You know what is underrated? Bad traffic.
Being in a car and watching the highway you want to drive on turn into a parking lot is awful, no doubt. Even in Yellowstone, visitors get uppity about traffic, whether the byproduct of construction or a snap mini-bison migration. They honk horns. They swear. They get all road rage-ish.
But on a few occasions, those park-side traffic jams have turned into a blessing in disguise. Twice while waiting in hour-long construction delays, a grizzly bear has walked into the meadow next to our car. Given that location in both cases would have prevented us from safely stopping, we normally would have been forced to pass-up the bear sightings. However, when you’re legally mandated not to move? It’s like a photo shoot sent from the heavens.
Despite our good construction luck, bison jams can get annoying. Many people don’t know how to drive through one (it’s understandably intimidating and too little education is done on the subject) and far too many people think there is no harm in taking one quick photo while holding up cars – often allowing the bison to, once more, block the entire road in the meantime.
So when Jill and I were driving south along Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road from Canyon towards Fishing Bridge and were met with the mother of all traffic jams, I immediately thought bison and began to curse the animals (both four legged and two legged) for causing it.
But as time went by, I started to think less like an urbanite fed up with road delays and more like a rational animal watcher in Yellowstone. Yes, bison are known to walk the road leading into the north end of Hayden Valley, but this line of cars appeared to end abruptly – not with a bison backside, but with, well, nothing.
Someone was seeing something and they were hogging the viewing. Time to investigate.
Armed with my bear spray, I grabbed my camera and tripod and began walking up the road, leaving Jill to man the vehicle.
The Yellowstone River hugs the east side of the road along this stretch and an embankment runs up the west side. I elected to walk along the river side to ensure I could see any obvious signs of danger and give myself the best view of what in the world was holding up traffic.
After about five minutes, I got close enough to the head of the line to see one car blocking each lane of traffic, along with about a half dozen people standing on the river side of the road pointing up to the treed embankment.
About 100 yards off of the road was a young grizzly bear, bedded down amongst the dead fall of burned trees, eating what looked like a freshly killed elk calf.
From inside a vehicle car, unless the bear stood up, you couldn’t see what all of the fuss was about – and as each person asked what was being seen, they’d block traffic and crane their necks trying to catch a glimpse of the impossible.
Yet for those who parked properly in a pullout and had the patience to get out to look properly, they were rewarded with an exceptional sight from a safe distance.
No, this wasn’t the closest grizzly you could find in Yellowstone and, yes, the light was fading. But the young sub-adult bear, who I knew to have been recently run off by its mother, was grubbing along the forest line when he stumbled upon an elk calf.
Tragic for the calf (never has there been a bigger understatement given that it, well, died), but for a young bear just out on its own for the first time, it was like manna from heaven.
By late June, normally, the calves would be too big and too fast for a grizzly to easily catch. But elk were giving birth a little later than usual in 2014 due to the larger than normal snow pack – and it’s also possible the calf could also have been injured or sick. Either way, when the elk cow gives birth, she will often bed them down in a good hiding place while they graze to re-build their strength. This elk may have been seemingly well hidden in an area not particularly well suited for a grizzly, but this young bear didn’t get that memo.
And can you imagine the bear? Desperate for food, it stumbles onto not only a free meal, but also a meal that will give it the kind of fat the animal so urgently needs to prosper in this wilderness.
I missed the kill, but arrived shortly after to find the grizzly all kinds of happy.
At first he spent considerable time looking around, wondering if there was a catch. Like a bigger bear. Or a wolf pack. But as it slowly started to sink in that this elk was for him, joy overtook paranoia.
The grizzly stretched out on his back and placed the dead calf in its paws. It took a bite. I swear it smiled. Then the bear got a little cocky.
So overjoyed by the free meal, the grizzly started tossing the carcass in the air. He was making the dead elk jump for joy on his behalf.
He’d stop, eat and stand up to double check he was indeed alone with this kill, before resuming his act of somewhat inappropriate play with the dead calf.
Just when the bear started to become totally settled, an unfortunate event occurred. A couple of ravens, smelling death, flew over to check what was going on. And as the bear was in mid-calf throw, one raven swooped in for a bite.
Well, the bear lost it. He went berserk. He couldn’t believe a raven – a lowly bird! – would dare interrupt this rare moment of independent success.
This bear, being of somewhat little brain, began the futile chase of the thief. Meanwhile, two other ravens moved in and started to go to work on a leg.
The bear caught wind of this and went back to defend the carcass, chasing off the latest free meal opportunists.
Of course, this meant another bite for the initial gutsy raven and now the bear began running wind sprints between the various ravens, chasing one off just in time to watch the next fly in for a bite of his carcass.
The ravens, clearly enjoying tormenting the young bear, were doing such an efficient job with the kill, in the fifteen minutes that the bear spent playing raven whack-a-mole, much of the best meat had been stolen.
Upon this discovery, the bear sat down and starred at the heavens. Why do thou giveth and then taketh away? Well, Mr. Bear, you probably shouldn’t have played with your food. I’m sure your mom must have taught you that.
It was like a first year college student suddenly realizing that you can’t eat pizza everyday – or that they should have paid attention when their parents told them how to do the laundry.
The bear, admitting defeat, decided he wasn’t going to walk away from revenge. He would strike fear into the heart of the tormenting ravens and teach them a lesson in the process.
Standing on two paws, the grizzly ran on his hind legs like a drunk human, stumbling around the deadwood, swatting at each bird. His chase led him up and over the hill – and out of sight, at least until darkness rendered waiting pointless.
During the jam, as each car passed, exasperated tourists would inquire as to what the hold up was and while some caught a glimpse of the bear, many more elected to believe that seeing nothing meant there was nothing and continued to honk their horn and swear loudly at the car in front.
If only people, most on vacation, would just slow down and realize that a park traffic jam is very different from rush hour at home and, though at times it can be just as annoying, for the most part it’s a diamond in the rough, just begging to be explored. After all, if cars weren’t backed up, I never would have been able to stop and appreciate this truly humorous encounter for nearly an hour. That being said, Jill found very little humor in missing it all while she was stuck with the car in said traffic.
Maybe the true take home message is that it pays to be the designated navigator. And don’t play with your food.
Founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson is a storyteller, connector and movement builder committed to improving our pubic discourse and shaping a better balance between the needs of people and nature. His GhostBearPhotography.com column appears on the first Saturday of every month.