My adventure begins as a happily uneventful flight from New York to Jackson, Wyoming. Upon landing I am amazed to find it baking hot (but it's a dry heat) probably 85. There is a huge line at the car rental desk due to three flights arriving at once. I wait patiently because I am where I want most to be: in the most beautiful place on earth, looking at the most beautiful mountains in the world.
Once on the road I notice the wildflowers! They are everywhere and every color. The lack of rain has perhaps muted their overall brilliance, but the subtle combinations of color I see make it nearly impossible for me to make any progress north. My car this time is a Toyota Corolla, much smaller than my usual SUV, but large enough for my scope. I like the quiet motor and the far better gas mileage, but I can barely drive for the beauty of the flowers. I stop continuously to take pictures. Lovely blue harebells, bright yellow buttercups, hot pink sticky geranium, scarlett gillia, white parnsip, and lupine, lupine and more lupine. Before I know it I'm on my fourth roll of film.
My first animal sighting is in a meadow by the Snake River. Two sandhill cranes, about 100 yards away, and guess what they have with them? A chick! The long-necked adults walk and peck and the scrawny, short necked chick walks and pecks right next to them. I love to see how protective the adult birds are of their cute little baby.
At Oxbow Bend I see two osprey, many white pelicans and geese galore. I also find rose bushes growing alongside of the pullout. I knew roses were wild but I didn't know they grew in the west. The blossoms are a lovely pale pink. As I reach higher, more forested land, the types of wildflowers change but are no less beautiful. There are such marvelous combinations of colors that my brain is on overload. I see a type of paintbrush I've never seen before - a very pale gold. And nature has planted them near other flowers that are deep purple so they show up even more. In all the woodsy sections of the road I notice quite a bit of green; hardly the water-starved vistas I was expecting.
It's already cooler as I arrive at the South Entrance. I'm HOME I'm HOME! It feels SO good. Just past Lewis Falls I see a mule deer crossing the Lewis River. I pull over and watch as she climbs up the bank. She turns at the top and looks my way, then continues across the marshy meadow. There are ducks on the river. One is particularly pretty; black and white with green eyes.
I see my first bison grazing on a hillside just past Bridge Bay. The Lake is beautiful as always. There are several boats and quite a few fishermen near the shore. And still, all along the way there are wildflowers. Just north of Le Hardy I see big jam including two Ranger vehicles. This can only mean one thing. Bear.
And there it is, on the far bank of the Yellowstone. How do you like that? A grizzly on my very first day!
I pull in, gather my heavy metal and walk down the slope to join the throng. There are people everywhere but happily the river protects the bear from all of us. I can see it with my naked eye but of course binocs are better. Then I see the bear is limping. Oh no. Really limping. He is making slow yet steady progress along the bank but his front paw is bent and the bear basically walks on three legs. Oh this is bad. Most of the people notice the limp and ask each other in whispers what's wrong. I overhear a dialogue between some tourists and a young Ranger. Is the bear injured? Yes, he was hit by a car three days ago near Grant. He's a 3 year old male and he has come 20 miles on his broken leg since then, feeding as he goes.
I ask if anyone in the car was injured. The Ranger says no. I ask if the car was speeding. The Ranger says he thinks it happened at night and the bear just ran out in front of the vehicle. Everyone wants to know "what will be done" for the bear. The Ranger says basically nothing at the moment. It seems to be grazing and grubbing and feeding itself ok. People are concerned and want the Park to do something for it, since the injury was human-caused. The Ranger allows that they are "monitoring" the bear. The Ranger says Yellowstone is full of good things for a bear to eat and if he is lucky and stays out of the way of older grizzlies he may do just fine.
As so often happens in Yellowstone, discussions begin between strangers about wildlife. A man near me and a German couple trade ideas. Someone suggests that in order to "do something" for a wild bear, someone would have to catch it, perhaps tranquilize it and operate on it. Then what? Should the bear be released back into the wild with a cast on its leg? Kept somewhere (like where?) and fed (like what?) put down? After some mulling, the four of us conclude that although letting this bear fend for itself is hard to watch, it is probably the best course available.
I worry though, that this bear's injury may be severe enough to drive it closer to easy food sources and if that means the Canyon or Fishing Bridge Campgrounds then I can't imagine the bear surviving. I hope it will stay healthy enough to make it to denning season. Then maybe his leg will heal and he can go on with his life, albeit with a distinct limp. I take some comfort in seeing the calm way he carries on, grazing here, sniffing there, turning rocks, just like every other bear I've seen. I blow him a kiss and wish him extra luck. Maybe the Nez Perce Pack will leave an elk carcass for him to find.
Eventually I go on and emerge into Hayden Valley. There is much more traffic now and the evening viewing session is in full swing. A very large bison herd covers the slopes. I see geese, pelicans and seagulls on the placid curves of the river. Curiously I see no elk.
At a large pullout near Alum Creek a group of people with binocs are all looking the same way. How about that! It's another grizzly. I assemble my scope in the pullout. The bear is a young male, grubbing on an eroded hill above a bend of the Creek. He is just below the crest and nicely visible. I offer the scope to the others in the pullout and they are most appreciative. As all Loons know, sharing one's scope is half the fun.
The bear starts digging in earnest and I figure he's after a ground squirrel. But then he sits back on his haunches as if to say "this is front-paw work, I might as well let my rear end take it easy". It occurs to me that I might be watching "Junior" the unusual young grizzly that Doug and Frank both told tales about this Spring. He makes me chuckle, this bear. He does his digging the lazy way for a while but sure enough he comes up with something and gobbles it down. Then one of the people nearby gets a black bear on a hillside to the left. By the time I get focused, blackie is climbing out of Alum Creek. It takes off and gallops up the hillside into timber. We speculate that it got a whiff of the grizzly and got the heck outta there.
I go back to watching Junior. He is so amusing. At one point he looks our way and rubs his face with his front paw, then both paws together as if saying "aw, shucks folks". Yep. This must be Junior. There is just something a little goofy about him.
I look around at the beautiful valley and the distant bison herd and the beautiful Yellowstone River flowing placidly by. What heaven I have come to. How wonderful to be here in a pullout with my scope on such a pleasant summer evening.
Eventually I go on to Canyon. As the meadows turn to forest and the Yellowstone slows in preparation for her first big plunge I meet hordes of flying insects above the roadway. They are the biggest moths I have ever seen. Quite a few of them lose their brief lives on my windshield. What the heck are they?
I check in at Canyon and leave a note for Jake and Leslie (college-age Loons who work here) inviting them to join me in Lamar tomorrow morning. The cabin is initially quite stuffy. It takes about an hour with all the windows open and the door ajar to make it tolerable. I make soup and sip it on my little front porch. The cabins are not particularly attractive from the outside although they are perfectly fine inside. The odd angles at which they are set do allow for a maximum of windows in each unit. My favorite part about staying here, though, is how many bison are around. They walk all over the place between the cabins, keeping the guests on their toes.
The wildflower theme continues here in Canyon; just outside my door is a beautiful pink spirea bush. I chat with my neighbor across the way. Her family is having a reunion here for the Fourth of July. She sees my backpack and asks questions. How do I explain what I am about to do? I just say I'm going on a backcountry hike with friends. I tell her about the evolution of Loons and John's informative website. I tell her that three of my friends have done this hike before and liked it so much they wanted to go back again. I tell her I am really excited about it (as if it doesn't show!)
As we are talking, a bison comes scuffing through the brush two cabins away. My neighbor and I retreat behind our cars and give the bison room. We both have the same instinct. We call "heads up" in the direction the bison is going, toward the next group of cabins. We see cars and people stop in their tracks, mouths agape. We smile and shake our heads. Bison are BIG!
Today I saw: 1 black bear, 2 grizzly bears, bison, 3 sandhill cranes (2 adults & 1 chick), 1 mule deer, 1 black-and-white duck, geese, 2 osprey, pelicans, seagulls and a zillion wildflowers.