By Joan Larsen
We call them “second honeymoons” – and they are. But there are just a handful of special places in the United States that will draw us back time after time. We have never been disappointed. An authentic Swiss chalet in the mountains of Wyoming, aptly named The Alpenhof Lodge, has been our home away from home for years. Set against the grandeur of these mountains called the Grand Tetons, there is a serenity here – a beauty hard to match.
The end of September finds the tourists largely gone. The canyon trails have been transformed into yellow and red carpets of leaves, transforming the national park into a place of awe around every corner.
Hiking to the heights had continued to go well for yet another year, amazing us as we were no longer spring chickens. Saving the best for last, we had chosen the Surprise Lake trail – one that was more than to live up to its name. We had started late, enjoying a leisurely late (and complimentary) Swiss breakfast at the chalet for a bit too long – as it later turned out.
Elevation changes almost four thousand feet… but the trail zig-zagged so we were not in trouble. And then – then – a boy in his 20s coming down from the top stopped, saying: “I do this trail a lot and you are by far the oldest people I have ever seen on it!” We weren’t “old” – so what could he mean? We did notice there was not another person – coming or going – but we would have this tiny lake at the top for our own then.
We did not know about “the bears,” never running into one at the higher altitudes before. We did not know that this climb was going to take longer than planned as it was really steep. Mid-afternoon arrived and the beauty of this destination, this place so few get to see was worth it. On the one tree overhanging Surprise Lake sat a black bear lounging, just far away enough to not be a concern. We soaked it in, resting for our return trip.
Now… the return downward trail is always easier and faster. It was late and it had to be quick. We were applauding ourselves, laughing, when my husband began to sing: “There is a bear, there is a bear.” Another black bear, high up, probably searching for berries and any other food source he could get before winter so he could survive hibernation. For those who know, “bear bells” do nothing in a situation like that. We have been around grizzlies and know that clapping the hands and singing would have to be our salvation. One eye on the bear, we continued along – hoping the bear would just consider us entertainment value and not a meal.
We didn’t know we could walk so fast – without running and becoming a victim – until the bear was no longer a threat… or so we thought. Now at about 8300 feet above sea level, the thousands of elk and moose who call the park home were far below on the flat. They always were. But no. The next turn brought us face to face with a moose – a moose whose antlers were obviously vying for the world’s biggest rack. The park’s written instructions for moose said: keep your distance in your car as they can become aggressive, particularly in the Fall when they are looking for mates.
The giant was dodging tree limbs, wandering aimlessly – but so high up! OK, baby steps taken with eye on the moose at all times seemed to be the only way. He was much bigger than we were, his beautiful antlers now a potential menace. Not singing, not even speaking, seemed the course of action. Eons later, he was gone.
But so was the sun, sinking far too fast in the west behind the mountains. We had a way to go and it was twilight before we hit the trail sign. The lovely little ferry that takes hikers across the wondrous Jenny Lake at the base had ceased operation an hour before.
Two additional miles to go in early evening, the chance of seeing other wildlife ever present in the minds of the two of us who were already wary, made no difference. We all but crawled to our car.
Let’s just say that we spent the final day of our stay in bed, wondering if we could ever walk again.
But it is another year. The very end of September will find us – once again – hiking in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The tourists are gone, the weather is perfection, and this place of breathtaking beauty seems to have become ours alone. A perfect haven, a wonderful escape from the cares of the world.
“The best dreams happen when you’re awake.”
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”