Bigger than a saucier pan, the paw print held in the wet sand of a beach deep in the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake was unmistakable: Here was the home of Ursus arctos horribilis, aka grizzly bear.
Practically overrunning the bear's imprint was a series of wolf tracks, Canis lupus in lope. And then there were dainty tracks possibly left by sandhill cranes.
For five days in early-September, me and two friends chased summer's waning warmth by canoe and kayak deep into Yellowstone National Park's backcountry, reaching a wild spot that put on a show that surely has been on display for hundreds of years.
If anyone doubts the role and purpose of national parks, I would encourage them to retrace our watery passage. Some might question the "crown jewel" stature of Yellowstone based on its front country -- threaded by the figure 8 known as the Grand Loop Road, jammed on occasion by RVs and other traffic, and dotted with hotels and gift shops. But to see beyond that and truly savor the success of the National Park Service Organic Act's mandate (prime directive?) that the National Park Service "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein," you must leave the front country far behind.
It's only deep in the backcountry of a park, whether it's Yellowstone or Yosemite or Glacier or Great Smoky Mountains or Everglades, that you gain a good and sound appreciation of "the scenery and the natural ... objects and the wild life therein...." These backcountry locales have been preserved by the National Park System, and for that we're all fortunate.
Yellowstone Lake, covering 136 square miles and with 110 miles of shoreline, is a tempting backdrop for exploring a landscape unchanged by humans. The largest body of water above 7,000 feet in North America, on calm days Yellowstone Lake is inviting and picturesque. High-elevation weather patterns can quickly transform the lake, though, into a killer, with 6-foot waves and numbing waters that can leave one incapable of surviving within 20 minutes.
As each paddle stroke pushed us farther and farther south from Grant Village on the big lake, it didn't take us long to encounter Yellowstone's wild side, the rich kingdom that the park's boundaries most assuredly enable to survive in this ever-shrinking world.
Bald eagles thrive along Yellowstone Lake, and many observed us from their roosts in lodgepole snags. We saw at least a dozen, both adults and juveniles. One had a wingspan that reached 6 feet if not more, a reach we marveled at as the eagle lifted off its perch in a lodgepole and soared over our heads just inside the lake's Flat Mountain Arm.
While we never did learn what was woofing and huffing in the woods not far from our campsite that evening, the grunts and bugling of bull elk that night, as well as the honking of Canada geese and the yips of coyotes signaling dawn the next day, were unmistakable.
But those were just the opening acts for the next two days.
Coming ashore near Chipmunk Creek near the bottom of the South Arm, the smattering of paw prints on the beach were eye-catching, and the mule deer doe with her twin fawns were entertaining that evening. As night fell, passed, and gave way to dawn, the bulk elk revved up, with a collection of bulls trying to out-do each other in their bids to build harems. Against their squeals, coughs and grunts the cacophonous rattling and trumpeting of the cranes was surreal.
The rising and falling pitter-patter of rain kept us largely tent-bound the next day. But when the drizzle finally ebbed late in the afternoon we exited our tents ... only to find a grizzly working over the meadow adjoining ours. In mid-summer the meadow would be a rich source of food, as evidenced by the countless strawberry plants woven into the meadow's surface. Estimated to be a young adult in the 400-pound range, the bear, evidently unaware of its Latin name, paid us no attention, instead focusing his efforts on whatever morsels he could find in the meadow.
Following an evening cracked open at times by lightning bolts from thunderstorms passing to the north, the audio show resumed the next morning, as in the pre-dawn murkiness a rich, melodious howl first broke the silence and then hung in the air. Perhaps it was the wolf's presence -- a presence we owe a debt to the federal government for restoring to Yellowstone -- that silenced the elk and the cranes that had been so vocal the day before.
To venture into Yellowstone, even with its steaming vents and whistling geysers, would be a lesser experience without such a wild kingdom.