I am so ready for this trip. I have packed and re-packed, checked and re-checked. As I walk down the boarding alley to the plane the only thing I am not sure of is where I will be sleeping tonight. I have a reservation at Silver Gate cabins but at the last minute Tim A and Betsy, two of my Loon friends, said they were up for joining me on an overnight hike. We have made the barest of arrangements via hurried e-mails - only that we will meet in the Park at Fountain Flats picnic area at 5PM. "It'll work out" I tell myself. "I'm going to Yellowstone. Things always turn out right there".
There is fog in New York but it causes no delays. However the clouds remain thick until we get over Wyoming. Now, thousands of feet below I see mountains with snow. It looks wonderful and strange. On the short hop from Salt Lake to Bozeman I am treated to a lovely view of the Tetons (I'm on the right side for once!) and then I catch the sparkle of Yellowstone Lake and the steam of thermal features. I glimpse a river winding below and guess it is the Gallatin. Then the clouds come again. A dad and his 10 year old daughter are sitting next to me. I can feel their excitement building. We start talking about the Park. I say "wolves" and they say "where" and I happily show them my map of Lamar.
We land in the emerald bowl that is Bozeman. As we roll to the gate I see two women about 10 rows ahead looking back in my direction. I wave my Loon flag. BIG smiles break out on their faces! Loons on my plane! It's Pat and her friend Judy. We can't hug or talk as the distance is too great but we do both once we're inside the gate. Hugs first of course. The Loonion has begun!
It's 80 degrees here! I get out of my hiking boots and wool socks and into Tevas. My bags have decided to stay on the plane. Pat discovers her car is not here and the number she calls gives no information. I figure I can drive them in if need be. By the time my bags and my car arrangements are ready I find that Pat and Judy have roused their car guy and will be on the road shortly. We say "see you in Lamar" and head off.
In the Thrifty shuttle I meet a family of four from Florida about to see the Park for the first time in all their lives. This makes me tear up. I tell the kids they have good parents for bringing them here. They ask me all sorts of questions. I am bursting with excitement and can barely speak sense. I tell them more than they could ever want to know about wolves and bears - in a 5 minute ride. They see my backpack and ask if I am camping out. I say yes, tonight I hope, if I meet my friends on time. The mom asks where are you from? I shake my head at the absurdity of it. New York I say. New York City. It makes no sense.
I've been issued an SVU that I call Ms. Jeep. I make a padded spot in the back for my spotting scope and pull out my binocs and camera. I fly around the car, opening and closing this door and that, tossing gear every which where. I'm Here! I'm Here! My heart soars. It feels so right, so much like home.
The sky above is sharp blue between bright white clouds. I clip on sunglasses. The sun has a power I remember from other visits. I know my skin will burn quickly. But look over there! What's that flying? It's a hawk! And there's another! Animals already! Yay! I wave goodbye to the lucky family and I'm off, barely paying attention to the highway directions the Thrifty man gave me. I find my way easily - just head for the mountains and follow the river. In mere minutes I have left all vestiges of city life behind. I am on the open road with mountains on all sides and waving fields of grass. And a river by my side. I see cows. Some have calves that look cuter than usual. I imagine they are bison. I am happier when I see horses, and two of them have foals! I see lots of geese.
I stop at a particularly lovely bend of the Gallatin River to take some shots, enjoy the sun and set my bare feet in its cool water. Ahh, that's nice. I hear frogs, birds and ducks and all kinds of peeping, squawking, cheering and tweeting. I've been seeing lots of kayakers on the river and just as many bright yellow rafts full of river enthusiasts. It looks like great fun. The temperature has dipped to about 65. A perfect spring day.
Inside the National Park boundary I see more animals. A mule deer darts into the timber near a bend in the river and three antelope dash up and over a hillside into the sun. At Fawn Pass trailhead I spot a coyote mousing in a field. While I am watching him I hear a high-pitched cry. A bird is soaring overhead, its body dark with mottled wings and darkish tips. It lands in a tree. It looks golden/brown. It flies away before I can study it and I lose it in the trees. I think it may have been a golden eagle.
I get to West a bit later than I thought I would but I need to stop to get my stove canister and some groceries. I notice all the grounded snowmobiles resting silently under tarps. I like them better this way. Into Wonderland I go. The scenery is so inspiring I go slow to enjoy it.
The Madison River is its usual sparkling self and I see plenty of fishermen. I notice a large pullout full of cars. I bet I know why. Yup. A large herd of bison with their adorable orange babies is commanding the attention. I can't resist it and pull in. On a nearby slope I see two male figures watching the herd contentedly. I know those shapes! I turn off the car and fly out the door. Those are Loons! It is Mark R and his dad Carl. I sneak up behind them and slam into Mark, hugging him from behind. They are glad to see me but properly chastise me for being noisy. I reduce my volume to a whisper but we three keep hugging and being Loony. The first think Mark tells me is that he has seen 103 and her pups! He gives me directions.
Carl asks if I am really going camping tonight. I say yes! I invite them to come along but they cannot; their relatives are about to arrive. We chat a bit more and enjoy the antics of the bison herd. Then off I go with promises to see them again. My heart is really soaring now as the true spirit of the Loonion catches hold of me. How nice it is to have friends like Mark, Carl, Pat and Judy with whom to share this wonderful place.
I make the turn at Madison and cross the bridge. On the left I see a group of elk in the meadow, mostly cows and yearlings. I go up the hill past Firehole Canyon Drive. It is all so familiar and yet so new again. Soon the gorgeous Firehole River becomes my guide and partner as I drive. Many fishermen are out, and there is a fair amount of traffic. In fact, compared to my winter visit, the Park seems crowded! But after all this is a holiday weekend.
A strange apprehension sets in. What if the spot I am headed to isn't where I think it is? I have always had a knack for remembering landscapes but as I've gotten older I have caught myself often defending a memory that turns out to be more fantasy than fact. I wonder if my idea of our meeting place is in some other corner of the park and not where I'm going?
But right around the next bend I am delighted to find Fountain Flats right where I thought it was, looking just like I remembered it. This time my memory is true after all. I cross the bridge over the Nez Perce and turn right towards the picnic area. It is 10 minutes to 5. Up ahead I see a truck making the turnaround loop. There's something familiar about that truck. I stop and wait for it to complete its turn and head back towards me. Unbelievable. It's Tim and Betsy. We just grin at each other like Cheshire Cats. Did you just get here? Yep. Did you just get here? Yep! That's Yellowstone for you. Things work out.
I follow them to the end of Fountain Flats road and we park. We all get out. More Loon hugs. I thank them over and over for agreeing to this hike at the last minute. They are psyched, too. They have thoughtfully chosen a very short hike to a spot called Goose Lake. We begin to pack up. They report their sightings of last evening, both animal and Loony. Tim lends me a can of bear spray. Betsy has one, too. Then Tim grins as he hands me a water bottle - one that I haven't see since January when I left it behind at John Uhler's house!
In no time at all we are hiking along the trail. 12 hours ago I was in New York. Now I'm smelling thermal features, with lodgepole forest to my left and a field of grazing bison to my right. Wow.
The trail is flat and wide and easy. We see a few thermal oddities on the way and hear sandhill cranes knocking. We note the various types of scat we find on the trail and believe we see evidence of wolves. We know this is Nez Perce territory and recall the sightings we've heard about on the Page. Very soon we see a good-sized lake on our left. How pretty! The water is still and clear and offers perfect reflections of the trees at its edge. All around the lake can be seen steam from various thermal features, some close, some far. The upper part of Fairy Falls can be seen through the burn.
We check for bear sign and find none. Up go our tents and then we relax and explore. Betsy spots a bald eagle in a tree. Then an osprey. And another bald, then two juveniles! At one point we have four bald eagles at one time in the same tree; two adults and two juveniles. I think we had better re-name this Eagle Lake. We also see ducks on the lake (we are hoping some will turn out to be Loons) and one other critter that quickly becomes Tim's favorite. They are large black beetles that seem happier swimming underwater than scrambling about on land. I name then "Mark Spitz Beetles".
A while later Tim and Betsy set up the kitchen. They are quite expert in the art of fine backcountry cuisine. A mild breeze keeps the mosquitoes away and we have a delicious meal under the trees by the lake: Kung Pao Chicken, as promised, which is yummy with crunchy peanuts and soy sauce, and a strawberry cheesecake for dessert.
It is amazing how we feel we are the only humans in the whole Park. This site is so accessible and yet no one else is here. We met a few bikers and day hikers on the trail in but no other backpackers. The vastness of the Park is tangible and it's all ours. Ours and the wild creatures that is, which makes it even better.
We talk and laugh and listen to the beautiful sounds of our good earth. The eagles eeer, frogs call, sandhills knock, meadowlarks trill their joyous song and we even get some yipping coyotes as dark descends. I feel a crash coming on and we head for our tents. What a wonderful way to finish a day. What a wonderful way to begin my trip! The last sound I remember is the honking of geese as they belatedly fly in, reclaiming their namesake lake.
Today I saw: 3 antelope, bison and calves, cows and calves, a coyote, 1 mule deer, ducks, 4 bald eagles, 1 golden eagle, elk, geese, 2 hawks, horses and foals, 1 osprey, ground squirrels, many Mark Spitz Beetles and 6 Loons.