I leave Bozeman for the Park around noon. I've had two great days here, visiting neighbors, buying furniture, and making plans for the future. I take the western route along Gallatin Canyon. Everything is so green: the sky has cleared from the last two days of rain and the air retains a wonderful crisp edge.
The drive is gorgeous and varied and I feel so lucky to be here seeing it. I pass a beatiful palomino and see some "farmed" bison. Right about the time that I cross the border and enter the Park in that high marshy area north of Grayling Creek, I start to see wildlife: several elk, a few bison, lots of waterfowl and soaring raptors. I stop for a short break and see two moose!
I get to West at 1:40 and for once I don't need to stop for any forgotten groceries or camping supplies. As I near the gate I notice an express lane for those with passes and happily skip the three other backed-up lanes. Things look pretty dry in West and remain so all along the Madison. The river itself looks great - bright blue and running just an inch or two below its banks.
Soon after, I am treated to my first bison jam: a fairly large herd with darling orange babies grazes on the far side of Madison right at the water's edge. It makes a nice picture and I am not the only one who thinks so! As I pass the eagle nest I see a series of orange plastic cones, several of them knocked down. I can't believe my eyes when I see the car in front of me pull in between two knocked-down cones and stop, right smack in front of the "no stopping" sign. I slow down and lower the passenger side window to give the person a piece of my mind. As I do so, the driver gets OUT OF HIS CAR. I think to myself, "the NERVE of this guy!" Just as I am about to unleash a righteous diatribe I see the guy's uniform. He's a ranger!!!! He looks over at me and I burst out laughing. I confess "I was just about to yell at you!". He grins and says "Good!" then adds "I'm just fixing the cones". He proceeds to do just that and I wave and drive on, chucking to myself.
At Seven Mile bridge I see a nice mixed herd of elk and bison. I pull over to look for elk calves but don't see any. The grass is high here, though, which could certainly conceal them. I notice snow on the top of National Park Mountain. At 2PM I reach Madison Campground and find it full. Nevertheless, I stop to fill up my water jugs and to cruise through the campground nostalgically, remembering early trips. Then I head out for the Northern Range.
All along the Gibbon Canyon I see small groups of elk and bison. The Gibbon looks good and I am happy to report that the road is still in excellent shape. Just past Beryl Spring I notice many cars pulled over and people taking pictures. There is plenty of room so I stop too, thinking perhaps they are watching a bear. But it's an elk mother and her new calf! She is on the far side of the river, in a patch of trees. The calf is probably only a day old. It has risen to its feet but stays close to mom and I cannot see its head or neck, just its legs. Mom is very, very wary. I wonder if she tolerates the relative closeness of the road and people as a precaution against predators?
About a mile beyond this I see my first bull elk in pretty velvet. He is gorgeous and I can't help but wonder if he's the baby daddy?
I get to Norris Campground at 2:40 and take note that it is not full at the moment. I think to myself if I can't get into Tower I will likely come here. I slow down for three big bull bison, lumbering along the road just past Frying Pan. I stop in Willow Park to scan for elk mothers and possible calves. I find plenty of moms but see no little ones. But this area is as likely an elk calf nursery as any.
I stop again at Swan Lake Flats and find two sandhills. I'm sure they have a nest somewhere but I am unable to find it. I scan for the Swan Lake grizzly but without luck. There is little traffic and I just cruise along, grinning from ear to ear, so happy to be seeing the familiar mountain shapes on the horizon and the green, green grass and sage-lands stretching away on both sides.
As I descend through the Golden Gate into Mammoth I enjoy seeing how lush it looks! Mammoth is not always very green so I know I'm hitting it at a very opportune time. The Park has received rain for the last five days and the ground has lapped it up with pleasure.
I'm early to meet Mark R so I drive over to the base of Kite Hill and have a visit with Allison. The sun peeks out a little and warms my face and hands. Then I walk over to Albright and head inside. I discover the upstairs gallery, which I shamefully admit I knew nothing about! As much as I prefer my animals alive to stuffed, I am glad to see it's here. Next I head over to the eastern corner of Mammoth across from the chapel and set up Layla. I focus on the high slopes of Blacktail. To my delight I find grazing elk dots. Soon there are cars pulled over on both sides of me looking in the direction I am looking. I think I may have just started a No-Am-Jam (no animal).
At 5PM I head over to the hotel to meet Mark R. A young man strides out, tall and handsome and smiling at me. I was expecting the boy I knew - yet this red-head IS a man, and he is my friend Mark R - all grown up and hiking-trim. He hops in Blue Sue and off we go towards Lamar.
Although we had talked of the possibility of hiking up to Trout Lake, I tell Mark I'm worried about heading into Lamar, believing that its hypnotizing effect on me will prevent me from visiting other areas of the Park. Then I learn that the Dunraven road has just opened today, having been delayed by yesterday's snow. Seeing an area that has been inaccessible all winter is tempting to both of us so we decide to head there, jabbering all the way.
But first we stop at the Children's Fire Trail to see if we can find the coyote pups we've been hearing about. Alas the pups have been moved, most likely due to the sudden increase in human visitation that the Memorial Day weekend inevitably brings. We find ourselves quite windblown up here and do see an adult coyote, casually trot across the parking lot and the road.
On we go. I make Mark laugh by squealing in delight at the bright spring green on the aspen as we cruise through the Blacktain Plateau. The bright green against the darker pines has always been a beloved sight to me. We stop again within sight of the Petrified Tree road. A large black bear jam has developed and we are lucky in that the bear has crossed the road ahead of us and wanders within camera view on our left. No traffic blocks our view of him because cars have been abandoned all over the road, doors wide open and people are clicking away while the unperterbed bear grazes in the deadfall.
Finally someone inches passed the abandoned vehicles and traffic flows once more. Mark and I smile, suspecting there may be more to come.
We see some pronghorn and mule deer as we cruise along this beautiful area, and soon we are heading uphill. We stop at the pullout opposite the overhang cliff - where the osprey nest is visible. We find two scopes already set up and their owners willing to share. We find the nest with our binocs and note the single adult sitting on it, looking around attentively. Nice!
We continue up the hill and pass another black bear jam. Then on we go to the top and I am thrilled to see this gorgeous area once again. We set up the scopes and Mark finds a grizzly in no time at all. We find several elk, mostly bulls and I search and search for Agate wolves but find none. It is quite windy up here and I enjoy seeing the patches of snow melting quietly in various spots. It is amazingly green and so soothing to see.
There are a few lone bison in the flats below but what really makes the evening special is the birdsong. Meadowlarks abound, as well as various other songbirds. This is soul-soothing of the highest order. It's as peaceful as a good night's sleep.
After a while we turn our thoughts to dinner and so head back down. This time we have a moose jam - he's down in the ravine of Antelope Creek. We see another moose at the curve below the Petrified Tree road and the usual amount of bison, elk and mule deer.
Once we are down in Gardiner I see nothing but "No Vacancy" signs. I was always prepared to sleep in the car but I have never seen Gardiner full up! Mark and I are in the mood for a quiet dinner, so we choose the Antler. Imagine my delight when I learn that the chef from the Park Street Grill (which closed last year) is now working at the Antler! I did not hesitate before ordering his trademark "Crazy Mountain Alfredo". Yum!
My wonderful first day ends with a glimpse of a bright, nearly-full moon and all those brilliant Montana stars shining down on the silhouetted mountains where Allison rests in peace.
Today I saw: antelope, 1 grizzly bear, 1 black bear, bison (and bison calves), 1 coyote, 2 sandhill cranes, mule deer, elk (and 1 elk calf), meadowlarks, 4 moose, 1 osprey, 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison.