As I get coffee this morning in the in the kitchenette of the Inn, I feel a warm breeze through the open window. It smells fresh and moist, like June.
First light arrives at Blacktail Plateau and as I drive east, the sky grows prettier and prettier as low-lying clouds reflect the changing light. There are a thousand and one faces of Yellowstone and every one is beautiful.
There is a mule deer fawn in the trees as I cross the Yellowstone bridge, and at Boulder pullout I meet the day’s first bison herd. The morning would hardly be complete without bison in the road, now, would it? But in human terms it is quiet this morning. I’ve seen only one other car since I made the turn to Mammoth. It’s Saturday, where is everybody?
Oh man! Sunrise in Lamar is a real stunner today. Glorious gold and orange and peach and salmon and violet all at once.
I pull over at Jackson Grade and climb up to join the wolfers up here with Rick. I see Frank and Kay from Texas, Pauline and John from the Netherlands, and stalwarts Jan and Bill. On my last day in the Park we have 13 Slough wolves in the eroded area just southeast of the Druids’ old rendezvous site. The alphas are here, and so is big, black 489 (Uncle Bubba) and the big reliable gray, 377.
There are two large bull elk grazing about a quarter of a mile from these wolves. They might be the very same two that these wolves chased yesterday morning, but the Sloughs seem utterly disinterested in them. Then the Slough’s begin to howl. A full-throated, group howl, followed by some distant single voices which seem to come from the timbered slopes at the base of Amethyst Mountain. Perhaps they are the two missing grays? Then we hear a coyote response from the west, followed by a coyote response from the east and finally, another long and soul-filling group howl by the Sloughs.
I see a gray pup on the ground and two blacks wrestling with it. It looks like the blacks are chewing on something and sure enough they are chewing on the gray! But it is all in play and actually very cute.
One of the black ones tosses a stick or a bone repeatedly in the air. The adults rest tolerantly to the side while these three are continue their rowdy play.
I enjoy watching the interesting interaction between alpha female 380 and the pups. They are very rambunctious and I see her dominate them. She has a habit of rearing up on her hind legs and jumping on them, which makes her look like a pup herself, until you see her follow that behavior with a clamp on the muzzle of the “offending” pup.
While we watch, Rick fills us in with news of other packs: One of the remaining collared Swan Lake wolves was seen traveling with two other wolves. And he says it is now thought very probable that 302 is 21’s nephew. I love this idea. It certainly explains why 21 always stopped short of killing 302. He had chance after chance and always let him go.
It’s a gorgeous day and very warm. When the sun tops Norris, it casts its golden light along a line of aspen and we all murmur in appreciation of the sight. But alas, the time has come for me to leave. I wish everyone good sightings and thank them for their help. When I drive past the lone aspen tree in Lamar Canyon I notice it is finally turning yellow. As I pass Boulder pullout I see bison rubbing and scraping their itchy sides against the big rocks.
I see a family of mule deer just past the Tower Ranger station: a buck, a doe and a little fawn. A chipmunk dashes across road just before the Elk Bowl. More rambunctious bison are bucking and head-butting in the flats of Blacktail plateau.
I pull into the Rescue Creek trailhead and find Ballpark and Roadie already here, with new Loons (to me) Jackie and Phil. They are Chicagoans who have recently moved to Montana, very classy and fun and I really enjoy getting to know them on this hike. We pack up and then head straight up a wide flank of Mt. Everts. The day is utterly gorgeous: breezy and sunny - perfect hiking weather. Phil and Jackie are strong hikers and I am slowing us down right away with my huffing and puffing, but they are forgiving. We hear a lot of elk bugling and see a golden eagle soar by.
The views are stunning. We see hidden lakes and pockets of trees that you’d NEVER know were there from the road. Roadie shows us where the old road was once upon a time. We can see Gardiner and Jardine, too. And I see Above The Rest where I stayed during my first winter trip. I find the hill extremely steep and hard to climb but the views and the eerie echoing sound of elk make it all worth it.
When we stop for a breather, about 2/3rds of the way up, I see a bedded herd of bison, and hear a distant bugling elk. Oh, there he is, high on a windswept hill with his harem of cows. His bugling intensifies and, then, in an age-old drama, a challenger appears from a stand of trees. These two rivals seem identical in size and before we know it they have lowered their heads and…BAM! Their antlers smash into each other and we watch them struggle furiously against each other. The challenger is quickly forced backwards 20, 30, 40 feet by the other. In an instant he breaks free and dashes away, leaving the victor alone on the hill. That was cool!
We continue to climb until we reach a windy, rocky ridge with many low-growing bushes clinging to the bare soil. The bushes are junipers I think, very tough. We find some stone circles and see far below us the beginning of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. There is a lot of flaky shale and other rocks on this hilltop, and some petrified wood, too. And, as always when I hike off trail, I see vast tracks of unexplored land and wonder about the others who may have once walked where we do now.
From here we head east and wander through high, dry meadows and scattered rocks and stumps. Stands of aspen and pine grow in each drainage and there is significant blow-down. Further on we meet thicker forest and our group splits in two as we walk through it, though we are always close enough to call to each other as we explore different routes. We hook up again on a high bluff and see a very large herd of elk moving out of a hollow into the trees.
There is a great deal of lovely fall color in these forests and I see some of the tallest aspen I’ve ever seen. Their bright yellow leaves shimmering in the wind against the perfect blue sky are a sight to behold. The women in the group eventually prevail upon the men to halt for lunch. At the next pocket of trees just below the ridge line we see a perfect spot with several large fallen trunks suitable as chairs and table. We sit and rummage in our packs for food. Although the sun is warm and I am glad for the breeze, a steady wind after exertion makes me chilly so I‘m glad I brought my fleece jacket.
We chat and joke and share our food, and then tell stories of past hikes. In no time at all we are completely relaxed and lie back to look up at the sky. Soon we are finding and naming shapes in the clouds floating above. We call our spot The Aspen Room. I find many “eyes” in the tall trunks rising above us.
After this delightful stop we pack up and head further east. Frank’s plan includes finding some huge old Douglas firs, one of his favorite trees. We continue across several high ridges and I try hard to figure out where we are from points I know on the road but I can’t. We find an elk antler stuck in a double-trunked pine. It looks like the tree’s own growth has wedged it tighter, year after year.
We hike further and arrive at small creek, lined with aspen. Nearly all these trees have already lost their leaves and the floor of the forest is beautifully carpeted in yellow. A small pond holds hundreds of leaves on its quiet, reflexive surface reminding me of a scene from the film “The House Of Flying Daggers”.
After exploring this area we begin to aim south, following a game trail along the creek, passing some, erm, unusually shaped trees. Eventually we reach a rocky south-facing bluff which becomes steeper and rockier, just when my knees are beginning to get sore!
Then we cross the creek again and come to a fascinating sight - the remains of a huge spring flood which nearly destroyed a wide, long slope. The grass is flattened and still muddied, and the water washed huge boulders and foot-ball sized rocks down from above. The slope is well above the banks of the regular stream bed, and the other side of the stream shows no such damage, so this was most likely not just the stream over-running its banks. Frank’s theory is that water and snow-melt built up behind a temporary dam of logs and rocks higher up on this slope, only to suddenly burst, unleashing the full power of the water and debris and damage on the unsuspecting slope below, where we now walk. We find many animal bones, but they are widely scattered, which fits Franks theory, of being washed down from above in a sudden flood.
Finally we reach a section of “old forest” full of the Douglas giants that Frank enjoys. We are also startled by a grouse which flaps suddenly up from the ground to the safety of an inner branch of one of these trees. The grouse sits very still and is nearly impossible to see.
We continue down hill until we reach open, rolling meadows and come upon the Rescue Creek Trail which we now follow back to the cars. We see wide meadows ahead and several pronghorn roaming within them. Suddenly another creature dashes from cover and streaks across the meadow toward the river. It is a rabbit, of that we are sure, but it is so astonishingly fast I wonder if it’s a jackrabbit. The consensus is that it was probably a summer-phase snowshoe hare from its color and size. I think it covered six or seven feet each time it leaped! Wow! It ran as fast as an antelope.
We are hot and thirsty when we reach the cars and I cool off in my favorite way: by soaking my head and feet in the river. Frank presents us with his usual gift of ice-cold sodas. Thank you, Frank, for another marvelous hike! We celebrate further by heading into town for dinner at the wonderful Park Street Grille. We are joined by Brutus and Tilly and have a really great meal and even better conversation. Jackie and Phil are planning to be in NYC around Thanksgiving so we make plans to meet.
Now comes the part I like the least, saying goodbye. However, I do like the fact that my trip both began and ended with Loons. I head back to the Inn for my last night.
Today I saw: antelope, bison, a chipmunk, 2 coyotes, mule deer, elk (including bulls fighting), a grouse, a rabbit, ravens, 13 Slough Creek wolves (including 490, 380, 489 and 377) 6 Loons and the spirit of Allison