided not to go to Death Canyon that night. I packed up and planned to walk back to the trailhead.

I was standing at the trail fork for over a minute, deciding to keep on backpacking or walking back to the trailhead. It was not easy for me to choose.

If I kept going, I didn’t know how dangerous it would be. If I went back to my car, it meant I failed. That wasn’t a good feeling. I can accept failures, but I must try my best first.

I decided to walk toward the Death Canyon backcountry campsite instead of the trailhead.

What motivated me to keep moving forward? I honestly didn’t know. Life isn’t always straightforward, and it’s not easy to understand the reasons behind everything. Life can be complex, but I choose to listen to my heart.

Camp at Death Canyon Trail

As I walked among the dense bushes that towered over me, I hummed “Vincent” by Don McLean. I had been quiet for most of my backpacking trip. Because of the bears in this area, I was vigilant.

The ascent of the Death Canyon Trail was difficult, but I tried to enjoy every section.

The red Indian paintbrushes and purple lupines greeted me and birds sang melodious songs to my soul. The hanging falls were like white silk, floating gently with my feelings. The breeze and the deep canyons echoed the same tunes.

I didn’t need to check the clock. Life became natural. I didn’t feel alone as I followed the trail’s switchbacks along boulders.

I’m not a fan of the trail name “Death Canyon.” It sounds scary and intimidating. Even though I’m not superstitious, I would prefer to call it “Safety Canyon.” That would make me feel more comfortable, I suppose.

After several hours of torturous hiking, I arrived at my campsite. It looked a bit rough with a lot of fallen trees around, but I liked it. If a bear was coming, it would break the branches and I would hear it.

Less than a hundred feet from my campsite, I saw fresh bear scat. I could tell the bear had a lot of huckleberries. It was a bit worrying because it indicated this was bear territory. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy night and prepared for the possibility of a bear encounter.

After dinner, I put all the food into the bear canister and put it away from my tent. I put a few rocks in front of my tent and tried to get some sleep. I don’t want to harm any animals, but I need to protect myself in case they attacked me. I would try to scare them away by throwing rocks at them first. If that didn’t work, I would use bear spray. As a last resort, I would use my dagger and fight for my life

After encountering a bear that morning, I wore my hiking shorts to sleep. Soon after lying down for the night, it started raining with thunder and lightning.

The storm’s strong winds made me nervous. The trees might fall and crush my tent. I thought there wouldn’t be any wildlife around my campsite in this bad weather. But in an instant, I heard an animal coming.

I yelled and prepared to fight. I was scared, nervous and angry. “What the hell?! Is this real or just a movie?” I asked myself.

The animal was still around my tent. I turned on my headlight, pulled off the security bolt of the bear spray, holding it in my hand, a dagger hanging on my belt, and zipped my tent open gently.

A pair of shining, ghostlike eyes glared at me from under the tent rain fly. “Get out of here!” I yelled angrily.

It didn’t retreat. If something happened, no one could help me. I had to deal with it by myself.

I saw a goose-sized animal with long needles on its body; a porcupine. My nerves settled immediately. I threw a rock to scare it away. It walked away like Donald Duck in the rain and lightning.

I had put all my food, propane jar and stove into the bear canister. I hadn’t used lotion or sunscreen since I started on the trail. How could I still lure the porcupine here? I tried to figure out the reason.

Animals are adapted to their environments and have unbelievable abilities. The porcupine knew I was there; it smelled me.

As I fell asleep again and started to snore, the porcupine came back. It did this a couple of times. I was worried that it would lure other wildlife to my tent.

I slept deeply until the birds woke me up. In the beginning, it was a solo, but then became a chorus. It was like a concert. The sun warmed my tent.

I started to read John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.” I love his style. He was a language master, philosopher and great writer.

As I was immersed in the book, I heard breaking branches and knew a bear was coming. I immediately pulled out my bear spray. Then  I saw a bear run out, close to my campsite. It ran away. I was alert but did not panic this time.

Later, park employees told me that the campsites I used were the huckleberry sites. That was the reason why I saw the bears.

“The black bears are timid. They will run away from people. Once they want to approach people, they will be put down,” a park employee said, with a sad expression.

Walking back toward the trailhead, I felt at ease. I sat on a round boulder in a glade. A lovely yellow bird flitted about in the tiny pine branches. The creek was rattling and the breeze was gentle.

Granite mountains were like the Chinese traditional shan shui (mountains and water) water-ink paintings. It was solitude and evergreen. I strolled through the woods, and the words of Tang Dynasty renowned poet Du fu resonated within me:

I sing exuberantly in the daylight

and drink without measure.

The verdant spring shall accompany me

on this joyful journey homeward. …

• Gensheng Tian contributes occasionally to Explore. He’s an avid writer and English is his second language. He is a card dealer at Legends Casino in Toppenish but says his real business is hiking and backpacking.

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