The Yellowstone Faithful
by Kyle Hannon
"Please, God, don't let that be a bear."
Jennifer Patrick trembled, alone, inside her tent. Outside she could hear snorting, grunting and tearing. The thin nylon walls of her only shelter did nothing to keep every detail of sound away from her. She was awakened when the whatever-it-was ripped her properly hung backpack from its hiding place 50 yards away. Now she listened, horrified, as her pack was being destroyed so the offending animal could get tomorrow's breakfast and lunch.
Moose don't do that. Elk don't do that. Even pesky marmots don't do that.
Trying not to do anything to draw attention to herself, Jennifer surveyed her belongings. With quivering hands she carefully and quietly felt around her sleeping bag, inside and out. No food in her tent. That's good. What else might attract a bear? She had changed from the clothes she cooked in before she came to bed. She wasn't menstruating.
There can be no reason that bear will come over here. He'll eat his fill from my pack and go on his way, she told herself, not convincingly.
She focused every sense in the direction of the noise, trying to see what could not be seen through the flimsy tent wall. Inside her small dome-shaped shelter, she certainly felt her rapidly pounding heart. Could she hear it? No matter. The thumping in her chest couldn't drown out the sounds of tearing, eating, digging and snorting outside.
After minutes that seemed like days, the heavy sounds of the creature moved toward the tent. Not fast. Not slow. But steady. And direct.
Jennifer looked around for a fast escape but the dull walls of the tent provided no insight. If she could unzip the door flap quickly, which was unlikely, where would she go? She whimpered and tried to remember the campsite. Her tent was between three or four lodgepole pines, the tall, straight trees used to make utility poles. Could she climb any of them? Should she stay put and see if the bear would leave her alone?
Now the heavy footsteps were right next to her. She could hear the bear, smell the bear and -- following a quick tearing of the flimsy tent fabric -- see the bear.
"Now's your chance, Eva," said park ranger Dusty Steward into his phone.
"Already?" responded the groggy, just-went-to-bed voice of Eva Lacy, a ranger from another part of the park.
Earlier that evening, Steward and Lacy had been talking over drinks at Lake Lodge. The two knew of each other before then but had never worked together. Steward, a District Ranger, lived near Yellowstone Lake. Lacy, a geyser expert, was based across the park at Old Faithful. She had been complaining to him that ever since she switched from being a Visitor Protection Ranger to a Ranger Naturalist, she never got to go on any ranger adventures. Steward had promised to oblige her.
"Sorry," he sighed into the phone. "Adventure never sleeps. But you get this night at least. Meet me at the Turbid Lake trail head at sunup, if you still want to do this."
"Oh, I'll be there," she said with agitation at the challenge. "What's going on?"
"A young lady was camping by herself and didn't show up when she was supposed to. I've gotta go check it out, but we don't go before morning."
"Are you getting a search team ready?" she asked.
"It's in the works, but I'm supposed to do it quietly, almost secretly."
"Huh?" her voice was much more alert now.
"I guess Marks doesn't want to draw any attention to this. He wants me to go in first, in case she's just loafing or something." He frowned. Lacy sounded puzzled by the clandestine technique, and it didn't seem quite right to him either. But Bobby Marks was the park's Chief Ranger, Steward's boss. If Marks said to go quietly, he'd go quietly.
"Anyway," he continued, "I'm supposed to pick someone to go with me. Marks approved you. A few hours ago you said you wanted to go on a back-country adventure with me some time. This may not be anything, but are you still interested?"
"It sounds kind of weird. All the secrecy, I mean. But I'll be there," she said. "Thanks for thinking of me."
After they hung up, Steward stared at the phone.
"After a couple beers you said my job sounded exciting," he said to the phone. "Let me know what you think tomorrow."
And after a couple beers I thought she looked pretty good, he thought. I hope I didn't just drag her into something awful. Not a very good first date.
With a humph, he flopped into bed and waited for a fitful sleep to take over.
As morning sunlight leaked over the Absaroka Mountains, the two rangers met at the trail head. They checked their packs for their short hike to Turbid Lake. The sky was the kind of clear blue that one can only see in the Rocky Mountains. And the air was incredibly fresh, except for the faint hint of sulfur from an unseen hot spring. This promised to be a beautiful July morning, and Steward cursed to himself that he had to spend it looking for a girl who had probably made a stupid mistake. He hated this part of his job.
"So what's the deal? You didn't tell me much on the phone last night." Lacy was looking around, taking in the scenery, but evidently trying to look focused.
Steward sized her up in the light of a new day, trying to decide if she was ready to tromp around in this part of his world. Fairly tall for a woman, with a strong build and shoulder-length brown hair pulled into a pony tail that hung below the back of her ranger hat. Her blue eyes were serious and intent. Among the rangers she had a reputation as a hard worker, though not many slackers worked in Yellowstone. He knew he cut a pretty imposing figure himself. Over six feet tall, unusually broad, strong shoulders, able to out-hike and out-climb most of the other rangers. But she looked like she would keep up okay. Besides, she bragged last night that she put in the time and training to keep her law enforcement commission active.
"A group of park employees called the ranger station in a panic last night because one of their friends didn't return from a camping trip," he started. "Now we get to go in to try and bring the camper back to safety. It's not so unusual. A lot of hikers underestimate the length of hikes or they don't count on the fatigue factor. You and me and every other ranger is prepared to handle missing hiker situations."
"Dusty, you don't have to shield me from the details. This isn't the usual case, is it? That's why you were called in." Her eyes were probing. "The missing girl and her friends were camping at Turbid Lake which has been closed to hikers and campers for the last three seasons because it's a notorious bear area."
"Right. Of course, some of the college kids who work here think we close areas to give them a challenge," he said with a sour tone.
Hoisting their packs, the rangers started the trail, boots crunching on small rocks and dry dirt. The activity of hiking, with its surrounding sights and sounds of nature, lifted his spirits. It always did.
"You know, this really is a beautiful place," he offered. The cool air. The blue sky. The mountains and scented pine trees. Every step was a step into a postcard.
"Never get used to it, do you?" she responded cheerily, obviously feeling the same natural lift he was experiencing. "I don't know how many times I've seen Old Faithful erupt, but it is still great every time. We're lucky to work here."
He nodded. The millions of tourists who came and went each summer only got a taste of what he and Lacy lived. For most visitors, the typical visit to Yellowstone followed relatively safe boardwalks and roads. A visit along these thoroughfares rewarded the traveler with beautiful and fantastic scenery. But such a visit covered less than 1 percent of the park. Park employees, who spent the entire summer in Yellowstone, had more time, opportunity and temptation to venture into the back country. Early on, this was not a problem as employees were somewhat cautious. But continued hikes bred imprudent confidence. Steward's thoughts darkened.
"A couple weeks in the wild and they think they're damned Jim Bridger," he added, referring to a famous fur trapper from before the park was a park. Bridger was the kind of early adventurer that now had things named after him.
"Dusty, people around here think you're damned Jim Bridger. I've had to find my share of people who wandered too far, or suffered heat exhaustion waiting for Old Faithful to erupt. But I wanted to tag along with you once, because you get all the assignments that are " She hesitated. "Um, a little tricky."
Steward grimaced. He must have talked too much at the bar last night. Or his friends did. The truth was that most hikes were more beautiful than dangerous. And most cases with missing hikers had happy endings. However, when circumstances hinted that the hiker or hikers may not be coming back in one piece, Steward was usually called into action. He wasn't sure how he had become known as a specialist in unpleasant search missions. A few years back, during his first search assignment, he found the body of a hiker who had fallen off a cliff and broken his neck. Steward climbed up a treacherous cliff and brought the body down, nearly breaking his own neck several times. His supervisors were impressed with the heroic retrieval. And when the parents came to claim the remains, they were so grateful for his effort that they sent a commendation letter all the way to the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, D.C.
Since then, every time a climber was missing and probably dead, or someone had not returned from an illegal soaking journey to one of the park's many hot springs, Steward was called to try and find the victim, alive or otherwise. It wasn't a job he asked for, but he was willing to tolerate the unpleasantness if it meant his job was secure in Yellowstone, the world's oldest and best national park.
He looked at Lacy again. Even with long sleeves and slacks she revealed a strong, fit body. The help would be appreciated. Besides, she was kind of pretty. He stopped to take a swig of water. Normally he wouldn't be thirsty already, but he needed to stop and refocus his thoughts. He looked around to take in the refreshing scenery of tall trees and blue sky. Momentarily rejuvenated, he started down the trail again, delivering a briefing over his shoulder as he walked.
"The employees, including the missing girl, work at Canyon Lodge. They sneaked into the closed Turbid Lake campsites three nights ago. They said the first night went by without incident and all the campers had a good time. Their original plan was to camp for only one night, but one camper, Jenny Patrick, decided to stay another night by herself."
"There's some good thinking," Lacy added sarcastically.
He continued. "She didn't return the next morning. She wasn't expected at work until late afternoon so nobody thought much about it. When the sun set and she was four hours late for work her friends started to worry."
"Why did it take them so long?"
Steward shrugged. "I guess she had a lot of friends, but they said she was basically a loner, if that makes sense. It was like her to extend her stay as long as possible and barely make it back in time to work. They admitted she had done at least one solo camping trip before with no problems. This time they thought she was late because she had trouble finding a ride back."
"Didn't she have a car?"
"None of them did. If they parked at the trail head, we would have seen their cars and caught them."
"And they get such crappy pay they couldn't afford a fine."
"Yeah, they don't get the huge salaries we do," he said cynically. "Anyway, they arranged to have friends drop them off and pick them up at the trail head. Jenny planned to hitchhike back after camping one more night."
Lacy said nothing for a moment, boots crunching along the dry dirt trail. Finally she said, "So when she didn't make it back in time for work they began to panic. Despite the risk of a fine, they called the rangers at Canyon, confessed their illegal adventure, and begged for a search party to locate Jenny."
"Right, and they were told we couldn't initiate a search until daybreak. It's not like the park is lighted for nighttime activities. To ease the kids' panic the Canyon rangers suggested that Jenny was probably taking one more unauthorized night under the stars."
"Of course, the rangers didn't believe that garbage themselves. Hitchhiking is pretty safe in the park, compared to bedding down with bears at Turbid Lake. So they called you and told you to be ready first thing in the morning," she added.
"That's me. Death scout," Steward brooded.
Lacy didn't reply and the two walked on quietly. Finally, she spoke up.
"It still seems weird that they want to keep it quiet. I mean, if she's lost they should have a mob of us out looking. If she's dead, well, I guess they don't need that many. But still "
"Nevertheless, here we go." He was already beginning to regret having chosen Lacy to tag along. It wasn't that he didn't think she could handle it, but there was something odd about their entire mission. His tasks tended to be unpredictable anyway, and this one was shaping up to be even more so. Here he was, taking a stranger into a strange situation. Not the safest thing to do. He had worked with a handful of other rangers before, knew what to expect from them. Why didn't he choose one of them? On the other hand, she seemed sharp enough. And they were keeping up a good pace. He breathed deeply.
Once again the trail, trees and air worked their magic. He felt better already.
"Eva, thanks for coming along."
"No problem," she murmured. Embarrassed perhaps.
The two walked silently for some time, each in their own thoughts. The trail shrunk in front of them and lengthened behind them.
After a while Lacy spoke up in a cheery voice. "Maybe she really is just lost."
Steward gave her a skeptical glance. Turbid Lake was only about two miles off the road, along a well-marked trail. In fact, they were approaching the campsite already and they had been hiking less than an hour.
"But if she went exploring deeper into the back country, then she might have merely gotten turned around and spent a chilly night or two under a pine tree."
"But why here?" snorted Steward. "Why do we even bother to close areas because of bear activity? It's like begging some of these people to come here. We do it for the safety of the bears and for the safety of the people, but it's so damned important for some people to see a bear before the summer's over. Well, this girl might have gotten a closer look than she wanted."
He continued to sulk about his role as the messenger of death.
"But to hear you talk last night, you think the park is better off with people scrambling over the trails," she taunted.
He actually smiled. "Yeah, I did kind of go on about that, especially after a couple Watneys. But it's true. As goofy as some people may be, the bad mistakes some of them make, the park is a lot better off if the visitors keep coming."
"I think they damage the place," she said.
If she was egging him on, it wasn't going to work. "Sometimes the place damages them. And that's when we have to be careful."
"You know, Dusty, we're jumping the gun here. I mean, lots of people camp in bear areas without any problems. You and I have each been out to find lost hikers before. It's no big deal. Just because the bears have been active doesn't mean this is any different. I bet she's just wandering around, looking-"
Steward had stopped suddenly and raised his hand to get her to do the same. They both stood motionless, as Steward sniffed the air. He looked a little like a dog, but Lacy didn't laugh at him. In the cool, clean air of Yellowstone, it is possible for humans to be more sensitive to scents than when they are in a city. Certainly, a human nose is no match for other snouts in the animal kingdom, but once a person got used to filtering out the sulfur smells from the park's thermal features, he could quickly notice the scent of anything unusual. Lacy raised her head slightly and joined in the sniffing.
Bears smell very well, but they don't smell very good, and both rangers caught a whiff of a strong, musty odor. Steward glanced at Lacy who acknowledged the sign and reached over her shoulder to take her rifle off her pack. He readied his own weapon.
"Well, I guess we'll just wander into the campsite and look around!" shouted Steward.
"Yeah, I'm with you!" Lacy yelled back.
The conversation wasn't as important as the volume. Basically, bears do not like to be around people. If they hear people coming, they usually run off. Steward and Lacy had been talking the past few minutes, but maybe not loudly enough. Now they were compensating. The next to last thing they wanted to do was surprise a grizzly.
The last thing they wanted to do was have a grizzly surprise them. The bears that didn't flee might be curious. Or aggressive. If the rangers were distracted before, they were tuned in now. Steward slowed the pace, noticing the trail, the trees, the bushes. Everything.
After another 50 yards, he stopped again. "Look at this," he said as he picked up a crumpled mess of nylon and aluminum.
Lacy had an uneasy look on her face. She could recognize the debris as the remains of an overnight backpack. Steward watched her eyes hesitantly follow a trail of pots, containers and clothing that led to a lodgepole pine. From one of its straight, dark branches hung a severed piece of rope.
"At least she tried to hang her food," she said.
"You all right?" he asked with genuine concern. She looked a little shaky.
She nodded, without making eye contact.
Cautiously, Steward advanced to the next tree down the trail, where something had caught his eye. He reached up with his hand spread against vertical gashes in the bark. Bears score trees to mark their territory and to condition their claws. The sap-oozing tree marks were farther apart than Steward's hand.
"Bigger than you," Lacy said.
"Bigger than you and me together," Steward responded quietly.
He continued slowly down the trail, Lacy close behind. As he stepped through some brush he got his first view of the campsite. About 20 yards away he saw another pile of nylon, larger than the backpack, but equally mangled. Tent remnants.
Then another smell caught him. A rotten smell that burned his nose and penetrated every pore, unsettling his guts. It was an odor never forgotten and one he had smelled far too often.
"Better radio back that we've got a fatality. I'll look around and see if I can tell where the bear went," he said, proceeding cautiously.
Lacy grabbed her radio, blurted out the brief message, and ran to catch up with Steward.
They met at the former tent and began a visual sweep. Where was the body? And where would a bear hide? The smell of both were around, but not directional. The rangers were standing in a small clump of trees. Lodgepole pines are very tall and very straight, with few low branches. A large bear neither could, nor would, try to hide behind one. The trail they followed into the camp was more wooded, offering slightly more cover, but besides the claw marks they hadn't seen any sign of the animal on their way in. Then there was the lake, not far from the campsite. No place for a bear to hide there. On the other side of the lake were hills, too far away for immediate concern. That left the continuation of the trail they had followed in.
Slowly, weapons drawn, they followed the trail north. With a buzzing whoosh a black cloud rose and fell nearby. The rangers would have marched right past the spot had those flies not caught their attention.
Steward spat and kicked dust angrily. "I know what that is." He tromped toward the swarm.
Just off the trail, in a clump of tall grass, a small mound of dirt and pine needles was alive with the whirring of insects. No other life was present. Lacy began to gag as she realized what was partially buried before her.
He led her to a log to sit. She'll be fine in a minute. I hope. I don't want to drag two bodies out of here.
"Please be careful," he advised. "They don't usually stray too far from their stash."
She nodded without looking up.
He continued another hundred yards. Nothing. Giving up on the bear he returned to examine the campsite.
A crumpled sleeping bag pushed through a long slice in one wall of the tent, which was now lying in a heap of nylon. The shock-cord tent poles were not broken but disconnected from the tent base and unable to provide any support.
Taking it all in, Steward formed a pretty good picture of what had happened. The bear had cut open the tent and dragged her out, pulling the sleeping bag with her. The ranger frowned at the torn bag, Holofil stuffing poking out holes and tears in the outer fabric. Near the bag a large dark area in the ground betrayed where most of the bleeding took place. The bear probably began to feed right there.
From that point Steward could easily see the trail where the bear dragged her over to bury . He finally noticed that Lacy was still hunched, hands on her knees, not saying anything.
Steward walked over to her and gently took her by the shoulders. He helped her legs over the log so she was facing away from the body and the campsite.
When her gag reflex finally subsided, she looked up. "Can you ever be fully prepared for this? I've worked some gruesome traffic fatalities in the park, but this." She gestured over her shoulder to the body. "I mean, I know how bears feed. I've seen unfinished elk carcasses dragged into shallow graves to save for later. It's just so different when it's a person."
"There's no reason for a grizzly to treat us any differently from an elk, once he decides that we're food."
"I know, but I hate being reminded of that." She shivered to try and shake off the discomfort, then stood. "What do you suppose happened?"
"It looks like our bear smelled food in her backpack," Steward said, pointing over to the first mess they discovered. "The girl hung her pack like she was supposed to, but it wasn't high enough. Our bear must be a pretty tall one." While they were talking they walked back along the trail toward the demolished backpack.
He continued, "After he cleaned out all the food and tossed things around, he followed the trail toward the campsite." Steward stopped, turned and began walking toward the mangled tent. Lacy was right behind him.
"Over here near the tent he dug up something. They might have left a dirty campsite," he continued. He kicked at the hole in the ground. "Man, you've gotta put your food away."
"Do you suppose the girl heard him?" she asked.
"Who knows? Bears aren't exactly quiet." They stopped at the tent. Steward bent down and ran his finger along a large slice in the side of the tent, next to the torn sleeping bag.
"The bear smelled something inside," he said. "Usually, the human scent will drive a bear off, but this one is either not afraid, or else the girl had a candy bar with her or something else that was too tempting to resist. So he stuck out one claw and sliced through the tent, just like a surgeon with a knife."
"I'm sure she was awake by then," Lacy murmured.
He nodded. The thought of the terror the girl must have felt made his skin crawl. By the look on Lacy's face, she felt it too.
"Yeah, I expect her thrashing pissed off the bear," he said, trying to remain professional. "It looks like he knocked the tent around, then dragged her out of the hole he made. She either rolled or crawled over here, and this is where the bear probably killed her."
Lacy turned away again. Steward didn't notice and continued to follow the deadly path from the feeding spot to the temporary burial ground. He looked at the body. There was a shallow layer of dirt on top, but the human form was unmistakable. And the stench of death was unrelenting.
"Poor girl. I hope she died quickly."
"Where do you suppose the bear is?" asked Lacy. Steward jumped, unaware that his partner was no longer beside him. He looked at Lacy, over by the tent, facing the other direction. Lacy seemed pretty tough, but a fatal mauling is difficult to face. Steward himself had vomited the first time he was assigned to one. This time he knew what to expect.
"He took off. I don't know if we scared him away when he heard us coming up the trail, or if he was already gone."
Again, he looked around, not quite convinced they weren't being watched.
"Usually they try to defend their kill," he said cautiously. "This bear might be out finding some other food and come back here later."
He looked at Lacy, who was also surveying their surroundings.
"Anyway," he added. "I would guess this is as good a spot as any to set a trap."
Lacy's radio cackled, startling both rangers. "Lacy, Steward, we're at the trail head with the equipment, do you read?" "Equipment" meant a body bag and other devices used to collect evidence.
Lacy took the radio off her belt and spoke into it. "Okay. Steward says we need a bear trap."
"Ten-four," replied the radio. "Can I talk to him?"
Steward unhooked his own radio. "Yeah?"
"Steward, you won't need to call the parents. Someone else is taking care of it."
"I can't say I'm disappointed, but I am curious. Who gets the job?"
Steward looked at Lacy. She, too, was shocked. Steward turned back to the radio, "As in Jerome Hershauer, Secretary of the Interior?"
"Affirmative." The voice on the radio was uneasy. "Look, I'd rather not talk about this over the airwaves. I'll explain when we get there. We're on ATVs so it won't take long."
Steward and Lacy sat on a log by the trail, waiting for their colleagues to come and tell them the news.
Upon hearing the details, Steward sat shocked for a moment.
"Well," he finally said. "That explains why they were trying to keep this search quiet."
That's the end of Chapter One. For the rest, you're gonna have to buy the book.
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