The black bear appeared to swim 300 yards across the mountain lake with little effort.
When we cheered it with hoots, hollers and clapping after it successfully reached the opposite shore, the startled bruin sprinted 100 yards up a 45-degree slope before slowing to catch its breath. What a display of athleticism.
The animal was a welcome sign, which may sound odd for people who like to avoid bruins, but my buddy and I had hiked long and hard over two days to get away from humans. The black bear was a sign we may have succeeded.
Beaten PathOn the first day of our journey I counted 60 people on the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness trail we were huffing up. This was on a weekday. That many hikers and trail crew workers seemed a bit excessive, even for a route known as the Beaten Path.
Often a three-day through-hike for visitors, the popular path runs roughly 25 miles from Cooke City over the top of the Beartooth Mountains down to East Rosebud Lake, or vice versa. Extreme flooding closed one end of the trail when about 3 miles of the East Rosebud Road washed out in June.
Maybe folks this summer were thinking, like me, that with one end of the trail effectively closed, visitation would be down. Or maybe the number of hikers really was lower, and 60 people isn’t extreme as more people have rediscovered the woods in the wake of the pandemic. One East Rosebud resident had, after all, referred to the route as the Beaten Highway.
There’s good reasons for this trail being so popular. It treks above the treeline providing vast views. The route accesses several lakes filled with fish. And the East Rosebud Canyon is as beautiful as Yosemite with its imposing gray cliffs and thundering waterfalls.
In the past, by the middle of August it’s not unusual to get frost in the mornings at an elevation of 9,600 feet, or even snow. However, we barely had to break out a jacket it was so warm. Despite looming black clouds and cracks of thunder, it never rained until a gusher hit right as we arrived back at our vehicle.
The mosquitoes took notice of the balmy weather, refusing to go to bed early and preferring to stay awake into the evening, harassing us with their buzzing and bites. It’s hard to believe, but they must have been even more maddeningly numerous a month earlier.
My buddy donned his mosquito head net when the bugs got really bad, looking like a wayward beekeeper. I slathered on chemicals, avoiding the blurred vision of a head net, but then had to contend with the distinct chemical taste of DEET in my mouth and sticky skin. Maybe that’s why the bear went swimming, to escape the bugs.
My friend started referring to the insects with variations like those used by William Clark when he journaled during his cross-country trip in the early 1800s. The “musqueters” were often so annoying during the expedition that Clark spelled the bug’s name 19 different ways. I bet the crew had a lot of other names for them, none of which I could print here.
On the first day out, it seemed the previous night’s dinner — heavy with garlic — provided some natural protection. I guess we should have packed some cloves. Do you think that’s where the superstition about garlic warding off vampires comes from?
Although the “mosquiters” were biting, the trout swimming in the lakes we visited were more hesitant. We reeled in a few fat Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but they seemed to be much more wary than necessary on such remote waters.
We did little to be coy, however, standing atop car-size boulders flinging flies instead of keeping a low profile. We tossed large caddis, grasshopper and mayfly patterns, some fitted with rubber legs to entice strikes. On calm days the water was so clear we could see the trout swimming up to check out our offerings.
“Anticipation … it’s keeping me waitin’,” to quote Carly Simon for a musical interlude. “And stay right here ‘cause these are the good old days. These are the good old days.”
Luckily, the trout bit when needed most…after my friend realized he had not packed a dinner for the last night.
Rather than go hungry or split a freeze dried chili-mac meal with me, he chose to piece together sad, old pieces of tin foil for a fire-top fish fry. I have to say, fish doesn’t get much fresher, and the leaky foil allowed the trout to retain a light smoky flavor that went well with the aged olive oil and salt he discovered in the bottom of his cook kit, spreading it liberally along the fishes’ cleaned pink ribcages.
The downside of campfire trout meals is all of the fragrant fish waste – uneaten skin and bones. I was hoping our athletic black bear was staying far away as we hoisted our food and garbage into a tree for the night, and again the next day when I loaded it into my backpack. A slinky tan weasel dashed out from its burrow at breakfast to bid us goodbye.
Shouldering our packs for the last day we set out somewhat reluctantly, hopping from rock-to-rock down the mountainside, pioneering our own trail. There was no one else in sight as we took deep breaths of the cool, clean air and scanned the vast wilderness spread before us, one final attempt to savor these mountain moments.