Foolishly I neglect to set my alarm, so I wake up later that I mean to. Today's main activity is to meet other Loons at the Lone Star Trailhead at 9AM. I head out at 6:30, needing to drive over 100 miles which means forget stopping for wolf activity in Lamar. The last thing I want to do in my hurry is hit an animal so I do keep to the speed limit. All seems quiet in Lamar until I round the bend past the confluence. At least 25 people stand on the hillside opposite the Trash Can pullout, with scopes and binocs all facing the valley beyond. This is Major Druid Activity! Aaaauggghhhh! I know if I stop, I'll never get to the trailhead on time. Oh, it is hard to do, but I stare ahead and keep driving. I vow to maximize my Druid watching time for the rest of the trip by rising very early, napping in the afternoon and staying up till dark. This is not as stressful as it sounds, of course, since all my options in the Park are pleasant. If only my everyday choices were between a wilderness hike with friends and hillside wolf-watching. If only my everyday commute were as beautiful as the drive from Silver Gate to Old Faithful.
I have good luck and meet very little traffic and I make it a few minutes early! Pulling in right behind me are Loons Joette, Tim A & Betsy, Brenda and Dave, and Sunflower. I meet Arne, Sunflower's husband, and their two children, Shane and Jessie. The kids are so cute in their fleece pullovers, hiking shoes and day packs, raring to go. Arne has his fishing gear. We take as a good omen the presence of two lovely young bucks with pretty velvet antlers right in the forest by the trailhead registration post. I also see what I think is a blue jay in a small pine tree as we are loading up. The day is another one of those usual gorgeous ones, bright clear air and plenty of sun. I remember reading about bear activity on this trail but have no fear at all for our group due to its size and general enthusiasm. Jessie takes an instant liking to Betsy who seems to enjoy and return her affection. Betsy and Tim A talk about the possibility of finding a thermal feature they've heard about called "Buried Geyser". This sounds very interesting to me and I thank my lucky stars to have hooked up with such knowledgeable people. Sunflower knows the way on this trail and is a wonderful companion, sharing her knowledge freely and easily. All the while we have the lovely Firehole River by our side. Here it is a forest river, its banks strewn with deadfall and underbrush, gurgling merrily, slowing down sometimes to form placid dark pools, shaded by overhanging boughs.
We maintain a nice pace and make it to the outskirts of Lone Star well before its predicted eruption time. We unload our packs, have a drink and a snack and check the log book. We know Lew & Deb were here around New Years' Eve so we look for their entry. At first we don't find it but then voila! It's so fun reading it out loud. A few other hikers arrive and sit down to rest before the eruption. One of them is kind enough to take a group shot for us. Lone Star's cone reminds me of Pink Cone Geyser on The Firehole Lake Drive but it's less pink and more white. Sunflower tells us a little of its history; that it once was a main-drag attraction of the Park (which is why the trail is still so wide, having once been a road). It has fairly regular intervals between eruptions of 3 hours and it delights me that this old geyser has been going off unseen so much of its life (unseen at least by humans). I relate it somehow to the "tree falling in a forest" conundrum. The ground around the geyser is bright white and I have a little trouble with the glare from it as the sun is at noon. I pull the flaps of my hat down at my temples and that helps. Pretty much on time, old Lone Star gives us a private showing of its spouting and splashing.
Sunflower helpfully suggests I move around to another angle for photos which puts the geyser in the foreground and the hillside in the background, with some nicely shaped pines for framing. Some of the log book entries mention "major" eruption and I don't quite gather what they mean. The eruption I witness is every bit as good as any seen in the Upper Geyser Basin and with no crowd at all it seems even better! When the spouting is over and the steam phase begins we turn our attentions to other things in the area: wildflowers, shed Elk and bison hair and a hornets' nest in a sand pit.
After this we decide to take a further hike. Arne gets out his fishing gear and agrees to keep Shane and Jessie with him while Sunflower joins the rest of us for the hike. We set off to the south along the backpackers trail. I finally get oriented and realize this is the way to Bechler. On this hike I begin to understand the relationship between some of the backcountry areas of the Park. We come to a little bridge crossing the Firehole River. I want to ford it like I did on my llama trip but I am talked out of it as the river is clearly deeper than I first thought. It is still Spring I am reminded. There are thermal areas all around us, some old and inactive, others steaming. He trail becomes a boardwalk with thermal features on both sides. We reach a spot where Tim's map's tells him we should leave the trail if we want to find Buried Geyser. We have a quick discussion as to whether we each feel up to it, but everyone is game. A bushwacking hike in Yellowstone is a first for me, as it is for Joette. I have full faith in Tim A, having been guided by him already and it's clear that Betsy knows her way in the woods, too. Joette and I have the most fun I think, simply because it's something we would never do on our own.
We find mysterious old boards strewn in the forest at what seem to be regular intervals and speculate on their origin and use. I wish we had Photodude with us to propose one of his interesting theories. We keep a small stream by our side and Joette and I remind ourselves that we can always find our way back by following it should we become separated. We also agree to remain within calling distance. We try our best to find the spot and pass some very interesting areas of the woods but the hill we are looking for doesn't reveal itself. Instead we get to a rather swampy area which yields a bleached elk skull beneath a mossy tree. I have no doubt that Tim and Betsy would have eventually found it had they continued but they are respectful of the group and agree to turn around. We have absolutely NO trouble finding our way back. On the return trip along the boardwalk I do a really stupid thing. We pass a steam vent in the ground encrusted with a white mineral, like the stuff at Mammoth. I am curious and stop to gaze into the vent, wondering just how far down it goes. I pick up a stick and poke at it, knocking some of the crust into the hole. Instantly I realize how dumb that was and toss the stick back into the woods. I wonder what possessed me to do it and realize how I would be the one yelling if I saw a kid doing what I did. I hereby apologize and promise never to disturb another thermal feature again.
We arrive back at the Firehole River and it's time for me to cool my feet. I switch to my tevas and wade in the river. I see my favorite wildflower, paintbrush, in this area, just a few heads poking up, salmon colored, the first I've seen on this trip. I dip my head in the river as I love to do. As we arrive back at Lone Star we watch a touching scene as little Jessie comes running with open arms to greet Sunflower. "Mommy, I missed you!" she calls. Sunflower sweeps her up in her arms and they hug. It remains one of my favorite sightings from this whole trip.
We cool off, eat lunch and rest some more. Sunflower soaks her head in the River (hooray, another convert!) and we splash around a bit. We realize we are standing in the runoff stream which is safe at the moment since the geyser is asleep. But we take note to avoid this once the next eruption begins. None too long after this we are treated to that event. Now I know what the other hikers meant by "major". This eruption is very different from the first one; the spouting reaches three times as high and it just won't stop! It lasts more than 20 minutes. I have time to move from one location to the other and get some terrific shots. My favorite is one that includes the main spout as well as a smaller side spout right above the top of the cone. I was in awe. What a place!
We finally gather our things for the return hike. Arne goes ahead to do some fishing, while Sunflower takes her turn with the kids. My feet are starting to grow weary on the way out, but it's a good hurt, don't you know? We meet a German couple who inform us that they saw a black bear cross the trail in front of them on their way in less than an hour ago. I am further convinced of the safety in numbers. My previous hikes were prompted by a need for the solitude one finds in wilderness and a desire to test my self reliance. I have most often gone with only one other companion, so I never expected to have as much fun as I did. And it was the most perfect way to be introduced to the trails of Yellowstone. Thank you again, Sunflower, for having suggested it in the first place and thanks to all my hearty companions for making it such a great afternoon.
When we get back to the trailhead, Joette and I decide to do another hike together. We choose Fairy Falls and agree to meet at 10AM on Tuesday at the Old Faithful Inn. After many hugs we go our separate ways. I am anxious for Lamar, of course, but also need a nap. As I pass the Nez Perce River it looks entirely too inviting so I pull over. I walk to the river's edge and soak my feet again. I also soak my camp towel in its clear water. I drench my entire head for the second time today. Thus refreshed and re-awakened it's on to Madison Junction and then Norris. About half-way through Gibbon Canyon I see two backpackers by the riverside, one carrying a guitar. They look like college kids and they stick out their thumbs. I decide to stop. I roll down my window and ask where they're going. "We work in Mammoth" is the reply. I say that's just where I'm going and if they don't mind sharing the back seat with my camping gear they're welcome to join me. It takes a bit of re- arranging to find room.
I'm glad for company and the conversation. They are Nate and Travis from Florida and they have been working in the Park for three weeks. They decided to do some backpacking on their day off. I tell them about Jake at Tower and that Matthew will soon be at Old Faithful and that Frank works within walking distance of them. They are from Florida State so I ask if they know Mark R! Oh well, it's a big campus. They love the Park already but have not had too much luck sighting animals. Well, Loons, they brought ME luck. A little past Roaring Mountain we come upon a big bear jam. We get out to investigate. A ranger tells us that the crowd is looking at a grizzly bear, asleep at the base of a tree on a steep hillside. I cannot get it in my binocs. I let the guys try. I see it in the Ranger's scope and try to find some reference points but it takes too long and there are too many people who want a turn. I'm pretty sure I saw the bear but since it didn't move I couldn't be positive.
Nate and Travis are happy nonetheless as this is the closest they have yet come to the Park's fabled grizzlies. We head on and get an even better sighting in just a few minutes. In Willow Park, where you're supposed to watch for moose, we see a group of people out of their cars walking towards us along the road. I pull off and we get out again. Across the road at the bottom of the hill through the burnt tree forest is a bear, dark cinnamon colored and VERY big. You do not need binocs for this guy. He is moving at a slow lope, following the tree line where it meets the meadow, stopping every once in a while to snoop and sniff. I say black bear cuz of its color and because it's moving and I can't really tell. Each time it stops it does so behind a tree. I take pictures, though. We follow the bear's progress, paralleling its course by walking up the road. However as I look ahead I can see that the forest edge begins to curve up towards the road. If the bear keeps its present course, it will surely meet the road and attempt a crossing. The crowd is quite excited, most run or walk very fast. I slow down and mention to people passing me that we should let him cross the road. Why would anyone listen? There is no ranger is sight. The bear starts uphill for the road and the crowd runs faster. I can't stand it when this happens and I don't want to stick around for what might occur - either the bear will be kept from its purpose by the crowd or the crowd gets taught an ugly lesson by the bear. I don't want to be a part of that so I tell the guys we better go back to the car and skip this chapter.
The guys are psyched and we talk about whether it was a black or a griz. Either way they have NEVER seen a bear so it was really cool to have seen it together. When I got my pictures developed I was delighted to find that this bear was indeed a grizzly - it's hump clearly visible in three shots as well as its dish-shaped face. It makes me all the more glad I left when I did. We also had several Elk sightings along this stretch of road and upon our arrival in Mammoth I think Travis and Nate felt like Yellowstone veterans.
I head off on my own again, and my lucky streak continues. As I approach the uplands just before the Blacktail Plateau I see a coyote trot across the road. Another car coming in the opposite direction sees him too and stops. We smile at each other, aware of our luck. We watch this animal continue into the sage and then notice a little pronghorn buck a little further on. We hear a pretty warbling bird-sound and realize it's coming from a solitary nearby tree. With my binocs I can see a pretty yellow bird on a branch but have no idea what kind it is. Neither do my friends across the road. Then I notice two raptors swooping above us, just like the ones I've seen on other evenings. I ask the couple if they know whether these are red-tailed hawks. They nod and say "ferruginous hawk". Ferruginous means "rust-colored" so I'm confused as to whether this is the same or not. DBIII, can you help?
I just miss a griz up above Slough - I happen on the cars just as everybody is leaving. It may have been the mom with two that has been around here but the person I talk to only says "a griz". I am getting really tired and want to take a nap. I decide to go straight through Lamar, cook dinner and crash so I can start my new regimen tomorrow. I'm tired from the hike and tired of driving - my accelerator ankle is so sore I'm driving with my left foot.
But at Dorothy's Knoll I see Gary and some of his bear buddies so I have to stop. We chat and he makes me laugh as usual. I tell him about my hike and my bear sightings. He's jealous because it's been a slow day for him. As he puts it he's "only seen one bear today and it was a Tower bear". Then he asks if I wanna see a wolf. My eyes pop wide. He says "I've got one in my scope. She's lying down." I look and just as I do another guy says "she's up" and sure enough there she is! A beautiful black wolf with a collar. Gary says "she's been howling", My heart skips a beat. The ONE thing I most want to hear is howling! But the wind blows the sound away and the river music is strong, even from this distance. What I see is the wolf's head raised way up and her muzzle is high and rounded and that's a howling wolf! She moves around and a bit, sits back down, her head goes back again and she howls again. Silently. All the time I'm loving seeing her I laugh at myself and my plans to drive straight through. I can't be eating and sleeping when there's a Druid wolf out. She beds down again and seems to go back to sleep. I tear myself away and say goodbye and thanks to Gary. He asks where all the other Loons are. I say a new flock has arrived but this group has more eclectic tastes than the wolf-crazies of the first group. I ask him why he has apparently switched his allegiance from wolves to bears. He says "well I've never seen a wolf-lover who doesn't stop for bear and I've never seen a bear-lover who doesn't stop for a wolf". I like that.
I get as far as the Picnic Area when I recognize Doug's truck. I find him with his scope focused on the same spot where I last saw the wolf. He tells me to my great delight that the wolf I'm seeing is # 42F! I can see her from here in my binocs but Doug's scope gets her even better. I watch pretty 42 get up and trot along the edge of the riverbank. Oh she's so pretty. She has lots of white on her muzzle and legs which makes her color more distinctive. Tom is here, holding his telemetry aerial and taking notes. He seems very happy. I am happy, too, in fact, beside myself yet again. This is the former put-upon Beta female, who deposed her tyrannical sister (with a little help from her friends) in the great Druid coup d'etat. And here she is, all by her lovely, lonely self in the vast wild valley of Lamar, looking very unlike a victorious queen and more like a sad little pup far from home. Doug and I watch 42 as she trots, stops, squats, poops and kick-scratches (a special alpha behavior). She sits and howls again but still I must imagine the sound. Doug tells me what I missed this morning: four Druids on a kill, not far from where 42 is now. It was quite a sight, he says, and lasted all morning. 42 curls her tail around her and beds down still in clear view on the edge of the riverbank. If her howls were meant to draw the other Druids we've seen no sign of them yet. Tom isn't saying either.
We watch a herd of bison and a smaller herd of antelope out on the wide flats. I tell Doug about the hike and how we got to see two eruptions of Lone Star. Doug tells me some of his travels today, about the Pelicans at LeHardy Rapids. We talk about how you can plan what you want to see in a day but it's so often when you're NOT looking that your best sightings occur. It's another part of the appeal of Yellowstone.
Finally I'm nearly falling asleep on my feet so I bid him adieu. Yet, at the point where the river comes close to the road I see another group of cars pulled over. The Druids have finally responded to 42's call! I pull over and wait to discover what people are seeing. One guy is trying to set up a scope on a tripod and two other couples are using binocs. They seem to be looking at a solitary dead tree on the opposite side of the Lamar.
I see a buffalo asleep a few feet away from that dead tree so I figure I'm looking at the wrong dead tree. I go over to the happy couple leaning against their car, looking through their binocs. "Do you see a wolf?" I ask. "No" they say, smiling. "A bear". "Oh!" I say, re-instilled with excitement. I look again in the direction they are now pointing to. The man says "it's just to the left of that dead tree. It's just standing there". I look again where he points. I see the dead tree. To the left of it I see a buffalo, or more precisely, the shoulder hump and back of a resting buffalo. Its head is mostly hidden but I can see one curved horn. I say "the dead tree with the slanted-down branch?" "Yeah" they nod eagerly "to the left of that". Hmm. They're seeing a buffalo-bear. I've heard this is a common sighting. But I can't ruin the end of such a good day and lose all my karma points. I say "I can't quite see It. I think I'll try to get a better angle down the road. Thanks. Have a good night."
Now, of course they may have been deliberately pulling my leg, seeing if I'd bite. But I think not. I drive past the Footbridge and on to Silver Gate. Two mule deer dash from the roadside into the trees. Three more pop out just past the Montana sign. I get to my cabin and crash. My foot hurts like hell. I hold an ice-cold beer on it. Forget dinner. I stay awake only long enough to write about seeing 42. The rest is a blank...
Today I saw: Antelope, Bison, 2 Grizzly bears, 1 coyote, Deer, Elk, 2 Ferruginous Hawks,
1 yellow bird, 1 blue jay, 10 Loons, 1 Druid wolf (Alpha female # 42) and a buffalo-bear.