I leave hot and humid NYC behind and fly into the dry West. Except that the past month has been an unusually wet one for Montana and Northwestern Wyoming. As my plane descends over Bozeman, I see the fresh green response to those weeks of rain. It is amazingly beautiful and I fall in love with it all over again.
At the Avis counter I am told I can upgrade to a convertible for no extra charge. Hmmmm, wouldn’t that make a memorable picture? Wendy cruising through Lamar in a snazzy convertible? As much as it makes me chuckle I decide to pass, partly because I know how frequent and unexpected Yellowstone’s rain-showers can be and also how uncomfortably close one can come to a two-ton bison. I think a prefer a sturdier roof over my head! I am issued a silver Cavalier, which I promptly name “Liera” to go with my scope “Layla“. Soon I am heading east to Livingston. I am always amazed at the lack of traffic on this highway, although I’m sure it’s my city perspective that makes it so; Bozeman residents no doubt find it a bit congested.
My first wildlife sighting is a hawk being mobbed by blackbirds over a field on the right. I smile at that and more at the gorgeous mountains all around me, streaked with life in bright green and yellow. I decide to take the East River Road which I have by-passed every other time I‘ve driven this road. I am rewarded with the sight of lots of horses, many of them with cute little foals. The scenery is just as beautiful and I enjoy the different perspective. It’s interesting to see the types of homes and ranches back here, and what great views they each have! In a woodsy section of the road, I notice a braid of the Yellowstone very near, sort of an oxbow section, slow-moving and lush with willows and cottonwoods. The light-green sheen of the willows here seems especially vibrant for some reason, and then I spot a pteradactyl flying, oops I mean a great blue heron! I love these big birds!
There are ground squirrels running across the road and others sitting on their hind legs at the edge, agonizing over when to make the dangerous dash. Three times on this road I detect the smell of skunk. Funny, I have never smelt that in the Park - I wonder why?
As I look at the Park’s mountains looming in the distance I see a darkened sky as well. I would think it ominous if I didn‘t know the Park as I do. As it is, I welcome the first splatters of rain that hit my windshield, in the belief that overcast skies and cooler temps will bring better wildlife sightings, as well as sparing me a sunburn on my first day.
I sail through Yankee Jim Canyon and reach Gardiner very quickly and realize I never called John and Carlene to get directions to their new home. I figure I will see them tomorrow, though, or on Monday at the latest. I stop for a few groceries and at the Flying Pig to buy stove fuel and hiking poles. I splurge on a pair of Leki’s that feel great in my hands, and are still considerably cheaper here than in NYC.
Then I head into the Park. I have been crying on and off for relief and joy since I boarded the plane so it should surprise no-one that I cry my way through the arch too. Immediately I see a band of pronghorn on the right, by the mogul hills. I pull over to watch them. It’s a band of seven; two smallish yearlings, a sturdy looking male, and four other adults. One of these is acting strangely, running around in short bursts in a sort of, well, pronging manner. The other six stare at the antsy one, as if they are embarrassed. I want to take some photos but discover how weird it is to look through the viewfinder of my new camera. The view is so radically “un-true” compared to what my eye sees that I cannot even find the moving animals. I try the LCD screen which is hardly any better. Hmmm, this is going to take some getting used to! So I put the camera back in the car and just enjoy watching them until they wander behind a hill.
I had a plan to kneel and kiss the ground upon my arrival, but there are quite a few campers and cars pulled over by the Arch and I get shy all of a sudden. I am so weepy and off-balance yet so, so happy to finally be here. I keep thanking Allison and asking her to please try to find 21M for me. I get back in Liera, fish out my Park pass and head for the entrance.
I pull over at the Rescue Creek trailhead and head down to the river where I do my ground-kissing bit out of sight of the road. That feels good. I notice wildflowers that I hadn’t expected: bright pink sticky geranium, some cheery yellow Balsamroot, deep blue larkspur and some white flowers on a stalk Cow parsnip? Then I notice a bird sailing high overhead, following the river. I think that’s an osprey!
I drive on up to Mammoth, and am surprised to see not a single elk munching the grass here. Out of habit I head for Lamar but then I remember the tip Doug Dance gave me about the sow grizzly in Swan Lake flats. I have plenty of time to go there and still get to Lamar for evening viewing so I turn around. In trips past I have seen elk in nearly all the small meadows and clearings above the Terraces but there are none this time. Just when I get my first sight of the Golden Gate I see a huge jam ahead. Traffic at a dead stop on both sides, people out of their cars walking with their cameras and binoculars. I see a Ranger in the middle of it all, trying her best to handle things.
There is a pullout to my left so I slip in. I realize this all could be for elk but I am betting on bear. I walk over to the edge of a pullout and hear someone say excitedly “there she is!“ I look where she points and see a black bear with a single cub trailing her, ambling through the sage and rocks well below the road. I see her look up and the cub stands on his small hind legs! How sweet. They move behind a rock and I head back to get Layla (not that I really need it but there are kids here who might like an up-close look.) While I am setting up, two women come up to me, smiling. “Are you Wendy?” the younger one asks. I turn and say “yes” and I meet my first Loon of this trip. It’s Bonnie CO and her mom. How nice! Two bears and two Loons and I haven’t even been here an hour yet! Bonnie says they just saw the grizzly sow - quite visible out in the flats just like Doug said. I tell her that’s where I was headed and we yak a bit. No sooner do I get Layla set up than the sow and cub move behind a hill and it looks like they won’t be visible for a while.
People are well-behaved and there are lots of good spotters. The two bears come out again for a brief moment and I enjoy the view. Mama bear seems very aware of the people up there on the road and not particularly pleased to see us. She looks wary, but not nervous. With the bear less visible, traffic eases so I pack up to follow Bonnie up to Swan Lake Flats. Well, I find the griz but I lose Bonnie. Not sure how that happened.
I park at the horse-trailer pullout and see the sow right away. The sun gives her away, showing a glint of gold amid the sage. I remember that the way I spotted my very first grizzly in Lamar back in 1998 was due to the sun reflection on the bear’s grizzled fur. I get Layla set up and feast my eyes on this beautiful bear. I know there are two cubs but it takes a good while for them to appear, as they are hidden by the height of the sage. But finally I see a brown shape moving near her and then another and finally they reach a rise where I can clearly see three brown shapes. In the scope I can see their faces, however briefly. Oh, how cute! One seems markedly smaller than the other. I watch the mother digging, turning rocks and munching whatever suits her taste. Her head is down far more often than it is up and her hump is getting a workout. Often that is the only part of her we see!
The two little ones mostly mind their business but every once in a while the need to play overwhelms them. Then one charges the other and they tumble and roll together in mock battle. They sprint short distances and then back again to mom. One time she lifts her head and I’m pretty sure I hear her grunt as if to call them back. And it makes me giggle as they quickly obey!
There is a long line of folks watching with me and I step back to share the scope with whomever seems interested. I miss some of the goings-on this way, but I don’t mind. I can’t think of a nicer way to visit with people. I stay at this spot for over a half-hour, watching this bear. Every once in a while I turn the scope elsewhere. I see two sand hills near the lake but they don’t seem to have a chick and I look in vain for a single elk. I guess they are keeping a safe distance from big mama bear.
I begin to hear the call of Lamar and so reluctantly I leave the bears and pack up. The drive through Blacktail Plateau is immensely enjoyable, and it’s wonderful to see how green everything is. I see two of the Big Boys (large bull elk who seem to like this area) at Lava Creek and there are a number of pronghorn out beyond Blacktail Lakes. And I see two hawks circling as I climb up the switchbacks. But it’s the landscape itself that is blowing me away. Oh, Yellowstone! You are so beautiful! The Park seems so alive and happy. Green mountain meadows seems to celebrate the rain by popping out multicolored wildflowers as if in a rush to impress someone.
And the rivers! They are singing their water music with marvelous glee, rushing and churning and splashing with joy, sometimes overflowing their banks in their enthusiasm. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much. But I still can’t suppress a grin as I turn into the lane that leads to Roosevelt. I find my reservation waiting and tell the clerk how glad I am to be here. He says he’s glad to be here too!
I trot down the steps of the porch and hop back in Liera for the short drive to my cabin. Then I hear my name being called. It’s Mark R and his dad, QuikCarl! Woo hoo! I get out for Loon hugs from both of them. Mark is taking his dad to dinner here for Father‘s Day (early) and they hoped they would run into me. They ask me to join them and then we can all go wolf-watching together. Well, that is more perfect than I could have planned so of course I say yes!
I dash to my cabin, a very nice one, near the river, and toss a few items inside, then head back to the dining room. We have a great time together and Carl teases me about eating my fried chicken with a fork instead of my fingers. We have a very young and over-eager waitress who asks us if we want dessert while we are in the middle of our meal, then a few minutes later she tries to clear my plate while I have a forkful of Roosevelt beans in my hand. But the whipped cauliflower was great and the company and atmosphere can’t be beat!
The guys can see how anxious I am to get to Lamar so we don’t dilly-dally. As we leave Roosevelt a light rain begins which we ignore. I sing my way across the Yellowstone Bridge and all through Little America. One thing I notice there, though, that despite the same lush green, all the rain over the last month has still not replenished the ponds I remember from my first trips. All that’s left of them are circular depressions filled with drying marsh grass. I would like to know the story on them. Have they dried up steadily over the years, or do they come and go over the decades?
We see spotters at Long Pullout, a place where I have often seen bears. We join them and scan the high green hill with the trail up the middle. A lady tells us she saw a bear out earlier but that it moved into the trees. We wait a while but don’t see it.
We go on and I sigh with delight as I turn the corner to the Magic Road. Here I am, finally, finally, back home in Lamar, which is still the most beautiful place on earth to me. Its broad hills look greener and grander than ever in the soft light, and the wide and rugged landscape embraces me in its welcoming arms. And the gorgeous windings of the life-giving Lamar River simply pierce the heart.
There are bison in small herds all over the basin, and scattered pronghorn. I do not see any elk as I drive but I find some on the higher slopes once we stop. As we near the southernmost end of the Valley we see a flock of humans on Exclosure hill, which makes me believe that wolves are in view. But I pull in to Trash Can pullout instead, so that Mark and Carl and I can have a quiet time together tonight, my first night back. There are two German tourists with scopes set up on the little hill north of this pullout so we gather our equipment and hike up to join them. They have spotted some bull elk on a high slope of Specimen and they have a lone black bear wandering in the tree line.
Mark sets up and almost instantly spies a wolf moving through the sage, a grey, traveling towards the rendesvous area. Since the wolf is in Druid territory and I know the Druids are at home, I make an assumption that I am seeing a Druid wolf and do an appropriate dance to celebrate! Shortly after this Mark spots a second wolf, a black, moving in the same direction. Again with the dance! We watch them a while and of course I wonder which wolves they are. Neither is 21, that’s about all I can determine. I realize I know almost nothing about the current members of the Druids, not even what any of the collared individuals look like. I‘ve got to make it my business to learn something about them on this trip. We watch them move here and there and then they bed.
Next Mark gets a grizzly sow in his scope, way up in snow-patch on Specimen. She has one, two, three cubs with her! We think cubs of the year by the small, romping size of them. There is a classic moment when all four are silhouetted on the ridge top, then over they go, first mom, then one, then two and, like the star of a Disney movie, the third cub suddenly looks up as if to say “hey, where’d everybody go?“ then dashes off to catch up. Over the ridge he goes and…gone.
We share these sightings with Carl and the two German tourists of course. I keep hearing cranes and try my luck at finding them. While I’m thus distracted, Mark notices a lot of stopped-car headlights to the west of us. It looks like something is going on beyond the old Picnic area. We can’t tell what it is, though I remember a herd of bison grazing in that general area. We keep checking on our wolves which are still bedded down near the low foothills. We find six sheep on the cliffs across from us and some pronghorn and five bull elk with impressive velvety racks. I finally find the pair of sand hills I‘ve been hearing. They are strutting along above the river bank. Mark notices a pelican perched on a snag in the river. Neither of us has seen a pelican in Lamar before!
Then some other folks come up on the hill, and tell us breathlessly that five wolves just crossed the road in front of them. Aha! So that’s what was going on earlier. The people are thrilled and tell us there were 2 blacks and 3 greys. Well, those wolves must be out there somewhere! We look for them but, alas, in vain, as the light is steadily failing. I am beginning to feel the strain of travel, and of being up since 4AM. So we take one last look at our bedded wolves in the rendesvous and then pack up.
On the way back a group of bison decide now is the best time to cross the road. The cars ahead of me are stopped right next to them, so I stop a good distance behind. The oncoming lane is clear but I am reluctant to use it. A few of the bulls look feisty to me and I don’t have my bison-jam legs yet. Eventually Mark and Carl take the lead and pass via the empty opposite lane. I follow them and get past the big brown monsters without incident.
At Tower Junction I wave goodbye to my Loony friends and continue into Roosevelt for the night. The stars are out and they are dazzling! Oh, how I love being here!
I set my alarm for 4:15 and fall instantly to sleep.
Today I saw: antelope, 3 black bears (including one cub), 7 grizzly bears (including 5 cubs) bison, elk, 3 hawks, a great blue heron, an osprey, a pelican, 4 sand hill cranes, 6 bighorn sheep, 2 Druid wolves and 4 Loons.