I fly into West Yellowstone at night, arriving too late to rent a car. I have arranged to be picked up by the nice folks at the Grey Wolf Inn where I plan to stay. As I step through the airport door into the open, the rich scent of pine greets me and I know I'm back where I belong. The night is oh, so quiet and there is a bright moon, nearly full.
On the short hop from Salt Lake I had seen stars glittering beyond the window of the plane, but to see them above me now is even nicer. I could stand here all night, listening to the soft sounds but in no time at all the van appears and the friendly night manager lifts my bags inside. We drive the few miles to the Inn, talking of wildfires and wolves and West Yellowstone politics.
I am pleased to find my request for a room overlooking the Discovery Center has been granted. I sort out the things I will need for tomorrow and smile as I get into bed, thinking I woke up in New York City but I'm going to bed in Montana. My alarm is set for 6:15AM.
I hear a long low howl. A wolf is close by. My eyes pop open and I wonder where am I. Ah. Now I remember. The clock says 5:51. The howler is just outside, just across the street! Another wolf responds and in seconds there are multiple voices, a whole wailing chorus serenading me, persuading me to get out of bed and greet the day.
OK, I will! I walk over to the window, part the shade and peep out. It is just dawn, pale and grey. The wolf-chorus swells and droops, catches, peters-out then swells again. I hear yips, barks, complaints and compliments, long dissertations and short, pithy truths, full-throated wolf-jazz and it's all for free! I sit on the edge of a chair and listen.
This is the way to wake up!
The chorus finally ends. Then I hear another wolf voice, very deep, sending out a long low note that seems to be coming from much further away. It's coming from beyond the enclosure, from the hills of the Park, hills that are still blue and misty in the early light. The lone voice reverberates hauntingly. Is it a real wolf or a ghost of one long gone? It is a lonely wolf. Lonely but free. His song ends and there is a heavy silence. The captive pack seems to savor the silence as they calmly consider the message they just heard. Then they respond. Oh, how they wail!
All their sorrow pours out, how they yearn to run over the blue misty hills, jumping and dashing and tail-wagging. To stop and sniff at a badger-hole, perhaps to dig, then bolt joyously off to catch up to the rest of the pack. But all they can do is sing of this, they are confined by metal and wood. At least that's what the notes sound like to me. Their song continues and grows. Now I hear other notes that seem to say "at least we have each other. At least we are not alone". The wolf chorus goes on and on, expanding on this theme. Now it even sounds defiant.
They stop and the far-off lone voice speaks again, telling them the news from over the hill. And the pack again responds, more enthusiastically than before. It seems to me that something has been resolved between them. Or maybe just in me.
The wolf-jazz finally ends at 6:45! Their day has begun and I am released to go about mine.
I walk outside in the cool morning and cross the street to the wolf enclosure. Through the gaps in the slatted fence I see two beautiful white wolves. They trot around a corner to see who is coming. I talk to them at this distance, telling them how much I enjoyed their singing. They decide I am not important and trot back to their comrades out of sight.
Around 8 I am driven back to the airport by Jamie (who once worked with Matthew at Old Faithful) to get my car. I'm given a white Chevy Blazer (far bigger than I need). I attach my Loon flag and head to the Park. I keep hearing the wolf-music in my head as I drive.
I find the land still very green and the Madison River is sparkling blue. It feels so good to be back.
In a tree above the river I catch a glimpse of something. It's a bald eagle drying its wings. Nice. A bit later I see the nest so many Loons mentioned in their Spring trip reports. It is SO close to the road! I find another adult bald eagle perched here. I look around for fledglings but don't see any.
A number of elk graze the thick new growth in an old burn. Cars are stopped everywhere and I am reminded that it's high tourist season. On I go, enjoying the lovely views, especially of the Madison. Fishing is still restricted due to the warm water temperature. No offense to fishermen but I enjoy seeing the river human-free! Beside Seven-Mile Bridge I see a mama duck leading her four little ducklings.
I turn left and enter the construction zone but since today is Sunday there is little going on. I see the vastly disturbed landscape (I don't know how one can re-build a road without disturbing the landscape) and all the trucks and equipment. I also see the beautiful Gibbon River and many bison, including lots of still-orange youngsters. In the big meadow where I have always seen bison, I find nary a one, nor a single elk.
I am aiming to make the Loon lunch gathering at Roosevelt at 11:30 so I head toward Canyon and Dunraven Pass. The drive is lovely and I sing to myself. I start to notice tall stalks of pink flowers growing in abundance all over the Park, especially in burn areas. It's fireweed but I have never seen it in such profusion. As I drive up the mountain I am overwhelmed at the abundance and variety of wildflowers. Here are red, pink and orange paintbrush (my favorite) and blue-purple lupine and bright yellow daisy-type flowers. There is white phlox and pink sticky-geranium, tiny yellow buttercups and blue asters. Wildflower season in Yellowstone is still going strong!
I see a high pullout jammed with Ranger vehicles, two with flashing lights. I slow down and then see two more Ranger cars beyond. I am about to ask if I can help when I see the reason they are there. A car has left the road. It is visible some 30 feet down the hill, its unplanned flight stopped at about a 45 degree angle by a tree. The car is empty so I hope it means the people are already on their way to medical help. I see skid marks in my lane that hint at the story. I take it as a warning to slow down. I learn later that both driver and passenger received only minor injuries.
After many winding turns I emerge into the gorgeous amphitheater area. The high meadows are full of wildflowers too, in great swathes of yellow and pink. I stop and look toward Fairyland. I see no smoke so I hope this means the Broad Fire has burned out. I see a fallen sign that says "known fire, do not report".
At Antelope Creek I see a jam ahead. Although stopping will make me late I figure the Loons will forgive me, especially if it's bear. And it is. Three bears! Off to the right in an old burn, a black bear sow forages while her two brown cubs cavort.
I'm pretty sure this is the same family of bears I saw twice in this Spring. I pass the main jam and pull over in a good spot and walk back up to watch them. They're about 100 feet from the road. The sow is digging in a fallen tree and the cubs are wrestling in high grass behind her. People are all over the place and the two young Rangers have to call repeatedly to get them back to the road. How nice to see bears this early in my trip! They are in thick cover, too camouflaged for good pictures but it's great fun to watch them.
Eventually I continue on to Roosevelt. Inside the Lodge I find Mark R who hops up from his seat near the fireplace and strides over, beaming at me! We have a Loon hug hello. And Lori D is here, too! Hooray. We get a table and chatter away. Lori can't come on our Cache Creek hike after all as she has some family matters to attend to. We have a nice lunch and catch up with each other. Towards the end of it a man says to me "are you Wendy?" It's Rick in Kent and his wife Edith. They have been sitting at the table right next to us!
Rick and Edith get their Loon hugs and tell us of their trip so far and what they plan to do next. Then Tim A surprises us and joins us. We start to talk about the Thorofare hike. Tim is just here for the day and can't come to Cache Creek but he says he'll hang out in Lamar with us for a while. Rick and Edith are going the other way so after a bit more chatter we bid goodbye to them and head for Lamar.
I am happily surprised to find everything so green, nearly as green as it was in Spring. The other Loons told me everything had gotten dry and brown from weeks of heat. But then three days ago came a good soaking rain, followed by two days of afternoon thunderstorms. So now everything has popped back green again. In fact, it's clouding up right now. We drive through beautiful Little America and up Lamar Canyon. We burst through the Gateway to Lamar and I see my favorite valley just as gorgeous as when I left it nearly two months ago.
A large bison herd gives it that timeless look and makes me smile.
We stop at Dorothy's Knoll. Oh, how I love the smell of the sage. I tell the Loons I can't believe I'm here again, looking at this wonderful place. I get out my scope for the others to use while I sort things I'll need for the hike. The sky darkens and a light rain begins to fall. On the sage hills behind us Mark spots some bunched elk walking slowly. Being the Druid fan that I am, I'm always happy to see elk in the valley. I ask for Druid news but no-one has anything current.
Eventually we head east and park at the Footbridge to do the rest of our packing. We are hoping Tonya will show up. Our Cincinnati Loons, Pat and Lynn, pull in and we have more Loon hugs. I do the introductions and we chat and joke. Lynn is going with us but Pat has decided to stay in Lamar to look for wolves.
We see a group of backpackers coming out, three guys and a girl, all young, with very big packs. When they arrive at the pullout I see how dirty and worn-out they look. Here's a story, I think to myself. Oh yeah.
The kids are Park employees who meant to do a two-day overnight hike to the Hoodoo Basin and back. But they found the trail markers less than helpful and had no map and got lost. They had some terrible luck and fell while crossing creeks and got separated and saw bears and were rained on every single day. They were supposed to be back at work this morning and they are worried they'll be fired. Their car is 20 miles away in Shoshone National Forest. They take off their boots and we are all shocked at the condition of their feet! The poor girl's boot has blown out, the sole is ripped back more than half-way. She had to tie it on to keep walking. We all feel terrible for them and want to help.
Pat, of course chats them up in her helpful way and starts to come up with a plan. Tim and I both offer to drive them to the Ranger station at the Institute. They choose one guy to go so Tim takes him instead of me. We say goodbye to Tim and Lori D but then hang out a while longer, still hoping for Tonya to show.
Its now 4PM and the sky is starting to look a bit threatening. It's hard to tell which way the darkest clouds are heading but we think due east. We figure if Tonya was coming she would have been here by now so we hoist our packs and head out. Pat says she'll be here tomorrow around noon to welcome us back.
We set out across the sage, enjoying the cool breeze and the wildflowers. Up the hill of the former riverbank we trudge and then turn to look back at the Valley. It's a beautiful sight from here. We head uphill into a small group of trees. I'm still not a fast hiker but I find going up hill is not quite as hard as before. My stair-climbing "training" has had a good effect.
We see a bison out in a meadow and then Mark spots two coyotes! We watch them as they roam about and mouse. We are delighted to find these back-meadows carpeted in wildflowers, seemingly growing for their own enjoyment. There are pinks and purples and blues and whites and yellows against the green grass and sage. It is lovely. We meet a few day-hikers along the way but mostly this big country feels good and empty.
We get to a fork in the trail. I start up the left one and Lynn calls to me. Once I look around and get my bearings I see I'm wrong. Soon we come to the woodsy area that I remember and then reach the edge that drops down to the riverbed and the horse-ford below. This hill we stand on has been eaten away by floods in springs past. There are a dozen eroded paths and one switch-back trail with hoof-prints leading down. I point out the orange marker of the campsite below.
The campsite looks just about the same as I remember it, a little worse for wear. The river is much lower than it was on my first visit but of course, it's two months later in the season. We see a lone mule deer on the far side of the river. She turns and hops up the bank into cover.
We explore the campsite, looking for bear-sign but find nothing obvious. Then we get our tents up. I ask Mark what he thinks. He says he didn't expect the hills to be so close; he thought it would be a bit more open, but agrees that it's very nice. The river gurgles loudly, but I notice many of its spring braids are dry already.
Mark and I gather wood and then head for the river to filter some water. I soak my head (of course) and also my feet. Oh, baby does that feel good! The skeeters are a bit troublesome but eventually we get a breeze that keeps them away. I see some teeny tiny fishes in the water and I wonder if they are baby trout. I discover that the bug repellent I brought is lotion, not spray. That's no good since it means I'll have to deal with wiping it off my hands.
We set about the business of making dinner. All these things are new treats for Mark as this is his first overnight. He has brought a package of Mountain House for us to share. It's pasta in a garlicky tomato sauce. I boil water and pour it into the bag. We stir it up. I make rude remarks about the color but we gobble down every bite!
I get the fire going and learn too late that Lynn objects to campfires. We don't need it for the warmth; I just love to sit around a fire at night. I show Mark how I clean up camp dishes and other handy camping tricks. Mark and I are especially happy to have Lynn along when it comes to hanging our packs as neither of us is very good at tossing. Lynn becomes the teacher and I am astonished when I successfully toss a rope-tied-rock high enough to clear the pole. I do a rock-toss dance.
We relax and tell stories as the fire crackles. We get a terrific sunset due to the unsettled weather. The mule deer doe comes out again across the river. She wades through the water and across the dry bottoms, carefully and quietly, nibbling here and there, sniffing and looking. She climbs up the near bank and passes very close behind our pitched tents and then disappears up the hill into the trees.
Then we notice the moon peeping out behind a forested hill. Staring at it we can literally see it move through the silhouetted branches until it is finally free and clear. It bathes the riverbed in its cool white light, making it look very magical indeed.
After a while we douse the fire and put last minute items in our packs before we haul them up as high as we can. There is always a moment on a camping trip for me when the possibility of night-time bear-visitation sinks in and it has just arrived. It's just something primeval I guess. But in spite of it I am able to fall asleep.
I wake up in the middle of the night and then have trouble getting back to sleep. The problem is that it is raining softly, stopping and starting. My imagination can too easily turn this hesitant pitter-pat on the tent into stealthy animal noises. However, the rush of hard-falling raindrops remains just rain. I find myself wishing for a steady shower and I toss and turn. Just then the sky explodes with lightning, suddenly, shockingly bright! It's followed by a clap of thunder that sends my heart pounding. Now the heavens crack open and unleash a huge downpour. Well, that's a little more that I asked for, but it does the trick. I snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag and fall asleep.
Today I saw: Bison, elk, 2 bald eagles, 3 black bears (including 2 cubs), 2 coyotes, 1 mule deer, and 7 Loons