We’d been hoping (sort of) to see grizzlies, black bears or a bull moose, but nature sent smaller ambassadors our way on yesterday’s hike. Friends visiting during the second week of our stay decided on the popular hike to Taggart Lake. Actually, we were going to undertake the slightly more ambitious loop to Bradley Lake, one lake beyond Taggart, but got confused and thought we’d taken the wrong trail. So we started to retrace our steps downhill through rocky open country. On the way down we noticed a bird with mottled brown feathers taking a dust bath under some sage brush. It didn’t fly away when we approached, and as each of us passed it the bird made muffled clucking sounds. We concluded it was an injured youngster until, looking back, we saw that it had turned around to face the trail and was beginning to follow us. We stopped to tell it, idiotically, to return to its dust bath, but it continued down the trail after us for awhile until it concluded either that we were not promising partridge parent substitutes or else simply lost interest.

Along the shore of Taggart Lake we met a woman who’d stopped
on a little bridge and was staring intently at something in a mess of fallen tree trunks extending from the shore. “Beaver,” we pronounced when the large, rust-brown rodent appeared. “No,” the woman said. “It doesn’t have a beaver’s tail.” And she seemed to be right: the tail
looked too furry and not flat enough. We concluded that the
animal was a muskrat, although muskrats have ratty tails, not furry ones. The mysterious rodent hammed it up for several minutes before diving from the bridge into a narrow neck of Taggart Lake, precluding further deliberation. At home we concluded that the muskrat was actually a marmot. But marmots frequent trails and live in rocky burrows. So the best we can say is that on our hike we saw a tubby, light-brown rodent with large teeth who was not particularly afraid of humans and had an affinity for aquatic sports.

Since we’d failed to get to Bradley Lake, we took the longer trail back to the trailhead. It took us along a ridge and then into woodlands punctuated by small, marshy openings, just above a streambed. “Prime bear country,” I thought. We’d forgotten to bring along bear spray. I tried to set an example for my less (though not by much) experienced friends and clapped ahead of every blind curve in the trail, yelling “Hey, bear!” and looking right and left. Suddenly I was aware of something moving just ahead of my feet and looked down in time to see an approximately two-foot snake loop off the trail and into the vegetation. It was dull brown with two ivory stripes running length-wise on either side of its slender body. Our precise identification was “snake,” but I’ve since concluded that we saw a valley garter, one of the reptile inhabitants of Grand Teton National Park and not nearly as common as the wandering garter snake.

We got back to the parking lot without encountering any bears. The only mega-fauna we saw for the duration of our hike were not-so charismatic hikers like ourselves. But we did get some homework assignments in avian, mammal and reptile identification. Bears and moose — they’re the easy stuff.