Rules and regulations.
There is no escaping them, even in the great outdoors! A few years ago, during an early July fishing trip to Montana, three of us Easterners decided to do a three-day fishing/camping trek into the remote region of Upper Slough Creek in Yellowstone Park. The plan called for the three of us to hump our backpacks, flyrods and gear far enough up the ever-popular Slough Creek to find some solitude, fishing space and willing cutthroat trout It’s a hot, five-mile hike that is uphill the good part of the way, but well worth it once the panting and perspiration is behind you.
As it turned out, though, the toughest part of our Western fly fishing odyssey was neither the hike up or the hike back. It was overcoming the prerequisite pre-trip paperwork and maneuvering through the bureaucratic maze that Park officials insist upon.
Before you can backpack or camp overnight in remote areas of the Park, you must first demonstrate a reasonable level of competence. This, presumably, was ascertained by a very young, semi-officious park ranger with whom I chatted as I, a spokesman for our trio, filled out all the paperwork. During the application process, we discussed length of stay, planned hiking route, age and relative health of hikers, the carry-in and carry-out ethic, outdoor experience of each applicant, bears, and grizzly bears. She and I talked a lot about grizzly bears.
Assuming that I, indeed, had measured up in the ranger’s estimation, I then affixed my signature to the application and paid our Remote Camping Fee. To my utter surprise, she then informed me that the Remote Camping Permits are never issued on the same day that you apply.
“The rules require a two-day waiting period,” she said with a warm smile.
“What?” I intoned with incredulity .”You mean I gotta make the 20-mile drive back here through the Pass again on Thursday?” (Our plan called for an early ascent up the creek on Friday morning. This would allow us to beat most of the midday heat).
“That’s right,” she said. “Those are the rules, sir, and I don’t make them. You may pick up your permit anytime after 12 noon on Thursday.
Then came the kicker.
“By the way, you, as the leader of your hiking group, must also view a 30-minute bear video before your permit can be issued. So I suggest that you come by my office no later than 4 p.m. This will allow time for the bear video. We close at five,” she said.
Having a healthy respect for grizzlies, I understood why the park insisted that visitors and campers be educated about the perils posed by these big animals. So I told the ranger that I’d be back for my permit as instructed. On the appointed day, Fred and I showed up at the ranger’s office about 2 p.m to get our camping permit. No ranger. Her office door was locked. A note said,” Been called out. Back soon.” We left and came back about 4 p.m. Still no ranger. At 4:45 pm., I left the ranger a note: “We were here to pick up our permit and have been waiting most of the afternoon. Sorry that you were not here to show us the bear video, but I plan to stick to our timetable and we’ll be heading up the creek at first light tomorrow morning, with or without the permit. I’m a woods savvy Maine guide and very willing to give all bears a wide berth. We’ll be careful. Don’t worry. Sincerely, V. Paul Reynolds.”
Next morning, right on schedule, the three of us hiked the five miles to the Slough Creek’s Upper Meadow. By 10 a.m , we were setting up camp. The Montana sun was getting higher in the big sky and the sage meadow that borders the meandering creek was heating up. But the trout were sipping surface stuff on the edge of the riffle and, as I rigged my flyrod, I said to Fred: “…and to think we’ve got this whole sweet place to ourselves!”
“I think you spoke to soon,” Fred said pointing across the meadow.
Sure enough, there was a lone hiker, head down and working his way through the sage straight at us hell bent for leather. It was a uniformed park ranger and he wasn’t smiling. He was in a sweat. In fact, if he had been a Montana quarter horse, his flanks would have been lathered up good with white froth. “Is there a Reynolds in your party?” he queried with a deep furrow in his perspiring brow.
“Ah, that would be me, sir,” I said, trying to sound respectful but not cloyingly so.
The Ranger then gave me a stern lecture about engaging in a remote campout without an authorized permit. I attempted to assert that there had been extenuating circumstances, but he wasn’t buying. All he knew was that, damn it all, I had violated park rules by forging ahead with my plan without having seen the requisite bear video. And his boss, the young lady I had dealt with earlier in the week, ordered him to walk 10 miles in the midday Montana sun to deliver my permit and read me the riot act.
I apologized and nodded in the affirmative when he insisted that I stop in at park HQ upon my return and view the bear video. He then drank deeply from his backpack’s hydration reservoir, offered us a cool “adios” and headed back down the trail.
Did I ever make it back to view the 30-minute bear video? What do you think?
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal and has written his first book, A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.