Thursday Sept 23rd
In the frosty morning when we woke to the alarm call of the llamas. First one, then another then another. I peeked out of the tent. It was mighty cold and barely light and I could see Jill and Dave already up, looking into the trees with their big binoculars. That pretty much told me it was not a bear. What it was, was a moose. Two moose.
A big bull and his lady-love. He stood about 100 feet away just at the edge of the meadow, nicely framed by two tall firs. His wide antlers were white from rubbing on branches, showing off for his lovely girlfriend. We watched her as she watched him, entranced, as he moved into a thicket and began to thrash away. Jill and Dave warned that bulls are always dangerous but with a cow to impress, this one was liable to be more aggressive than usual. I assured them I had no intention of getting any closer. I was perfectly content to watch the slow and ageless drama play out before me. The llamas had quieted down by now but remained alert, watching with us. I had trouble with my binoculars fogging up from my breath in the cold. I tried my camera but it, too, fogged up from my breath before I could get it focused! (By the way, camera experts – is there a simple trick to avoid this? No fair saying “don’t breathe”, Buck!) Fifteen minutes later the bull moved out of sight into the timber and his darling trailed after. And then the llamas alarmed again. On the opposite side of the meadow two large dark shapes appeared. Two more bull moose. From the size of their racks they were babies compared to the big bull. They stood motionless staring at the strange animals in their meadow. The llamas quieted again, now seemingly unconcerned. As we ate our breakfast we watched the young males make their slow progress around the outside of the meadow, giving the llamas a wide berth but still going about their business. They took the exact same path as the old bull and his babe. I thought to myself, this was a lot better than scaring Elk on a road.
Later that morning after sufficient amounts of coffee, as we took our turns “walking up the hill” one of us was quite surprised to find the old bull thrashing around a mere twenty feet from the “throne” one of us was sitting on. Yeah. It was me. I never EVER meant to be that close to a moose and believe me I wasn’t that close for long. I ran so fast the leaves came off the trees. The others got a good laugh but after I calmed down I got my camera and went back up for some pictures since the old bull was still there. Now we call it my “moose on the crapper” story. It was the gulping noise he made that made me turn around. I’ll never forget the “get outta here” look he gave me!
We finally got all packed up and set off to our next campsite, near the eastern border of the Park. Walking across the meadows we could see the Tetons behind us in the distance. A little later I spotted a great grey owl. I can still feel its heavy body gliding silently into the trees. We saw numerous hawks and eagles, a coyote trotting into a clearing and a sage grouse walking casually along a log.
Once we had set up camp we took a side hike to Dunanda Falls, soaked in the natural hot tubs and climbed up under the waterfall, getting alternately misted and pummeled by the cascade. I found a long beautiful feather that we decided was from a sandhill crane.
Dave did some fishing and we lazed around, enjoying the warm afternoon. It was Stella's birthday so we had an extra special meal tonight and sang songs around the campfire under a full moon.
Friday, Sept 24th
We awoke to rain. A soft drizzle, just enough to remind us we were still in wilderness, not the fairy-tale land so easily believed in Bechler. We joked that at least we finally got to use the rain gear we’d been carrying. We heard rutting Elk every day and night of this trip, but this morning one of them seemed so close we thought he was in the next tent but we never did see it.
Our hike out was a little melancholy, at least for me. Again I marveled at the way water affects color. There were breathtaking patches of yellow and green; slopes of graduated color from brown to red to orange to gold. We made two more water-crossings – easy for me now – and met some cowboys going the other way.
We saw another sage grouse – it’s weird how close they let you get. If I were lost and hungry I hope I’d run into one of them! At one point on the trail I had let the others get way ahead of me while I stopped to take a picture. I had also lost sight of Dave, the only one behind me. Suddenly my llama bolted. I was able to stop him but suddenly two of Dave’s llamas came galloping toward me, loose, and Dave was nowhere to be seen! I had a moment of panic as I imagined the worst cause for this but I was able to grab the llamas’ lead ropes as they rushed past. If it was a bear at least I now had the protection of three llamas. I yelled “Hey” several times rather loudly, trying to figure out whether I should stay put or venture back to check on Dave. Jill answered my call from the front and very soon appeared just as Dave also came around the bend, leading his remaining llama. Nothing at all had really happened: he had been re-arranging the walking order and temporarily had lost his grip on his lead llama. Llamas get a little frisky on the homeward trail (just like horses do) and feeling free, they decided to quicken their pace to home. We agreed that in future if I wanted to stop for a photo that I’d call out to request a general halt. I felt bad that I had worried everyone over nothing but I guess I learned another lesson. I expect I’ll now be able to tell the difference between a bear-frightened llama and one that’s merely homesick!
There was a mighty wind blowing across the plains of Idaho as we drove the long road back but as we crossed Teton Pass the sun came out again. I said a tearful farewell to Jill and Dave, Sheila, Stella, Diane and Sherman, with many promises of doing it again, and we went our separate ways. Mine was back to Colter Bay. But first I stopped at the Elk refuge to watch a pair of swans and countless geese and ducks feeding and squabbling in Flat Creek. The scene was bathed in golden evening light. I kept hearing a high-pitched raptor-call but couldn’t locate the bird. Finally I looked right above my head and saw on the telephone pole what I think was an osprey (its head was black and white). Whatever it was it was beautiful. It called a few more times. I sighed at it all and headed on. The Tetons rewarded me with a spectacular sunset display, much of which I was lucky enough to preserve on film.
Saturday Sept 25th
The next morning was very different. It was MUCH colder and the mighty wind from Idaho had arrived. Branches were blown down everywhere and some gusts were downright fierce. I kept my hat and gloves on as I drove back to the most wonderful Park in the world for my last three days of freedom.
As I came down Craig Pass and got those first sweeping views I was amazed at the amount of dust in the air. I was first fearful that it was smoke. The sky was thick with a grey-brown fog. It wasn’t what I’d call pretty but I suppose it was “natural” and I had certainly never seen such a phenomenon before. I became more aware of the trees overhanging the road, half expecting the many burnt skeletons to topple into the road before me. Whenever I stopped to take a photo I would hear distinct snapping sounds – some near, some far, of individual trees cracking or falling to the ground.
I got back to Madison, set up my tent and took off again to explore. The Madison River proved itself the place to be - Elk in abundance, and this being Saturday, I passed one Elk-jam after another. My favorite setting was in a sparse, formerly burned forest with high green grass between the trees and a very large herd scattered throughout. I stood on a log for the longest time just watching through my binocs. At one point I heard repeated bleating sounds. It was a calf in the high grass close to the road. After about five of these pitiful bleats I was relieved to hear an answering call from a cow that could only have been his mother. Due to the height of the grass you could see how easy it would be for them to become separated. She moved towards him calling out in a lower, calmer voice sounding downright cow-like and finally he began to move in her direction. Their actual reunion was blasé – not “Hollywood” in the least. The calf saw mom, walked past her a few steps and stopped. She lowered her head to graze and after a beat he did the same. I smiled at nature’s simplicity. Further on at another turnout a pair of swans were putting on a show to the delight of dozens of photographers. Later on the way back I spotted an eagle soaring. I pulled over and stopped as did the car behind me, another woman by herself. The eagle soared and swooped for just the two of us and we were thankful. I stopped at a turnout to gather downed wood for my fire (I don’t know if this is legal or not but I wasn’t secretive and no-one ever stopped me). At one of them I noticed what I took to be badger holes. They were really big! I’d say eight inches in diameter. (Please feel free to correct me – I’m only guessing)
Just as I rounded the turn where you can first see Madison campground another Elk herd of 20 or so was crossing the road. They went down the bank into a small meadow to graze. The Bull was one of the biggest I’d yet seen. 8 points! Back at the campground I took a stroll along the river and just listened to the wonderful sounds of early evening. Despite the many people I had passed in the campground and on the roads, I was the only one human on this patch of riverbank for almost an hour. No offense to any of my fellow YNP lovers but it was heavenly. Back at my campsite I had dinner, chatted with my neighbors - on my right two couples; one American, the other German and on my left a younger couple from Breckenridge, CO. I told them both I was going back to Lamar tomorrow and encouraged them to do the same. None of them had even heard of it!
As sunset began the sky above me let loose a final burst of color! I got a wonderfully weird picture of it – streaks of orange, yellow and pink framed by the black silhouettes of treetops. Shortly thereafter I was sitting in the cool dark, staring happily into my crackling fire. I turned in at 8PM and slept fine.