I'm awake around 6:30 and listen to the sounds outside the tent. I hear many different birds singing and the gurgle of the river in its rocky bed. I sit up and just as I reach for the flap zipper I hear a gentle pit-pat on the roof. It's rain.
"OK" I say, and lie back down. It rains harder and I drift to sleep again.
After about a half-hour it has stopped so I sit up to go out. As I unzip the tent flap the gentle drops begin again. I zip it closed and lie back down. I have awakened Tim and we have a chuckle over my comedy routine. This time the sky darkens and the rain comes harder.
I'm a tiny bit apprehensive about our hike today. We are walking about 10 miles and I think an early start will be helpful to a slow-poke like me. But it looks like that's not gonna happen. I watch small drops on the tent roof merge into puddles and follow gravity down a seam. Soon I've been lulled back to sleep again.
Around 9:30 I wake again and wonder if it's going to rain all day. But the sky seems to be brightening and finally the rain tapers off. I finally make it out of the tent by 10. I peep at the sky. Hmmm. There is clearly more rain in store for us today, although we may manage about an hour's worth of sun. Tim and Laurie get up. Laurie rouses the others. We get the packs down and begin to fix breakfast.
Tim and I get the fly off the tent and set it out to dry. We prepare ourselves for the likelihood of hiking in the rain. We start to joke about it, figuring we might as well enjoy it. Around 11:30 we finally head out and just as we reach the big willows the rain returns. I drape my rain-coat over my pack since it is too warm to wear it while I hike. The wind keeps the rain at our backs, not in our faces, so it really isn't too bad. For unexplained reasons the bugs leave us alone.
For a long while we follow a fresh deer track in the mud of the trail. We also see lots of bear and coyote scat. Jake and Pete hike with me for a long way and I have fun goofing with them. We sing and joke and decide the fate of the world. Laurie, Lonnie and Tim hike as another group, but we are never very far from each other. Laurie's pack has been tweaked and fits her far better today and she continues to use the second hiking pole; we've both found they come in quite handy at water crossings.
We move into a pretty section of open woodlands that I like a lot and then thicker forests and finally down into meadows. For a long way, the trail is flat. Jake and Pete make a game of finding the best way across the springs and marshy spots we encounter. If no large rocks are handy to create a stepping stone path, they are quick to commandeer a fallen log, no matter how long, lifting or dragging it to serve as a bridge over troubling waters. Even so, at one of the crossings I slip, landing in water up to my instep. My left sock is wet for the remainder of the hike. I get used to the feeling pretty fast.
We come to Trapper's Creek. It has three wide channels, all of them shallow. Jake and Pete thread their way through the maze of pebble bars, scouting out the easiest and driest crossing. They trot over wobbly logs and jump from slippery rock to slippery rock. I manage to follow them across the first two channels but the last one it awfully tricky. Rather than risk a twisted ankle or a splashy fall, I slip off my pack and remove my boots to wade the rest of the way across. Oh, that plunge into cold water is so very, very delicious.
The trail is easy to follow, due in part to the horse traffic it gets. The clouds overhead keep us cool. The rain has stopped and I find I'm really enjoying myself. I am hiking at my own pace so I don't feel tired. And the scenery just keeps getting better and better.
We come to a section of burnt woods where the Yellowstone River is visible below and to the right. It looks amazing, a bright blue serpent winding through a wide canyon. There are gigantic sandbars that were probably underwater a week ago and oxbows and cut banks and rocks of all sizes and shapes. The mountains on both sides rise ever higher and many more peaks are revealed beyond them. We see a bald eagle and watch it fly over the water. Later I see a second one in a snag. We also hear woodpeckers quite frequently. I see one with a red head as it flies to the next tree!
There is an oddly shaped rocky peak ahead of us that we seem to be aiming for. I think it is a spur of the Trident. Jake and I can't resist naming it. I call it The Devil's Bowler but he prefers Satan's Fez. The farther we get the more stunning the views become. The Upper Yellowstone Valley is just breathtaking, and it rivals the Lamar. There is such diversity here, such a range of habitats, it offers so much to so many. How I would love to see it in snow!
Almost every time I stop I see a chipmunk scurry away through the deadfall. Once I see (and hear) a mountain bluebird. On a flat stretch of trail through a meadow I see what I think is a chipmunk scurrying ahead of me but then I realize it's a little brown bird. It zooms along on the trail, fast as a roadrunner, then flies off suddenly to the right, very low to the ground. As soon as I pass its position, it flies ahead of me and lands in the trail again, dashing ahead on its tiny feet. The little bird repeats this pattern three more times. I wonder if it has a nest nearby and this is some sort of decoy behavior? I have never seen a bird run so fast!
We reach our widest stream yet: Mountain Creek. There is no dry course over this one so we stop to change. In the sand of a dried channel Pete finds an elk skull with a 12-point rack still attached, like the one Jake found in Broad Creek. They find a grizzly track in the soft sand as well, maybe only a day old. The long claws are clearly visible.
This is simply a stunning spot and I feel I could stay here happy forever. Every curve of the river is graced by bright pink and yellow wildflowers. The water is crystal clear and glitters blue and silver in the sunlight. Wading Mountain Creek is a sheer delight. The water comes up to my knees. I stop in the middle and look all around, trying to memorize it. What a beautiful stream!
On the opposite side we find a campsite right on the water's edge. It is overgrown from little use, but has sturdy wood benches around a fire-ring. We lean our packs against the trees and plop down on the benches for an impromptu lunch break. There are stalks of elephant-head growing in the thick green grass and a hummingbird pays us a visit, a Yellowstone first for me. Everyone is happy with the time we are making, especially given our late start.
We hoist our packs and walk on. The trail goes through more woods and meadows and then leads uphill and gets a bit rocky. This section reminds me a little of the Wind Rivers. I notice the trail is very well maintained; we pass fresh-sawn trunks quite frequently. Dozens of dead trees must fall across the path every day, yet it is rare that we have to climb over or under any obstacles. Tomorrow I will learn the reason for this.
Late in the afternoon the wind picks up. We turn and see a squall coming our way. We happen to be in an old burn, with lots of standing trunks and little cover. The wind whistles and we begin to hear trees toppling. Smack. It's a very flat sound. No time to yell "timber!" One falls on the steep slope to our left. Smack. We don't see it, just the still-waving branches it brushed as it fell.
We figure we have about a minute to find shelter before the rain hits. Pete leads the way. There are two living firs growing close together with thick interlocking branches. There is also a thicket of trees already fallen which offers a kind of overhang. We make do with this just as the fat raindrops splash down. There is a bit of lightning and thunder but the loudest sounds are the blow-downs crashing. I see three and hear over a dozen. Luckily none are very close to us. I keep looking around, though, for the next likely candidate.
Tim leaves the trail to join us and then Lonnie and Laurie arrive. They see us but continue on in the rain, opting for the relative safety of the next meadow. The squall is over in no time and so on we go again.
After crossing a few more meadows we finally see the cutoff to the last campsite before ours. This gives me a great lift, as we have now less than three miles to go. The meadow areas are pocked with marshy spots and we often have to make detours to avoid getting muddy. I find myself caring less and less about mud on my boots. I am ready for camp! Then the trail starts up another hill, the steepest in the whole trip. This takes a toll on me and the others get far ahead. Laurie and I are glad for each other's company. However, at the top of this hill the view is the best yet. The valley winds ever onward and the mountains rise higher and higher. I see the escarpment of Two Ocean Plateau and even higher ridges beyond that.
As we come down a hill we see ahead of us how the Yellowstone makes a wide curve, coming close to the trail and then doubling back on itself. I see a trail marker. That's our campsite! We head across the last meadow and the path narrows and becomes overgrown. It looks like a game trail along the edge of the riverbank, following its curving course.
I look over the edge and see the clear water running about 8 feet below. The bank is steep and I don't trust it completely. It is soft, rich mud, and the flood has eaten a great chunk of it, leaving it raw and exposed. I pass lots of geese scat and some old whitened bones. The boys have disappeared into a line of dense trees. But before I can get where they are I must pass the dreaded willows. I enter the silver-green tunnel and find it full of hungry bugs! At the end of the willows is an open area, of low scrub and scattered trees. Beyond it is our woodsy campsite, the place we'll call home for the next two days. I'm hot, tired and thirsty but I have arrived.
Three-Mile Bend is even more overgrown than Beaverdam Creek was and the bear pole looks even higher. There is an open spot above the riverbank with a log bench next to a mound of mud and old ashes but no ring of stones. It looks like the ground may have extended further out until very recently. The way we read the eroded bank below, the stones and some of the benches may have been washed away in the spring flood. There is a great view from here and it makes a really nice cooking spot.
This is the wildest place I have ever been. The chance of bears is sky high and I keep my bear-spray close. I'm not scared, really, just on high alert. It is just so obvious that bears would live here, and in numbers. It feels wonderful to be so deep in their territory. They have everything they need back here; this place is perfectly tailored to their way of life.
But there is no time to dawdle as dusk will be here soon. Tim heads to the river to pump water and I get the tent set up. The bugs turn ferocious. The wind has died and things are quite moist. I am too tired to swat them so I close my eyes and spray my face and hair. Since we figured on getting here late we have each planned our easiest dinner for this evening, and have agreed to forego a fire. Once I get the tent up I grab my dinner fixings, my binocs and my camera and head for the riverbank to join the others.
Oh man, what a gorgeous spot! The river has curved so sharply that we are now looking due east, back at the spot where we left the trail. The river actually flows toward the south here, although it will curve again and head north further on. The current is pretty fast and I detect a deep outside channel. A mountain rises before us, one of the peaks of the Trident, beautifully reflected in the water below.
There is a wide pebble-bar beach full of picturesque driftwood logs. Logs, hah! Make that whole trees, complete with their roots. There is a bit of a breeze down here, which makes the bugs tolerable. Tim and I consider pitching our tent right here, but in the end we leave it up on the bank with the others. The pumping is done, our food is prepared. We are only waiting for the water to boil.
Jake shows me the various footprints he's found. There are several very recent elk tracks and one set of day-old bear prints that come out of the water and straight up the bank to the campsite! Jake believes they are grizzly, but not from a very big one. We also find coyote prints and numerous geese tracks.
We hear geese honking to the south, probably complaining of our presence. I take pictures. I walk downstream from the others to capture the sky striped with pink clouds. Turning back, I see the sun has thrown her last light upon the bare cliffs of the Trident, turning it a glowing red. Gorgeous! Then behind me I hear coyotes yipping and howling. It sounds really great! I head back to the others and tell them what I heard. Our water is boiling so Tim and I mix up my lame concoction of cous-cous and onion soup-mix. We eat right out of the zip-lock bags so there is minimal clean up.
We sit on driftwood and enjoy the evening. The cliff gets redder and redder. The river gurgles and rushes along on its wild way. It is absolutely gorgeous here. Below the glowing cliff is a high green bench, which Jake has been watching. He announces that he sees elk up there. I lift my binoculars and see what he sees. Not only are there elk, but they are bunched and alert. Then Jake says "there's a bear there".
Oh boy. To the left of the elk at the bottom of the bench I see a black spot. Make that a BIG black spot. It's moving in and out of the trees and deadfall, its nose to the ground. Big grins on all our faces, despite our pounding hearts. Our first grizzly! We know instantly it's a grizzly but we watch it until there is no shadow of doubt. I can clearly see the hump. Oh, it's a big bear! This animal is closer to me than most grizzlies I have seen in Lamar, about as close as the mating pair I saw with Mark R from the road in Spring. Tim notes dryly that he's on the same side of the river as we are. As if in response, the bear turns and looks right at us. He stares a moment or two then continues on his way. I note with secret relief that he's moving away from us.
Then the bear climbs straight up the front of the bench. Then more magic happens. Behind us and to the south we hear howling. First it's lots of yips and barks and I am just about to say "there go those coyotes again" but no, the howls become long and low. Then the notes are bent and there are so many, many voices, we know this can only be wolves. A large pack of wolves. I am transfixed by the sound in this wild place, the very best place I have ever heard wolves howl. And while our ears hear this music playing, our eyes watch a grizzly bear climb a hill.
We look at each other, amazed at what we're getting in one short evening. Tim says this is probably a normal Friday Night in the Thorofare! As the howling trails off the grizzly tops the hill. What he just climbed in a minute or two is as high as Jasper Bench in Lamar where the eagle nest is. The elk have been moving toward his position and when he tops the hill they are beyond him to the left. The elk stop and eye the bear and the bear eyes the elk and for a tantalizing minute we believe we will see a chase. But the bear lowers its head and continues south, ambling along the bench on an errand of his own.
Shortly after this the sun sinks for good and a chill wind rises. Dark comes fast in a place like this so we work quickly to clean up and carry all our gear back over to our packs and haul them up to heaven for the night. I am sure that despite all our precautions, I'll still have trouble sleeping tonight.
We are not in our sleeping bags 15 minutes when we hear the wolves again. Tim and I both say "whoa"! Now THAT is even better! Hearing wolves howl through the walls of your tent, I'm telling ya, there is nothing like it. How right it sounds. How perfectly wonderful. It is my own romantic notion that the presence of wolves somehow makes me feel safer from bears. I can't explain it.
Some hours later, I wake up to the realization that I need to, uh, step out of the tent. I spend a good deal of time trying to talk myself out of this. But I don't win the argument. Out I go into the darkest dark I have ever seen. I don't remember seeing a single star. It must also have been too early for the moon. I tell you, it's pitch black and there are monsters behind every trunk. Giant grizzlies in the willows beyond the tents and panthers and cougars crouched in every tree. My flashlight only makes things worse. It makes dancing shadows that dart here and there and shapes that loom up suddenly on all sides. Needless to say I do not go far nor do I stay any longer than necessary. Back inside the tent I whisper to Tim "that was the bravest thing I've ever done!"
His chuckle helps to slow my pounding heart and no sooner am I safely snug inside my sleeping bag than I drift off to sleep. Yet I do wake up once more when a lone wolf howls close by. It's a fairly high voice and it lasts a long while. After a silence the same wolf howls again, and after another silence a third time. My watch reads 2:45. Now comes an answering call, quite a bit further off. A different wolf, with a lower sound. He is swiftly joined by the whole pack and they start their gorgeous wailing all over again. It goes on a while and I smile to myself. I find nothing at all scary about this, in fact it brings me comfort and I drift off to dreamland.
Today I saw: chipmunks, elk, geese, squirrels, 2 bald eagles, 1 grizzly bear, 1 hummingbird, 1 mountain bluebird, 1 red-headed woodpecker, 1 running meadow-bird, lots of animal sign and 5 Loons.