Almost every tourist you meet in Yellowstone is armed – either with a huge can of bear spray or a massive camera.
Why? Because of the wild animals in Yellowstone.
It’s essential kit, or so it seems, if you spot one of the hundreds of Grizzly and Black Bears that roam America’s original National Park.
The camera is a must, but bear spray? Really?
Bears at Yellowstone
There are signs everywhere advising people about what to do if they see a bear.
Many, many people have been killed or injured over the years by bears in Yellowstone.
The day before we arrived at Yellowstone, two people had been attacked by a bear but were lucky to escape with scratches thanks to their bear spray.
The number one bit of wisdom when dealing with bears and other wild animals in Yellowstone is to keep your distance and only take a photograph if it’s safe.
Then the warnings escalate.
If the bear charges you, stand your ground, it may be just a warning charge and if you make yourself look as big as possible the bear may back down.
If not, pull out your bear spray (essentially a huge can of pepper spray) and release a cloud of irritant between you and the charging beast. If that doesn’t work and the bear claws at you it is highly recommended that you play dead (unless you really are) and wait for the bear to leave you alone.
Bear spray is for sale throughout the park for around $60 (!) and many visitors purchase a can to keep handy, for close encounters.
Bear spray – is it necessary?
I asked a park ranger if such fire power was really necessary.
She said it was a wise thing to have with you just in case; though she added bears were rarely seen and if they were it was usually in the back country.
So I was in two minds.
Then I saw a man strutting around like a bad ass on the board walks at the Old Faithful Geyser; an enormous can of bear spray swung purposefully from a carabiner attached to a tight-fitting fanny pack that moulded his middle into a saggy hourglass.
‘Babe,’ I said to Carmen. ‘Are we going into the back country?’
‘Yeah. We’re doing some hikes,’ she replied. ‘Should we get some bear spray?’
Hmmm. I looked back at the spray toting fanny pack man and made up my mind.
‘It’s too expensive. We’ll just talk a lot so the brutes can hear us coming,’ I answered.
Being a married couple, our plan to talk lots during our hikes through Yellowstone didn’t really work that well.
Comfortable silence quickly descended, and I had to resort to whistling and clapping my hands every now and then to give fair warning to any beasties lurking around the next bend.
No bear sightings
Fortunately, or unfortunately, we didn’t see any bears . We agreed it would have been cool to see a bear in the distance and take a few pictures through a long, long zoom lens but it was probably for the best we missed out.
Most of the animals we saw in Yellowstone were close to the roads.
Several times I had to slow the car to a crawl and steer around a big bison clopping along the bitumen like he owned the place.
We watched elk bash down a tree and eat the branches and deer sip water from a stream close to where we ate our lunch.
Hawks and owls wheeled overhead and herds of bison tumbled across the plains.
It was almost too easy to spot the wildlife.
Close encounters with wild animals in Yellowstone
On our last full day in Yellowstone we decided to go on a hike that would take us above a valley full of bubbling geysers.
The path was stunningly beautiful and wound merrily up and down a tree lined valley with a bubbling stream.
On the way back I heard something rustling in the grass ahead and stopped dead in my tracks.
‘Carmen! Back up!’
Something was coming, and it sounded big.
A mule deer popped its head out of the undergrowth and stared at me with big bambi eyes. Then another appeared, and another, and another.
Then two calves stumbled out from the ranks and began foraging leaves and grass just metres away from where we stood. The rest of the herd followed and settled down in a small field right next to the path, locking their eyes on us as their babies played and ate.
We couldn’t get past them so we decided to just sit down and watch the show.
It was our first truly close encounter with any wildlife in America with no other tourists about and it was very special.
We snapped away with our cameras and marvelled at how beautiful they were.
How can people hunt and shoot them?
When it was time to leave we bushwhacked a new trail around the Mule Deer herd and walked back to the car.
As we drove back to our camp site we chatted endlessly about how cool it was to see wild animals of any species up close and in an environment where they were truly free.
History of bears at Yellowstone
For many years people fed Yellowstone’s bears from their cars and they became so used to humans many of them lost their wildness.
The practice was outlawed after a few too many maulings and a ranger told us seeing a bear these days is a very special thing because the animal is wild rather than tame.
So even though we didn’t see a bear we watched many other species living as they would have done before man came along. That is why Yellowstone is so special.
Perhaps we should arm the animals with people spray to keep it that way.