The arrival of September always makes me yearn for the woods. It may be that I am inspired by my two favorite fictional travelers, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, whose September birthday was the starting point of their adventures. Or maybe it‘s because, like many others in their younger years, so many of my fall days were spent hiking and camping, when the air is crisp and the colors beckoning.
On this September day, I arrive in Bozeman to an overcast sky and slightly chilly temperatures. The land looks yellow and dry but I love it all. I drive through intermittent showers with temperatures in the upper 40’s, and it all seems great to me. There is a restorative power that I can feel here, coming from the mountains and seeping up from the ground.
My rental car this trip is a gold Hyundai which I call “Honey”. As I drive along I note the color: bright yellow aspen amid many still in green. The grass is orange-yellow with rusts and purples on the hillsides backed by dark green conifers. At Livingston I encounter major fog so I slow down, hoping the trucks behind me will do the same!
I come out of the fog just past Livingston and find the Yellowstone Valley stunningly beautiful. A bald eagle soars over the river. A few drops of rain are still falling but looking ahead I see the sky over Yellowstone looks bright. I laugh to myself, because I always worry it may not be as beautiful as I remembered it, but then, when I get here, it always is!
Since my trip in early May was too soon for green-up, it seems to me like there is more green now, even though it is fall. As I come up to Emigrant the sun comes out and transforms what was already beautiful into astonishment. I have been loving the subtle difference in the greens, yet as the sun hits the landscape it draws out a blonde gorgeousness - and it‘s just too much! I see several horses in a field and one sweet yearling tossing its head, a tuft of grass in its mouth. Now I see a hawk diving and mule deer standing still in the flats to the left as I approach Yankee Jim Canyon.
When I reach Gardiner, I check my cell phone and find two messages. One is from Ballpark Frank, whom I had planned to meet near Blacktail Deer Creek trailhead. His message is that the Loon hike he was leading ended early due to inclement weather so I should look for them at Albright instead. The second message is from Loon Cathy W. I learn that, alas, she and Mike have left the Park a day early due to an unusually rainy visit. I am sorry to miss them, but Cathy leaves me some precious wolf news. Thanks CathyW!
The Park looks gorgeous under the now-steady rain as I ascend Gardiner Canyon. I see elk right away, and another large herd on the lawns of Mammoth. I wave hello to Allison and then pull into Albright because I see a large flock of Loons on the porch! I head straight over and get hugs from Ballpark, Dan M, Shining Aspen and Bison (Darryl). I also meet some new (to me) Loons: Frank M and JJ. What a great welcome! We stand together on the porch for a while as the rain beats down and I hear about their hike. And they tell me of a plan to get together tonight at Outlaws, with even more Loons. I promise I will be there but ask them to understand that right now I need to get out to Lamar. They all have errands of their own so we bid farewell until later.
On my way east I see more elk: strutting bulls and nonchalant cows. I also see many bison, especially in areas I have not seen them before. When I reach Undine Falls I run into a thick fog and wonder if I will make it out to Lamar at all. But just past Lava Creek the rain stops and the skies begin to clear.
There are many bison near Blacktail Ponds and I see a lovely orange aspen tree on my way through Hellroaring, then a second one. The vistas to the north are stunning. And by the time I get to Floating Island Lake I have a patch of blue sky above me. The lake, however, has hardly any water in it at all.
I find more bison and also pronghorn in Little America. A herd of bison crosses the road and I happily stop to watch them. Then just before the Slough Creek turnout I see two cars pulled off the road. Three or four people have their scopes aimed at a herd of bison about half-way up Specimen Ridge. I don’t recognize any of the people and don’t realize they are seeing wolves. It’s still raining slightly so I get back in Honey and drive on through the Canyon and into the beautiful Lamar Valley.
At the confluence I stop to watch some ducks, then move on to the footbridge where I see a herd of about 30 bison. And wouldn’t you know it? The sun comes out! I take a photo of the blue sky as proof to show the Loons later. The smell of sage in the air here is fantastic. I watch the herd and notice one very small calf with its mom. Its coat still retains a reddish brown color and may indeed be one of those late-born calves Doug Dance talks about in his soon-to-be-published book "Once Around The Sun - in Yellowstone".
In terms of people and cars, I find the Park quite empty. I must confess this is the way I like it, at least on my first day. I love seeing Loons and spending time with them and with my wolfer friends, but what I crave most when I first arrive is solitude and natural beauty. This is exactly what I get in Lamar.
After a nice, restful time here I head back west. When I see that the cars just past Slough are still here I stop and set up Layla. I listen to the soft chatter and realize that indeed, these people have been watching wolves, the Slough Creek Pack. 11 of them were seen yesterday in Lamar and they are now here, resting above a kill they probably made last night. At the moment they are bedded out of sight in the trees, except for two grays in high grass right at the edge. Those two have been lifting up their heads from time to time. I didn’t see any of this: I am relating what the other people saw. I strain my eyes and finally catch movement - ears - and finally I see a gray wolf head. Just that quick glimpse and the head and ears disappear in the grass. Hah! Welp, looks like that’s all I’m going to get.
If I stick around till dusk these wolves will likely move enough for me to see them better, but I don’t want to miss tonight’s Loonion so I thank the people for their help and stow Layla inside Honey.
The journey back yields more pronghorn at Blacktail ponds and more bison, but when I reach the S-curves, the sky becomes the real show. There is a fog bank on one side, a rainstorm on the other and blue sky ahead. At the western edge of the fogbank, the sun peeks through the clouds in multiple sunbeams, streaking down like the “hand of God”. It is wild and dramatic and I love it.
As I reach Mammoth I see one big bull elk guarding his harem of cows and calves on the parade grounds and another big bull near the ice machine with his herd of cows. The bulls bugle at each other, back and forth. Then a third bull appears, trotting around a corner. The ice-machine bull is the bigger of the two and he immediately goes after the smaller guy. The smaller guy gets the message and leaves, pronto. The victorious bull further expresses himself by thrashing his antlers in a willow bush.
At Outlaws I hook up with all the Loons I met at Albright earlier, and I meet two new-to-me Loons; Paul and Carol. I especially enjoy talking to them as I find Paul something of a philosopher. Two Original Loons, my good friends Geri and Bruce are here too and I am so glad that we didn‘t miss each other again! Thanks Oldtymers! And I am in for more delightful surprises when John and Carlene join us, followed by none other than Roadie. We have a great time eating pizza and yakking. Yay Loons! You rock!
After a long Loon goodbye on the porch of Outlaws, I drive the short distance back to the Yellowstone Village Inn. I am so glad to be here again and I reflect on the rewards of the day. I have found the break I needed on the drive out to Lamar; the golden serenity of Lamar Valley has calmed and restored me. And I am grateful for the Loons, whose love and laughter surround and support me and have gotten me back on track.
And now for some sleep!
Today I saw: antelope, bison, mule deer, ducks, 1 bald eagle, elk, 1 hawk, horses, 1 Slough Creek wolf (head and ears only!), 13 Loons and the spirit of Allison.