I don’t know what it is about getting up in chill and darkness but I love it!
The birds start their trilling at 4:30. I make coffee and have a shower and gobble a few handfuls of Sugar Pops. At 5:15 I am off to the Lamar. Oh, how wonderful it is to see this country in the early dawn!
The only animals I see in Little America are ground squirrels and a lone pronghorn. But the land itself is the star this morning. A soft rain begins and the clouds try to bully the sleepy sun into hiding. Along Lamar Canyon I notice the powerful white water tumbling and roaring in its channel. In my last several trips I have been seeing more and more of the boulders in this riverbed, as the water level dropped. I’m glad to see it coursing full again.
My heart races when I see the Valley and I relish the view. I am gradually leaving my city worries behind and rejoining the real world. There are four bison bulls grazing close to the road. I take a chance and grab a close-up of one through the car window. I drive on, enjoying the green of the cottonwoods and willows and the high level of water in sweet little Rose Creek. At Mid-point I see a car ahead and realize it is the first one I’ve seen since I left Roosevelt!
I drive slowly, enjoying the calm and the solitude. In fact, I don’t yet feel particularly sociable so I pass the cars at Exclosure and the crowd at Hitching-Post and pull at the Footbridge. There are cars here but no people; I suppose most of them have already hiked out to DPH to try to spot pups.
I love the view from here and stand by myself a little while, just drinking it in.
I go on further east and I am surprised to see a second “no stopping” sign between here and Soda Butte. Then I realize this must be another crossing point for the Druids. Well that’s a good idea. I have certainly seen them cross here often enough. I decide to go up as far as Pebble. I have struggled over the years to describe what it’s like just to drive along this road and I don’t know that it is describable. It is grand, yes, but it’s also calm and quiet that there is an air of casualness as well. The rich freshness of the green makes a difference I guess, and the months of yearning for it plays a part too. And then my emotional side comes in when I add my history of sightings past, on that hill or behind this rock. I guess I just love looking at it, whether I see animals upon it or not.
I love the forested sections up by Trout Lake and Ice Box Canyon and the pretty meadow where the river’s curves are bordered by dark pines. And of course Round Prairie is great to see, too. I turn around at Pebble and head back through Wonderland.
I drive all the way back to Trash Can and set up Layla on the little hill where I was last night. I want to see what I can spot all by myself. First I aim Layla at the rendesvous, scanning the low foothills. But I come up empty so I look elsewhere.
I find bighorn sheep on the brown cliffs. I see two babies that I didn’t see last night. Of course, this may not be the same group. There are two lambs, two ewes and what looks to be a male with a curl. Hmmm. I didn’t think the males hung out with the ewes this time of year, but I don’t really know sheep that well.
Golden sun-fingers touch the high slopes and spread into the flats. I watch a herd of bison with calves. The little orange cuties are full of romp this morning; they like the chilly day, too. Then I see two cranes (possibly the same ones from last night) following each other in the sage. Two bison calves make up a game called “scare the cranes” and take turns cantering towards them. The cranes extend their wings and run a few paces until the calf relents. Then the second calf makes his charge and the cranes run again. This goes on a little while until a grunt from mama bison reminds the calves that they have strayed too far. They gallop back to the shaggy safety of her side.
I see a few elk cows in the trees above the fan and some bulls grazing in a burn up high. Then I see a black spot moving right at the tree line. A black bear! A lone bear, perhaps a boar, sniffing a tree trunk and then rubbing his side on it. He stands and sniffs the bark, then turns and rubs his back. I watch him sniffing the whole area around this tree, wondering what it is that has him so interested. Then my attention is drawn to a moving brown spot on the flats. I see a lone antelope. Wait! The brown spot is a running antelope fawn! Oh, is that cute! The fawn dashes here and there with great intensity, testing its legs. I want to see what mom’s reaction is but I don’t want to lose sight of this little cutie. The baby runs all the way to the riverbank then back again to mom.
Some people have stopped next to my car and are coming up to see what I’m looking at. They are too late for the fawn, which has disappeared, but I show them the tree-rubbing bear, the elk and the sheep. The dad of the group tells me they were down the valley at the high pullout (Dorothy‘s, I assume) and saw five grizzlies from there. Hmmm. I focus Layla on those high hillsides and my luck holds. I don’t see five, but I do see four. First I see a dark brown shape dashing across a high hillside. That turns out to be a yearling cub, running back to the company of its mother. Then I see the other two cubs, grubbing and grazing their way with mom across the end of a green ski-slope hill. These are not the bears Mark and I saw last night. These cubs are large and far more “serious-minded“ than last nights romping darlings. I find it wonderful to see a sow with three robust yearling cubs. She must be a great mom!
I keep scanning for the fifth grizzly, wondering if the sow’s family came in contact with a boar, and who may have scared off who? I look for a fourth yearling cub but never see one. Then suddenly I find the fifth bear. A large lone grizzly moving right at the tree line, well east of the black bear, heading toward the rendesvous. I watch him a while and then suddenly I see other movement. There! On the foothill! A black wolf!
Woo hoo! All by myself I find a wolf! He’s an un-collared black, bedded on the foothill next to an orange rock. He may have been out there the whole time, bedded and unseen. I bet he just caught scent of the grizzly. His head is up and now he stands and…he re-beds. Hmmm, this grizzly doesn’t seem to worry him. Wow! How cool! Then I think, where there’s one wolf…I scan the flats for others but don‘t find any more. The grizzly moves out of sight up into timber and the wolf lowers his head again. He is not visible except that I know he’s there!
I look for the sniffing black bear but he is gone again. I see the pelican on the river (in a different spot) and some geese and ducks. I am curious about the wolf and anxious to know who I’m seeing. A light drizzle begins and then it gets harder so I figure it’s time to move on. I dry off Layla and head off.
I need to find someone with a radio who can tell me which wolf I just saw.
When I get to Hitching Post I see a number of folks set up on the various low hills beyond the pullout. At one of then I see a guy with a pony tail who looks familiar. Hey, it’s Brian C, author of “Wolf Journal“. I carry Layla out there and set up next to him. Brian remembers me and we have a nice reunion. He asks if I’ve seen John and Carlene and I tell him not yet but that I expect to see them tomorrow or Monday. Then he fills me in on Druid happenings. First, of course we commiserate about 21M. Brian remains hopeful and I agree it sure would be great to see him come trotting home. Then he tells me there were five Druids on the hill about a half-hour ago who seemed to want to come down to cross the road but the traffic scared them back up. He tells me there is an old kill near the river that the Druids probably want to get to. He says that 7 pups have been spotted at the traditional den but that no one has seen the r-v pups for several days. He speculates that perhaps those two were taken up to the traditional site, or that they may have been moved higher into the sage. I tell him about the wolf I saw on the r-v hill and he nods, saying yes he’s been out there this morning and was there yesterday, too. While we are scoping and scanning and seeing no wolves I enjoy the many ground squirrels and their peeping squeaks.
Then Rick pulls up and Brian goes to talk with him a while. I wait my turn to talk to Rick, and tell him about the wolf I saw this morning. He says, yes, that’s a non-Druid wolf who has been hanging out there for a while. I don’t ask him about 21. I figure he’s thought about it enough.
Unfortunately it’s about time for me to head out. I have to drive to Hayden Valley in order to meet Ballpark Frank and the Loons for a backcountry hike this afternoon. And I need to check out of Roosevelt first.
In the forested section of road around Hellroaring two large birds SWOOP across right in front of my car, low and amazingly fast. I don’t know what they were, brownish-grey mottled undersides, darker on top, muscular bodies, kinda like hawks. Wow! That was cool. I don’t know if one was chasing the other or whether both were after something, but my impression was get out of their way! They mean business!
When I reach Swan Lake Flats I see a long line of cars on both sides of the road. Guess who’s visible again? I set up Layla about 10 feet from the pavement on a little rise. Mama Griz and her two babies are in a different spot today, and a little bit closer. I find them right away. As I watch, she looks up and stands on her hind legs. As soon as she does this, both cubs mimic her. Oh, that is too cute! Whatever mama sees doesn’t concern her much, but she turns and wanders behind a low hill so that I can only see her hump moving above the sage.
What caught her attention is some hikers coming down the hill, I think it’s the Fawn Pass trail. The hikers stopped when they saw the grizzly but now they are moving again. I spend a lovely half-hour of bear watching. The sun is out but the air is quite chilly and I am glad to have my fleece. I share the scope with about 25 people this morning, including some kids; for many of them it is their first sight of a grizzly bear. I meet people from Arizona, Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon and California. Two elderly couples are the nicest of all: they have great tales to tell and are clearly very happy to be here.
When I finally move on I don’t get too far until I am in another jam. This is for two gorgeous bull elk on the left, with trophy racks in soft brown velvet. Traffic stops and people take videos out their window. Everybody is patient, though, and when the elk move behind some pines the traffic moves again.
I remember Doug commented on the great time he had with a family of marmots at Sheepeater Cliffs so try my luck there too. I sit on a rock near a picnic table and see two adult marmots right away, in sentry spots on opposite sides of the rock jumble. The bigger of the two is sitting up on his hind legs and the other one lies on its fat belly, seemingly no less alert. They whistle comments to each other. I hope that if I am very still I will see some babies peek out. Then two teenage girls arrive with their parents and decide to go rock-pile-climbing. Well, I guess I won’t be seeing baby marmots! As a consolation prize I am visited by a very cute chipmunk who eyes me sweetly in hopes of food.
The adult marmots maintain their positions despite the presence of the to girls. I am amused as I listen to the girls - the first is quite adventurous, the second far less so. She is clearly attempting this climb out of peer pressure. She stops to rest and her mom points to the fat marmot sprawled on a rock about 25 feet away which she had not seen. The girl is astonished and freezes, asking if it will eat her. I smile at her mom and we both tell her not to worry.
I realize that lunchtime is probably not ideal for seeing baby marmots and that an early visit would probably yield better results. I had forgotten what a pretty spot this is, though, with the river gurgling by. As I reach the car I see a very large raven walking boldly between parked cars. When I get inside, this raven flies up and lands atop my hood. Through the windshield I see him staring at me, cocking his shiny black head right, then left. Gee, I wonder what he wants!
His chutzpah makes me smile but start the car engine. He doesn’t react in the slightest. I put the car in reverse and very slowly back up. This motion doesn’t phase him either. I step on the brake and the car jerks slightly. This unbalances him but he compensates by half-extending his wings and shifting his feet to regain his balance, like a surfer! I let the car roll forward and stop again with a slight jerk. Again, the raven stays aboard, making only a slight adjustment. I back all the way up and stop again and this also fails to dislodge him. He intends to stay until he gets a snack! People in the parking lot are taking pictures of him on my car. I move forward to straighten out and STILL my raven passenger remains. So I start of down the road. Only after I reach about 5 miles an hour does he give up; he extends his shiny black wings as if to say “aaah you’re no fun!“ and lifts off to find an easier mark. I laugh all the way to Indian Creek.
I enjoy the drive to Norris and over to Canyon. The landscape is gorgeous and the traffic nearly non-existent. I stop for gas at Canyon and see the mess of construction on the Dunraven road. Then I head south, enjoying this new section of the Park. There are the usual bison here, and a few big boys resting on the hills, chewing their cud, disdainful of the crowd of tourists incessantly snapping their pictures. I arrive at Wapiti Lake Trailhead and pull in to a spot facing the trail. The drive has made me sleepy and the sun is wonderfully warm. I lower the seat, put my cap over my face and zonk out for a while. When I awake I see a familiar blue camper. And there’s its driver, Tim A!
I rouse myself and hop out, calling to him. We have a Loon hug and catch up. In typical Tim fashion, he is helping a couple of hikers who are having trouble getting their stove started. We yak about the movie “Into the Void” based on the book he and Betsy gave me a few years ago. He says it‘s amazing! Then Mark R and Quik Carl show up and we all get a chance to chat.
A little while later we see a line of Loons following our Intrepid Interpreter Ballpark Frank. We joke and laugh and I give Frank a kiss and a hug. Then I see my favorite newlywed Loons, Jake and Leslie! We have hugs, too, and I meet their friend Brian. The whole group gathers round for introductions and I meet KenD, KenT, Cloudbase (Jed) and his grade-school daughter Taylor, Lurker Jerry from Texas, Bison (Darryl) and his teenage niece and nephew Jessica and Nathan, Pat (from Missouri) and her friend, and Eric - a friend of Frank’s who works in the Park. At first it’s hard to keep everyone straight but as I get to spend more time with each person all the new Loons emerge as the distinct personalities they are.
The general consensus of the Loons is that the best part of the Sour Creek hike was when they spooked a grizzly off his day bed!
It’s time for lunch so we move away from the parking lot down the hill to a little clearing above the Yellowstone River, a spot I name “Windy Point”. Everyone shares what lunch he or she has and we are laughing an joking in no time. I present Frank with a gift from New York, two “Black and Whites”, large cake-cookies that he remembers fondly from his childhood. I think he ate both of them right on the spot!
Jake starts teasing me right away which makes feel very much at home. I show everybody my new camera and get various opinions on how I can get it to work better. KenD shows me his latest toy, a digital camera barely bigger than a credit card. Now, that’s a great idea for hiking. We laugh and fool around and visit with each other. Kent and Jed give me updates on what the Druids are doing and we talk about 21M. And I also finally meet another Loon who I‘ve known for years but never met face to face: JohnD, my brother-liberal and comrade-in-arms, and his wife Jen and baby son Jack.
But time’s a wastin’ so we head back to the parking lot to begin our caravan to the next trailhead. As we drive south through Hayden Valley the skies darken and suddenly we are attacked by sideways hail and huge plops of sleet. No wind or rain has the slightest chance of deterring us, though. We consider any precipitation to be a gift to these parched lands.
Our cars fill up a pullout overlooking the River, just past Grizzly Overlook. The rain and hail has already stopped and we pack up for the hike under the sun. We have picked up two more Loons: 46er and his wife Janet. The plan is for Frank to lead us on an off-trail hike to some backcountry geysers called the Crater Hill Group. We assemble on the west side of the road and listen to his warning lecture. I learned my lesson last time and pay close attention. We are a most congenial group and we set off in high spirits.
I try my best to spend a little time with each new Loon to get to know each one. As we walk, the clouds lift and we have pleasant sun and a brisk wind. The area starts out open and meadowy and I am always amazed at how much unseen country there is in this Park. We see no bears on this hike but we do see quite a few bison. Every once in a while we have to skirt our way around them; even with a group this large you always have to be careful of bison.
Our first area of interest doesn’t look like much at first. It‘s an open thermal area with circular patches of sinter amid the grass and several of them have small steaming vents. Frank measures their heat with his ray-gun. I didn’t record the temperature, but let’s just say it was HOT. The evidence supports what Frank says, that this is a popular winter hang-out for bison and elk. We are careful to skirt the vents and other unstable-looking spots.
Next we head through a thin forest and some odd-looking areas with sandy white ground, like how I remember Coffee Pot Springs. On the right we see some oddly colored chalky hills, bare of vegetation except for lichen. The colors are a muted version of what I remember of the Joseph’s Coat area. This extends for quite a long way and is entirely undetectable from the road.
On the left is a water-filled depression. I would call it a lake except it’s not particularly inviting. Its color is grey-pink-white, kind of puke colored! One edge of this “lake“ is simmering like a pot of tea, and its “shore“ has scalloped edges made of thin layers of whitish mud. This area gives off a sulfur smell and the steam wafts in our faces every once in a while. I didn‘t want to get too close.
JohnD and Jen decide that backpack passenger Jack has had enough of thermal areas and they head back to the cars, with promised of hooking up with us tomorrow.
Around the bend from this is another depression that looks like a former lake has dried up. Its baked mud is a whitish-yellow color, and one bubbling mud pot remains way in the back, below a yellowish chalk hill. While Frank is educating the Loons about this feature, Jake climbs a hillside and finds wolf tracks. I scramble up to inspect them. Cool! There are two great big prints and a few small ones. We speculate as to whether the small ones were made by a pup or a coyote.
We see a redtail hawk perched in a tree behind the yellowish hill and I think someone saw a different one as well. Next Frank leads us to the base of another heaping sinter hill, where there is an enormous bubbling cauldron. It has a rim around it, like the sides of a vast Jacuzzi. And inside really weird looking rocks, or maybe they are mud formations, in a distinctive design like giant “brain coral”. And it that isn’t enough, there are about 20 huge mud bubbles, whitish grey. And they are bubbling and plopping away, noisy and steamy. The whole thing looks like some giant diabolical mind at work so I name it Morgoth’s Hot Tub. Several Loons are also Tolkien fans so they especially appreciate it!
There is much to marvel at on this hike and marvel we do! But after a while, Frank leads the way back to the cars, taking a slightly different route as is his style. Jake and Brian and Leslie scramble over the top of the chalky hill. Why? To see what’s on the other side of course!
As we come back into the greener meadowy sections the wind kicks and suddenly we are being hailed on. Out come rain-coats, rain-hats, ponchos, and several umbrellas. Loons are PREPARED! Hailstorms in Yellowstone are fairly common but they are usually brief. This one lasts a very long 15 minutes. Some hail gathers on my collar and I pop it in my mouth. Hail in Yellowstone is not usually made of clear ice as it is in the East. Out here it more commonly consists of compacted snow. Frank calls it groppel. Basically they are snow pellets. About pea-size. The hail has now turned to rain and since we have come to a stand of tall pines we take temporary cover there. It serves as a chance for more group chat, and for Frank to do a head count.
When the rain lets up we head out again. I have been told Eric is an ornithologist so I mention to him about the swooping birds at Hellroaring this morning. To my delight he responds with interest. He asks me a series of questions and asks for descriptive details. Then he tells me what he thinks I’ve seen is a goshawk, a type that lives in forests. He explains the three kinds of raptors and how they are different. It’s fascinating and I am excited that I may have seen a somewhat rare bird.
We make it out to the cars and check to see who’s up for our next adventure. It’s a longer hike than this one and we may not get out until after 6PM. We lose Mo Pat and friend, plus Jed and little Taylor but it’s understandable. And we will see them tomorrow evening.
We follow Frank down to the Buffalo Ford and park in the overflow lot. Then we re-adjust our packs and off we go again. We are off to see The Gumper, a back country thermal that is part of the Mud Volcano and Devil’s Cauldron thermal systems of Hayden Valley, sort of the backcountry version of these features. You don’t want to go back here without an experienced guide.
The trail begins with some rather steep terrain at first. I lend one of my new hiking poles to Janet and she takes to it very well. We see bison in the oddest places on this journey. In fact one thing I have learned on all my hikes with Frank is that bison are everywhere. I think I’ve seen them in every kind of terrain that Yellowstone has. The terrain on this hike is varied and interesting and Frank has stories to tell about it all. There are a few marshy spots and we count on Jake to figure out how the rest of us can stay dry.
As we come out of one forested area into a meadow we spook some elk. Then we find a little tree-ringed lake and find many wildflowers. We head up a grassy hill and into an area with a lot of deadfall. Then we top another hill and look down into a land of a thousand smokes. This is our destination.
At first I am afraid to get too close. The whole area is weird, and there is deadfall all over. We pass little vents and small holes in the ground filled with simmering water and individual mud pots here and there. Sometimes the steam is in our faces, sometimes it smells of sulfur. The Loons ahead of me gather around a chalky rim, making a semi-circle. I can’t see over the rim but I am encouraged to get a little closer. I take a few more gingerly steps and peek over the edge.
Woah! That is amazing! It is somewhat similar to Morgoth’s Hot Tub but much larger. And MUCH noisier! This circular spot is rimmed all around by the remnants of ages of plopped mud and that rim has hardened and dried. But within the rim is a bubbling cauldron like you’ve never seen. HUGE mud bubbles, tiny mud bubbles, steam vents spraying and splashing vents. Simmering, plopping, roaring, smacking , splotching, squalching sounds. All at once. We try to estimate the number of huge mud bubbles inside this cauldron because you couldn’t count them if you tried. I guess about a hundred whereas Morgoth’s may have 20-25. In addition to the amazing, the color is also unusual, a grey/blue thick chalky mud. Some of the bubbles are really teeny and others are grossly fat. It is an amazing site and completely worth hiking to! I can’t think of a better name than what it already has. It‘s The Gumper!
Now Frank leads us around The Gumper to another meadowy area and into another woods. We find magenta shooting stars and some very dark larkspur. Eric spots a rare bird in a tree. Then we come into a second meadow and things start to get kinda marshy. But we manage to stay dry as we head for the next thermal spot. It‘s called Obsidian Pool, a hot spring with a unique feature: along with superheated water, it spits out pieces of obsidian. The footing around here is a bit treacherous but we gather round safely. And sure enough, you can see black specks of obsidian right in the water, pouring right out of the vent.
As we start to head across the flat we notice four bison who are unfortunately right in our line of travel. Since our group is so large I decide to experiment with a brand new Bison Removal Technique. I stare at one of them, giving my best impression of an evil eye, trying to will it move. To my astonishment, the bison does move, but in our direction. I am suddenly worried that my silly stare has backfired. Then the same bison does a very weird thing. It starts to jump, I mean, like boing-boing jump, like all four feet off the ground at once, like I’ve never ever seen a bison do before. The bison I gave the evil eye to does this twice. I check with Frank and he says he’s never seen a bison do that either. Well, evil eye or not, the jumping bison is now moving out of the area and the other three are following him. And they go pretty rapidly. Hmmm. Perhaps I’ll try this again sometime?
Getting across this marsh proves one of the trickiest parts of the hike but we have so many experienced folk that we manage it without mishap. At the end of it we find ourselves hopping over dozens of tiny streams so it gets pretty comical but it all turns out all right. When we reach the end of this marsh-meadow and have climbed a bit to higher, dryer ground, Frank asks us to turn around and look back.
We do. To the right of Obsidian Pool is a pretty lake, glimmering in the early-evening sun, bordered on one side by high grasses. I can see some ducks and geese happily riding its surface. Frank says he doesn’t think this lake has a name and says he’d like us to call it Allison Lake. It is a touching moment on a fun-filled hike and we instantly agree. I don’t think I was alone in thinking how cool it was for Frank to do this.
The rest of the hike takes us through a bit more forest and over some deadfall and the talk begins to turn to dinner. Visions of steak and cool drinks are popping into most of our heads. As we head down the last slope an owl passes silently overhead. And we continue to see bison in the woods but we manage to avoid them all.
We come out of the trees across one last soggy meadow but by now we don’t care it our boots get soaked. We must be quite a sight to tourists as nearly 20 of us come out of the woods and across the road. As we arrive at our cars we all agree that this has been another memorable hike and have a cheer for Frank.
We now head down to Lake Lodge. I haven‘t spent much time here on my earlier trips, mostly due to my fascination with for the northern part of the Park. But Frank has now convinced me that Lake Lodge and its porch is a prime location for Loon gatherings of the future.
In the cafeteria we are able to convince the waiters to help us pull tables together so we can dine as a group. And in the lobby I meet up with dear Dan M and finally meet his lovely wife Dani (I think she looks like a dark-haired Bonnie Raitt, complete with dimple). We have a jolly time indeed. Dining en masse with a bunch of Loony Loons is just a wonderful thing to do!
After dinner we head outside to the porch and commandeer a row of rocking chairs. From here you look out on an unimpeded view of beautiful Yellowstone Lake and the snow-capped mountain peaks beyond . I just sit here rocking and drinking it in.
Lots of people have long drives tonight but no one is in a hurry. One by one, Loons singly or in groups stretch out their goodbyes because that is the Loon tradition. Plus we are all going to be together tomorrow night in Mammoth for Allison.
It’s well after dark when Tim and Frank and I head to the parking lot. I’ve got it easy because I’m staying here, in a cabin. Tim is going to sleep in his camper so he just needs to find a place to park. Frank has to work tomorrow in Livingston but is used to long drives. I don’t know how he does it.
It’s been another great day in Loon land. My evening ends in a pleasant cabin and a last view of the Lake out my door. My feet are a tad sore but I sleep like a log.
Today I saw: antelope (including a fawn) a black bear, 8 grizzly bears (including 5 cubs) 5 Bighorn sheep (including 2 lambs) bison, ducks, elk, geese, 2 goshawks, ground squirrels, 2 marmots, an owl, a pelican, a surfing raven