bear walking at the forest
photo by Chris Geirman, courtesy of Upsplash

Last night, Bob treated me to a post-birthday surprise. We split our drive home into two legs, going just to Steamboat yesterday, and the rest of the way to Salt Lake today. In Steamboat, we went to Strawberry Hot Springs. I’d never been, and Bob had been just once—in the summer, during daylight. Last night it was full dark when we arrived around 8 P.M., and 12 degrees, F. We should have been better prepared. We would never have gone hiking or snowshoeing without coats, boots and headlamps, and something to carry our stuff, but there we were feeling our way through the dark, wet and shivering, sometimes bare-footed. Still, the experience was magical.

The hot springs are away from town, reached by a long-ish, dark, wooded road that ends at a parking lot. From there, you pay the fee at a booth and head to the changing facility, where, we put on swimsuits, and after a few false starts, found the path down to the pools, stumbling in the dark.

There were several to choose from. The first one we entered was spacious, with wide steps descending into bathwater. There were maybe a dozen other bathers, but still plenty of rock wall to “park” along. The air was misty, adding to the surreal feel of being outside in a bath when it’s well below freezing. Our vision was limited, but I was curious and at one point, hoisted myself higher on the rock ledge to look about. Another pool sat just on the other side, and I ran my hand through, but drew it back. Cold. That’s when I noticed a naked man lying in it, ghostly pale, his feet close to where my hand had been. I shivered and re-immersed myself on our warm side.

After a while we looked for another pool, since the temperatures vary, and we were ready for a hot one. We got separated when Bob went barefoot on the ice while I had to stop and search amongst my tangle of clothing for my sandals. Somehow, we found each other at a steaming hot, unoccupied pool that sat above the rest, with high rocks to one side. Wet and chilled, we quickly submerged into the steaming hot water.

When we’d had our fill, we skipped the changing room, throwing on our clothes and dashing back to the car, turning the seat warmers to high, and the heat to maximum. As we were driving back to town, we noticed a wooly humped shape in the road. A bear! He glanced our way and then sauntered across, stopping at a tree just on the opposite side, where he stood and stretched, seeming to luxuriate in his audience, taking his time, reaching his fore legs up, scratching his claws. Bob backed up the car and opened the window, so we could watch him, just a road width away, but safe in our Subaru shield. After a nice stretch, and a final glance back at us, the bear ambled off.

We’ve hiked in bear country countless times and have always been glad not to see them on the trail, so it was a treat to see this guy at such close range. I did have a question though: I thought bears hibernated in the winter and always assumed I was safe during the cold months. “Not necessarily,” our friend & animal expert, Michele, said. “If they’re still finding sources of food, they’ll stay active.”

I’m glad not to be one of those sources.