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out in the wild

As with our previous trips out West, one of the biggest highlights of exploring the great American wild is the opportunity to get up close and personal with the wild animals that call it home. We saw plenty of mule deer, prongorn, and smaller animals (rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks), and quite a few of the woods’ larger mammals. S and Junebug even had a terrifyingly close encounter with a bear.

Because the East Coast is relatively impoverished when it comes to pristine natural habitats, some animals are unheard of where we come from even though they are routinely found in the country’s western parks. For example, we saw more bison than we could shake a stick at in the Tetons and Yellowstone – solitary bulls ambling by the side of the road and whole herds grazing calmly in open fields. The only other time either of us had seen bison outside a zoo was during our last home leave trip to Utah.

Although both of our kids were born in Maine and we have established residence in the state, the only moose D and Munchkin had ever encountered before this trip were in children’s books, of which Munchkin has several (I Met A Moose in Maine One Day, There Are No Moose On This Island, to name a few).

That changed when Munchkin literally ran into a pair of moose on the trail. He was running downhill well ahead of us, singing and chattering nonstop to no one in particular, and completely oblivious to his surroundings until a massive female burst through the foliage directly in front of him, followed closely be her calf. They had been drinking by a stream and must have been spooked by Munchkin’s high-pitched monologue.

They came and went so quickly that D, who had been carrying Junebug in his arms, didn’t even have time to think about passing her off and reaching for our camera. The next day another mother-calf pair of moose proved considerably more obliging. We spotted them soon after setting foot on a trail near popular Jenny Lake, calmly munching on some foliage. A park ranger explained that when they have young calves (this one was only a few months old), the moose prefer to stick close to well-trafficked areas where they are less likely to encounter bears and mountain lions.

We just missed seeing a bear on our way out of Yellowstone. A half dozen cars had been parked haphazardly off the side of the road, prompting us to stop to take a look. Seeing nothing of particular interest D inquired what exactly everyone was admiring and learned that a bear had been in the vicinity several minutes earlier. Alas, by the time we arrived, he had crossed the stream and disappeared into the thickets on the other side. We must have just missed him because a dozen miles earlier we had stopped to photograph a gorgeous elk who was strutting in a clearing about 25 yards from the road.

S, who had consoled D by pointing out that it was probably for the best that we hadn’t encountered any bears on the trails, wound up having the scare of her life a few days later. We were returning from a serious hike in the Sawtooth Mountains, and S had hiked ahead with Junebug while D and Munchkin walked back at Munchkin’s pace. S was lost in her thoughts until a fierce commotion startled her out of her reverie. Not 50 feet away, a massive brown bear crashed out of the woods, ambled briskly across the trail, and was gone before S had caught her breath. He was only in sight for a couple dozen seconds, at most, but those seconds seemed to last a small eternity, as S – alone on the trail – entertained nightmarish visions of everything that could possibly go wrong in this chance encounter.

D never did see a bear, but we saw a couple of red foxes on our way out of the forest about an hour later: a typically reddish one and a melanistic black one, which put an exclamation point on a magnificent hike.

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