The car clock says 8:25 as I head south. I am driving Ruby, a red Toyota Rav 4 which has no temperature gauge. I have decided to start my summer visit with a slightly touristy side-trip to Virginia City - a former mining town which was the reason for the settlement of my adopted home, Bozeman, MT. This means I am heading slightly west as well as south.
A dozen chestnut horses stand in a pasture, tails swishing, coats gleaming in the sun, belly deep in rich green grass.
The mountains to the southwest are still snow-topped. I see a hawk perched on a fence post and wild cornflowers growing abundantly on both sides of the road. The Gallatin River looks great, as does the Madison. American Pelicans whiten a bend in the river. I see mule deer browsing among the willows and pronghorn in the flats.
I reach the turn-off to Virginia City and the road begins to climb. Up and up it goes, offering expansive views on all sides. The area remains nearly empty of traffic, as it's been since I left Bozeman. The road crosses a pass and then begins to wind down the other side, following a stream and eventually reaching the town of Virginia City.
The main street is where the majority of historic buildings remain, while the modern community lives in modest homes, scattered about the hillsides. There are numerous old-timey buildings, including several saloons, a town hall, a general store and a fascinating graveyard, but I find very few places open at 10AM on a Tuesday. Perhaps it would have been different had I come by on a weekend.
I am glad to see the place has retained an authentic character, rather than having been gussied up or Disneyfied. The brochures I find remind the visitor that it is very costly to continue to preserve a town so far from major highways.
Some wranglers prepare a string of horses for a trail ride and I imagine going with them. There is a beautiful wild-flower garden through which I wander. I am sure this is a popular place for local folk to bring their kids for camping or swimming.
After wandering around and poking my head in here and there for about an hour I head back out. I stop at a pullout with a great view and an interpretive sign showing the names of various peaks of the Madison Range directly in front of me. One of them is the backside of the Big Sky ski resort.
I drive on through Ennis and continue to follow the course of the Madison. I see scattered wildlife; an osprey soaring above the river, a mule deer, a pronghorn. Oh! There's a badger in a field! And I love seeing the stunningly beautiful colors - lush green grass dotted with goldenrod and blue corn-flowers.
Soon I begin to anticipate my arrival at the turnoff I took last September to head to Ashton to meet Gary and Laurie for our Bechler hike. I stop in a pullout just beyond this junction and read its sign about Raynolds Pass. I remember that name from a book I read about the fur trade in this area. According to the sign, Jim Bridger led Captain Raynolds and his group through the area in 1860. The area just south of here is also referred to as "Low Pass" because it is an unusually flat crossing of the Continental Divide.
But my path leads back into the mountains and I see them looming to the east. I am going to follow the Madison upstream into the Gallatin Range and eventually, to the Park. The sun is out full and the day has warmed considerably. It beats down on the beautiful willow-fringed Madison, making the fast-moving water glisten like blue diamonds.
The road follows the river and I notice a preponderance of exposed gravel beds and dry log-jams, left over from the likely torrents of spring snow-melt. This sort of thing is normal for a wild river, I say to myself. Then I notice something quite strange. Smack in the middle of the main channel rises a single tall trunk of a former pine tree, bare and branchless. I wonder if it may have floated down in the melt and gotten wedged under a rock, pushing it to its vertical position. Hmmmm.
The road winds uphill into the mountains, leaving the river far below and I become vaguely aware of larger and larger boulders down in the river channel when suddenly I see something that makes me swerve quickly into a pullout that appears just in time. I stop, turn off the engine and hop out. Holy Crap!
I am looking at the hillside across the river to my right - a gaping wound in the earth. I suddenly understand the bare tree trunk in the river channel. I am looking at the result of the famous 1959 earthquake - the instantly eroded mountainside, still raw and bare as if it happened yesterday (which in geologic time, it did). Wow!
I look at the river winding below into the valley once crossed by Jim Bridger, and read the story of its torture when thousands of tons of mountainside sheered off from the southern side, roared up the opposite side and fell back down, entombing the river and its banks in house-sized boulders, rocks, mud, dust, and shredded vegetation. The Madison River was stopped. The only way for its water to go was backwards, so it did, backing up further and further, flooding the valley upstream of the instant dam. The water table rose and kept on rising until, perhaps a day or two later (a week?), it finally rose high enough to over-top the dam.
Then slowly, I imagine the Madison began to carve its new route slowly through the radically altered gorge. How fascinating that would have been to watch, had it been safe to stand for those few days where I stand now.
Eventually the river would carve its way down to the flats below, and the evidence is still breathtakingly on display. That trunk standing now in the middle of the channel began its life and grew to its height on dry land, on the bank of the former riverbed. But as the river fought for its own life, it changed course and drowned that tree and the bank on which it once stood. Some sections of gravel and exposed rock look from here like the Madison's abandoned former course.
I remember my Loon friend Veronica speaking of a terrific Visitor Center in this area so I drive on and find it right around the next bend. The new building is made of pale pink rock called dolomite, one of two main types of rock that make up the cliffs in the area. Huge chunks of dolomite broke off during the quake and several enormous specimens remain on the north side, where they tumbled during the event. And Veronica is right, it's an exceptional VC - I highly recommend it.
From here I get my first view of the strangely beautiful "Quake Lake", the result of the flood that began so lethally that night. The visitor center platforms offer views of the Lake and the sheered-off mountainside and there is an additional upper area with a great series of interpretive signs. And if all this cool earthquake stuff weren't enough, there are also high cliffs to the south with mountain goats! I pull out Layla for a better view and see four of them; a billy, two nannies and a cute little kid.
On I go, following the new road around the contours of Quake Lake. There are still many ghost trunks sticking out of the water, mute evidence of how the land once looked. Two rows of trunks trace what were the river's banks for hundreds of years. I see why this area was so popular as a camping spot; it is stunningly beautiful! That's partly why so many people died that night, because the natural setting drew so many to vacation here.
I stop at an area called Beaver Creek to drink in the unspoiled beauty. It's a little slice of heaven, just as I've heard it described. The mountains are close and there is a feeling of seclusion. Paintbrush, mules ears and sticky geranium abound in the green, green meadows.
Further on I eventually come upon Hebgen Lake. It is really big - much bigger than I expected. This area is semi-settled; there are ranches, summer places, as well as roads for boating and fishing access. I stop at another interpretive sign and agree to take a photo of a couple who are stopped here. The man says he was working as a bellman at Canyon Lodge during the earthquake, that he felt it and ran outside in his underwear. He and his wife are on their way to visit Quake Lake for the first time.
Soon after this I reach the junction where I turn onto Highway 89. This is the only area on my whole trip that looks a little dry. Just past the airport entrance a white-footed rabbit hops across the road. It's a snowshoe hare in its summer pelage.
I make my way through funky West Yellowstone and get my first real taste of summer season. The place is packed and full of visitors shopping, walking, eating ice-cream.
I enter the Park and turn into one of the large pullouts near the river to have my "visit" with Allison. Although her resting place is far to the north, I know she loved this Madison River drive so it's easy to think of her here. The setting is idyllic - the grass, and even the sage looks greener here than on the main loop road and there are abundant wildflowers.
A little while later as I approach the Bald Eagle area traffic backs up and slows to a creep, affording me a view of the nest, where I see an adult bald eagle feeding a chick! Up ahead I see the "no stopping" signs and various orange cones. Despite this, cars are stopped on both sides of the road, doors wide, people out of them, cameras whirring. And no rangers in sight.
I carefully weave through the abandoned cars and just drive on. I wonder if perhaps the eagles don't mind the human presence as much as I might expect, because there is a nest here, year after year.
Just beyond 7 mile bend I find elk in the meadow, and bison too. The day has turned stunning: bright sun, blue sky, puffy clouds and cool temps. I notice more and more varieties of wildflowers: larkspur, daisies, and wild-rose.
On my way through Gibbon Canyon I have a short construction delay. It gives me a chance to grab some lunch and to add a long-sleeved shirt to protect my driving arm from the sun. While I'm lunching, I marvel at the sight of an enormous bulldozer way up the hill on the north side of the road and wonder if the road will eventually run that high up on the hillside. Incongruous as it looks, I am amazed at the ability of men to do such work at all in a thermally active area such as this.
As I make my way from Norris over to Canyon I notice there is still snow on Mt. Washburn. At Canyon I learn the importance of making advanced reservations because all the campgrounds are full, and all the cabins, too.
Once my campsite is secured I head out to Hayden Valley. The sky begins to darken with a passing rain cloud. Just south of Otter Creek, on the west side of the road I see a jam and luckily find a place to pull over. I figure the attraction is likely to be bull elk but it turns out to be a fox! Sweet.
I get Layla set up and have a lovely half hour watching this graceful animal as she wanders about the area, looking for food. There is not much red in her coat - she is more blonde-gray and her coat is very shaggy. She could use a good brushing! I say "she" because I notice signs of nursing. I figure she is hunting rodents to take back to her kits.
Many people pull over to look, but few seem interested enough to get out of their cars. One gentleman at least seems as intrigued as I am. We both exclaim for joy when our lady fox rewards our patience with a high leap and nose-first dive. She gobbles one critter, then grabs another in her jaws and trots off up the hill, blending into the sage until she disappears altogether.
Just south of Alum Creek on the west side of the road is a large herd of bison with calves. I watch them a while, then move on to Grizzly Overlook. I spend the next two hours here scanning all over the areas where I have seen the Haydens in other years, including the area I believe is their "usual" rendezvous site. The view is beautiful but I see no wolves, nor any elk.
I chat up the people in the pullout. There are only scraps of information about the Canyons. Some folk heard of sightings yesterday or the day before, but nothing solid. We find some bison, some sandhills, various geese and a great blue heron flying. Whenever the wind stops blowing, the skeeters are troublesome, but the wind blows most of the time!
I take a break from this spot and drive further south just in case. Who knows, maybe I'll find a bear? I turn around at Mud Volcano and on my way back I see some elk on the hills across the river. I stop and enjoy hearing the elk call to one another. There are three groups, each grazing on one of the wide, sloping hills. The group closest to me is on the move towards the one in the center. There are many calves and I delight in watching them get rambunctious. It is nearly 8PM and the light is westering. The calves play chase, and kick up their legs, sometimes boxing each other.
There are more calves than I have seen in about three years so I count them: 11 calves to 70 cows. I watch the elk for about a half hour, then head back to the bison herd near Alum Creek. While I'm stopped here, I find a small, wary group of elk coming out of the trees way behind the bison herd. And when I scan the other side of the road I see elk there, too. This is a fairly large herd, with numerous calves. I think the area I'm looking at is above the Hayden's old den area.
But the bison herd is moving slowly toward the road, and I can see a bison jam in my future. If I don't go back to the Overlook now, I will soon lose my chance to do so. So I head there and set up for the final half hour of light. I find the distant elk herd but they are now on the move and soon out of sight. And still no wolf sightings.
Behind me the bison begin to cross the road and we are soon "trapped" in the pullout. A few bison stop on the hillside, offering lovely silhouettes against the sinking sun. Soon the road is clogged with grunting bison and traffic is stopped both ways.
Someone looking for wolves calls out "what's that?" Several scopers (including me) forget the bison and train our eyes on the rendezvous area in high anticipation. I see it an animal moving in the flats. Aha! It's a mule deer buck. Hmm, one lone animal wandering around in wolf territory. Very brave of him. He moves very hesitantly, then grazes a bit, then moves uphill and into the trees.
I am not the only one with visions of him streaking back out, chased by wolves - but it is only a wishful thought. No wolves. No bears. But we do get a lovely serenade by chorus frogs.
The bison are now on our side of the road, making their way down the hillside and across the flats to the river. One by one the cars pull out and head off. The moon comes up and turns the river into a ribbon of light. I head north to Canyon and meet a few more bison on the way. Luckily I see them in time for easy stopping.
Tonight I don't bother with a tent, I just sleep in the car, which I find perfectly comfortable. I set my alarm for 4AM. It's nice to be home again.
Today I saw: a badger, bison, 2 sandhill cranes, 5 mule deer, ducks, 2 bald eagles (one adult and one chick), elk (and many calves), 1 fox, geese, 4 mountain goats, a hawk, a great blue heron, an osprey, pelicans, pronghorn, ground squirrels, and the spirit of Allison.