Friday Sept 17th
Today I got up extra early and watched the dawn come blazing over the Madison River to the tune of various Elk whistles. Got some great photos. I have to find someone who can scan them so you all can see, too. Watched a bull Elk chase another bull away and then he chased the cow the other one was after. Man, they can really move when they want to!
Then off towards Mammoth and Lamar. Now I really start to see the fall color: The trees don’t show it so much like they do back East except of course for the gloriously golden aspen but it’s the ground cover, the low shrubs and berry bushes that turn all sorts of wondrous shades of orange, red, salmon, yellow and ocher. On this day I noticed how many less people were in the Park. I had nearly every turnout from Norris Junction through Willow Park to myself. The only ones with cars were the major trailheads. Didn’t see a lot of animals along here but the scenery was stunning. Stopped at the Sheepeater cliffs picnic area for lunch – had never seen this before. What a gorgeous spot! And then the section around Swan Lake where it widens out and you can see the high mountains in the distance…well it was simply magnificent.
Mammoth is not really my favorite area. It’s a bit crowded for my tastes but of course I did appreciate the clean restrooms, the Ham store where I could buy film and snacks and the rather necessary gas station! On the front lawn of one of the employee houses a big bull Elk guarded his cows and calves. It was a little silly-looking, but I suppose the grass was tasty and the ladies rested comfortably in the shade. The happy tourists took pictures from a respectful distance -the calmest group I ever saw with Elk this close. Gave me hope.
I drove to the famous North East entrance, never having seen it before and was treated to the sight of three pronghorns moving up a draw into the sage hills. And to see and hear the gorgeous Gardner River was worth it all by itself. Does anyone know why sometimes it’s spelled Gardiner and other times Gardner? I love how different the various areas of the Park are; it is so huge and has so many landscapes in it – just when you think you’re familiar with one, it changes right in front of you.
Just past the Children’s Fire Trail turnout I spotted another pronghorn. Then a whole hilllside covered in red fireweed with cottony tufts at their tops. It was so beautiful, running upslope amid the new-green pines and next to the whitened bark of the dead trees…well, it took my breath away! Beyond that was a boulder field with more fireweed and if that weren’t enough - just as I went to change film, on the slope above was a WOLF! Well – I can’t be absolutely certain because it (he? she?) wasn’t there very long. What a time to be out of film!!! The animal I saw was whitish-gray, very distinct from the coyotes I had already seen. In the heat of the moment I didn’t remember Doug Dance’s advice about ear size and nose shape. It stood stock still right on top of the ridge. I can’t rule out wishful thinking here, but I was struck by the animal’s confidence - unlike the kind of “furtive” movements I had noticed in coyotes.
Plus it seemed bigger and its legs were really long. But it really was only there for maybe a minute and then it moved, disappearing over the ridge. I drove back to the other side hoping for another glimpse but never saw it. I caught my breath (my heart was pounding!), changed film and waited a long time, glassing the hills – but there were so many places he may have gone and many places to hide. So on I went, and took the Blacktail Plateau Drive – which, like my Chat Page pals said, was OPEN! It had been closed on my first trip so I was very happy. Be sure to include this on your MUST SEE list. It is a gorgeous road although a little bumpy and rough. Every turn showed me more beautiful aspen or glowing fall-colored meadows.
You can see where the road must have collapsed at a creek crossing. Thank you, NPS for doing the hard work it must have taken to fix it! After a while you enter a forested section that winds around, full of even more spectacular fireweed patches. All the while, of course, I was hoping to see my wolf, but no such luck. I did see a blacktail deer, though, which I felt was exceedingly appropriate.
I went on to Lamar and even though I had just seen it the day before, it seemed even more wild and beautiful. It could have been the light – just before sunset. I glassed the valley from top to bottom but only saw a few buffalo. I took up residence at the big turnout and waited hopefully for a sound or sight of the Druids but it was not to be. Had some pleasant conversation with a few photographers and a Swiss couple who carried their little baby in a backpack – they took a short hike out across the meadows to the Lamar River but came back before too long.
The moon rose and the light began to dim. A breeze came up and I put on a wool shirt. I wrote in my journal with the sounds and smells of Lamar about me. I wrote by flashlight for a little while but then reluctantly gave up and headed North to Silver Gate and the Grizzly Lodge. My headlights caught some deer in a forested section of the road, nonchalantly eating grass just off the road, one on each side. It made me slow down.
I was struck by the way Yellowstone rewards you. As soon as you stop expecting to see something, you see something. This became a recurring theme. I drove the last 15 minutes more slowly and my imagination ran wild with all the possible animals just over there. If only I could see in the dark!
Saturday- Sept 18th
I’m happy to corroborate the good reports I’ve had of the Grizzly Lodge. It’s close, clean and comfy. And comparatively cheap! Got up dark and early next day to head right back to Lamar. And I mean DARK! No moon and frost all over the car. No one was manning the entrance gate and since it was Saturday I didn’t even have construction trucks for company. As I passed Pebble Creek it was first light. I had to stop and listen.
Sure enough, I heard the eerie reverberation of Elk. It was impossible to tell if they were close or far, far away. A few honks of geese. I noted the night progress of a trio of bison from the evening before. No bear, no wolves. Met a couple from Idaho who were there to see the Druids. They had driven from West Yellowstone and as they crossed Dunraven Pass in the dark they surprised a pair of grizzly cubs. To my everlasting delight (and theirs) they had captured the sight on their night-vision video camera and they showed me the footage! Big, healthy-looking cubs, loping easily in the road. You could see the glisten of their fur and the ripple of thick muscles underneath. The mother made no appearance but was, no doubt very close. I don’t think that counts as a bear sighting for me but I was happy to see it anyway.
We three decided to move down the valley to try another spot. Around the picnic area we noticed a few spotting scopes all pointing in the same direction so we got hopeful again. A nice couple from Shelly, Idaho seemed to be the veterans, so I stuck close to them. We got no wolves but we did see a lone pronghorn watching something – another coyote!
That made six for me so far. I moved on and glassed a hilltop where the July before I had spied a mother griz and her playful cubs. It was barely dawn and mighty cold and therefore a little hard to hold the binocs very long. No bear today. Instead I watched some anglers make their way to the river and a hunting bird soaring around (too far away to tell but it may have been an eagle.) It was VERY high. I spent time listening to what seemed like a million birds chattering and squabbling in a lone tree where Soda Creek joins Lamar.
Further on I saw another pronghorn trotting along the hill
above the Slough Creek road. I got some funny photos of ducks on a pond chasing each other, squawking and bluffing,
especially the little feisty ones with black and white heads. And I just loved looking out at the hills - with those weird
grey boulders and their distinctive pale-green lichen spots. They have a strange effect on me, those boulders. Something
about the way they’re spaced – one, then one, then one, with so much room between. A little like Stonehenge. No,
they look like people. Solitary people standing. I know, they say they are boulders left behind by melting glaciers
thousands of years ago. But I have another theory. I think they’re are statues of PEOPLE left behind - people like us,
who leave something of ourselves in Lamar, to watch and to wait, until the day we can come back again.
Sunday Sept 19th
Another day I paid a visit to the geyser basins that I hadn’t had time for last year: Firehole Lake Drive, Midway, Biscuit and Black Sand Basins - how do I describe the wonders there? All I can say is, GO! You can take pictures of a bubbling blue pool but how do you describe the whoosh and sshhhh sounds that accompany it and change every second, much less the feel of warm wet steam creeping over your skin or hair on an otherwise dry sunny day? And what about the smells? Not that I LIKE the rotten-egg smell that you get sometimes but it’s part of the experience and it helps remind people (I think) of the danger beneath the pretty colors.
Saw lots of Elk and Bison on the way to Old Faithful. Watched as two big old bulls caused a big stir among first-timers just by browsing the grass by the creek between the Inn and the store. I guess I should confess that I’m not really immune. I took a picture too!
Back at Madison I heard a weather report that said maybe snow but definitely rain. You could see thick clouds coming in. But the night passed and no rain fell.