Field Notes by Michael G. Smith: Back Country

Yellowstone backcountry, early July. Green abundance. Snow remnants in north-facing mountain peak ravines. Blue sky. A poem from A Zen Forest: Sayings of the Masters sparks a realization.

No sharp sword
can cut it open;
No iron hammer
strike it out.

Our destination six miles down the trail is a rare campsite in one of the park’s Bear Management Areas. Extensive tracts of wilderness with many elk and bison carcasses the large number of grizzly bears feed on, BMA’s intentionally have few trails to protect bears by minimizing conflict with humans.

Grizzly sighting –
four-inch claws
rake dry mud.

The trail climbs and weaves through meadows and forest understories teeming with wildflowers, Gifts freely and unselfishly given by earth, air, waters and sunlight. Patches of wild iris in lowland sagebrush meadows. White phlox, blue flax, maroon-red Indian paintbrush, stinky Bob, prairie smoke and late spring’s remaining arrowleaf balsamroots in higher elevation, wetter meadows. Shooting stars, purple larkspur, lupine, and summer’s first yellow columbine cluster into the spaces left by pines and firs.

Deep snow
fills yellow pollen
from pinecones.

Glacier lilies, late spring flowers, surprise us at our campsite along the Gardner River. The bear scat in the tent area doesn’t. Black bear? Grizzly? The size of a salad plate, Bonnie says the scat pile is a little small for a grizzly.

I would know
if only
impatient feet
stopped sooner.

We hang food, cooking gear and toiletries – anything with a scent possibly attractive to a bear – fourteen feet above the ground from the bear pole suspended between two firs a hundred yards from the tent area. Bear spray – a ten-ounce canister of highly pressurized capsaicin designed to spray twenty-five feet or more – is always kept within reach. Tents are pitched. River water is purified to drink. Sweat and trail dirt washes off our bodies into the chill river. We find sunny spots in the meadow to relax and read. We try to fend off voracious mosquitos.

Drunk Ikkyū’s stone buddha
collected birdshit.
This wolf scat is
a corkscrew of fur.

Our backpacker’s simple dinner consists of miso soup, noodles and lentils. Desserts of port and chocolate follow. We brush our teeth. Hang food, cooking gear and every scented item, including chapstick, again. Grabbing our bear spray, we walk up-trail through dense forest to look for wildlife – elk, deer, fox, moose, bear – in meadows away from camp. An old wooden sign nailed to a pine reminds us we are in a BMA. No off-trail travel is permitted. One does not want to surprise a grizzly feeding on a carcass or a sow with cubs.

Hey bear! Hey bear!
Quaking aspens.

We cross a creek at a bridge of deadfall trees stripped of bark. The bare wood slick, a thick branch serves us as a third point of contact with the Earth. Our feet dry, I lay the branch against the logs to use on the return crossing. Minutes later we reach the Gardner River, decide not to splish-splash a trail through it, and return to camp having seen no wildlife.

This year’s
swiftest full moon
fills my tent.

Sunlight summitting the eastern ridge tunnels through my eyelids. I unwrap myself from the sleeping bag, shimmy into pants, long sleeve t-shirt and jacket, and unzip the tent’s door and rainfly. A female elk grazing in the meadow near tree line becomes aware of a new presence and lifts her head. Our gazes meet. I blink. Dark green grasses and firs remain.

Foresight –
drainage to the south
off limits.
Wolf pups.

Author notes: A Zen Forest: Sayings of the Masters, translated by Sōigu Skigematsu, is a collection selected from Kuzoshi (A Zen Forest Saying Anthology), compiled in the late 15th century by the Japanese Master Toyo Eicho Zenji, and from Zudokku (The Poison-Painted Drum), edited by Genro Fujita in the 20th century.

And, with deep gratitude to Bonnie Rice, my dear friend and backpacking buddy, who generously and untiringly teaches me about the ways of bears and the names of flowers, the latter of which I need reminding of June through August, summer to summer.