Iím up at 4 and heading to Newark airport by 5:15. Itís overcast and drizzly. I use the automated kiosk to get my boarding pass and my bags are checked in record time. I have no trouble at security but Iím surprised to find the coach cabin only half full.
My usual pre-trip excitement has built steadily over the last weeks. Now that I am airborne I feel a zen-like calm. Out the window I see dry sage hills below and buckled rock and recognize the tortured desert landscape of eastern Wyoming,
Not long after the first snow-covered mountains come into view.
I have only 15 minutes in Salt Lake to make a connection from terminal C to terminal D but I manage it with time to spare. I have my pick of seats on this flight, too. I miss glimpses of the Tetons due to cloud cover. As we descend into the gorgeous emerald bowl of Bozeman I remember how it looked just this way two years ago, the first time I saw it.
I arrive to bright blue sky and nearly 80 degrees. I am issued a blue Suzuki Viterra with 4WD from Avis that holds all my gear and is easy to drive. Off I go. The green is amazing all the way to Livingston and gets even more so up the beautiful Paradise Valley. Last year things were much more dry. The Yellowstone River is running high. It looks simply breathtaking. I am so happy to be here!
My heart just soars. Even the cows look good to me. I see hawks flying overhead, lots of horses (and some with foals), two mule deer and 2 sandhill cranes. Then a third crane appears, flying overhead with long legs trailing behind.
I stop just outside Gardner to see John and Carlene in their comfy home. Young Joe is here too, just finished with school for the year. We talk about the REAL Loonion I missed on Memorial Day weekend and I get updates on wolf and bear action. We catch up and joke around. John and Carlene have designed a perfect guest-room for Loon sleepovers. One of these days Iíll ake them up on it! They say they are still trying to arrange to come to Roosevelt for the Loon dinner on Friday, but they will have charge of two of their grandchildren that day. I say bring them along and we can all go wildlife watching afterwards! I bid them adieu until then.
I make two stops in Gardner for groceries and a fuel canister. Then I make my actual entrance to the Park through the arch for traditionís sake. I seem to have the place to myself at the moment and I say a prayer of thanks. Oh how good it feels to be back. My grin seems to stretch way past the ends of my mouth. I notice every little thing that is different from the last time I saw it. I remember how I dreaded this road in January. It sure is a lot nicer without snow!
In Mammoth everything feels so familiar yet looks so different. I mistakenly think Mark R will be behind the desk so I am confused for a moment when I donít see him. But I get keys and head to my cabin. "He knows Iím here. I bet heíll turn up" I say to myself.
More than a dozen ground squirrels peep a greeting to me from the lawn as step onto the porch of my cabin. Iíve got a very nice one, the bathroom is sparkling clean and the shower looks brand new. I open the cabin windows for air and start to sort out the mess in my car when Mark appears around the corner! Hurrah! My first in-Park Loon! After many hugs and a quick discussion of plans we set off together for my first evening with the animals.
Just past the Gardiner Bridge a coyote crosses the road and disappears into the brush. Thatís a good omen I think! Mark fills me in on how the Park has changed. There was still winter-brown when he arrived for his first day of work in early May but now green-up has exploded in earnest. There was still snow on the roads then, he says, and he has noticed how the animalsí habits have changed as the days have lengthened. I comment on the gorgeous green of the aspens against the darker firs and Mark tells me about the recent snow and rain. I note how Mark has grown already from sometime tourist to confident resident.
Just past Junction Butte we see a pair of swans on a pond. Mark tells me tales of the Loonion I missed and all the great wolf sightings heís had. At the top of Lamar Canyon we reach the Gateway to Lamar and I squeal with delight upon seeing again, with my own eyes, the most beautiful valley on earth. I find the rich green on the soft sage hills overwhelming. The Lamar River is muddy brown and frothy in places. Mark tells me how he watched whole trees, dozens of them, rip-roaring down this canyon in the high water only a week ago.
At B&B I spy two familiar faces. I pull in and call out a friendly taunt to Chief and Gary, my bear-watcher friends I met on previous trips. I introduce Mark and we hug and joke and they give me the scoop. Theyíve been here for two weeks and have been seeing tons of bears. Chief tells me there are wolves out there but that Iíll have to find them myself. And with Markís help I do! Wolves right off the bat, first night out! I do a Druid Dance for three black wolves on a high green bench, barely visible between the trees.
But the night is young and there are other sightings in store for us, mostly of the Loon variety. We head east and stop at a lower pullout. There are bison in the valley with their orange babies and quite a few pronghorn and elk. Mark introduces new Loons Sue and Bob and we have a merry time. Veronica pulls in and I meet her for the first time. And then up comes a familiar black Jeep. Doug Dance steps out and we have a Loon hug reunion.
We get the wolves in our scopes and can see they are feeding on whatís left of an elk-calf. There may have been more there but I only saw three. All black. These are Druid wolves, part of the main pack still holding sway in the valley. We also see an osprey flying about the river and there is talk of a nest near the Lamar Canyon. I hear about the sightings everyone else has had over the past few days. Doug especially is happy with his visit so far. He says as far as bears go, itís been a better trip for him than many years put together. And he is overall quite pleased with the shots heís gotten so far. I figure Iíll hang with him and see if his luck will rub off on me!
This first night is somewhat surreal. I woke up in NYC yet now Iím standing in Lamar with wolves in my scope, socializing with my dear Loon friends, making plans for tomorrow and trying to decide if food means anything to me at all. We discuss our chances of hearing howling versus how late we might manage to be served at Mammoth Dining Room.
Eventually we call it an early night. Mark and I follow Doug back to Mammoth. Soon I am sipping a drink in the Mammoth Dining Room, enjoying Loon companionship and a decent meal, too. We talk about the future of wolves and people. We talk about various Loons and the bison issue and the snowmobile issue. We talk about Dougís plan to spend a whole year here. I eat the mushrooms and leave the pasta. Mark, as usual, makes fun of this and pretty much everything I do. You would have been proud of him, Carl!
Then suddenly I start to feel like way past midnight and Iíve been up since 4AM. Oh yeah. Thatís true! I bid my dear friends goodnight and wobble off to my cabin. Iím thrilled to be back and I only wonder why I donít come more often.
Today I saw: bison, elk, pronghorn, 1 coyote, 2 mule deer, 2 hawks, 1 osprey, 3 sandhills, 2 swans, 3
Druid wolves and 10 Loons.