Allison's hill is the first thing I see this morning. It's still dark and a bit chilly - 42 degrees - but the birds are chattering and trilling and I feel refreshed. Off I go to the east.
I have no particular plan for the day, just to shed some accumulated stress - the wear and tear of the past gruelling months of work. Relief soon comes in the form of a gorgeous bull elk in velvet, who crosses the road near Phantom Lake. I pull over to watch him. What a stunningly gorgeous animal - in his prime, sleek and athletic.
Once he has departed, I drive on and decide to pull into Hellroaring Overlook. I have never been here so early in the morning by myself. I give myself a shiver thinking of mountain lions that have sometimes been visible in this area. I hear a soft rustle and see two mule deer looking up from below. We stare at each other a moment or two and then they walk into the trees and disappear.
I set up Layla and train her giant eye on the stunning landscape before me. Once again I hear a rustle below me, and, right where the deer were 5 minutes ago, there is now a fat black bear. He grazes contentedly and does not look up at me. Behind me I hear a soft and low "hooo" then a pause, then another "hooo". Owl, I suppose, but the sound is unusual for owl sounds I've heard before - just one note without vibrato.
The light is still dim as there is quite a bit of cloud cover. I scope the flats to the right and the high mountain flanks straight ahead. Then I turn left, and scope the spot where Chloe and Becky and I once saw the Geode pack. A dark shape catches my eye and suddenly I am seeing a black wolf! Wow! It trots casually past a low white oval, which might be a pond or an un-melted snow patch. I have it in sight for maybe a minute and then it is gone. I look up and train my binoculars on the spot, suddenly thinking there may be more wolves. I scan hopefully but never see any more. Belatedly I check my watch. 6:30.
Eventually I head east. I see two black bears before I get to Tower: one from Rick's pullout and another to the right of the Ranger Station. Both are lone bears, happily grazing and grubbing. Not too many folk are out yet but the ones who are out seem happy to see these bruins. I am pulled towards Lamar and make the left turn but I end up stopping at Curve pullout to look at the green, green, green. It does my heart good to see it. I also scope the mountain ridge to the north where I saw the cougars in October. The birdsong I hear in Little America is so loud (in a good way!) it records on my little cassette. While I am doing this I see a bright flash of blue! A mountain bluebird. Wow! I wonder if the extra wonderful sounds this morning are coming from those beautiful creatures?
I am so tempted to keep going east but I promised myself I would not neglect the other areas of the Park as I so often do ever since I began my romance with Lamar. I know I will have time for wolf-watching later, so I force myself to head back west. I am rewarded with the sight of two gorgeous bighorn rams just above Wrecker pullout. I drive on, enjoying each view and each sound. I keep toying with an idea to head to the Tetons. I drive all the way back through Mammoth to Sheepeater Cliffs and have it all to myself. I watch the gorgeous Gardiner river/Indian Creek flowing by in mezmerizing crystal blue. I observe the antics of a couple of ravens and then I sit on a rock in the sun, watching the jumbled rocks for hoping to see the marmots.
Very soon I spot one, away from the rock jumble, close to the fishermen's trail along the bank. This marmot is yanking big tufts of grass from the ground, chewing and eating. Then he starts gathering grass instead of eating it; letting it droop from both sides of his mouth. He yanks more and more, until he has an impossibly large amount of grass in his jaws. Now he scampers back over the rocks, peering carefully this way and that, and finally disappearing into a crack. Moments later his head pops back out, sans grass! His climbs to a higher rock and stands for a moment on his hind legs, squeaks a time or two then lowers his full, fat body onto the flattest part of the rock and enjoys a sun-bake.
I head back to Mammoth and stop at the bottom of Kite Hill, intending to walk up a ways. Instead, I boil some water for coffee and sit on my tailgate having a cuppa joe and a bit of breakfast while I think about Allison. Somehow, doing this helps me to figure out how I want to spend the next 24 hours. In the short time I knew her, I always felt I could be totally open with Allison about my fears and worries. That part of her spirit has not changed one bit. Then I make a call to Ballpark Frank to get an update on Loon hikes planned for today and tomorrow. As much as I want to see my Loon friends, I know I am in deep need of soul-renewing solitude and Frank gives me the assurance I need that he (and other Loons) will understand if I miss a few social occasions.
I'm going to the Tetons!
I have not seen them for 6 years so it is high time for a visit. The day has turned sunny and bright and I feel ready for adventure. I start off towards Norris and on the way I see several shaggy bison, some pronghorn and a hawk in a tree. Then on my way over the pass to Canyon I am delighted to see the remnants of snow, thick, compressed drifts full of fallen cones and twigs, which has clearly been on the ground for quite a while.
At Canyon I take some time to check out the new Visitor Center. It's quite wonderful Someone has created a gigantic topo map of the whole Park, with great interactive exhibits. Lights outline the caldera and a good deal of the exhibit is devoted to the "super-volcano" aspect of the Park. And, in addition to being able to walk all around it, you can also peer at it from an encircling balcony, above.
Next I head into Hayden Valley and my first wildlife sighting is several bull elk in their usual, tourist-attracting spots. There are many bison as well, close to the road, along with their attendant tourist jams. Hayden Valley looks gorgeous and green but seems very empty. But when I stop I hear chorus frogs all over. I watch a group of geese on the Yellowstone and see one with an injured leg. Nevertheless this goose travels the same path as the others and keeps up quite well. I watch as they lower their heads to drink, then raise their long necks and tip back their heads to swallow.
As I near the Mud Volcano I see a huge jam ahead. I pull over and see it's all for a young grizzly on the river side of the road. He has just swum across and his dark coat is matted and wet. I say "young" simply because he looks fairly skinny and not too big, but of course I am just guessing!
A little later I see an even bigger jam ahead at the junction for Fishing Bridge. Cars line both sides of the road and I am unable to see it, so I climb half-way up my car roof. There she is! A large blonde grizzly is just visible, head down, in a slight depression at the far end of the meadow. Apparently she has been a regular visitor to this spot for weeks. There are three rangers here and they seem to have this jam well-controlled. I hear talk about her having cubs but I never see them. I watch her until her broad blonde back disappears into the line of trees.
My next stop is LeHardy Rapids to watch the pelicans. I watch them float along, then they take to the air, only to make spectacular splash-landings just upstream of where they started. On I go, into areas dark with lodgepole pines until suddenly I get my first view of Yellowstone Lake. It strikes me that I have not seen this natural beauty since 2002 - when I was here for the Thorofare hike. In several places I see snow on the lake edge and there are stunning views galore.
On and on I go, enjoying wonderful views I have not seen for years and years. I have forgotten the beauty of Lewis Lake, and Lewis Falls and even the high talus slopes that over-loom the road. Again I hear chorus frogs all along the Lewis River, even more pervasive than in Hayden. And then I come upon the wondrous views of Lewis Canyon. There are full, roaring waterfalls visible at each pullout and cascading down both sides of the road.
Shortly after this I get my very first glimpse of my eventual destination...
I come around a bend and SMACK! There they are! Oh beauty! Oh wonder! I have totally forgotten just how spectacular they are - how immense and impressive. Seriously, they have a such a presence, and a power, like charismatic people, like giants.
It makes me deliriously happy to see them.
The view only gets better as I continue, mile after mile. And when the mountain views are temporarily blocked, all around me I see previously burned hillsides and meadows, now chock-full of new willows and new-growth pines and so green and gorgeous I could just eat them! 8~)
I come over a rise and see the Snake River. It is low and wide and already full of fishermen. Shortly after this I get my first spectacular view of Jackson Lake and the enormous peaks bordering its far side. It's very hard to drive in this section with those gorgeous mountains demanding your attention but somehow I continue.
The turn for Colter Bay appears sooner than expected. Luck is with me because I get the second-last small cabin they have (the couple behind me gets the very last). Five more minutes and my only choice would have been a family-sized cabin (far bigger than I need and additionally expensive). I am handed the keys to a sweet little unit at the very end of the access road - giving me privacy and a lovely view of an open meadow.
After a refreshing shower and a change to cooler clothes I head down to the Bay. It is busy down here, but not what I'd call crowded. One lady is seated in a beach chair reading, a couple of picnicking families and a group of young men from Canada taking pictures and splashing along the shoreline.
I claim a secluded picnic table and boil up some water for soup. I sit and sip my noodles looking at grand and snowy Mt. Moran. The day has turned blissfully sunny and fine. My gorgeous view is accompanied by a nice breeze and the calls of gulls. I see geese and ducks further out on the lake and I enjoy seeing the various wildflowers growing in the grasses just off shore: bright yellow balsam-root, pink clover, prairrie smoke, the little white flowers that I think are either yarrow or cow parsnips, and deep-blue clematis.
It's been so long since I did this that every sight seems a new discovery. When I reach a section that I do remember a little, I find it that much more enjoyable. I see a pair of sandhills near Jackson Lake Dam. I take the Signal Mountain Road because I remember Veronica recommending it. The views at the top are well worth the drive and the interpretive signs are full of fascinating information. I see several elk herds from up here, too. And the gorgeous Snake river, um...snaking through the valley.
As I return to the parking lot I see a mountain fox snooping around, looking for scraps. I take his photo and he looks at me as if to say "you got anything to eat?" I take a few steps toward my car and he trots away. Then I notice a shape in the branch of the tree next to my car. It's a grouse. I wonder if the fox had been after the grouse?
I drive on to the next set of views (to the north) and see what looks like a storm forming over Mt. Moran. I follow the winding road back down and continue my cruise through the Park. The views remain dynamic and breathtaking, topping themselves around each curve. I see several bison in the meadows and a few pronghorn.
I am torn between taking the Jenny Lake drive and being at Oxbow Bend at dusk. I go with Oxbow Bend, because it means a shorter drive in the dark to my cabin. As I head back north the storm I saw grows ominous. I am heading into it and although it is just nearing 6PM, the light is as dim as dusk. I can see rain falling from dark clouds in the distance.
The tops of the Tetons disappear into cloud, making those enormous mountains into ghosts. The frog chorus begins again. In a flat area up ahead on the right I see a large herd of elk. I suddenly notice they are running, so the wolfer in me thinks "chase" and before I know it I have pulled over to the side.
I scan for whatever might be chasing them. But then I realize that not all the elk are running, just some of them - a group of yearling calves. There is ankle deep water in the meadow and the youngsters seem to be cavorting and splashing in it, just for fun. I watch as one young elk takes off - and five others follow it. The main herd bunches but no predators are after them. It's just elk calves enjoying a spring day. Every once in a while two of them butt heads or lunge at each other. It's quite fun to watch.
The rain finally comes but doesn't last long. By the time I get to Oxbow Bend the rain has passed it is light again. I pull over and settle in for another hour or two of great viewing.
I meet some nice people from Idaho. Together we watch five different beavers swimming back and forth across various sections of the waterway. One large adult climbs up on shore and begins to gnaw on an aspen, already ringed with teeth marks. We hear rustling coming from the little island and suddenly a young mule deer appears, crashing through the brush, followed by...a coyote. The deer leaps into the water and starts swimmming towards the shore where we stand. The coyote takes a quick look at his escaped prize and turns tail back into the trees. The deer crosses the stretch of water amazingly fast, then clambers onto shore, bolts up the hill to the pullout, dashes between cars across the road.
We watch it prong up the hill and into the thick trees.
A little later, a moose appears, moving out from the trees on the inner island. It crosses the channel and disappears into a willow thicket, only to re-appear five minutes later moving across the next water channel and into a favorite patch of willows on the shore.
Between the larger animals, we see a great blue heron, a pair of courting sandhills and several ducks. We also get a mounful howl from the unsuccessful coyote, and the chorus frogs start again. The moon rises and one by one, a whole herd of deer materialize from the trees into a lush meadow to the south.
With a satisfied sigh, I retire Layla for the evening and head back to my cozy cabin. What a wonderful day!
Today I saw: antelope, 2 black bears, 2 grizzly bears, 5 beavers, bison, coyotes, mule deer, ducks, elk, a hawk, great blue heron, 1 marmot, 1 moose, 2 sandhill cranes, 2 bighorn sheep, the beautiful Teton Range and the spirit of Allison.