Bathing in the Bechler

Bathing in the Bechler

Flannery, Joseph
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Nothing deters backpackers from the Bechler more than the bugs. A handful of Deet and a quick pace might shield you along the trail from the ranger station to the edge of Bechler Meadows, but no further. Upon emergence into the open, the swarms rise from the grass and roll toward you in sickening sheets: biting flies as round and glossy as black olives, probing mosquitoes whining around your ears like coffee grinders, flittering gnats that fill your mouth and nose.

Jaime, one of two handlebar-mustached rangers who patrol this area of Yellowstone National Park on horseback, has witnessed the ferocity of the insects first hand. “I’ve seen hikers literally running out of the backcountry to get away from them. People from some of the buggiest places around—southern Florida, Alaska, northern Minnesota—all swear they’ve never seen anything like what we’ve got here.” From the spring thaw to the first frost, the bugs of Bechler guard the backcountry, suffering none to pass save moose or bear.

Not that Bechler has many visitors anyway. The remote region hides in Yellowstone’s southwest corner, about four hours from Bozeman, and can only be accessed by a gravel road that starts outside of Ashton, Idaho. At road’s end, beyond the rustic ranger station, a few trails slither away into the woods. In addition to the bugs, grizzly bears, hidden thermal pools, and dangerous river fords all inhabit the region.

I had been curious about the area for some time. Not for the bugs or the supposed dangers, but what I had heard they concealed. I’d heard rumors that deep in Bechler there existed a veritable backcountry Valhalla; waterfalls that sung you to sleep. Hot springs with sunset views. Cutthroat trout as long as baseball bats that practically heaved themselves out of the river and onto your line. My friends and I spoke of the region in hushed tones. In clandestine meetings in the corners of bars and pizza places we planned our trip.

“Is anybody gonna try the Bechler challenge?”

“What’s the Bechler challenge?”

“If you can stand in your underwear, with your arms spread in a meadow and not flinch for five minutes while the bugs crawl all over your body, each member of the group owes you 50 bucks.” 

Silence.

“Let’s just go in the fall. No bugs.”

“That’s a bad idea.”

“Why?”

“Because two years ago some guy got caught in an early blizzard and only survived because he broke into a backcountry patrol cabin.”

Silence again.

“Did the rangers give him a ticket?”

“No.”

“Then it’s settled.”

After the first frost, we moved quickly. A narrow gap opened between the seasonal insect die-off and the impending winter storms. Some years, the Bechler gap can last for a month; in other years, the snow falls before the leaves have even changed.

The weather held, though, and we started down the trail across the vast meadows—bug-free and with the September sun on our shoulders. The autumn grasses swelled and splashed around us, like the surface of a golden sea. On our right, the Tetons built upon the horizon like a cloudbank. Straight ahead on the far shore lay our destination: a slot in the edge of the Pitchstone Plateau and the opening of Bechler Canyon.

A day’s walk brought us to the mouth of the canyon, and a unique geologic collision. There, the more resistant rock of the plateau met the highly erodible soils of the Bechler region. Around every corner, large waterfalls roared, the river spilling over flat edges in even sheets. Ledges in the mist supported late-season flowers, forbs, and bright green moss. High above, tributary creeks poured over the canyon wall. The creeks braided and split, the water dancing and skipping off rock and fold as if reluctant to find the ground. The Bechler backcountry supposedly boasts more waterfalls per acre than anywhere outside of Costa Rica. On maps, the area is called Cascade Corner.

By late afternoon we made it to the headwaters of the river, and a wide spot in the canyon where three creeks converged in a soppy, thermal meadow. Steam rose from dark vents in the ground. The thermal hotspots revealed themselves in a colorful pattern of chalky yellow, tan, and creamy white rock, bare of vegetation. We set camp facing upriver as the sun dipped below the wall. I crawled into my tent in the fading alpenglow, and let the rushing waters lull me to slumber.

In the morning we hiked upstream, and taking the far eastern tributary, found Mr. Bubbles—a legendary soaking pool. The creek ran right through the hot spring, and the resulting temperature hovered around 110 degrees. Endless strings of tiny bubbles rose to the surface, as if we bathed in a giant vat of fizzing seltzer. We ate lunch on the rocks, soaked again, and grinned like idiots at our luck.

The next day we broke camp and headed west to Dunanda Falls, re-crossing the Bechler River and wading several creeks. Lodgepole pine and semi-arid sage savannah covers most of Yellowstone National Park, but here the landscape softens in the presence of so much water. Yellow-tipped aspen encircled lush meadows. Willow and cottonwood lined the streams, some still green, others already orange. Snowberry, wild rose, and raspberry fruit flopped over the trail. We walked among the autumn bloom and discovered more colors than in a crayon box.

High above Dunanda Falls, we pitched our tents beneath a stand of large pines. Near evening, we slipped down to the base of the falls in our swimsuits—arms full with cooking stoves, super-light dinner packs, and wine-filled Nalgenes. Hot springs dotted the bank. We cooked dinner waist-deep in one, balancing our burners and pots on wet rocks with pruned fingers. The cool spray from the falls rained onto our shoulders.

We would linger in that land for three days. But it could not last, and soon the autumn dream ended. On our hike out, clouds began to gather, the flurries already swirling as we crossed the last stretch of meadow. I turned back for a last look, but the edge of the plateau had disappeared in the dark of the coming storm.

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