I wake up easily at 5AM. It's a very dark and a little chilly in the cabin but that's the way I like it. I open the door and stand in amazement on the porch. The sky is so full of stars it is like someone spilled a cup of diamonds onto black velvet. Orion and the Ursas are unmistakable, as is The Dragon (my preferred name for The W). I begin my load-out to the car and hear more elk bugling, which seems fitting.
On the agenda for today is the Fall Color Hike along Mt Everts arranged by Ballpark Frank. The plan is to meet at Albright at 9AM. I feel a journey to Lamar would be too rushed so I decide to visit Swan Lake flats this morning instead.
So off I go, winding up the switchbacks. I stop to enjoy the first light of dawn and listen to the sounds of early morning. I hear elk and a far-off coyote complaint and the rushing of runnoff from the Terraces. I see the rising steam glisten in the first sungleams.
Then on I go through the strange hoo-doos and the rock-strewn Golden Gate. I always think one of these days a rock will land on my car as I move through here. When I reach the upper flats of Swan Lake I feel like I have this little slice of heaven to myself. I set up Layla in the pullout closest to the Lake, the one with the storyboard. It is still pre-dawn and very magical. There are invisible bull elk bugling all around me. Layla and I do our best to find them. There are many types of ducks on the Lake and some bison on the north side. I hear a chorus of coyotes that I try hard to make wolves but they stubbornly remain coyotes.
When I turn the scope to the east I find one of the buglers. A huge (they always look huge to me) seven-point bull, who walks slowly behind a small herd of cows and calves, his temporary family. I follow his progress, watch his belly shiver as he bugles, watch his breath steam out in two separate upside-down funnels. He stops to tear up an impudent sagebrush. Actually the sage wins this battle but for the bull's sake we agree to keep silent about it. Then beyond a rise I see two more bulls, in close proximity. Hmmm. In no time at all these two lower their heads and have a go at each other. They seem evenly matched and fight rather half-heartedly it seems to me. Then they stop and both turn their heads towards me, as if they heard my thoughts. Then I realize the direction they are looking is also toward the larger bull so I assume they are having some discussion I can't translate. Whatever is said, it ends the fight and they both disappear into a stand of conifers.
The seven-point bull continues his slow and stately way across the meadow. His cows looks up from time to time, and move away when he comes too close. The light is growing and it gets colder rather than warmer. I pull out a few more layers from inside F'Ugly and scope some more.
All in all this morning I see 6 bull elk in these meadows, along with several smallish cow and calf herds, the largest being about 20 animals. They all graze contentedly. As dawn arrives, more and more lovely subtle colors are revealed in the surrounding meadows.
I notice two bison crossing the road to the south and watch them wander past a pullout in which several cars are parked. The bison continue toward the hills and some of the cars leave. Then I notice one of those cars is a black Jeep. Hmmmm. I pack up Layla and drive down to that pullout. Yep, the Manitoba plates give it away. I've found Doug's car, now where is he? There are two men watching the bison so I ask them if they happened to see or know the owner of the Jeep. They say no, but that it's been here since dark and I'm not the first person to ask about it. I tell them the owner is a friend that I was supposed to have had dinner with last night. Well, I figure Doug has hiked somewhere from here in pursuit of a photo op. I leave a note on his car, letting him know my plans for the day and how to reach me.
Then I head back to Mammoth to prepare for today's hike.
Once I'm ready I sit at the picnic table writing notes. The resident elk herd has begun a small migration from the dining room lawn to the Parade grounds. I do not disturb them and several animals walk by quite close but I keep a wary eye out for the bull. A cow and her grown calf come the closest. The calf is trying to nurse but is rebuffed each time gently but firmly by mom.
Then a familiar grey Camry pulls in and I watch Ballpark Frank walk over to say hi to a tall young couple I don't yet know. They turn out to be famed Loon hiker TYT (The Yellowstone Tom) and his pretty girlfriend Angela. They recently moved, lock stock and barrel from Wisconsin to Bozeman. I have a merry meeting with Ballpark and I confess to him about my shamefully hideous vehicle. Frank quite agrees with my assessment and suggests Avis should have provided a tarp to cover it with. Frank introduces me to Tom and Angela and I can see they are true Loons right away.
Then Frank surprises me with the good news that not only will Tonya be joining us, but so will Tim A and Betsy, that is, if their van makes it over the pass from Idaho Falls. Very soon they DO arrive and we have a great Loonion Reoonion. And now here comes Tonya so our group is complete. I learn from her that Charles is looking for me, that they did see wolves last night and that Mark and Carol are in the Park, too. They are all staying up in Cooke City, which explains why I have not seen them yet.
Frank briefs us on what to expect, everyone has a turn in the bathroom and off we go.
We decide to leave F'Ugly at Lava Creek to give us the option of a shorter hike but I suspect the real reason is that Frank doesn't want to park his car too close to mine. I hop in his car for the rest of the drive to the Blacktail Ponds trailhead and we finish our packing up here.
Dear Betsy lends me one of her hiking poles, the very pole that served me so well on the Fairyland hike. I have no bear spray of my own on this trip, but we have four canisters among seven hikers so I am not concerned. It is nearly 11AM by the time we set out but the day is fine, clear, and bright and promises to be warm.
We start out on the same trail Gerry and I hiked in the Spring of 2002 but soon Frank leads us off the path to the left and uphill. When we are halfway up this hill Tonya spies a bison to our left. He seems to be on a collision course with us, so we adjust a bit to the right. As we top the hill, we see that the one bison has turned into four and they still seem to be aiming for us. There are only a few scraggly trees but we take up a position here and stop, waiting to see what the bison have in mind. As I try to catch my breath we are all relieved to see them curve parallel to us and that they are following a trail, their own trail I'm sure, and it is we who are walking in their way. The trail skirts the higher hill we will soon be climbing and it becomes clear the bison have no interest in us whatsoever. We watch them walk by, and I murmur compliments to them as insurance. Frank dubs them the Gang of Four. The leader is a magnificent animal, in his prime, aware of us but unconcerned. Behind him are two "apprentice" bulls and another prime bull brings up the rear. They move by at a steady, determined pace and we enjoy the sight.
Now Frank leads us further uphill and into a forest. We find many interesting things along the way; rocks, scat and bones and many shed antlers, most of them gnawed on by rodents, which we all agree is a far better use for them than, say, becomming a hat rack. We all tease Frank mercilessly about the lack of "fall color". It seems we missed peak by about a week and a half. Believe me, though, this is no complaint. Hiking through such a landscape with good friends on such a day is a joy from beginning to end. Higher and higher we go, marveling at the views.
We reach a rocky crest and see below us a large lake which we name "Hidden Lake". It seems to be free-standing, with no inlet or outlet, and there is an oval patch towards the northwest which seems to be a dried-up section of it. A lone pronghorn rests here. On a hill above this lake we spot a fairly large elk herd. I love learning that there are so many hidden features in the Park, places where animals can thrive and be safe from cars.
In the next clearing we come upon a huge old Douglas fir with a hollowed out bottom, perhaps caused by a lightning fire. Betsy crawls inside and looks up. We take a short photo break here and have a lot of fun with our different camera styles. Frank's camera refuses to cooperate so Tonya and I take photos for him. All the while Frank gives us mini-lessons in the flora, fauna and history of the area, and tosses in some hiking anecdotes as well.
The conversation often turns to the Page and to the antics and foibles of several of our more colorful posters. We sing a little and laugh a lot and anytime we spot a still-golden aspen we praise Frank for showing us fall color. We are all impressed by the depth and diversity of the landscape up here, the parts of Yellowstone only hinted at from the roads.
We reach another golden meadow and another lone Douglas fir and spook a bull elk over the next hill. Below us is another lake, which Betsy names Aspen Lake since it is picturesquely ringed by those beautiful trees. Nearby is a smaller second lake, Aspen Lake Junior, of course.
We stop here for lunch and a few of us nap. I stave off my inevitable feet-swelling by elevating them against the big trunk. In doing so I get a unique view of the bright green lichen on the upper branches of this tree, which becomes a photo. When I close my eyes, Tonya tosses pine cones at me. Frank tells us tales of Las Vegas and we all get to know Tom and Angela a little better.
After lunch we head off again up the hill beyond Aspen Lake. Frank keeps saying we are on Mt. Everts but it just doesn't seem possible to me. He is leading us to a place where we can overlook Mammoth. Right, I think to myself. I am so lost on these hikes but I have faith in my leaders. I begin to wish there were a little less uphill but it's so wonderful to be out here hiking I try not to complain. At the top of this bare ridge we can see for miles in every direction. We see the plume of a fire burning outside the Park. I hear Frank say the names of mountain tops but none of it really sinks in. There is less wind and the day has grown officially hot. We continue to find interesting things all along our way, some petrified wood, some agate and some scat I am sure is wolf.
After a moment's rest on the bare hilltop we plot our next course. Partially down the side of this hill and up over the next one we go. At the top of this one, we see what looks to be a serious obstacle below us. Another lake, with a wide marshy area all around it. I am not at all sure how we can cross this besides going wide around it to higher ground. Someone calls out "Jake!". But, although we don't have Jake on this trip we do have a few intrepids. Tim and Tonya and Betsy go down to test the marshy area. To my great surprise (and my legs' relief) it is dry enough to cross. So we clamber down the rocky slope and forge through the high grass. We quickly named this Soggy Meadows Lake, thus preserving our mistaken first impression for history.
Up another hill we trudge and then down again the other side. Across this last basin we see a bison trail leading up a further hill. This one, promises Frank, will be the ridge that will take us to our destination. I begin to wear out at this point. I have no thought of quitting but I find I require more frequent stops.
Betsy comes to my rescue (as she so often does) and offers to switch packs with me. She carries a small fanny pack and I have my day pack with my heavy camera and binocs. (Again, my poor prior planning is somewhat at fault here. I have a smaller and lighter pair of binocs that I would normally carry on a hike. And I could have brought a smaller lens.) Lord bless you, Betsy, as that does the trick. My load is noticably lighter and the psychological lift is even stronger.
We hike on through a pretty forest and find the cool shade welcome indeed. We see more fall color so the jokes begin again. We cross a meadow and enter a thicker forest. Frank turns back to tell us we just spooked a large elk herd when we came under the trees. After a short while we come out again to a high meadow and suddenly I am looking at the white expanse of Mammoth Terraces. How did we get here?
We all marvel at the view but Frank says it's going to get even better. He leads us to the right and soon we hook up with a trail, which actually looks more human-made than bison made. We are, in fact, walking close to the very edge of Mt. Everts, just like Frank said. Suddenly we come out of the trees to a rocky outcrop and whoa! The edge of the world! Man! Wwhat a view!
This is astonishing! The entire village of Mammoth, plus Gardiner and beyond lies below us. Who ever knew that the bald white hill of Mammoth Terraces could look small? We see the high bridge over the Gardiner - so pencil thin and dainty it looks, with the stunningly blue river below, outlined with golden aspen and orange cottonwoods. And we see the entrance road laced like a ribbon up the side of the hill. We see the employee village to the left of the campground (the one whose BBQ's are so bothersome to PD) and the "boneyard" and the heliport and some odd silos. We see the old Gardiner road and Electric Peak, Sepulcher Mountain and Bunsen. We can see the gleam of water over Rustic Falls and the upper loop road, so tiny and white at the base of the Golden cliffs. We can see the town of Gardiner and the glimmer of the Yellowstone and Rt. 89 and the Arch and the soccer field where Rachel plays.
It is one of the most astonishing views I have ever beheld.
We sit in the sun and admire the sight. The wind plays in our hair and we hold on to our hats. Out come the cameras.
Tim and Tonya make short excursions way too close to the edge for my liking. I have trouble with edges. I love the view but I prefer to sit back a ways. Betsy and I gulp water and I thank her for her generosity in switching packs. It's nearly 4PM.
Finally we break away from this spot and begin our return journey. It's hard to estimate how long it might take, as none of us, including Frank, has ever done it. Mostly we follow the cliff trail which is easy enough, except for me when the trail comes too close to the edge. Then I forge a higher road for myself about 10 paces to the left of the group.
We hike for a while and then come upon a weird ditch that Tim thinks is man-made. He edges towards it but the slope is extremely steep and leads to a deadly drop off. Betsy doesn't much like seeing her husband so close to the cliff edge either so Tim abandons his exploration for today.
The trail leads past some jumbled rock areas and through pockets of forest. In one of these we pass a grouse walking carelessly across the trail. Then we enter a series of sage-meadows which really slow us down. The stuff is plain hard to walk through. The wood is tough and twists in strange directions. Straight lines are simply impossible to manage. It's as bad as thick deadfall! The only relief is when we happen upon a game trail but they rarely go where you want them to go and soon we are twisting and turning through the sage again. It give me a great appreciation for what the animals go through every day.
We come to another rocky meadow with another great view. We can see three waterfalls from here: Wrath, Undine and Rustic. We stop to catch our breath and enjoy it. And we can now see our destination written in the hills opposite us, where Lava Creek comes down to the road. A Clark's Nutcracker flits to a perch above us on a branch. I still consider him beautiful even though I realize he only came for handouts.
It's now after 5 and we will soon be losing the light. We begin to be slightly concerned about finishing our descent in the dark. None of us thought we'd be up here this long so there are no headlamps among us. Tim says he will bolt down and come back with lights if necessary but I feel sure we will get to the road by 7. I say we could always wait for the moon to rise. I have hiked by moonlight before and at least there is now no mistaking our direction.
But Mt. Everts already has a plan for us, and we must only discover it. We are blocked in our descent by some sheer basalt cliffs and then by two steep draws, which we all agree look much too treacherous to attempt. Instead we contour around the draws, still following the edge and making a far more gradual descent. As we enter another forest I am startled by the rapid thump thump thump of grouse. We see three of them in a tall old Douglass fir.
We finish this contour then finally come out onto a rock-strewn hillside. Far below I see the small meadow where the Big Boys of Winter hang out. And nearer I can see the V of Lava Creek. It is a steep and slightly treacherous way down but we are giddy, now, so we go down pretty fast. And then I can see the white gleam of F'Ugly between the trees.
We reach the road at about 6:15 which means we have time for dinner together at the Park Street Grille. Frank opens his cooler and offers each of us a traditional cold soda. We head west, thinking of food.
As we arrive in Mammoth we enter an elk jam. Cars are stopped as a big bull ushers his harem across the road in slow procession. I am about to circle around the stopped cars when I see Tim waving at me. He and Betsy were clever enough to call ahead to the restaurant and found they are not open on Sundays. So we wave the others down and make tracks to the Mammoth Dining Room. Tonight is their last night of service.
We get a table in the back and have a great time. We re-live moments of the hike, talk about our Loon friends and our future plans, about Park politics and what it's like to hike with Jake and Leslie. The only part about hanging with Loons that I don't like is when we have to say goodbye. We are not good at that. We want to linger and we try to stretch the night out longer and longer. I feel guilty because I have the shortest way to go back to my cabin and the others all have long drives back to their homes (all except Tonya who is camping for the night)
But finally, with sweet stars and a bright moon to guide us, we hug and wave goodbye for the last time and follow our separate paths.
I wander over to the Hotel to check for messages. Nothing there but on my cell phone I find a message from Doug. Was it really this morning when I left the note on his car? I call him and we make plans to meet in the morning.
Back in my cabin I try to write notes but after such a great day the urge to sleep is overwhelming and I hit the sack.
Today I saw: 1 antelope, bison, ducks, elk, geese, 4 grouse, a Clark's Nutcracker and 6 Loons.