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Backpackers, horsemen, hikers find wilder scene
Gazette file photoA young bull elk grazes amid the greenery of Yellowstone National Park. Few visitors to the park get off the main roads and trails to explore the park's expansive back country.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – When he was approached 15 years ago about a fishing trip in Yellowstone National Park, John Carter balked.

He was living in Minnesota, and the remote Boundary Waters area was his stomping grounds. The man from the Land of 10,000 Lakes did not want to fight traffic in the Land of 10,000 Vehicles, despite friends’ assurances that Yellowstone is more than a magnet for RVs, SUVs and minivans.

“I thought it was going to be a zoo,” he says, referring to tourists, of course, and not critters.

But Carter caved in to peer pressure, and he’s been fishing Yellowstone with a group of friends ever since – 14 out of 15 summers so far. That’s because he has discovered something few people ever do: Yellowstone’s back country.

“There’s some incredibly wild country within an hour-and-a-half walking distance, any direction you want to go,” says Carter, who now lives in Eugene, Ore.

With 2.2 million acres of land and only 310 miles of roads, there’s a lot of it. The most remote area in the contiguous United States, defined by distance from the nearest road, is in southern Yellowstone. But the vast majority of tourists never wander too far off the roads. Fewer than 1 percent each year actually camp in the back country, an activity that has actually decreased since the 1980s.

Backpackers won’t be upset: More room for themselves and undisturbed wildlife.

The afternoon rains are coming. Carter is preparing for a hike and fish along Slough Creek in northern Yellowstone. It’s just a day trip, and he is doing this one alone. A red bear bell rings as he swings a small pack onto his back and grabs a fly rod. He never forgets about the grizzlies and often sings songs to let them know he’s passing through.

It’s that wildness that both scares and overwhelms Carter. It’s the fact that Yellowstone is not a city zoo, but a place where certain risks are inherent to those who venture beyond an invisible line. After all, says the retired professor, Yellowstone is the heart of the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48. That makes for wild animals and wild country.

“Once you are out in it, it’s a unique feeling: You are no longer at the top of the food chain,” he says.

Carter and crew enjoy the back country during the day, but they pitch camp among RVs and car campers at organized sites. The other option is to backpack in to one of more than 300 designated backcountry campsites throughout the park. A little defensive at having chosen the more conventional alternative, Greg Ide of Minneapolis notes that the crew is nonetheless sleeping on the ground in tents.

“I have never slept in a camper trailer in my life,” he proclaims. Also on the list of his accomplishments is a 28-mile day hike, the longest of his career in Yellowstone.

Back country use down?Ide says the group has noticed more fishermen in some of the easy-to-reach areas and fewer elk antlers scattered throughout the coulees. He attributes the latter to more people looting and selling the antlers. It seems as if more people are putting pressure on Ide’s favorite places, but he says he can still get away from people by walking a few miles.

If park statistics shed any light on the issue, the number of backcountry campers – those who backpack in and use the extensive trail system the most – has actually dropped in the last 10 to 15 years. At the same time, overall visitation has increased by several hundred thousand people.

The National Park Service requires permits for everybody camping in Yellowstone’s back country. These are the only real gauge the agency has for determining back country use. Last year, the tally came in at 5,555 permits and 17,603 people, less than 1 percent of the 2.8 million people who visited the park.

That falls below the recent average of 6,000-6,500 backcountry permits annually, but Yellowstone park spokeswoman Marsha Karle warns overall visitation in 2000 was down from about 3.1 million visitors in recent years. One likely culprit was the August fire season that focused the national spotlight on the West and shut down the park’s south entrance.

The peak year for backcountry camping was in 1977, when 8,122 permits were issued for about 23,000 backcountry campers. Keep in mind: Only 2.5 million people visited Yellowstone in 1977, almost 20 percent fewer than in recent years.

“In the 80s, we had three years where we had over 8,000 permits issued. … We were actually getting more use than we are now,” Karle says. While visitor pressure on the roads and facilities continues to rise, she adds, “We are not seeing it in the back country.”

Safety and ethicsBefore receiving a permit, all of the members of each camping party must watch a video about wilderness safety and ethics. The viewing is only required once each season; frequent camper cards are available.

It’s all part of a strategy the Park Service uses to protect park resources from unnecessary trampling and educate visitors to grizzly bears and other perils in the back country. Each permit specifies exactly which campsite will be used. No camping is allowed outside of designated campsites.

“With designated sites, it congregates the impact in one area, rather than having larger areas all over impacted,” says Ivan Kowski, who works in Yellowstone’s main backcountry office in Mammoth Hot Springs.

Different sites and have different regulations ranging from length of stay and group size to fire restrictions and seasonal restrictions intended to protect bears. Some restrictions apply to off-trail travel only; others specify day use only. Some areas are closed altogether during periods of heavy bear use.

Kowski says campers run the gamut in Yellowstone, from totally inexperienced to lifelong outdoor folks. Many hike in a few miles for a one-night trip, “just to get the experience,” Kowski says.

“Others go out for a week or two at a time, even,” he says. “We certainly have both ends of the spectrum.”

Jeff Tollefson can be reached at (307) 527-7250 or at jtollefson@billingsgazette.com

Do it yourselfYellowstone backcountry campers can either reserve campsites in person or write to the backcountry office to reserve campsites. The office also sends out packets of information on planning trips into Yellowstone’s back country. Reservations cost $20 per trip, which can include multiple campsites along the same trail. Those who show up without reservations take the luck of the draw.

Campsites carry different requirements regarding group size, fire use and length of stay. Check with park officials for other restrictions that may apply to any given site. Some areas are closed during certain periods of the year to reduce the potential for human-bear conflicts.

The National Park Service provides a host of materials intended to help people avoid bear attacks. Some of the more basic guidelines include: hiking in groups and making noise; sleeping at least 100 yards from the area where food is stored and prepared; hanging all food, toothpaste and other smelly items before going to bed.

The Park Service urges campers to practice Leave No Trace backcountry ethics. These guidelines urge groups to hike single file when walking on trails; pack all trash out; leave rocks, plants artifacts in place; tread lightly around the campsite.

Yellowstone National Park provides pit toilets and poles for hanging food at some sites. Fire rings are provided where fire is allowed. Campers are urged to select tent sites that are not visible from trails, other campsites or lake shores. The agency also asks that campers avoid leveling the ground below tents.

For more information about Yellowstone’s back country, call (307) 344-2160, or write to Backcountry Office, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

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