I awake to birdsong. Then a coyote serenade. When they finish, the twittering birds resume and I let them lull me back to sleep.
A while later I get up to a lovely morning. Everything is damp and glistening from the rain. I lower the packs and warm up some water on my stove to wash my face. Lynn is up too but we let Mark sleep a while longer. I enjoy my coffee and have a second cup.
It looks like the rain has moved on and the day promises to be quite warm. We take our time with breakfast and are in no hurry to break camp. We drape our ground-cloths and tents in the meadow or between trees and let the sun do the work. I tell the others how I would love to see a bear up on one of those hills. Not close, just a glimpse of one walking over the crest.
We get going around 10AM and head slowly back up the steep hill. Mark and I lose sight of Lynn so we call for him, only to find he has somehow sneaked ahead of us! We top the ridge and begin our walk through the gorgeous wildflower meadows. We meet a lone fisherman coming in and then a large group on horseback; sixteen animals, both horses and mules. The leader says they are going some 10 miles up Cache Creek.
As we come around the bend where we can first see the road we are pretty sure we can see Pat waiting for us. While we are stopped I figure I will point out the area to the north where the Druids usually have their den. I am hoping for a glimpse of them, too. But instead of wolves, Mark spots a bear.
We all take a look and conclude it's a black bear, good sized. He's on the lowest slopes of Druid Peak and moving downhill. We watch him as we hike and when we notice cars stopped on the road we realize they see him, too. Three people are out of their cars, shadowing the bear, walking along the road between Hitching Post and the Footbridge. The bear is clearly making for the road to cross it and we wonder what will happen if the people get in the way.
But the bear makes it safely across and aims for the river. I start hoping that the bear will come up from the riverbank and cross the meadow in front of us. But it doesn't. We keep hiking and when we finally emerge at the pullout Pat tells us it's still in sight. She says it's a sweet-faced black bear munching on blackberries right along the river! Welcome back, she adds.
We dump our packs and I get out my bigger glass. I join a group of folk at the western end of the pullout. The bear is easy to see, black against the green vegetation. His rump is in the water and his head is in a blackberry bush. I had no idea there were blackberries down there! More people arrive at the pullout so I set up my scope and offer some nice close-ups. He's visible to the naked eye but in the scope you can see his pink tongue and watch him strip the berries off the branch.
We take our time unloading our stuff and I am happy to get out of my boots and into my Tevas. Between watching the bear and unpacking Pat fills us in on the pertinent news. The Druids are not in the valley. They took off several days ago with all the pups and are presumed to be following the elk into higher country.
Pat brings us up to date on the four young hikers with the messed up feet. At their employer's request a search party had just gone out when Tim A's truck arrived at the Institute with one of the kids. The search party was recalled and eventually a Ranger drove them back to where they left their cars. The girl apparently dissolved into tears (I can relate to that!) but they all seemed to be now on the road to recovery, sore of foot but wiser for their experience. I would love to hear the full tale someday. To the four of you I send my best wishes and hope your families were not too worried.
We Loons discuss our plans for the next few days and after many hugs we head our separate ways. One option for me is dinner at the Old Faithful Inn with Allison and the Unknown Lurker. Now that I know the Druids are not at home it is easier for me to consider leaving this valley and joining in the fun. First, though, I need a shower.
I make my way slowly west. I see bison and pronghorn and a lot of beautiful scenery. I also see a mule deer fawn in Lamar Canyon, coming down the slope as I round the first bend. I slow down, figuring there will also be a mother but see only the fawn. Perhaps she has already crossed the road? The fawn is still in spots, too young to be on its own.
At Roosevelt I remember to check the gift shop for a Yellowstone key fob for Veronica. I find one that's perfect and will remind her of the Mary Mountain hike we took with Doug and Tonya in Spring. Then I'm off again. All along the Blacktail Plateau I see more gorgeous wildflowers. The spring profusion of yellow balsam-root has given way to lupine, fireweed and phlox that make each hillside a work of art.
I stop in Mammoth to say hello to Ranger Bill. He's on duty at Albright and busy as usual. We have time for only a brief chat and of course we talk about the Druids. I leave him to his work, hoping that we'll have a bit more time to spend tomorrow evening in Lamar.
I am happy to leave the congestion of Mammoth for the open spaces of Swan Lake Flats. This is one of my favorite spots outside of Lamar. I see a pair of sandhills on the far shore and many waterbirds on the lake. There are several bison resting in the high grass but not a single elk. I find plenty of elk further south. From here to Norris I repeatedly come upon elk-jams. Often cars are abandoned in the road, their owners a few steps away in the trees with their cameras and videos rolling. Traffic halts in both directions. Small herds graze the area; mostly cows but many fine-looking young bulls in velvet. They are close to the road, sometimes within 5 feet.
At Norris, in the meadow where in spring I watched "Joette" the elk calf, there are two new occupants; a handsome young bull elk and a sleek young cow, clearly a pair, grazing contentedly together. This setting is so nice I stop to take a whole series of photos. I drive on to Madison and the sky clouds over and drops of rain begin to fall.
As I near the high meadow of Elk Park I see another huge jam in front of me. People are out of their cars, walking hurriedly ahead with cameras in hand. The left lane is empty, probably blocked again by an abandoned car. I figure it's either elk or bison. I begin to drive ahead half in the left lane passing the stopped cars. This jam is even bigger than I thought! I pass about 15 cars and there are twice as many ahead. Suddenly I hit the brakes. OMIGOD. That's a flagman up there! This is a construction delay, not an elk-jam. And I have just done one of the stupidest things ever. The people in the cars I passed are surely going to be angry with me (and rightfully so). I sit there in the middle of the road and try to figure out what to do.
I see an open pullout slightly ahead. I turn off the car and walk over to the closest driver. He clearly thinks I'm an idiot. I sheepishly explain that I thought I was passing an elk-jam. I ask if he could back up a foot so I can slip into that pullout and wait my turn. His wife smiles and shakes her head, which I hope is a sign of pity.
The man relents and puts his pickup in reverse. I accept such kindness without further discussion. I tuck into the pullout and shrink into a puddle of dumb-ass. I find my notebook and start scribbling. After a torturous, guilt-ridden 10 minutes, the flagman steps aside and the line of waiting cars creeps forward. I wave goodbye and thanks to my saviors in the pick-up. Once all the cars have passed I continue on.
I enjoy the drive along the gorgeous Firehole River as I always do. It has been raining lightly the whole afternoon, cooling things down to a more tolerable 65. I arrive at the Inn, trot up the stairs and up to the deck. Hello Loons! I find Lori D and Kristine (Yellowstone Girl) and then there is my dear friend Allison, our Queen Loon! Hugs all around. Allison generously offers me the use of the extra bed in her room which saves me a dreaded long drive back. I accept! Thank you Allison!
Mark R appears and we hang out on the deck as the rain recedes. Soon we are joined by The Unknown Lurker and his wife. Then we head downstairs to a circular table inside the historic dining room. We have a lovely meal and hear lots of stories and catch up on each other's best wildlife sightings and dumbest touron moments. Allison has made secret arrangements with the waiter for a surprise for Mark R, at the request of his Loon dad, QuickCarl. Mark doesn't seem to mind that we celebrate his birthday a day early. He gets the traditional Yellowstone birthday song from the whole wait-staff and a yummy piece of Birthday cake.
After dinner we move to the lobby and sit in the big chairs by the fireplace. Funky Matthew is spotted and we have a great reunion with him. We say fond farewells to Kristine and to Mark R who has an unenviable drive ahead of him back to Mammoth the long way.
The rest of us head outside to catch the next eruption of Old Faithful. It is a lovely cool night with a bit of wind and a very bright full moon. Wyoming skies are so wide and dark the moon doesn't frighten away the stars so we enjoy watching them, too. We see a satellite (or a UFO!) and several shooting stars. Old Faithful puts on her show, not one of her most spectacular but I like it just fine.
Then Allison and I say goodbye to the others and head for a nightcap at the Bear Pit. We have just settled into our chairs at the bar when Matthew walks in, full of piss and vinegar. He orders the house specialty, a Midori Sour and Allison tries one, too. Matthew begins a lament over the women in (and out of) his life. Older, wiser females that we are, Allison and I can't help but smile at the familiarity of the trouble. We try to soothe him and offer advice but I fear he will not take any of it. Ah l'amour!
The evening ends and we bid him adieu and head upstairs. Allison and I are able to manage a bit of girl-talk before sleep overcomes us and I learn some exciting news. Good for you, Allison! You go girl!
Today I saw: Bison, ducks, elk, pronghorn, swallows, 1 black bear, 2 sandhill cranes, 1 mule deer fawn and 9 Loons