DAY ONE - Saturday, October 15


It’s 45 degrees at 7:30AM as I leave Bozeman. There is heavy cloud cover so far, making it warmer than usual.

I am so psyched to finally see Lamar Valley for the first time in 131 days!

There is beautiful fall color along the Gallatin. Just about perfect; red and yellow and orange and rust and purple, offset by the dark green conifers.

The temperature drops as I go, reaching a low of 36 degrees at the Park boundary, where that multi-channel spring comes down the hill to the west.

I reach West around 9:30, where I find the color past peak. There are still some golden aspen here and there but most are fading. Four gates are open, each with 5-7 cars in line.

Wisps of fog rise from the Madison, which looks very nice. I stop to visit with Allison. She understands how I feel about the Lamar!

There is a large bison herd in Gibbon Flats, just east of the Junction.

It’s a gorgeous fall day with surprisingly light traffic.

I reach Canyon at 10AM. The gas station is open, as is the VC but everything else is closed.

A little gray squirrel dashes across the road on my way up Dunraven.

The fall color is past peak up here, but every once in a while, some gold leaves catch my eye. Wow, with such delightful weather, I would have expected many more people. But I basically have the place to myself.

Only a dozen cars at the Tower Store lot. A bit more color in this area, and a bit more traffic, too.

I find a bit more fall color in this section, and several ducks on Rainy Lake.

I reach Little America and see pronghorn south of Junction Butte. As I pass Curve I see a crowd on Boulder Hill. I pull in next to a familiar car. It’s Bill the Bear Man, and he has wolves in view! The Junctions have a fresh carcass!

It’s so great to see Bill. He explains that the Junctions got a bison cow early this morning. He missed the chase and kill because he was looking for bears. But he found one, a nice grizzly at the Confluence.

I set up and find a single black wolf feeding on the carcass; my hunch is that it’s a pup. They are usually the ones who linger at the table. There are three coyotes nearby, eager for their turn. And three bald eagles perched in nearby trees.

Bill says the rest of the pack is already bedded in the rocky hills on the far side of the ford.

Bill and I talk about Flood Day. He says he drove through standing water in Silver Gate the night before on his way home. And in the morning he found the gate barred with pylons as he attempted to enter before dawn. He was then stuck in Silver Gate for two days while the Park assessed the damage and figured out what to do.

He says when he finally left, it took him 9 hours to get home! He says he’s kept busy during the summer by visiting Glacier more often than usual.

After a while, the black wolf gets up and sets off to the left, over a low sage hill. After he disappears, I look for the usual trail, figuring the wolf will most likely reappear there. Fairly quickly I find another black wolf, tooling around the slope just above the flats.

Ahh, this is a different wolf, because the one I was trying to find has just appeared on the trail. Then the howling begins, a really nice group howl coming from the bedded pack.

Now the second black sees the first one below it and rushes down for a greeting. They have a happy reunion and head together up the slope. I catch movement above these two. Wow! Suddenly lots of wolves emerge from the tree line, anticipating the arrival of the two blacks.

I get a count of 11, with seven blacks and four grays.

Multiple greetings ensue. I always enjoy seeing wolves greet each other – like they have not seen each other in weeks, when it’s only been maybe an hour or so!

Once they are properly welcomed back, the wolves move back to their bedding spots, some going west, some upslope, some east. One of the blacks goes far to the left, exploring a bit, maybe to see who’s been where before bedding down

One by one they climb higher and into deeper cover until they are all hidden. I’m so happy to see wolves this easily.

The coyotes take over the carcass, chasing birds away, finally having their turn.

I tell Bill I am here to see the new road. I can tell by his reaction that I’m in for quite an adventure, but he doesn’t want to spoil it.

I drive east, seeing more bison and pronghorn. Just past Slough is a sign that reads “road work next 22 miles” followed by a speed limit sign for 25MPH, and a warning of “ prepare to stop”. Up ahead I can see the temporary traffic light.

I pass the pullout formerly known as Lamar Canyon West. It’s been churned up by the passage of heavy construction trucks and now connects with what used to be the next pullout to the east, making one really long, churned-up pullout. The vegetation that used to separate the two pullouts is gone.

I stop to view my first glimpse of the Lamar River in the canyon below. There is very little water, but that is normal for fall. But there seem to be four times as many boulders at this end. I suspect the force of the water carried them down from above.

I stop behind three other cars at the light (currently red). A flashing sign above “wait time up to 4 minutes”. This flashing notice continues to update, to “3 minutes” then “2 minutes”.

Cars from the other side start to arrive and pass us, and the sign flashes “up to one minute”. Finally, the light turns green and we proceed.

The road forces us to shift left, away from the river side, and quickly narrows to one freshly blacktopped lane. The former east bound lane blocked off by dozens of orange poles and yellow tape. “No stopping, no parking” signs are prominent. Jersey barriers block my view into the Canyon, and two former pullouts in this section no longer exist.

The hillside on my left soon draws my attention. It’s been plundered and dug up, bereft of vegetation except for a pair of stately Douglas firs that were no doubt left because they anchor that hillside. All around them, though, is bare rock. This damage is sadly necessary in order to preserve a safe route through the Canyon. During the flood, the water undercut the cliff right up to the pavement of the east bound lane.

The one way opens out to two lanes again and up ahead I see two cars stopped at the other traffic light. I’m happy to see a favorite pullout of mine on the canyon side has been preserved. Its tall tree has provided me welcome shade on many a hot day. A family is having tailgate picnic here.

I round the curve and tear up when I see the view that I call “the gateway to Lamar”. You can see the tree-lined canyon with deep, still water on the right and ahead of you are the rounded, overlapping northern hills. The last time I saw them they were brilliant spring green, and now they are sage and gold.

I stop at Coyote and scope the split rock area, where I last saw the Junction pack with their two month old pups. Those pups are now six months and feeding on a bison carcass north of Boulder.

I scope the river corridor, interested in seeing what is the same and what is different. I do see scars from the flood: mostly a build-up of sand and gravel plus several “new” logs, now whitening under the relentless sun.

Bison and pronghorn graze the flats.

On the east side of Hubbard Hill I notice many more tree-trunks scattered about the flats. There is barely any traffic, so I stop along the road in a few spots. I remember a huge pile of driftwood that used to be in one spot – now it’s more than half gone, dislodged by the raging water and scattered haphazardly along the flats.

I stop at Picnic and find bighorn sheep on the cliffs of Specimen. Some things are not changed!

But the river corridor west of the Confluence is much altered. There are three parallel humps of sand & gravel, parallel to the current, forcing the water through these rows. In one place, the water actually goes backwards for a foot or so.

At 21’s crossing there are three parked just off the road. The people in them have their cameras pointed south. Aha! It’s the Confluence grizzly. I pull over behind the third car and look through my binoculars.

The bear is quite visible right now, just in front of the line of willows. It’s a very pretty bear, with classic coloring, working the river corridor, lifting logs, digging, sniffing.

As I near Trout Lake signs warn of a second traffic light. On the north side is a brand new “pullout” full of bright orange earthmoving equipment; front loaders, bulldozers, about 10-12 heavy machines parked in double rows, where there used to be grass and sage.

A few yards ahead is the temporary traffic light. The Trailhead parking holds more trucks, a port-o-let, two piles of gravel, and a single pick-up with flashing lights and a bored man waiting inside. He’s here for emergencies, I suppose. I call to him, thanking him for working on this road. He smiles and nods.

When the light turns green, I proceed onto a not-yet-paved single lane of hard-packed dirt and gravel. The south side of the road is a line of jersey barriers. The route veers away from the creek (new) and rises higher (also new). The view of Soda Butte Creek below though is truly shocking.

Bleak destruction has been caused, first, by the flooded creek itself, but second by heavy equipment crews trying to give us back a drivable road. All the vegetation that used to block the view of the creek is gone, revealing a harshly gouged bank. The creek is now a mere trickle among thousands of large and small boulders, the corridor now three times as wide as it once was.

The north bank is full of bare, un-weathered (un-natural looking) pink boulders, likely “rip-rap” deposited by the crews to shore up the bank when they had to force the back into its original bed.

The hillside north of the road is bare dirt now, plus some type of material draped across it that likely helps prevent erosion.

I continue past the light on the other side and soon return to the normal two-lane arrangement for my drive through Round Prairie. And here is yet another surprise. On the west side of Pebble Creek Campground is a hill I don’t remember seeing before. Mt. Pebble I’ll call it. It’s a huge mound of dirt, gravel and boulders, and I can only guess that this is where the crews had to dump the extraneous material they scooped up from various locations.

Pebble Creek is blocked off by a gate, no longer serving as a campground. All the paved areas now hold trucks, port-o-lets and other construction equipment.

On the other hand, apart from perhaps a few altered channels, Round Prairie looks much the same. I keep going, determined to see it all, no matter how upsetting.

I think the worst for me is Soda Butte Picnic. The serenity and peace once offered by this lovely spot has been upended. Besides the construction equipment that now fills the small parking area, only one picnic table remains, yanked up onto the pavement. The boardwalks and footbridges are gone. The creek bed itself has changed and the whole area has lost over half its forest vegetation.

I know the main damage was from the flood itself, a natural, if extreme, occurrence. But in order to restore our road, crews have had to add to the damage. I don’t blame them. I am beyond grateful to have this beloved pathway back in use again. But it’s sad to see how much natural beauty the area has lost.

Much of this vegetation will re-grow, of course, but so many trees were lost. They will take much longer to be replaced.

The road itself in this section has been repaired with little change to its original course, as far as I can tell, and the pavement is smooth and freshly lined. But the creek bed is a mess.

In one spot a large, tangled pile of conifer trunks and branches, still colored with recent life, lies like a warning along the north bank. The lovely island between two channels, where moose sightings were common in spring, is now gone.

At the next curve, I gasp as one of my absolute favorite views of this beautiful mountain stream, which once gurgled between two forested banks, is also radically changed, featuring yet another harshly gouged bank.

There are still many trees fallen across the creek bed, mute testimony to the creek’s sudden fury. It is just so hard to imagine this sweet, babbling creek caused so much destruction.

At Moose Meadow another new “pullout” has been created on flat ground south of the road to hold 6 enormous concrete haulers. I’m grateful to see the classic view on the north side remains undisturbed.

At Baronette lots of people are scoping for goats. I grin to see the first “normal” thing since I got to Trout Lake.

Above Warm Creek I find some repaired damage of which I wasn’t aware. It looks like the creek undercut the south bank at the edge of the east-bound lane. The road here now jogs slightly north, and a row of jersey barriers line what once was the east-bound lane.

In Silver Gate I see Rick outside his cabin, so I pull in to say hi. He is nearly finished moving back in and plans to go back to Boulder to watch the Junctions. I tell him I’ll join him as soon as I get unloaded.

The weather could not be more perfect! I unpack and give Laurie a call to assure her all is well.

The Ranger at the Northeast gate assures me I can get in tomorrow before dawn. This morning, visitors had to wait until 8!

I reach Boulder a bit after 3 and set up with Rick on a hill south of the pullout. It’s warm and sunny with a slight breeze.

1276F is having a turn at the carcass. She eats for a good 20 minutes, then sets off northwest, trotting jauntily along the trail through the Ford. She greets a black coming towards her and we both notice her high-flying tail. She seems to fancy herself the alpha, at least to this yearling groveling before her.

She continues north while the yearling comes south, arriving at the carcass for another meal. A bit later, a second black wolf moves into view, having been feeding behind the carcass the whole time.

This uncollared wolf has a bit of gray in her coat, leading me to suspect she is the alpha female.

The yearling feeds a while, then tugs off a set of three ribs, and carries them to the low sage slope to the west. It sits down to chew on them. But after about 10 minutes loses interested and heads back north. In an instant, ravens and magpies descend on those ribs.

The alpha female gets up and heads back to the ford. A fourth black appears, headed to the carcass. This one has a white spot in her loin area and I suspect I’m looking at Thermal Girl.

When she arrives, she takes a position behind the carcass. For a while, I have no wolves in view, so I glance around the area. A single coyote is very eager for a turn. He hops upon a nearby boulder and sits down to keep watch.

Around 5:30, notorious collared-gray 1341F comes for a meal, followed by two more blacks. Several wolves on the hill above the ford run down to the flats, playing and romping. They don’t come to the carcass but continue to frolic with each other. Ahh, pups!

Around 6PM I call it a night and head back to Silver Gate. In Lamar I find myself one of very few people driving east tonight!

At the eastern end of Moose Meadow a fox appears in the east side pullout. It jumps up on the log railing and walks along the top for a while, showing off!

It’s nice to be back in my favorite place!

Today I saw: 1 grizzly bear, bison, a chipmunk, 3 coyotes, mule deer, 3 bald eagles, a fox, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, a squirrel, 13 Junction wolves (alpha female, 1276F, 1341F, Thermal Girl, 3 other grays, and 6 uncollared blacks) and the spirits of Allison, Richard and Jeff.

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