At 6:30 I step out of the tent to have a look at the world.
At first I feel I'm all alone. But then I become aware of the life around me. Birds twitter from every bush and branch and a red-squirrel scolds from high in a Lodgepole pine. Something peeps insistently, perhaps a chipmunk. A woodpecker bores his determined way into a dead tree and in the distance geese are honking. No, I'm not alone.
It's pleasantly chilly; too cold for bugs. The sun is still restrained behind rugged barricades of the Trident. I scan the green bench where we saw our bear last night. I see movement but it's elk; six, seven, eight of them walking slowly south. And there is another sound, the knocking call of sandhill cranes. This place is jam-full of critters!
And it gets better. From far away south I hear the resident wolf pack greet the dawn. It starts with one deep howl and then the rest join in, making the same lively music I heard last night. I sit and listen and wait for the sun.
Mist clings to the far curve of the river. A duck cruises swiftly downstream past me, proving just how fast the current is. The wolf howls fade away. There is movement at the curve of the river. A bull elk walks there, lifting each leg above the water in a slow, careful prance. Four more bulls follow him. Their large bodies are dwarfed against the high brown bank. The leader-elk looks for a place to climb out. He lunges upward, muscles rippling. The others follow, leaving dark pockets of disturbed earth behind.
They move across the meadow, regal and silent, as the wolves begin their second chorus.
The sun is coming! I feel the first warm fingers that find cracks in the mountainside and reach through, changing everything they touch. Two of the bull elk begin a mock battle, cavorting and playing in a lighthearted way. The wolf pack howls a third time. This one is short and something gives me the impression that the pack is now on the move. The sun charges full out and the sky becomes bright blue. Instantly the bugs appear but just as quickly a lovely breeze kicks up and shoos them away. I sit by the river and write while the others sleep this gorgeous morning away.
Not too much later Laurie joins me. We get the packs down and talk a little. I notice some brown fur clinging to the bark of a pine tree. Something rubbed against this tree and left this calling card. Neither Laurie nor I know what to make of it. I gather firewood and with Laurie's help I get a fire started. We talk about the hike yesterday and the bear on the hill last night and what we like and don't like about camping. Laurie says she thinks she may skip the adventure we have planned for today and just stick around camp with Lonnie. They want to fish.
Pete is up next up and then Lonnie and Tim. It takes a full crackling fire and the promise of food to draw Jake from his tent. There is a consensus of opinion among the men-folk that some animal was nosing around camp last night. Tim thinks probably porcupine. I show him the fur on the tree. Still no definitive answer and as we find no obvious tracks, it remains a mystery.
We finish breakfast and turn our attention to our day-hike. Our plan is to head about 3 miles south to the Thorofare Ranger Station, the most remote outpost in the lower 48 states, being over 30 miles from any road in any direction.
Around noon, we say so long to Laurie and Lonnie and set off through the high willows. We hug the edge of the river and see where the elk climbed out this morning. Off we go through the meadow and hook up with the trail where we left it last evening.
It is a bright sunny day and we have left our heavy packs behind. I carry as little as possible, having learned some lessons from Fairyland. But I do have my sister's Minolta and put it to good use, recording the beautiful and unusual wildflowers we pass. There is a tall stalk of pale-blue flowers shaped like tiny trumpets, facing down, each with a spot of indigo at the mouth. And another trumpet-type flower, deep violet with bright yellow insides, growing upwards in a cluster at the top of a single woody stem. And we see monkshood and long-leafed phlox and many colors of paintbrush.
The meadows are also full of butterflies. Most are small but there are many monarch-sized ones, too. They exist here in such numbers and diversity it is impossible to describe. They are blue and white and pale yellow and brown with blue spots and orange with white spots and gold and russet and lavender. It is just unbelievable. I have seen many beautiful butterflies at Trout Lake but there must be three times as many here. We've seen them in every meadow since the hike started but they seem particularly diverse here.
Pete says he thinks these beauties were originally named "flutter-bys", and that the name got flipped backwards somehow over the years. Of course wildflowers and butterflies go together and I suppose we are seeing them at peak season. I wonder if all the meadows of America once supported this many flowers and this many flutter-bys? It's a shame that in losing one we've lost the other as well. In a trip full of memorable views, watching these delicate creatures go about their business was one of the true highlights.
We stop for picture-taking and when we look up we notice a tall person heading our way from the south. We passed absolutely no-one in ten miles of trail yesterday, so this sticks out as highly unusual. Jake speculates that this might be Lone Eagle Woman but I think, oh sure, what are the chances of that?
The lone hiker gets closer and we see her long, sun-blonded hair. She is tall, lean and deeply tanned, with a wide-brimmed hat and glasses secured loosely around her neck by a beaded chain. Could it be? We raise our hands in welcome. The tall lady stops and smiles. Tim says howdy. Are you, by any chance, from Jackson? Yes, she says. Tim says, Do you, by any chance, go by the name Lone Eagle Woman? Yes, she says. I squeal in delight. "We're Loons!" I cry (as if she hadn't guessed!) We introduce ourselves and I give her a Loon hug and she returns it with a big smile.
LEW says she hiked here from her camp at Hawk's Rest expressly to meet us. We are honored to be the first Loons to meet her. She has been enthralling us on the Page with tales and pictures of this area, which she has been exploring on her own for years. She tells us her "real" name and that she has been out here for two weeks and plans to stay another month.
We pose for pictures right on the trail, beneath a rocky outcrop of the Trident, which makes a perfect backdrop. Lone Eagle Woman is both tough and gentle and has a great store of knowledge about the area, which she is happy to share. We tell her we are headed to the Ranger Station and she says she'd be happy to go with us. I tell her it was the photos she posted of this magnificent country that made me want to do this hike.
LEW says the wolves we heard wolves last night are the Yellowstone Delta Pack and then tells us a marvelous story about accidentally finding their den and, even more astonishing, seeing four pups inside it! She tells us other stories as we hike along and I think to myself, how cool is this? Again I think of Dan (and Buck and Shining Aspen and Jim S) and how they would have loved it, too!
LEW also tells me that the flowers I call Threelips are Mariposa Lilies. She points out yampa and yarrow and tells us of their edible and medicinal properties. We come to a spring that trickles down the hill and across the path. LEW takes a small cup from her belt and scoops herself a drink. When I ask if she's ever gotten sick from drinking water that way she says "I never have".
We come upon several wolf prints, perfectly preserved in grey-brown mud. We are close to their densite, LEW says, they pretty much roam this whole area back here. We also find a number of bear tracks.
The trail climbs a bit and we come into a vast burn area. LEW points out landmarks on Two Ocean Plateau to our right, and the various drainages she has explored, and where they each lead. She is not at all a show-off, just willing to share what she knows. The wind picks up and gets pretty gusty. We start to hear the smack of dropping trees. This is not a great place to be during high wind. We hurry along to a more open area to wait it out. I suddenly realize I left my binoculars on a rock back there. Jake offers to go back with me and we go as fast as we can. I find them easily, thank goodness, but the wind gets fiercer than ever. The area is nothing but dead standing trees and every minute we are here increases our risk of getting clobbered. We hear a sharp crack VERY close and run like the devil back to our buddies. They tell us we got out just in time, that a tree came down right where we had been!
We pass a cut-off trail to the west and LEW tells us that's the way she came across. I look down that path and all I see is distance and misty, far off hills. It starts to rain lightly and we continue on.
After a while we come into a clearing and see a rustic fence on the right and a dark brown cabin up ahead. This is it! The Thorofare Ranger Station. I ask if it's all right to go closer and explore. LEW says yes. She says Ranger Jackson is not at home, that we probably missed him. That's too bad. We know of him from news articles and discussion on the Page. He is known as "Action Jackson" because of his criticism of the practices of some hunting outfitters in the area. We are now less than a mile from the southern border of the Park. On the other side is Bridger-Teton National Forest, where regulated hunting is permitted.
It continues to rain lightly. We find the cabin shuttered up tight. There is a sizable and inviting porch with a cord of stacked wood and many ranch-type implements. There is a large fire-pit in the side yard and a hand-made high-backed bench that looks like a chair for a giant. The five of us fit easily on it. Jake sets up his tripod and we take a series of pictures.
Next to the cabin is the "guest-room", a large canvas tent pitched on a ten-foot high platform, accessible by a narrow ladder. 200 yards away among the trees is another log cabin which looks like it's being used as a horse barn, judging from the fenced corrals on either side. I also find an outhouse and a bizarre contraption that I believe makes hot water for the outdoor shower. Tim finds an old weathered trail sign, split in two, lying next to the cabin, the kind of artifact collectors covet.
The rain falls harder so we gather on the porch and take a lunch break.
LEW tells some stories and we gab about the Page and various Loons. I can't tell you how cool it feels to be here doing this, there is so much to take in. I try to think what it must be like to live in a place like this where you have to do every single thing yourself in every single kind of weather without running water or electricity.
I hear a horse whinny and then a bell jangling round its neck as it moves. I search the fenced pasture but don't see the animal. A few minutes later we spot a horseman approaching from the same trail we were on. LEW says "there's Bob Jackson".
We watch him approach, a bear of a man on a tall black horse, wearing a Ranger hat and long, dark slicker, leading a blaze-faced chestnut laden with saddlebags. I worry for a minute that we will appear rude to be sitting here on his porch without asking permission. But he raises his hand in a friendly hello. He sees LEW and says hello to her. I ask if he minds if I take his picture. He smiles and says go right ahead.
Bob Jackson has been stationed here as backcountry law enforcement Ranger for over 20 years, from May till October. He achieved a certain notoriety a few years ago, when he was quoted in some articles about his endless battles with local hunting outfitters who use salt-baits and what can be generously termed "thoughtless" hunting practices. The issue eventually got Tom Brokaw's attention and NBC sent him here to interview Bob. That led to more articles and a wider audience for the story. But what surprised him (and the rest of the thinking world) was the NPS's response. Instead of supporting their seasoned officer they tried to shut him up. They slapped him with a gag-order and tried to arrange his transfer from this post. Luckily for us all, a whistle-blower support group called PEER took up his case, got the gag order rescinded and saved his job.
Bob heads right for the hitching-post and says give me a minute to see to the horses and we can visit. We watch him lift a chain saw from the saddle-bag. I realize he's the one who has been keeping the trail so clear of obstruction. This is not a man who needs help doing his chores. He heads to the barn with the horses. Meeting Lone Eagle Woman is awesome enough; to meet them both on the same day puts me in a daze.
A little while later two more riders in rain slickers and cowboy hats approach the cabin. They ask if the Ranger is home and we point to the barn. They ride over there. A little later we see Bob holding their map, then they ride out the way they came. When Bob comes up to the porch he says they were looking for some good fishing.
He introduces himself and shakes hands with each of us. Then he sets about unlocking his cabin and opening the shutters. We ask him a steady stream of questions that he seems happy to answer. He seems genuinely friendly and glad to visit with us. I wonder how often he gets visitors and if it's annoying to have people drop in and keep him from his work?
He invites us inside and fetches chairs for us all. We talk for a long time about his controversy and salt-baiting politics and he shows us some pictures. One of his comments illustrates the mind-set he's up against. He says the reason the outfitters now spread loose salt instead of hauling in salt blocks like they used to, is because they kept stealing the blocks from each other!
Jake prods him for information about medicine wheels and other little-known structures in the Park that would be cool to explore. Bob seems to understand Jake's ambition for discovery and gives him some good leads. He is careful not to make it too easy. We tell him about Laura Bush and the Secret Service and he tells us a few stories of the people who have been back here. Tim and Jake both ask him if he's ever seen Bigfoot and he says yes, he thinks so, although he reports that sightings are far fewer in the Park since the '88 fires. He tells us three good Bigfoot stories, which I won't repeat here since they have now been recounted elsewhere. He also tells us about his buffalo ranch in Iowa where he spends the winter months. He says they let the bison roam the way they do in the wild, like in Hayden Valley, in small family groups, rather than trying to force them to live like cattle. He says the reduced stress makes the meat better.
He asks us questions, too, where we're from, how we met and what the Page is like. We tell him about John Uhler and what a great guy he is. I ask if there is a way we can help him out and he says just keep spreading the word. He thanks us several times for our support of him. He says it feels good to know there are people who understand.
We could have easily stayed here the rest of the day but round about 5PM we figure we'd better head back to camp. Bob comes out on the porch to see us off and Jake sets up his tripod so that we can each have a group shot. Lone Eagle Woman and I stand on either side of Bob and he puts a strong arm around each of us. When I show this picture to people, everyone comments that we all look so happy. Well, we were.
We're about to take off when Tim mentions that he'd love to have the discarded trail-sign as a memento. Bob says "sure". I ask for the other half. Then we say our good-byes and head north. As we hike away I think to myself how the man exceeded my expectations of the "Action Jackson" I read about. He's a modern-day hero. You can dismiss this as gushing if you want, but I've met a few "famous" people in my life, and they don't always live up to their reputations. Bob talks the talk and walks the walk.
We are in high spirits as we hike back through the woods and I hardly notice how the weather has deteriorated. Jake and Pete want to take off and look for a waterfall Bob told them about, the Mist of the Trident. Tim and I are fine with that. I invite LEW to join us for dinner. She says thanks but no, since it is a long way back to Hawks Rest.
But before we part she leads Tim and me to the edge of a meadow. She steps off the trail into the cover of willows. She points across to the spot where she found the Delta Pack's den. We watch for a while but don't hear or see anything. It's a lovely spot and I take a photo for posterity.
We hug her goodbye and say thanks and wish her well and then off she goes on her lone way. What a woman!
The wind is blowing pretty hard again as Tim and I hustle through the burn area. It rains on and off and the sky gets darker and darker. I've got a raincoat and long pants but Tim only has a t-shirt and shorts. The temperature keeps dropping and we have two miles to go. It starts to pour. Tim suggests we wait out the worst of it under what cover we can find (which isn't much). We choose a fat Douglas Fir but the rain is coming sideways and the wind is fierce so we only get colder.
It starts to hail. Tiny ice balls smack down all around us. I pick some up and amuse myself trying to describe their size. Too small for "pea-size". I suggest "caper-size" which makes Tim laugh. It must be near 40 degrees; a bit cold to stand still in a wet shirt. I figure walking is better than waiting and pretty soon that's what we do.
The hail lets up and the rain lessens but our faster pace has tired me out. We finally catch sight of the familiar bend in the river and I tell Tim to go ahead. Soon he is out of sight and I'm sorry I said it! I must face the willows alone, which for me is the scariest terrain outside of a burn in a high wind. So many bear-attack stories I have read take place in areas of thick willows, where you can't see more than a foot ahead of you. That's right where I am. Plus these willows are drenched and despite my hat and hood, my face gets smacked by countless cold, wet leaves. My glasses are soon completely obscured with water drops.
It wasn't really so dangerous since Tim had just been through ahead of me and I'm sure he scared away any bear within a mile but I'm not thinking that clearly. The ground is saturated and since I can't see, I plunge repeatedly into puddles, often deeper than my boot tops. The water finds its way through the seams of my coat and pants. By the time I stumble into the open I am thoroughly soaked. Well, maybe my waist and the back of my neck escaped the cold water but they're still wet from sweat! It's still raining and it's still cold.
I hurry through the trees past the bear pole and towards the tents. I call to Tim. He got out of his wet clothes and dove into his sleeping bag. He says he's gonna stay right here and warm up for an hour. I call to Laurie and find that she and Lonnie are sensibly waiting out the rain in their tent. I tell them the highlights of our hike and let them know that the boys still out looking for a waterfall and will no doubt be back soon. Laurie says they've had a relaxing day.
The rain finally lets up and I figure I'd better switch to dry clothes, too. I feel instantly better in my warm dry fleece and am very thankful I brought my hat. With the grass so wet I realize it will be impossible to keep my feet dry but I get out of my soggy boots anyway. I decide the best thing to do is to keep moving.
I gather wood and get a fire started. I hang up my jacket and pants to let the wind dry them. Eventually the sun comes back out and things look a bit more cheery. The boys return and report that they found a great waterfall and several caves. Bob had warned them of a black bear that hangs out near those caves, so they didn't explore them too deeply. Of course they were caught in the rain, too, and had to avoid falling trees just like we did.
In a little while our fire has banished the chill and we are sitting around it talking merrily. Tim emerges in dry clothes, feeling much better and we talk about our adventures. We make dinner and joke and marvel that we have actually met two honest to god Thorofare celebrities who we can now proudly call friends. We pronounce the trip a rip-roaring success and we still have half of it to go!
This evening we are again serenaded by the Delta Pack. Thank you, Deltas!
Then the night descends and I remember a request Mark R made of me - that I not forget to look at the stars in the "most remote place in the lower 48". Well, Mark, tonight is the first chance I've had to comply with your request. And is it ever worth the wait! The stars of the Thorofare are so crystal bright I feel I could pluck them from the sky.
Yes, they do look different back here. The shapes of the constellations leap out; I feel I can discern layers and layers of depth and the actual distance from one star to the other. And the Milky Way is a broad river of diamond-dust in a black and velvety sea.
Today I saw: chipmunks, ducks, elk, geese, ground squirrels, red-squirrels, 1 hawk, 5 horses, 1 woodpecker and 7 Loons