Voices from the river

Stranded in grizzly country

A muddy road in a forest.
After the rescue.
Photo by Chris Hunt.

It pays to be prepared, even when you’re just out for a casual drive

We’d walked well over a mile down the lonely Forest Service road, well out of the way from the Island Park bustle. The sun was retreating and the mosquitoes had discovered us. And we had a long way to go.

Mostly, there was shame. Shame at being ill-prepared. Shame at taking a risk with a vehicle to which I was still largely a stranger. Shame at having put someone I loved in the same precarious situation that I put myself. So we walked.

To Toni’s credit, she was almost chipper. 

“It’s always an adventure,” she said, a grin crossing her face, as she picked herself up off the ground after a slip and a stumble

“This isn’t what I had planned,” I said, helping her up and brushing the dirt and detritus off her knees. We kept at it, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping against hope we’d make it down the mountain before dark. It didn’t help, too, that we were in serious bear country. I was wearing a beat up old pair of sandals (they’re ugly, but they are sooo comfy!). Toni’s footwear was a hell of a lot more fashionable … for a barbecue, or maybe happy hour. For a six-mile hike to the main road? In grizzly country? Swarmed by mosquitoes? Not so much.

We’d set off that afternoon to take the new rig for a drive. I wanted to scout out a little trout stream on public land, and I’d mapped out the host of Forest Service roads we’d need to take to get there. I was certain the water would be too high to bother fishing, but, I figured, I could at least make a plan for when high water recedes in a couple of weeks. 

And we got to the creek. It was stunningly beautiful, tucked into pines well away from the rest of Island Park, which can get downright crazy in the summer, even in the midst of a global pandemic. The little spur road — which is connected to another spur road that’s connected to the “main” road (which is also gravel) — was a little muddy, but it wasn’t too bad. We made it through one rough patch that had been exacerbated by ATVs over the last few days, it seemed, but the truck handled it just fine.

We got out and let the dogs run a bit. We wandered down to the water, which was, predictably, high and off-color. I scoped out a few promising runs and vowed to come back in a couple of weeks to see if I could find any fish. And now that I knew how to get there, I might even bring the camper in, I told myself. 

As the sun slid behind the mountain above us, the temperature dropped a bit, and the bugs arrived. Island Park boasts a lot of standing water, and the mosquitoes can be murderous. We quickly retreated to the truck. 

As I arrived at the one tricky spot on the “road” into the creek, I made a point to put the wheels on the highest ground and just steadily push through. About halfway through the bog, the wheels slid into the ruts and we slowed considerably. And then we stopped. All four wheels spun against the mud. We weren’t going anywhere.

Toni looked at me and laughed. 

“This can’t be happening,” she said. “I don’t even have a jacket.”

When I bought the truck, I moved everything from my old truck to my camper — I hadn’t replenished anything, which was completely on me. She didn’t have a jacket. Neither did I. No blanket. No first-aid kit. Nothing. Well, that’s not exactly true — as a true sign of the times, we did each have a cloth mask to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. 

So there was that.

I stepped out of the truck and surveyed the severity of the situation. It was buried nearly to the axles in black peat and mud. Together, fighting off mosquitoes, we gathered as many small sticks and limbs as we could and put them around all four tires, hoping we could achieve just enough traction to get ourselves out of the mess we were in. We made a little progress here and there, but without a tow strap or a come-along, we were good and stuck. 

“Now what?” Toni asked. 

I looked up at the sky — we had at least a couple hours of daylight left, even if the sun was retreating behind the mountains. And we had about six miles to go to get to where we had any hope of waving down some help.

“Now we walk,” I said, looking down at the mud that had found its way all over my legs and arms. 

Shame. Oh, the shame. 

We had a half a bottle of a diet Dr. Pepper, and Toni grabbed her purse. We started walking. 

Only six more miles to go. Photo by Toni Furniss.

The dogs, clueless as to how desperate our situation had become, rambled on ahead of us. Phoebe, my old wire-hair mix of questionable origin, wandered out a few yards ahead of us. She’s no stranger to the trail, and she knows the rules. 

And then there’s Poppy.

Poppy is barely a year old. She’s an old English bulldog with the sweetest disposition. She’s cute as hell and thinks Phoebe is the boss of the world (and that’s OK with Phoebe). And she’s about as smart as a box of hair. 

She barreled out ahead of us at a full sprint, realizing just in time that the road took a pretty steep dive into gully. Iit was all she could do to slam on the brakes without tumbling, butt over brain, into the wash. 

And we laughed. Here we were, stuck quite literally in the middle of nowhere, under constant attack from mosquitoes and making lots of noise to alert the nearby bears of our presence, and this little dog was keeping us entertained. 

It wasn’t too long after Toni had taken her little spill that she stopped in her tracks in the middle of the road. 

“A truck!” she exclaimed. “I hear a truck!” 

Just a few days earlier, we had been walking the banks of the Snake River, well out on the desert, when Toni put a hand on my chest and forced me to stop. 

When being hearing impaired is dangerous. Photo by Chris Hunt.

“There’s a rattlesnake right there,” she said, not an ounce of panic in her voice. I looked four feet to my left, and sure enough, coiled and ready to induce a visit to the ER was a 3-foot western diamondback — a beautiful reminder that being dilatory in the wild can be a recipe for disaster. Toni had heard the warning rattle. Me? I’m almost completely deaf in my right ear, and my left ear is probably about 60 percent. I hadn’t heard a thing, and might have stepped on it.

And I sure as hell didn’t hear a truck.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” she said, smiling. Sure enough, a few seconds later, a pickup rounded the bend on the road ahead of us. We waved, and the driver rolled his window down.

As they pulled up, I noticed what is a pretty typical sight for this corner of Idaho. There were three passengers in the vehicle, all of them dressed in camo, head to toe. An assortment of firepower was visible. And all three were smiling. 

“I don’t suppose you guys have a tow strap?” I asked sheepishly, the shame weighing me down. 

They looked at each other, and the driver turned to the guy in the passenger seat.

“You have a strap in the Dodge back at camp don’t you?”

“Yup.”

And then the passenger looked at me, dressed in a t-shirt, a pair of ratty shorts and my super-comfortable Jesus sandals.

“Hey man,” he said. “Do you have any protection at all?”

Hell, I’d come this far. 

“Nope,” I said. “As you can tell, I’m a flaming idiot.” Only I didn’t say “flaming.”

They all laughed, and then the guy in the passenger seat took on a sober look.

Grizzlies are fairly common along Idaho’s boundary with Yellowstone National Park. Image by 272447 from Pixabay.

“Well,” he said, “I can almost guarantee that you’re within 500 yards of a grizzly bear right now.”

This wasn’t news to me. This remote slice of Island Park was most certainly home to bears, both black and brown. But I was trying to keep the unwelcome information from Toni, who has never seen a bear in the wild and whose face immediately drained of color.

“Ixnay on the Izzlygray,” I wanted to say to the guy who delivered the news as I covered Toni’s ears with my hands. Instead, I nodded. 

“I have no doubt.”

They began to chat among themselves. The truck was full, and so was the truck bed. These guys were on a spring bear hunt, and they had half a dozen five-gallon buckets filled with dog food and maple syrup — it’s legal to bait black bears in that hunting unit of Idaho (the state has a spring bear season that ends in mid-June and another season in the fall), and they were headed out to set the bait overnight. 

Finally, everybody came to the same conclusion. Toni and I would start walking back to my stuck-in-the-mud truck, while the driver dropped off his hunting buddies just a bit farther down the road so they could set the bait. He’d then drive back to their campsite and grab a tow strap from their other vehicle. He’d meet us at our truck, pull us out, and then likely spend the rest of the evening rightfully making fun of the moron in Jesus sandals who’d managed to get himself and his girlfriend stuck in the mud, smack-dab in the middle of bear country. 

I can hear it now.

“That dude was the dumbest guy I’ve ever met,” the passenger who alerted us to the fact that there was likely a grizzly bear nearby might say. The others, tipping cold cans of beer to their lips, would nod and giggle. “His girlfriend was cute, though. Poor gal.”

Oh, the shame.

And it worked out generally as planned. We walked the mile and a half or so back to the truck, each grateful that we hadn’t had to walk the five miles to the main “road.” The driver, before we started walking, in a moment of serious grace, handed me a can of bear spray and Toni a can of bug spray for our trek. For the record, I have bear spray and bug spray. Both were in the camper at home, some 90 miles away. 

We hooked up the tow strap to the truck and we got it out of the mud. And then the driver handed us each a cold can of beer — never underestimate the generosity of someone willing to come to the aid of others. We were very thankful, and remain so.

As we got the dogs rounded up and got everybody back in the truck, Toni put her hand on my knee and smiled. 

“That was so much fun,” she said. “Only … I wish we’d seen a bear.”

I smiled and nodded. The shame was fading. It won’t ever go completely away, but you can bet the new truck as everything I need in it now. Who knows, maybe I can help some flaming idiot who gets stuck in the mud in the middle of grizzly country some day.

Chris Hunt is the digital editorial director for TROUT Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls.