7. A Day of Surprises

As we all stumbled out of the tent early the next morning, we were shocked to find that a fresh powdery layer of snow had fallen overnight. It quickly melted, but it was a surprise considering we left Ohio wearing shorts and sandals.

We bundled up as best as we could and decided we would go find some trails to explore. We were all thrilled to be deep in the forest and among mountains. We piled into Big Blue but she didn’t start at first… after some hesitation she finally roared to life—bringing instant relief to everyone.

Eager to explore, we all loaded into Big Blue and started to pull out of our campsite which was at the bottom of a hill. Big Blue struggled and groaned but it couldn’t even make it half way up the hill.

This wasn’t good…

“It’s probably just cold,” we concluded.

Seven of us piled out, with Nathan at the wheel, and pushed Big Blue up the hill. We ran after it a bit just to make sure all was well before we piled back in one by one with the van still rolling. (We didn’t want it to stall out).  We drove to the ranger station to find some maps and to inquire about the condition of the trails.

“Currently most of the trails will require snowshoes, picks and spikes, so you should probably stick to the valley trails,” the rangers told us.

Yikes, picks and spikes! Despite all of our planning, we failed to recognize that winter would linger a month or so longer here in the mountains than it did back in Ohio. In fact, some parts of Grand Teton National Park had only been open for a week or so at this point.

We began with the Lupine Meadow trail.

The trail was occasionally covered in deep snow—no other footprints in sight. Being some of the first people of the year on the trail, it was sometimes hard to follow. We kept pressing forward hoping that we were still following the actual path. The trail quickly climbed up the mountainside, crossing over wooden bridges with full-capacity rivers and streams flowing beneath them.

It felt like we were the only people at the park—the only people in the world. We didn’t have any destination in mind, it just felt great to look back every few minutes to see how much higher we had climbed. It was overcast, but the clarity was still decent. The fact that we couldn’t see infinitely into the horizon sort of concentrated the present into digestible pieces. Each moment on the trail felt like a vignette of the immense landscape that engulfed us.

After 1.7 miles we reached an intersection. I looked at the thermometer hanging from the zipper of my hoodie. It was a solid 37 degrees. A small wooden sign showed us that one of the two trails ahead would lead to Surprise Lake—just another couple more miles. Surprise Lake seemed like a good destination to press on toward.

I felt great. We had covered a lot of ground, we were steadily climbing higher into the mountain and I was excited to see this lake. Would it be frozen? How big was it? As I was entertaining these thoughts I nearly ran into the back of the person in front of me who had stopped suddenly. Everyone was oddly hushed—oddly frozen.

“Bear!” exclaimed Luke.

Luke had rounded the bend before the rest of us so he was the first to spot it. Word quickly passed backward to the others in our single file line—I was third or so back. At first I was slightly relieved to realize that it was just two bear cubs up in a tree and not some immediate and oppressive threat. But then I immediately thought of momma bear—and my adrenaline spiked.

My mind jumped to those “Caught on Tape” TV specials and campfire stories where some careless hiker gets viciously mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs. My thoughts swung like a pendulum between “This is amazing!” and “One of us is going to die!”

Had I been alone, I would probably have booked it back down the trail, but the longer everyone stood there trying to get a good look at the cubs… the safer it seemed. After all… there were two guys between me and the bears so that worked in my favor? Right? There was a nervous tension rippling throughout the group.

Where was momma?

We  backed off a bit and huddled together to figure out our next move. We really wanted to press on to Surprise Lake. We had come all this way and wanted to “arrive” somewhere interesting. We saw from our map that the trail we were on did a big U. So we thought we could trail-blaze through the woods (arching way around the bear cubs) and then pick up the trail again—basically cutting through the middle of the U. We couldn’t have been more than 30 feet into our new path when we saw another bear.

That was it. We were going back.

Our persistence was only going to get us into trouble at this point. We had to call the hike and head back down.

The nervous tension wained as we got further away from the bears. We started retelling to one another what we had just experienced only minutes before.

“I came around the corner and saw something moving up in the tree!”

“Can you believe we saw three bears?”

“I was so scared I almost ran down the mountain but then I saw everyone just standing there so I figured everything was okay—for the moment anyway.”

“My imagination ran away and I imagined someone getting mauled by a bear and having to carry them back down the mountain.”

“We’ll I figured if I could run faster than one other person I would be safe!”

Lots of laughter and excitement—you get the idea.

As we came down to the beginning of the trail, we saw an older man heading back up the way we came. We were proud to share that we had encountered bears up this trail a couple hours ago. Without changing his gait or expression he simply said, “Oh they were probably friendly bears.” And continued on his way.

We headed back down to Big Blue to eat a snack and regroup. We figured we had plenty of time to find another trail to explore after a brief rest. Our first hike, while exciting, did little to satiate our thirst for more untamed nature.

We wanted more.

There was a tangible sense of adventure in the air. We already had an excellent hike, seen bears, trudged through snow, saw some great vistas, crossed old log wooden bridges and raging rivers—and it was barely lunchtime!

The next hike would be even better!

Next – Inspiration: This Way

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