I ignore my alarm and grab an extra hours sleep. At around 6, after a shower a quick cup of coffee on the porch I decide that instead of rushing out to Lamar I'll spend the morning session in the lovely areas close by, namely Swan Lake flats. There are few bad choices in spring animal watching and this one proves a good one indeed.
It is good to see the upper terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs once again free of snow and when I emerge on the other side of the Golden Gate I find a cool, green landscape full of herbivores.
There are two moose grazing in the willows on the left and a small herd of bison on the right. I see elk too, a dozen cows and five young-looking bulls with just barely beginning velvety antlers. I look for calves but if they are here they are still hidden. The bird life is wonderful as it always is. Dominant sounds are the strange sproingy call of the yellow-headed blackbirds, the drumming of sandhills and overall the twittering of songbirds, interrupted now and then by the distant honking of geese.
I watch a pair of sandhills right in front of me; the one might be sitting on a nest but I can't tell for sure. The second one flaps away and then I see a second pair on the far side of the lake, walking and browsing. I scope for a while, taking it all in and enjoying the solitude. There are few cars and no-one is stopping. After a while I go on, cruising leisurely, watching the changes in the topography, replacing my snow-bound memories with those of spring green.
At Norris Campground I pull over to watch a large elk herd in the wide meadow but then I see much closer, on the other side of the road, a single cow elk with her darling spotted baby. I get out to watch them. I name the calf Joette, because she asked me to specifically try to see elk babies for her.
The mother is grazing but very attentive to her young one, who seems to me to be about a week or so old. The youngster is small but moves with a perky confidence. She takes advantage of opportunities to wander several feet away from mom to sniff a tree trunk or a willow bush and once to lower her little head to the river for a drink. For the majority of the time though, Joette stays right next to mom, in her shadow. Mom moves slowly here and there and looks over at me several times, giving me a long steady stare. I remain very still and just smile at her. There are a few other tourists watching this pair and more pull in ahead of me to watch the large herd in the main meadow. The sun is getting up now and the day promises to be warm.
I finally head back to Mammoth. As I reach the section where the Norris Geyser basin spreads out below and to the left I see a bald eagle fly overhead. I've never seen an eagle in this area before. I see a lone pronghorn on the slope above Swan Lake and as I snake around the turns of the Golden Gate, a red-gold marmot dashes across the road. I see two more pronghorn on my way through Blacktail Plateau but each is alone.
Now it's time for Lamar. I have a breakfast date with Doug, Veronica, and hopefully, Tonya at the Soda Butte Lodge. In Little America there seems to be a pretty good sighting going on and I assume it is the grizzly mom with one remaining cub that's been in the area. I am behind schedule so I reluctantly pass it up. Then I cruise through Lamar Canyon and the valley proper without incident, appreciating the wonderful green beauty all along the way. I thrill to the trill of meadowlarks and enjoy the bison, elk and pronghorn grazing contentedly. The river glistens invitingly.
I stop at Pebble and claim myself a spot. Then I move into the cooler, higher section of the route, past view after marvelous view. Again I play the "last time at this spot I saw…" game with my memory, and actually miss the compacted ice!
I find Doug in the lounge of the restaurant talking and comparing notes with a friendly woman who reminds me of Pat. Veronica joins us and in we go to get a table. No sooner do we sit down than a smiling Tonya strolls in. More Loon hugs.
We order and consume the great breakfast food cooked here and I drink LOTS of yummy coffee. At this breakfast Doug first tells The Tale of Two Eagles (a golden and a bald or so he insists). What Doug witnessed was these two birds twirling in the air, talons locked. We three women exchange glances, confident that we know what this behavior signifies. One of us gently prods Doug "are you sure they were different species?" Doug is sure. Mm-hmm, we women think smugly to ourselves. "They were *Not Having Sex" Doug insists, which we all find quite funny.
We four have planned a day-hike from Slough Campground to the First Meadow. Doug reveals he has a very sore toe, too sore to punish with hiking. But he agrees to accompany us to the trailhead as it will give him a chance to look for calypso orchids.
On the way down from Cooke we stop at Barronette Peak to scope for goats. Tonya (whose spotting skills are superb) has them with her naked eye even before she's out of her car. I see him, a big guy resting under a scrawny tree. Then Veronica finds two more in another spot. A mom and a juvenile. These goats are NHS either. People pull in and stop and we share our scopes. I also enjoy looking at the long ropey waterfalls on this huge cliff-face. It is a stunningly beautiful morning, somewhat windy but typical Yellowstone weather and I am watching animals and sharing jokes with Loons. What could be better?
We pack up and head west again, following the leader. We see a coyote mousing in the meadow beyond Soda Butte Cone and some bison and pronghorn running. We don't see anything chasing them. Pronghorn will use any excuse to start running. And bison are just weird.
At Slough, Veronica and Tonya leave their cars and pile into mine for the bumpy ride back to the trailhead. Then we lather up with sunscreen (well, not Tonya) and I offer oreos. At first I forget my bear spray and have to run back to get it.
The trail is gorgeous. It is kinda steep and steady uphill at first but we are rewarded for our efforts by the terrific views. I really enjoy being in a part of the Park that is entirely unfamiliar to me. I don't quite get my bearings in relation to the rest of Lamar Valley. My only point of reference is Dave's Hill, from which I have seen the Druids heading back to the den. But I am at a loss to understand the interplay of streams and ridges back here.
Tonya leads the way. I am, as usual, the caboose, but my recent stair-climbing training has a good effect. I find I don't get winded quite as fast and that I recover more quickly. Veronica is a strong hiker and well-versed in flora and fauna. Tonya stops in the trail as she has spotted a snake. It's a garter snake with a pretty stripe all the way down its back. It freezes right in the trail, conveniently long enough for a photo op, then slithers silently into hiding.
We meet a lone hiker coming out who tells us he saw a grizzly at the beginning of the trail about 45 minutes ago. That was about 10 minutes before we started! Whoa. Cool! I am just as glad we missed it since that might have worried me too much! I find myself looking around a bit more than before. We are making plenty of noise just chatting as we go and Veronica has her bike horn. Most of the trail is open and affords easy visibility. A bit later we enter a more wooded area so we talk a little louder. We see another garter snake but this one scoots into the brush quickly. We arrive at a very marshy spot and see what looks like a lake ahead of us. We also hear a great roaring to the left. I say it sounds like a waterfall and Tonya agrees. We can't see what it might be from here but we can just barely glimpse what looks like churning white water.
The "lake" is actually Slough Creek, full of snow-melt and rain and way over its banks. It has drowned the flat. There is standing water and a large area of marshy grasses. We can see the main current of the river but the depth of the water is hard to gauge. I can imagine the skeeters being unbearable a bit later in the year.
We find a nice rock on which to perch to have a rest and some lunch. One big surprise to me is the existence of a Ranger cabin (no ranger at home, though) with what looks like a brand new roof and stove-pipe. What a prime spot for a cabin! There is also an older building that looks like a small barn or large storage-shed. And, to our delight, up on the hill among the trees we find a well-maintained out-house.
I find lots of wildflowers here; pink shooting stars and blue harebells and pretty yellow buttercups. I write a bit and make a sketch of the area, which I find quite beautiful. There are high mountains visible in the distance. Their outline seems familiar but I can't decide exactly what peaks they are.
As we are lunching we see an odd sight. A human shape in the distance with the largest backpack ever seen protruding from his back and curving over his head. He seems to be in the water, moving in our direction and we eventually see that he is carrying some kind of inflatable boat, as well as a large pair of black rubber flippers. Huh?
We watch his progress, hoping he might try to get in the boat so we can see how it works. As we are packing up to head back he arrives on the trail before us and we see the contraption quite clearly. It looks awfully awkward but I'll bet its fun to use in deep enough water. He tells us there is another lake further out where he used it to fish.
When we reach the marshy crossing Tonya is again tempted to learn the source of the mysterious roaring. She suggests we bushwhack. Veronica and I agree. Off we go, skirting the muck as best we can and achieving a bit of higher ground. We follow the contour of the "lake" edge and strike a game trail. We are in heavy deadfall and find lots of elk scat and tracks. One game trail that I try following ends in water so I leave it and head uphill again. The roar has grown steadily louder and we can see big boulders and white water and what looks like the beginning of a stony canyon. Another hundred steps and we are on a small rise. Below us is a rugged gorge through which Slough Creek thunders, smashing against boulders and hurtling downward. It's not quite as deep as Lamar Canyon but similar none the less. I'm sure plenty of people know about this but I've never heard anyone refer to "Slough Creek Canyon" so I dub it "Tonya's Cascade". Joette, you would have loved it, bushwhack and all!
Veronica and I take a break on this rise but the intrepid Tonya plunges down to explore further. She is soon out of sight. We call to her but there's no way she can hear us over the roar. We wait a bit, enjoying our surroundings. On the cliff face across the river we see a ledge that we agree would be even more perfect with a mountain lion stretched casually along it. Eventually I say I'll see if I can find where Tonya's gotten to. I venture downhill, and with some effort I am able to maintain eye contact with Veronica. I reach a huge boulder field that serves as a bank to the torrent and I am delighted at the noise and fury of the water as it punishes the stones of its temporary prison. The slope of the section I can see is fairly gradual but judging from the noise to my left and the shape of some boulders it seems there is a more precipitous drop just beyond my sight. I'm not crazy about scrambling among big boulders, especially since I can see this area was recently under flood. I stop here and take some photos. In a few minutes Tonya appears with a big grin. She confirms there is a much larger drop-off just a little ways beyond.
We hike back up the hill to join Veronica and describe what we saw. Then we head back out the way we came, pleased with our little side-adventure and "discovery". On the way out we meet a few other hikers as well as a pretty red-golden marmot and two mule deer. Our last sighting is a group of young guys huffing and puffing uphill as we trot casually down, each loaded with enough equipment for a month. The last-in-line complains that the hike was supposed to be "only two miles". Ah youth!
Back at the car we have more oreo treats and soon we are bumping along the road back to the cars. We see Doug and follow him to a spot where we can see the nest of a golden eagle. Doug describes how he watched the approach of an adult to the nest. The bird folded back its wings and swooped in for a landing, talons stretched out. He says he thinks there's a chick but I can't see it. The cliff face is impressive, though, as is the adult golden sitting on the nest. Veronica asks Doug if this golden was the one that was NHS. Doug rolls his eyes and refuses to answer. Tonya thinks we are all crazy.
Veronica suggests sandwiches and maybe ice cream at the Tower store. We are again in agreement but before we can take off we run into Ruth and Fuad from Boston with whom I had such fun the previous two springs. We have a grand reunion and I introduce them to the Loons. Ruth says Mark and Carol are here and have been keeping a steady vigil on Dead Puppy Hill.
On the way to Tower we run into a bear jam. Just downhill from the Calcite Springs pullout is a black bear sow with two adorable brown cubs that everyone's been seeing. The cubs are sweetly rambunctious and tumble over each other, running and tripping, shooting up trees and clambering over logs. Mom is all business, eating, eating, eating. The bears stay conveniently close to the road and the Ranger has her hands full keeping the delighted crowd from encroaching too far. Most people are fine, though, and behave themselves, as do we.
Of course by the time we actually get to Tower the counter is closed! I content myself with a tub of cherry yogurt and we sit at the picnic tables. Poor Veronica is really hungry so I bring out my ham and cheese and crackers. I find an apple I had forgotten about and each Loon gets a slice of that, too. Then there is a soft splat as my first big spoonful of yogurt drops on the cement! Arrghh! I clean it up as best I can but as we are leaving a great big raven lands nearby and does his sideways hop over to the mess. I hope he likes dairy.
We follow Veronica to a pullout where she shows us an osprey nest on one of the rock spires below. This is really cool! An adult is sitting on the nest and looks unusually like a duck. While we are watching this, someone spots a small group of bighorn sheep running nearly straight downhill. We soon realize they were spooked by hikers above them on Romance Ridge. The sheep disappear into the folds and cracks of the nearly sheer hillside above the Yellowstone River.
Off we go again past the ongoing bear jam and on to Lamar.
We see lots of folk here already. There are groups scoping on two different hillsides facing the rendesvous area. We pull in and suddenly I am overwhelmed with Loon sightings. I see John Deere, Gerry from Scotland and then there is Michael! I say hello to all. Michael points to his car and through the window I see his wife Karlie and there is Baby Hayden! Oh is he sweet! It is just great to see so many regulars out here doing what we all love best.
I am not happy with my parking job so I head back west where I think the others are. But when I arrive I don't find them. There is room to park if one big camper would move a teeny bit. I hop out and see a friendly looking guy with a nice tripod and scope. I ask as nicely as I can if he would mind inching forward a bit. He seems perfectly fine with that and ends up giving me tons of room.
He sees my yellow flag and asks if I am a Loon. Yes I say proudly. He says his name is Brian C. and that he knows John Uhler, that John was very helpful to him in promoting his book "Wolf Journal". I agree about what a great guy John is. I will have to check out his book, too!
Soon we hear the murmur of action. I set up my scope and right away catch some movement in the rendesvous area. We've got wolves!. I see a collared black (which I am told is 254) and three yearlings. Some people see a fifth wolf. They are roaming around. One begins to mouse. We soon we realize the view will be much better on the hill so up we go. We join a group of about 10 people on our hill. A larger group surrounds Rick on the next hill further east. Rick sure seems to be more comfortable with people on this trip. It could be that he is hosting a group from the Institute or maybe even from the GYC meeting going on in West. Or he may have just come to accept the benefits of good public relations. I re-spot the four black wolves.
Three of the wolves start to move about and I keep seeing pronghorn dashing here and there. Some elk bunch and I think a chase might be on but just as soon as that they stop and I see the wolves moving casually away from them. They bed down again. Maybe it's too early to do any serious hunting. It's a very nice night and I have a sense that we are in for something.
Just then I glance over at the other hill and see a number of scopes pointed the opposite way, up the slope behind us. I mistakenly think it must be a bear that has come into view. I look through my binocs and at the same time say out loud "maybe it's a bear". But no! It's wolves! "Grey wolf! " I say. Others have started to point. I swing my scope and get the spot. OMG! More wolves! There's 21! Oh boy my heart is racing. There's 42! I'd know that grey muzzle anywhere! Hello! Hello my darling Druids! Then I see two greys and a black. Why it's Limpy! Hello Limpy! Then another black. 6 Druids pause for a moment along the top of a sage hill. Then 42 trots ahead and now I see 6 wolves in a line traveling at their signature pace from east to west. Elk pour out from every hollow and race into the open, then stop and turn to look back, heads high, ears up. Their poor hearts must be racing too but for a different reason than mine. The Druids pay them no mind. Their mission tonight lies elsewhere. They just walk calmly west.
Then they are gone.
I hear people asking where is the bear and I apologize for my gaffe. The Druids appear again for a split second further along the same ridge in a gap in the ridge in front. They give us one last glimpse further on. After that I am pretty sure the topography will hide them. Most people abandon the hill and head for their cars. I knew it! I just knew I was gonna see Druids tonight! I do a special Druid Dance just for the alphas and for Charles.
Eventually I go back to my car, figuring I will hook up with the other Loons. I drive all the way to Coyote Overlook. A guy here has a grizzly on the ski-slope hill roughly opposite the Institute. I watch him a while. He is just a tiny dot even in my scope's highest power. The dark is coming. I scope the high hills north of the road. I see a single cow elk suddenly appear and stop on the crest of the highest ridge. She is looking away from me so I imagine she could be watching the passage of the Druids below her. I imagine I hear a howl. I DO hear a pronghorn barking. Such an odd sound.
I mosey on a little further west since I still have some light. There are numerous cars pulled off to the right and Rick is among them. I slow down and see a grizzly on the flat moving swiftly into a draw. A woman calls to me from the side of a van. It's Cathy W! And there's Mike! What a nice surprise! I hadn't heard these Loons were here at all! We have a great reunion and catch the last few seconds before the grizzly disappears.
Cathy tells me she and Mike wanted to keep a low profile this trip. I listen as she relates some of their terrific sightings; two that stick in my mind are a beaver at the confluence and a black bear they saw swimming with the swans in their pond near Junction Butte. I am sorry to hear they will be leaving tomorrow but I am tickled to have gotten to share this sighting with them.
The light is fading fast so I turn around and head for Pebble. As I approach the Footbridge I see Mark and Carol's truck. They have just gotten back from their vigil on DPH. They hop out and we have a great Loon hug. I show them the T-shirt I'm wearing which Pat gave me: printed upon it is a reproduction of the photo Charles took in winter of 42F, 21M and 217F, taken the day we all watched them chase the Interlopers across these very flats.
They tell me they have seen the pups a few times, that there are five of them; three blacks and two greys (this has since been updated to six; three of each). I ask if they would mind my joining them tomorrow? They say they'd be happy to have me. They warn me that they get going about 5:15 so I know I have a short night ahead of me.
I pull into Pebble and set about re-arranging the mess in my car to create a comfy-enough bed. The campground seems full and there is much activity but the sounds are hushed and respectful of others.
I set the alarm for 4AM and I am snug inside my sleeping bag before 11. Wow! I may get a whole five hours sleep tonight. What a luxury! I roll down the windows a crack as the air smells so nice. I am about to take of my glasses when I notice the sky, deep black and littered with brilliant stars. Oh Yellowstone, you wonderful place. Everywhere I look there is a surprise, and each surprise is full of beauty.
Do you really wonder why I never go anywhere else?
Today I saw: bison, elk (including a calf), pronghorn, ravens, 1 bald eagle, 3 black bears (including 2 cubs oty), 2 grizzly bears, 3 bighorn sheep, 1 coyote, 4 sandhill cranes, 2 mule deer, 1 golden eagle, 3 mountain goats, 2 marmots, 2 moose, 1 osprey, 2 garter snakes, several yellow-headed blackbirds, Canada geese, various songbirds, 10 Druids (including 21M, 42F,
253 & 254 plus 6 more) and 15 Loons