I get up early. I'm packed and out of my campsite by 5:30. It is cold, today. Long low clouds rest in sensuous folds among the hills, frost twinkles in every meadow and I have the whole world to myself.
Mule deer in the forest before Little America turn to watch as I pass, their big eyes radiant and wet. In a lovely meadow in Lamar Valley I see a coyote hunting. It prowls the flats with attentive ears, its bushy tail straight out like a rudder. I see many buffalo, with steam rising from their great warm bodies as they lumber by. Their breath makes little white clouds. Yellow flowers have opened along the little creek across from the Institute, looking so inviting that I have to stop for a photo. When I open the door I hear meadowlarks. Such a joyous, heart-stirring song! I have heard them often on this trip but they are especially memorable today, on this early cold morning, the first day of June.
I see Rick and Bill at the Hitching Post, along with several others, including Tim W, Tim II and Jay. Hey! How'd they get here before me? The scopes are all pointing one way but people seem a little distracted. I can't make out whether they have something or not. Then Tim W happily informs me that they have 21 bedded down by the river! Wow! My first morning wolf! I can barely see him, curled up in the brush on the river bank below a steep green slope. I see his head come up once - well his ears, actually. How Loony are we? Jumping for joy at the sight of a wolf's ear!
John is not here so I figure he's at the Footbridge. I drive up there and find him and Mark R. I tell them we have 21 down at the Hitching Post. John says thanks but he'll stay put. Mark is jazzed. He and I go back. Luckily 21 hasn't moved an inch. I pull my car into position so I can stand on top of it. (I'm short I keep tellin' ya!). This works for me but most folks don't find much interesting about a non-moving shadow next to a sage plant on a gravel bar. Mark R. gives up or maybe he wants to try to see more grizzlies with John. Anyway I notice him take off and just then I see people pointing and saying "103". I follow the arms and fingers and Yes! Another wolf! Pretty little 103 is trotting along the far bank above the confluence. We have a nice long sighting of her. I check back with 21 every few seconds. His head pops up but he stays put. 103 keeps coming our way. She trots down a slanted game trail to the brushy area. Now I realize 21 is napping on a little flat island in the river. 103 has to cross some water to get to him. This occurs out of my sight but then there she is. Hey Mark R is back! Look at him beam! This is his very first Druid sighting. Nothing like seeing a friend's face aglow at the moment of discovery!
Now 21 gets up and the two of them nose around together. You can really see how much bigger he is. I have trouble keeping track of them. I know I keep saying how easy it is to lose them in the brush. I'm still a rank amateur of course but they are clever. Now comes the funny part. We hear someone say "another wolf" and look up, all excited. Along the river bank, along the very same track where we just followed 103, we see another dog - but it's not a wolf, it's a coyote. The coyote stops and begins to yap and bark at the wolves, doing its level best to let them know they are not welcome. Who knows what doggy expletives this feisty little guy spewed out in his anti-wolf diatribe. I'm sure he accused them of every kind of crime against his family and was threatening all sorts of horrible punishment. All from a reasonably safe distance, of course. The wolves totally ignore him.
After a while one of the wolves heads east along the river I lose them both for a while so I don't know which one it is. (I later found out it was 103) Anyway most of us get back in our cars and head to the Footbridge to wait for the wolf to come into view. John knew this would happen, I think. We get to the Footbridge and the black wolf is already in view, trotting purposefully across the open flats getting nearer and nearer to the very place that Tim A and I had hiked a few days ago. A wolf moving through an open meadow is simply a sight every human being should behold. An elk on a ridge looks up sharply, stands tense but still and watches her pass. A bison down slope pays no mind at all. The wolf sees them both but has other business today. She breaks into an easy lope and heads up a slope. Two more elk take note and strike off to the side in their characteristic high-headed prance. Watching this interaction reminds me of what Doug Smith says in Bob Landis' film - that with the return of the wolf, Yellowstone's ecosystem is again complete. Elk and Wolves evolved together; watching them react to each other's presence on the great stage of the Lamar Valley makes that relationship crystal clear. A few more loping strides and the wolf is lost in the timber. Oh, she is gorgeous! Really, really gorgeous! The confidence in a wolf's head, her strong long legs, her whole carriage, is just so graceful and fine.
We don't have long to talk about this sighting as we are suddenly distracted by more animals in view. Three coyotes come running from west to east right smack in front of us. They nose around a little but mostly make tracks east. I hear talk of a coyote den nearby, a little closer to Soda Butte. The 10 bighorn sheep are still in view, having moved a little further up the hill. Must be good eating up there. Speaking of eating, I haven't had a proper breakfast so I go to my car and retrieve an assortment of goodies. I sit on my three-legged stool and chow down, laughing and talking with the other Loons. We are an amiable bunch. We've picked up a few "honorary Loons" including a young couple Dan and Andrea, and Rudy from Austria. There's also a nice lady and her family who have been in the Tetons.
Some people who were looking for the coyote den call out that there's an unidentified creature near a bend in the Soda Butte Creek. Some people think otter, others say ground squirrel. We have many eyes looking. The creature is on its hind legs looking rather worriedly in the direction of the coyotes. Then a second creature of the same type is spotted. Too small for otter and just doesn't look like a ground squirrel. I wonder about weasel. The lady who had been to the Tetons pulls out a book she bought which helps you identify local fauna. After much input and friendly discussion back and forth we settle on a weasel. The clincher is the book's note that they like riverine habitat and burrow near the banks.
John suggests we take a hike to Trout Lake. This is the lake where Bob Landis filmed his famous otter special several years ago. Mark R and Carl hiked it yesterday and Mark discovered a waterfall. It sounds good to me so I go, too. All in all, ten of us go including Dan, Andrea and Rudy. But before we get anywhere we are sidetracked just past Soda Butte Cone. The coyote den is in view and the coyote pups are out! Wow! Pups! I never thought I'd see this! We pull over and walk into the meadow about 10 feet to a little rise. We set up scopes and I look through my binocs. The same three coyotes we saw running past the Footbridge are here - one rests on a bare slope right below a dark spot, another noses around above this dark spot and the third stands atop it. The dark spot is the mouth of the den. Underneath mom are five pups. You wanna know what they were doing? Nursing! Mom's standing there calm as can be while the pups beneath her hang on her teats, just like Romulus & Remus. I am amazed and delighted.
After a while the pups finish nursing or mom gets tired and moves off to lie down. The resting coyote starts to play with the pups, knocking them down the hill and watching them scamper back up. This adult is very playful, crouching and yapping. The pups each take a turn sliding, falling, rolling down the slope. They are little but move around very well. We marvel at the tranquillity of the scene right here in the middle of Druid territory. Maybe the wolves will allow this family to live. The three adults are very attentive of each other; they seem a cohesive group. I hear talk of their moving the pups to different dens more than once in the last few weeks. They may be just savvy enough to escape the Druids. I hope so.
Well the morning is getting on, so we do, too. We park at the trailhead, sling on our day packs and head uphill. The day is simply magnificent. Much warmer, probably 70 with bright clear skies of that familiar western blue I've come to love so much. The woods are very beautiful here, no fire damage in this section. The trail is quite steep (for the flatlanders among us) but mercifully short. Near the top of the hill I hear the rushing roar of water falling, and then see a cascade coming out of...Trout Lake. One of the most serenely beautiful mountain lakes I've ever seen. Quiet, deep and still, surrounded by high snow-capped peaks. Excellent grizzly country I think to myself. The trail skirts the lake; you can go either right or left. The left trail takes you over a log bridge over the roaring outlet.
We take the right trail. I can see trout underwater - big ones, Buck! This lake is off-limits to fishing I'm told. I take pictures of them. We see a group has beaten us here - a school group of about a hundred 8-10 year old kids, at the moment being very noisy. Well, you can't always get what you want. But this is a big lake and there's enough space for us, too. We hike slowly around, stopping for wildflowers and a cool bleached skull of an elk. We cross a few little rivulets pouring down the hillside into the lake, lined with lush, thick grass. Then we come to the main inlet stream, the one prominently featured in the otter special. Andrea stops here to look for otter evidence. Andrea is studying to be a wildlife biologist and one of her specialties is otters. She is very patient and methodical. I am filled with joy that there are people like her. It gives me such hope for the future. And then I look around me and see that hope multiplied. All these school kids, too! Granted most will only remember that they threw mud at Susie or that Jimmy got a huge mosquito bite but maybe one or two will remember this spot and become involved in its preservation in some way. I know how much I loved nature trips from my youth and I never got to a place as gorgeous as this!
Dan and Andrea and Rudy and I talk about New York and whether they might come for a visit sometime. I hope they do! We never exchanged numbers but I hope they'll e-mail me if they find they're headed my way. We make our way around the lake but the skeeters start to bite. If the slightest breeze blows they go away. We try climbing higher and this works. We pass a big rock with great looking orange lichen all over it. This is a good candidate for a jigsaw puzzle photo. We go a little higher and find signs of an old road. Then Mark says "look up". I do. For a second I think I'm in Yosemite. On a high brown cliff I see a beautiful thin ribbon of white and a veil of mist very like Bridal Veil Falls. Where the water hits the rock we see icy snow clinging. This waterfall probably only exists at this time of year as it is most likely snow melt from the higher peaks above it. It is very lovely and I know why Mark is so proud of it. We name it Mark's Falls.
We sit on the hill in the sun. The breeze is intermittent so I pull out my trusty mosquito headnet and slip it on over my hat. I know I look ridiculous and everybody makes even MORE fun of me. Especially Carl and John. For most of the hike, John has been far ahead of us, head down, snapping close up photos of butterflies. Tim W. and Jay go further uphill exploring the higher slopes while Dan & Andrea sit and watch the lake for any sign of otter. They have found promising clues like scat and shells. They also identify two spots on the bank that are probably entrances to the den. They think the otters may be hiding due to the noisy kids.
Soon after this the kids pack up and leave. A delightful quiet comes over the Lake and we experience its beauty all over again. In a very short time Andrea points and we see a telltale "v" in the water. There's definitely a mammal the lake, swimming back and forth. When it nears the den it dives. We watch for quite a while although every time I try to get a photo something goes wrong! Mark R and I sit and watch and laugh and smile. We are sure it's an otter even though I never see it do the arched back dive thing that I've seen them do other places. I watched two of them playing in the Green River beneath Square Top Mountain one early morning several years ago.
I don't know that it's possible to describe just how lovely and peaceful and relaxing a day this is. I am surrounded by friends, wildflowers and mountains on a grassy hill, blue, blue sky and warm sun above, breathing the clearest, freshest air you could ever want and watching the rich and diverse water-life in a pretty lake. Ah me. What heaven.
After a while though, it is time to go. Reluctantly we gather our things and hike leisurely back around the way we came. We line up on the single log bridge across the inlet stream and take photos. After a little more studying, Dan and Andrea tell us that we were probably watching a muskrat. But they felt they had seen enough evidence to make them believe otters are in the area so they are going to come back up after they get some lunch. Then we realize that Rudy from Austria has left on his own. I'm sorry I didn't get to say goodbye.
Back at the trailhead, I see Tim talking to an older couple about to head up the trail. I don't realize until after they leave that it is James Musgrove and his wife! Sorry I missed them. Tim and Jay treat us to cold soft drinks from their cooler. I pour some ice water on my head and feet to cool off. I get teased for this, too. Carl says it's cuz I'm a Yankee.
I bid a sad farewell to Tim W, Tim II, Jay, Mark R & Carl. I've had so much fun with these guys, I'm really gonna miss them. I wish them great wolf sightings tonight, then off I go.
I stop at Soda Butte in case the coyote pups are still out but I don't see them. Lamar is quiet this afternoon. It is quite warm, in fact for the first time on this trip I wear a sleeveless shirt. I stop at the Tower Store and say hi to Jake. He sells me a hot dog for lunch and I bring him up to date on our Druid sightings. Then I head over Dunraven Pass. I stop at a pullout to look at Mt. Washburn and the grand vista spread out beneath it. I watch a small Elk herd on an open slope and notice that they seem to have a system. Eight heads down eating, two heads up watching. Generally the two guards look in opposite directions. They trade off at fairly regular intervals so everyone gets a turn.
I go on down to Canyon and head for Hayden Valley. Just where the forest gives way and the River curves left I see a very large group of geese. Then Hayden Valley spreads out before me. It looks very different this early in the season. Compared to Lamar, spring is late to arrive. There are still large patches of snow in depressions on the hills and whole slopes are not yet recovered from the weight of snow. Thin lines of green show the edges of former snow fields and the rest of the ground is barren. I see no large animals here at all save a few bull bison cooling their large bodies in the shade of trees. I really hits me how the different areas of Yellowstone provide a necessary variety of habitats for the animals here. I suspect that in a few short weeks Hayden will be chock full of grass which will draw the herds of bison and Elk. And then it will be chock full of cars, RV's and busses unlike its pleasant emptiness today.
I drive on to LeHardy Rapids and am treated to a flock of Pelicans on a gravel bar in the River. I watch an osprey sail high overhead. I decide I probably have enough time to drive out to the East entrance (hoping to see the young grizzlies Sandi talked about) but when I get to Fishing Bridge I run into construction. I had also heard of grizzlies visible fairly close to the road around Pelican Creek so I settle for going that far. Unfortunately I don't see any bears at all. I figure it's much too hot for them to be out anyway. I content myself with photos of the odd juxtaposition of steam vents and lakeshore. A flock of geese seems happy here and I see a hawk dive into a meadow for a meal. On the way back the construction stops me for 15 minutes, which I use to update my notes. My car gets utterly filthy on the next section of road to Bridge Bay from some chalky substance. I am not in a hurry, though, and I enjoy the change of scenery. The lodge-pole forest is so thick here; the trees rise to such impressive heights and the sparkling lake glints and winks through the boles in hypnotic rhythm.
At Craig Pass I am surrounded by snow. It lies thick between the trunks and in huge melting walls on both sides of the road. I see footprints and scoop marks and snowball-gathering scrapes and butt-slide marks and even some old snowmobile tracks. I also find bird, squirrel and rabbit tracks. Finally I come down into the Upper Geyser Basin and meet the traffic that I've been avoiding the whole day. I check in at the Lodge and get the key for my cabin. As much as I want a shower and a nap, I am drawn to The Geyser and find myself walking the short distance to Old Faithful. Before I get to the boardwalk it erupts beautifully - stopping me in my tracks. I've been watching it since September on the Web Cam and I'd forgotten how it sparkles! Maybe this is a particularly large display but it seems grander and higher than ever. Then I notice another geyser erupting behind the hill. It's Giantess! Both are spouting at once! I get off a few shots and stand amazed! Even from a distance Giantess is giant! I join in the spontaneous applause. I know it sounds silly but I kinda like it when the crowd does this. Thus satisfied, I return to my cabin, take a wonderful shower and conk out.
Two hours later I get up to have some dinner. I feel a tremendous urge to go to Lamar - as if my rightful place is there. Geri and I had laughed about how we knew there was more to the Park than Lamar but that getting yourself to go elsewhere was proving harder than we expected. I break the spell by thinking how long a drive it will be coming back at night. I decide to have a drink at the Inn, maybe a walk first. I know Deb & Lew are staying here at the cabins and JT and Malinda are at the Inn. What's JT's last name? Oops. I leave a message for the Demlers, inviting them to join me at the Bear Pit later. I figure they may be having dinner so I go to the restaurant desk and ask if they've made reservations. They find nothing under Demler. Shoot.
I take a short geyser walk and end up next to Beehive. It does not erupt, but I see my favorite view of the whole strange and beautiful basin, steaming and smoking like the wonderland it is. As night falls I head for the Inn. I try to spot Loons in the restaurant from the balcony overlook but either my eyes are bad or they were seated behind a post because I miss them! I sit at the bar in the Bear Pit and attend to my notes. I tally my bear and wolf sightings and am about to start on coyotes when to my delight Lew and Deb walk in. We have a re-loonion over a glass of wine. It's great fun to catch up. Poor Lew and his favorite shirt had a run-in with some potent geyser-spray; they had many bear sightings and have been having a wonderful time geyser-gazing. They also had a very special experience at the Inn - but better if I let them tell it.
The time comes to say goodnight but we promise to meet in Lamar the next night. None of us relishes the idea of driving at night but we figure it will be tolerable if we have each other for company. I head back to my cabin past Old Faithful. The circle is nearly deserted. The night air is sharp and crystal clear; there is no moon; the sky is messy with stars. I lie down on a bench and gaze at the night. A breeze sends geyser steam overhead and I feel microscopic drops settle on my face then vanish. The stars are temporarily obscured and I hear a far away sound like a screech owl. Closer I hear the hissing of the geyser and some soft drifting conversation. I concentrate on the geyser sound until I hear its incessant bubbling and burping. Then some plopping and hissing and whining and whooshing. I leave the earth a while and live in a land of water and wind. All the while shooting stars whiz by mostly at the corners of my eyes but twice directly overhead. Part of this was the wine, you understand, but it is now one of my favorite things I ever did. Only when the geyser begins erupting do I "come to" and sit up again. I recommend this to anyone who comes close to Yellowstone. Stay up (or get up) at night and "see" an eruption by starlight. I'm sure it's beautiful by moonlight, too. I felt more aware of its power in the darkness and I swear I felt vibrations beneath me. When the spouting is over I thank both the geyser and the night and make my way back home. I have sweet dreams.
Today I saw: 10 Bighorn Sheep, Bison, 4 Coyotes and 5 pups, Deer, Ducks, Geese, Elk,
a Hawk, a Muskrat, 8 Pelicans, some BIG trout, 2 Weasels, 8 Loons and 2 Druid Wolves
(21 & 103)