I’ve been to beaches where signs posted in the sand read, “WARNING: Sharks may be present.” And that was enough to keep me from even wading. Yet recently, I was tromping past sign after sign marked “CAUTION: Bear habitat.” And I wasn’t just hiking through bear country. I was eating and sleeping in it with six of my best (and undeniably meaty) friends.

teton crest

For months, we’d been planning to hike the Teton Crest Trail, the 32.5 mile backcountry trek that circles the Grand Tetons in the eponymous national park. Friends since middle school, we were all entering our 40s, and had decided a backpacking trip would be the best way to commemorate our lives of fatherhood and plantar fasciitis. In preparation, some of my friends had packed bear pepper spray, which I thought a novel precaution – more of a souvenir than a necessity. But reading the “Bear Safety Tips” brochure that came with the spray on the way up from Salt Lake City didn’t make for the most calming drive. According to the material, “When a bear is upset it may:

have it’s ears back

lower it’s head and swing it from side to side

paw at the ground

make huffing or woofing noises

snap it’s teeth

or not show any signs at all, and just drop and charge with no warning.”

In other words, if you see a bear, all bets are off.

There was also a section in the pamphlet titled “IF A BEAR COMES INTO YOUR TENT.” It was only four paragraphs long, but began with the sentence, “This is the worst possible situation,” and ended with “Fight back or die!” I wasn’t regretting our destination. But I was beginning to understand it a little better.

teton crest
Bear Habitat

Before strapping on our backpacks, we drove to the unincorporated community of Moose to check in with the park ranger at the visitor center and pick up our backcountry permits. Since there were seven of us, we’d be staying in group campsites which came equipped with bear boxes – large metal storage containers built for storing food, toiletries, and anything with a scent. Parties of six or less are assigned to regular campsites, and are issued bear canisters for food storage. These are small black kegs, which can be carried in a backpack once you fill them with your food and repack.

We asked the ranger if there had been any recent bear activity, and she pointed to two spots on the map where bears had been sited. One was nowhere near our trail, but the second was near Leigh Lake, exactly where we were scheduled to finish our hike three days later. We hoped that would be enough time for any bears to move on.

The 32.5 mile hike isn’t a full loop, so we dropped one car off at the String Lake parking lot and drove south to Teton Village, the resort town where we took the ski tram to the summit. Months earlier, we’d considered bypassing the tram and making the 7-mile uphill hike to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain on our own. But once we realized the 4,100-foot ascent would be a tough way to begin the hike (and wasn’t technically part of the trail anyway), $23 a lift ticket seemed a fair price.

teton crest

At 10,450 feet, we disembarked the tram, took a few photos of the peaks we would be circling over the next few days, and began our descent into the backcountry of the Grand Teton National Park. The bear bells some of us wore created low-grade tinnitus, but the din was slightly reassuring. At least until a fellow hiker passed us and volleyed the following joke:

“You know the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat? Grizzly bear scat has bells in it.”

Ha.

Wildflowers

We only hiked five miles the first day, mostly a descent through conifers, and then through fields carpeted with blues, reds and purples of lupine, indian paintbrush and larkspur. The only wildlife we encountered were marmots, which are either indifferent or immune to bear bells.  We reached the group camp site in the Middle Fork Granite Zone in about three and a half hours. We pitched tents, cooked dinner, and loaded up the bear box. Fires aren’t allowed inside national park boundaries so we talked until the sun went down, and began to retire just as a large buck emerged from a nearby copse about 100 meters away.

teton crest

We began the next day on a severe ascent to Marion Lake. We saw moose tracks along the way (not the ice cream), and the views of the distant mountains changed continually as we hiked around peaks to see new ones revealed.

teton crest

We hiked north about nine miles, along the cheerfully named Death Canyon Shelf until we came to the Alaska Basin where we made our camp. The trail had led us outside Grand Teton National Park, so there were no bear boxes. Since we’d declined the bear canisters the park ranger offered, we had to use rope to hang our food from the trees (recommended distance is 14’ high and 4’ out on the branches). The Alaska Basin falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service, so fires were still disallowed, which was fine because the stars were amazingly bright, with the only light pollution coming from Driggs, Idaho (a town a full valley away, and with only one stop-lit intersection).

teton crest

Day three began with another uphill trek which took us above the tree line to Hurricane Pass. This part of the trail is a barren moonscape, apparently inhabited only by the ubiquitous marmots.

The crest of Hurricane Pass gave us our best view yet of the Tetons. They’re not just a mountain range. They’re mountains the way a child would draw them, all pointy, and craggy, and deliberate. The five main are sometimes called the Cathedral Group, and they’re dominated by the Grand Teton, which stands 13,770 feet. From the pass, we could see Icefloe lake below – a glacial-fed lake that’s an electric indigo blue.

teton crest

We descended into the valley along the South Fork Cascade, which was a series of rocky switchbacks occasionally interrupted with snowpacks. (Snowball fights are rare in July, and among seven high school friends – some more pestiferous than others – it’s hard to bypass the opportunity.)

As we continued down the trail, a thunderhead, about as large and foreboding as the mothership for an invading alien race appeared above us. We threw garage bags and ponchos over our bags and hiked the next five hours in on-again-off-again showers. We’d descended into the valley and were back below the tree line, but the flashes of lighting from the peaks above encouraged us to keep hiking down the trail. Reaching the valley floor, we were enclosed by spruces and firs, with frequent river crossings and waterfall vistas.

By the time we reached Cascade Canyon, we were practically waterlogged. Our pant legs were wet from brushing against the grasses and ferns, patches of our backpacks that weren’t covered in Hefty bags were damp, and we’d built up a serious sweat under our ponchos and rain jackets.

teton crest

About an hour from our campsite, and just as we’d mentally resigned to the drudgery of setting up our tents in the rain, the clouds broke, and a small patch of blue sky grew larger until the sun was out and the valley began to heat up like a sauna.

We pitched our tents in the group campground of the North Fork Cascade. We’d hiked almost 9.5 miles in about eight hours going from 9,700 feet to 10,370 and back down to 9,000. (Trails always look flatter on the map.)

With the storm clouds dispersed, our camp provided the most majestic view of the Tetons we could have hoped for, and we all slept well that night – partly because we knew this was the last night we’d be sleeping on inflatable mats and camp pillows, but also because the nearby river created better white noise than any sleep machine from The Sharper Image.

teton crest

teton crest

Our most challenging ascent of the trail began the next morning as we climbed about 1700 feet in the first three hours. We hiked past Lake Solitude – another glacially-fed basin – and up a long incline toward the Paintbrush Divide, 10,720 feet above sea level. But once we’d reached the summit (where marmots were sunning themselves on the rocks), the next eight miles were all downhill.

What started as a scramble over lonely switchbacks covered by a recent landslide soon became a forested highway of day hikers. As Jackson Lake appeared in the distance, we began to encounter more and more hikers equipped only with fanny packs and water bottles, most of whom were headed to Holly Lake.

teton crest

teton crest

Then, only a few miles left before we’d reach our shuttle car at String Lake, we saw our first sign of a bear: a large pile of scat right in the middle of the trail. It was a sudden reminder that this was the area the park ranger said bears had been sited. We began to notice fallen trees along the trail that bore the destructive markings of bears foraging for grubs. We’d already passed at least 20 day hikers who didn’t appear to be packing bear spray, and hoped any bear smart enough to mark his territory right in the middle of the trail would also have the intelligence to choose to eat a couple of picnickers rather than a small platoon of pepper-wielding backpackers.

But after a couple of hours, we reached the shores of Jenny Lake without incident. No bears were out that weekend. Did I wish we’d seen one? Not really. We’d wanted to see the majesty of the Tetons in a way they can’t be viewed from Jackson’s highways and park roads. We saw cloud-crested spires, fields of wildflowers, unpolluted starlight, and the glaciers and lakes where rivers begin. Deer and marmots were enough wildlife for us. We didn’t need bears.

teton crest

And then, as we hobbled along the paved trails of the Leigh, String and Jenny Lakes toward the parking lot, we passed a father and mother with their two toddlers who had their binoculars out and were passing them back and forth, talking excitedly about something they’d spotted across the lake. Was it a bear? After four days with spray, bells, and low-grade anxiety, were we actually going to see one from the safety of the far shores of Jenny Lake? We asked what it was they were looking at. Turned out, it was just another marmot.

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