DAY FOUR - Monday, July 3

LONELY SCOPING

Iím up and out at 5AM in a pleasant 50 degrees, driving over Dunraven all by myself in a light drizzle.

I pass only one other human, driving a maintenance truck, between Canyon and Tower. I park at Elk Creek and scope for an hour, seeing bison and elk.

I move to Rickís with the same result. Itís a bit cloudy today but the birds are singing like crazy, the green is amazing and there are many wildflowers to enjoy. Being here in summertime with almost no people is surreal and melancholy and welcome all at once.

It sure would be nice to see a wolf.

I return to Elk Creek for more scoping and it suddenly hits me why my wolf-luck has deserted me. I never had my visit with Allison! Well, lucky for me, I donít HAVE to be near her resting place to commune with her, so I quickly apologize and have my visit right here.

Shortly after, I find a bald eagle perched in an evergreen. I take that as a good sign.

I boil water for coffee and have breakfast. I see the cinnamon black bear again, this time on the high, rocky slope south of me, moving east.

I think about the great wolf viewing I had in May, with two dens to watch and action every day. I sing the Joni Mitchel refrain ďDonít it always seem to go that you donít know what youíve got till itís gone?Ē

I put away my coffee stuff, pack up my scope and drive west. I see another black bear at Lower Hellroaring. Itís not out very long but disappears into the trees on the south side of the road.

Hellroaring lot is empty so I set up and scope from here. I see lots of green and many yellow wildflowers, making the hillside quite pretty. But as far as wildlife, I see only bison and elk.

A van pulls in and a guide gets out. We say hi and I let her know I have no wolves or bears. To my surprise the guide tells me she came from Gardiner! Apparently, the Park has partially paved the formerly-gravel stagecoach road and is now allowing licensed guides to drive in at limited times during the day. She says itís just one way and that the road is really steep!

It seems that the Park is really trying to help the businesses in Gardiner stay afloat. I tell the guide about the black bears and the eagle I saw and where I saw them, and they continue east.

I have decided to not stay another night. Its weird to feel sad here, but I do, so Iíll head back to Bozeman.

As I am passing the entrance to the (closed) 6 Mile Blacktail Drive, I see a car pulled over and a black bear just off the road on the north side.

No, itís three bears!

A sow with two rambunctious coy are posed on the low hill north of the road. Two men are behind their stopped car, pointing long lenses at the bears. They are very quiet and careful.

I pull over behind them, leaving lots of room. I quietly get out and ask to join them. They both nod and smile. The three of us watch these bears for a good 20 minutes all by ourselves.

I think mom wants to cross to the south but both coys are reluctant. One likes walking along the road, the other has found something interesting in the grass. Mom is gentle but keeps prodding them to cross.

Eventually all three go south and into the jumbled rocks. Itís one of the nicest black bear sightings I ever had. Thanks, Allison!

I continue west and a ground squirrel crosses the road at the bluebird tree. At the same time, a bight male bluebird swoops overhead.

I stop at Childrenís Fire trail and scope both to the south, finding bison, elk and pronghorn. I try the other side, near the Frog Rock, looking at the old Eight Mile den forest area. No wolves.

I hear a chorus of coyotes to the north but cannot manage to find them.

I drive on through Mammoth and stop at Sheepeater cliffs where I see a chipmunk and three marmots.

A bit past Madison Campground the heat (75) starts to make me sleepy, so I find a shady pullout along the river and have a nap.

By the time I read the gate at West, I have decided on a new plan Ė Iíll go back to Bozeman a new way, just to extend my ďold days road tripĒ theme a bit longer.

I make a left towards Hebgen Lake. Itís been 13 years since I was here last. There are endless interesting things to see along the way but soon I come upon the most interesting of all - Quake Lake and the remains of the damage caused by the 1959 earthquake. It is just as stunning as it was the first time.

I drive up to the visitor center and the high lot, where I saw mountain goats in 2009. Itís extremely windy up here and it looks like quite a thunderstorm is on its way.

I gaze at the eroded hillsides, trying to imagine what it must have been like to survive this cataclysm.

Then on I go, following the Madison, leaving higher ground for the flat, fertile river valley. To be sure, the scenery includes distant mountains and, more interesting to me, evidence of the ancient riverbank, bordering a much higher, much wider Madison at the end of the last ice age.

My carís fancy alert system starts receiving warnings of a severe thunderstorm ahead. It looks like I will be driving right into it.

For a long stretch, this highway is straight as an arrow through farmland stretching as far as the eye can see. All the while, the storm rages far behind me, with numerous forks of lightning - yet no thunder.

I approach Ennis and find the town in the midst of its Fourth of July celebrations, with obvious preparations for tomorrowís Main Street parade. The storm is catching up, and the temperature drops to 59.

I have just passed a sign saying 16 miles to Norris when the rain catches up. The fiercely dark thunderstorm still looms behind me Ė this is just rain. But for the rest of the drive my wipers work hard. I wind through the dramatic curves of Madison Canyon and finally come out into wide-open fields again. Bozeman looms on the horizon.

The rain lessens as the storm moves north. The sun peeks out, making the green grass sparkle with fresh moisture.

Iím really glad I came this way. I feel good to have accomplished one more solo road trip, although I still feel sadness at being exiled from Lamar. What a lesson in appreciating what you have while you have it!

Today I saw: 5 black bears (including 2 coy), a blue bird, bison, a chipmunk, a bald eagle, elk, pronghorn, a ground squirrel and the spirits of Allison, Richard and Jeff.

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