I'm up at 5:15 this morning and it feels like I slept in!
I am grateful for a strong shower and enjoy my coffee with a luxurious splash of milk. I pull up in front of Doug's cottage at 6:15 and off we go.
As we climb the switchbacks above Mammoth, the moon splashes light all over Mt. Everts. I stop the car and stare awhile, unable to comprehend that I stood on that mountain, and then walked a good deal of the length of it, just the day before yesterday!
We are headed again for Swan Lake flats and photos of fighting elk. When we arrive at the pullout Doug sees Bob Landis' car. He worries that Bob may be out there recording elk sounds for his next film. We figure it would be no good for us to traipse out there and ruin it for him.
So Doug assesses the situation for an alternative plan. I keep my mouth shut (really!) as I am just a passenger this morning and to me, there are no weak choices in a place like this. Doug reckons that the sky may provide the answer in the form of some dandy reflective shots around Swan Lake. In another minute we are packed up and wading into the sage and willow flats.
It is slow going but enjoyable to be out of the car in the just-dawn, walking instead of driving. The brush on the Lake side is thicker than the other and we take a winding path to avoid the tricksy sage roots which seem to have a fondness for tripping booted feet. Doug finds the angle he wants and we set up on a slight rise. I find it a bit more difficult than he to find three equal-sized mounds on which to balance the legs of my tripod.
Doug begins his photo-taking and I concentrate on scoping out animal life. A flock of geese honks wildly overhead. They arc and descend and hit the Lake in a flurry of feathers and soft splashing. A few wise ducks change course to give them room. All around us are the floating and bending notes of elk jazz. The sky glows both pink and golden, revealing Electric Peak as the trophy mountain that it is. Below it, around the graceful curve of the Lake, a bison wanders forlornly.
It is a beautiful morning. One of those casually breathtaking mornings that Yellowstone delivers week after week after week.
Doug seems quite pleased with what the light is doing. And he has found an eagle in a tree. Hey! That was supposed to be my job! It's a bald, a juvenile. We watch him leave the perch and swoop out to make a dive but then he changes his mind and heads right back to his perch. We see a feature at the water's edge which and wonder if it could be ice? It is certainly cold enough this morning. I tell Doug I saw the same thing on Hidden Lake on our Everts hike. I wonder if it may be pollen or small leaves or even algae in a form and shape that mimics ice. We never find out but it sure looks like ice from here.
We spend about two hours out here. When the best light has come and gone it's on to the next adventure. We trudge back to the cars, talking politics and elk behavior, shutter speeds and seasonal changes. We pack up the stuff and head back towards Mammoth. Doug makes a turn into an employee area and keeps winding this way and that until we are on a bumpy dirt road in an unburned forest. The road ends and suddenly I see a very pretty lake.
I hop out into an area I never knew existed! Doug says its called Joffe Lake. It is so sweet, a good-sized lake with a narrow trail around its perimeter through some lovely fall color. This must be a favorite spot for park employees in summer. I ask Doug if there are otters here? He thinks not but says there is a resident muskrat. Just then, as if hearing its name called, the muskrat appears on the far side of the lake. It dives and swims to the side, making a lovely "v" for us to follow until it disappears in the overhanging grasses. There are a few ducks here as well and we watch them take wing.
We admire the view a while longer but don't see the muskrat again. Doug says there's one more spot he wants to show me and we drive out of the hidden area and back through Mammoth. We turn right opposite the campground entrance, into another employee area. Now we are heading past scenery and buildings I saw from atop Mt. Everts on Sunday. We pull into the boneyard and I see a trail going down to the river. Doug and I walk out along it for a few yards and come to a very pretty overlook of the Gardiner River, a spot where the cottonwoods are growing thick and golden amid orange and scarlett-leafed berry bushes. It is very beautiful.
I hear a number of birds singing and we see what I think is a waxwing flitting in a nearby pine. This is the kind of spot I would like to explore a lot more but I will have to come back another day. It's now time to meet Frank for today's hike, so we drive back up the hill to Albright. Someone with a gigantic trailer has chosen to swallow up six parking spaces by parking horizontally across them. Perhaps it was a bathroom emergency? We find room to park at the other end and chat a bit while I get my daypack arranged.
Soon Ballpark arrives and we catch him up on what he missed. He has an errand inside the VC which allows me the time to change clothes and make a sandwich for lunch. It's nearly 11AM when Ballpark and I wave goodbye to Doug and head east. Our hiking goal today is two-fold. We want to find the location of the Crystal Creek acclimation pen, where the wolves were kept before their release, and then we'll head up and over the back of Jasper Bench in the hopes of finding the Moonlight Lakes.
We are neither of us sure these lakes really exist, but we hope to find out. It's just that back in July of 2002 as I was leaving Lamar on a night of full moon, up on the eastern end of Jasper Bench I caught a glimmer of moonlight on water out of the corner of my eye. Just for an instant it twinkled. The next morning I returned to the same spot but saw not a hint of water under the sun. So I have been intrigued by the mystery ever since. I asked a few folks but no one knew for certain whether there were lakes up there or not. So when I mentioned it to Ballpark as something I'd like to explore on this trip he jumped right on board.
We park at the last pullout before the Lamar River bridge and finish arranging our gear. Frank kindly lends me one of his hiking poles and we start up an old rutted road. But you can't keep Frank on a trail for long so we soon leave the road and veer uphill. The scenery is spectacular, as is the day. Warm sun, cool air and a pleasant breeze. We hike over hilltops, into hidden hollows and into forested drainages, all of which are hidden from the road. The vast expanse of land in this Park continues to amaze me and I encourage anyone who can walk to join Frank on any hike he leads. He is the perfect companion; knowledgable, insightful, funny and solititous. Part of the fun for both of us is walking in areas we know are visited by wolves, the Druids in particular. We find scat here and there and many shed antlers and of course, whitened bones.
We gain a bit of elevation on this part of the hike and we pause frequently to take in the views on all sides. Behind us we see the Lamar River and Slough Creek coming down from the meadows. We can see all the way to Junction Butte and all of the jumbled land in between. We also get arresting views of the north-facing slopes of Specimen Ridge with its dark, huddled conifers and its airy stands of aspen.
Much sooner than I expect, as we are climbing over deadfall and crunching dry leaves in a patch of forest, we come upon the Crystal Creek pen. Well, the former pen. The fences are all gone, as are all other traces of man-made items but we can still make out its edges. There is a large bone-strewn area and other signs that things had "settled" here for a while. I find it a particularly pretty spot, with some cool-looking boulders and many, many mature aspen, most of which still have their leaves. I stand still and imagine the wolves here; huddled together, howling, or pacing the perimeter, smelling freedom on the other side of cold metal, planning their way out. We find some spots that look to us like partially excavated dens and imagine them digging, digging, digging.
After this bit of wolf appreciation (which also serves as a well-deserved rest from fairly steady uphill climbing) we continue on towards "the top of the ridge". When one is hiking, the "top of the ridge" can sometimes prove an elusive thing, as each top reveals a further slope that needs ascending. But with views as varied and stunning as these and with lively conversation and frequent joking, such a walk in the wild is as envigorating and satisfying as it gets.
We come over a rise and see a wide flat ahead of us. At the far end is a lone bison, resting. We angle our course so as not to seem heading right for him but we are dismayed to see the old fellow rise to his feet in response. One never knows with bison and there is little up here to serve as cover so we have only distance, our wits and the law of averages in our favor. I think the law of averages helped us this time. After we proceed along our angle for about a fifty steps, Mr. Bison sits right back down and goes to sleep.
The next rise shows us another beautiful aspen glade. This one more precious as it has a bison trail (or wolf trail) threading right through its center. I keenly feel that I am walking in the Druids' footsteps and it feels great.
We top the rise at the end of the aspen glade and see we have indeed, finally reached the ultimate ridge top. Bison Peak rises before us and I recognize Druid Peak on our far right. The tops of the bare hills that are usually to our backs as we stand in the pullouts with our scopes, watching elk or bison in Lamar Valley now loom in front of us. To our right and behind us, are the higher slopes and forests of Specimen ridge. I recognized the "ski-slope" hill where I have seen grizzlies on so many occasions in the Spring. But what really amazes me is how utterly different Jasper Bench looks from this perspective. We are still above it, not on it yet, but it becomes clear that what looks like a "bench" from the road is not so simply described. It is more like a series of slopes, flats and hollows, backed by several more series of slopes, flats and hollows. The many scattered boulders that so often are mistaken for a wolf or a bear or a grazing elk are not at all animal-like from this perspective. They are greened over with lichen or spotted with orange and shaped in ways no animal could be. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Standing on the "last ridge" we see a thick forest to our right and a beautiful patch of orange-leafed aspens on a rangy slope above it. But our attention is drawn to two white spots on the edge of the forest. Signs. Even though our way lies to the left we can't help but be curious as to the nature of those signs. In a landscape this vast and only two of us here to appreciate it, I suppose it is only natural to want to know what another human had to say about it.
So we hike over that way. As we go, Frank recounts the experience of his former wife Cathy on a horseback trip she took in this area a few years ago. It turns out to be a very appropriate story as we soon have a nearly identical experience, albeit updated, to hers. As we near the first tree we can see the sign is something official, put up by the Park Service. At the top, in red, is a warning shape indicating an area closed to hiking. Closed due to bear activity. The date on it is August 2003. Hmmmm.
We do NOT enter the forest but skirt around it, moving towards the second sign we spotted. We find a near duplicate except for the addition of two words that leap out to me: "dangerous bear". I remind Frank, half-jokingly that I have no bear spray of my own. Then we see something very curious. A large green barrel resting 200 feet away, back among the trees. Frank knows what it is and I recognize it from all the animal shows I have seen. A bear trap. We both stop and listen. While we are stopped I have a vague sense of something smelling not so good.
We continue to skirt the forest and soon come upon a bit of a trail. I see old horse droppings. The vague odor increases but it is not the smell of manure, but of death, of rotting. We follow the trail, focussing on the silent green trap and then I see a taut yellow rope rising at a diagonal from the ground to the trunk of a tall tree. Hanging from a branch in the tree is the thing that I've been smelling - part of a carcass, deer, maybe, or elk - the hide is light-brownish/grey. A bag of something is hung with it - to me it looks rather like a sandbag and I imagine a somewhat comic scenario that as the bear swats and releases the carcass he is bonked on the head by the sandbag while the biologists leap out from behind the bushes to grab dart him!
What I smell is not a stench, which makes me think this bait is a bit old, but it does make me apprehensive of remaining here for long. We do not get any closer and take pictures instead. It certainly looks as though the bait is here to attract a bear and we assume there may be more available bait inside the trap. I don't know enough about barrel traps to recognize from this distance whether it is set or sprung, but if it contained a bear or any other animal, it was snoozing soundly. The area under the bait is a bit trampled, but whether from those who hung it or from an animal attracted to it, is hard to say. We do notice scratch marks on the tree trunk but whether they are related to the bait or were made at another time we couldn't say.
I turn away and look across the beautiful landscape stretching before us. I see the line of trees that mark Amethyst Creek and the hollow that creates Fairies' Falls. Far beyond that we glimpse the Lamar River winding into the haze of afternoon. The soft, bare hills cradling Bison Peak dominate all other features here. They seem much higher and they look starker, and more connected as a range than I had thought they were. And I am overwhelmed as to just how much open country is up here. How herds of elk and bison can hide here, how countless dramas can be played out without our ever seeing them, no matter how often we cruise the road back and forth.
We leave the bear trap forest and head across the meadow. We discuss our time frame and how much exploring we think we can do since so many options are now before us. We have not yet arrived at Jasper Bench and already our turn-around time is looming. We come to an area that could once been a marsh, with high, thick, bone-dry grass which would scrape skin had we been exposing any! It is slow going through here but enjoyable. Finally we stand above a boulder-scattered slope and see far below us the tops of the trees that one sees across the river from the second Lamar pullout, the one I call B&B, where we often watch the eagle's nest in spring. We can see the road in sections and there are two tiny cars at the B&B pullout. We wonder if they can see us and whether they wonder what the heck we are doing up here?
This hill turns out to be steeper than it looks. I scan the area to the left for any sign of lakes. It is obvious from this viewpoint that we cannot even see the area we came to explore, as the bench goes on for at least a mile or more to the west. What features may exist beyond our view can only be guessed. I tell Frank that perhaps we will have to come back another day to find the elusive lakes. Privately I wonder if I may have stumbled on a Yellowstone version of Brigadoon?
I am getting hungry and my feet could use a rest, too, so we choose a particular jumble of boulders as our picnic table and benches. I want to elevate my feet as it has a proven beneficial effect on my sea-level circulation but everywhere I try to lie down I find the ground overgrown with short thorny plants. I suppose they are some sort of low-growing berry bush but neither Frank nor I can identify them. My solution is to employ the extra fleece jacket I have in my pack as a buffer and that works reasonably well. My legs and ankles are grateful for the new position and I look up at the sky. The air is full of the smell of sage and I watch the changing cloud patterns as Frank regales me with tales.
After this very pleasant break we check the time again and reluctantly begin to re-pack for the trip back. I favor retracing our steps but Frank lobbies for a change of course. He reminds me that it will surely be faster going down. I guess it's crazy not to trust the advice of a local, especially one as experienced a hiker as Frank so of course I follow him. Soon we are trudging back uphill, criss crossing bison trails and heading somewhat west. A brisk, steady wind has kicked up and in the huge sky above it looks to me that there is rain headed to the southeast. It looks like it will bypass us and it eventually does but the wind entices me to slip on my former pillow even as labor uphill.
We top this hill and then traverse the next one, staying high but skirting the summit. I keep looking below me in hopes of understanding the true shape of Jasper Bench but various hills prevent it. As we are passing another rock-strewn hillside a forest comes into view on the right. The trees are tall and thick and it looks as though they are rooted in a very steep hillside. I first wonder if we are looking at a part of Lamar Canyon but when I check the features on the opposite side I see we are not close enough to it. But this steep cliff is interesting, nonetheless, in that it is another feature hidden from the road. I am jabbering away, telling Frank some pointless story when he stops, looking at the trees.
He asks me if I see anything through those trees. Of course as first I think he means an animal but he doesn't. I stop and turn back, following his gaze. I still don't see anything. He says "doesn't that look like water?" I look again. I am still thinking we're on the edge of Lamar Canyon so I am looking for a river in a stony bed. What I see below, through the thick trunks of trees, is a pale golden meadow, a line of white rocks and two long oval...LAKES!
Frank says "I'm going down there". And in another second we are both headed down the cliff through the deadfall. The forest is not as thick as it looks from the edge and once we are over the lip we are treated to a spectacular view of another side of Jasper Bench, in fact the very side we came to explore. I am particularly thrilled to see, on the opposite side across the road (well, across from where I know the road is, since it is not actually visible from here) the formation I call the "lava trees" which is, as any Lamar regular will know, is the feature north of Fisherman's pullout, the patch of conifers growing out of purplish basalt on the side of the sage hill.
I stop to look at the Moonlight Lakes, for surely these are the very ones I glimpsed. Either that or Frank and I just passed into an alternate universe! I see two substantial lakes, without visible inlet or outlet, shrunken from their Spring size, both narrow ovals in shape. Both are "bordered" on the far side by a series of whitened rocks, which seem to mark the higher water level of Spring and look almost like a ruined wall. Being a Tolkien lover, they remind me of the ruins of old Gondor. There is a third lake which has dried up.
As I am taking pictures I catch a flash of movement and see a coyote trotting briskly away far down the slope. He stops to look back at us which makes me smile. I take special delight in seeing animals while hiking.
Frank and I are thrilled. I am mindful that only by following his instinct for "the road not travelled" did we come upon our goal.
But there is more than the Lakes to enjoy here. We are intrigued by some particularly old trees, several lone, tall aspen and some fat douglass firs. We come out of the forest into a meadow above the Lakes pocked with now-dried mud wallows. This whole area is huge, close to the road and yet completely hidden.
The wind returns and the sky darkens. Suddenly everything feels spooky. And then we see it. Perched on a dark mound of earth is the most diabolical-looking bison skull either of us has ever seen. It has clearly been placed there, above a hoof-pocked mud-hole, just to the left of a leafless aspen whose brittle branches wheeze and cackle in the wind. The sky turns an ominous mottled grey and we look at each other, wide-eyed. Really, this bison skull is creepy! Something about the grin of its toothy jaw, the ghoulish tilt of its whitened horns or perhaps the worm-eaten hole like a fixed and staring pupil in the center of the empty eye-socket seems to scream out heathen worship and bloody sacrifice!
I tell Frank we have come across the altar of Beelzebison, in this hidden half-acre, where black-hearted bison come to worship! And sure enough, a few steps away from this we find a Stonehengian ring of rocks where surely all the demonic bison of the Park dance under the moon and plan their hideous surprise attacks upon innocent humankind.
Needless to say, Frank and I have a great time in this spot, taking photos and coming up with ever more horrific scenarios. When I look back, I think we were both celebrating Halloween a few little early!
We walk on and then find some interesting tiny paths, nearly straight lines in the grass from one large boulder to the next. I don't know what to make of them but Frank thinks they might be the paths of some kind of rodent as it races back and forth between home and larder. We find at least four of these mini-highways and each one is straight as an arrow.
This area is unusually rocky; not just with scattered boulders but whole knobs of exposed rock, grey and granity looking, although I'm no rock expert. There is something about it that says "Scotland" to me and I have a wish for Gerry to come by and pronounce it so or not. As we proceed the rocks themselves get larger and larger and there are now whole hilltops crowned with rock and some of it is shale-like and broken and becomes more treacherous to walk on. There are unusual standing stones that loom on the tops of hills like sentinels and others that seem perfect sunning spots for mountain lions.
At the top of one of these rocky summits we have the grandest view yet, of the whole northeast quadrant. We can see the mountains above Slough Creek and a hint of the Absarokas, the whole of Little America all the way to Junction Butte and beyond to Hellroaring Mountain, and the high forested slopes of Specimen Ridge. We can see the craggy heights above Lamar Canyon and its forested cleft, all of Bison Peak and off under dark grey skies looms Druid Peak, looking very mystical indeed.
Now we have no choice but to head down. I use the pole to my advantage and gratefully follow bison trails whenever they present themselves. I rest my knees by creating my own switchback trail and we make good time. We get to a spot where we can actually see F'Ugly sticking out like a small white blight on the pristine land but my knees are secretly relieved. Soon afterwards we find ourselves in the willow marshes of Crystal Creek and have a bit of a time finding a dry way across.
And then we are out in the open again, in the rolling meadows of Little America and in no time we find the remnants of the rutted road on which we began. We assess the hike and brainstorm new ideas and even start to think about dinner.
The sun is westering but still warm as we reach the cars at about 5:15. I find a note on F'Ugly's windshield from Charles with the wonderful news that he saw Druid alpha 42F at the rendesvous this very morning! I squeal with delight while Frank pouts facetiously at finding no note on HIS car.
Frank opens his cooler for the traditional post-hike soda and I choose a Mountain Dew. Oh boy, does that taste good! In no time we are headed towards Lamar, seeking the capper to the day. We find Charles, Carol and Mark on the exclosure hill and we hike up to join them. The wind has kicked up again and blows a very fine dust into the air from the spots where the heavy human traffic has worn away the grass.
Alas, neither 42 nor the one black pup who accompanied her has been seen since late morning. As comforting as it is to hear that 42 looked healthy I cannot help but wonder if there is any significance in her being alone. I remind myself that I have seen 42 without 21 on many occasions over the years.
We scope the valley and the hills, enjoying the evening and each other's company. Carol and I talk of our hiking plans for Thursday, whether or not we want to try to locate the Druid's traditional densite or explore some other areas. Frank finds a herd of elk on Mt. Norris and we see some interesting bison activity in the Rendesvous, including some rambunctious youngsters. One bison calf is still very small and reddish and I am told that he/she is likely a product of a rare summer calving. We also see pronhorn and a pair of running coyotes.
I remind the others about dinner at the Antler tonight. I know they would love to come but the drive back to Cooke City is too daunting. As the light begins to dim and the temperature drops Frank and I realize we had better be on our way. Frank leads the way back and I do my best to keep up with him. There are times when I am distracted by what seems like a huge streetlight in my rear-view mirror and I laugh out loud at myself when I realize it is the rising moon!
In Yellowstone, even driving back in the dark can be an adventure. Frank and I have four roadside animal encounters on this trip. A coyote in a pullout in Blacktail Plateau, a huge bull elk near Lava Creek, four mulies on the descent from Undine Falls and a cow elk just as we arrive at Mammoth. Each one yanks my heart into my throat but no harm is done. Nonethless, I am greatly relieved to reach Gardiner and I leave F'Ugly at the Best Western and walk across the street to The Antler.
I find Doug and Frank gabbing in the entryway. It is a very pleasant place; the staff is young and energetic and we feel welcome. John and Carlene arrive and we have a great reunion. They have a pretty young woman with them that I hardly recognize as Rachel. She now wears contacts and a graceful new hairstyle and has lost that little-girl aspect which I find somewhat bittersweet.
She is still loving and inquistive but quiet and a bit more introspective than she was last time I saw her. I venture to guess that some of her youthful impulsiveness has evolved into a more mature thoughtfulness. Sunrise...sunset...
We have a delicious dinner, with lots and lots of barbequed ribs. We talk about everything; politics, soccer, warm weather, Loons, Lurkers, why no-one seems to be seing any bears and then the subject turns to wolverines. Doug has seen one, and so has Dan Hartman. Sightings are still rare and thoroughly questioned and John tells us of some research going on. We talk about John and Carlene's frustrating search for a suitable home in Gardiner and we all try our best to help keep their hopes up. I just love being with these people. I have so much fun and feel so loved and appreciated.
And then, sadly, comes the moment I like least, saying goodbye. The only bad thing about my trips to Yellowstone is that I can't stop time and just linger with my friends for hour after hour. My inner clock starts winding down and begins to scream for sleep while my mind and heart are still engaged in visiting and gabbing.
But I am grateful that my dear friends have managed to make time to visit with me amid their busy and varied schedules. And that Frank is willing to postpone his drive back to Bozeman in order to join us.
We linger a bit longer in the parking lot, not forgetting to appreciate the bright moon and still bright Mars overhead. Finally, after many hugs, we head our separate ways. The moon follows me safely home and I go straight to dreamland. I fall asleep, hoping for some Druid luck tomorrow.
Today I saw: antelope, bison, 4 coyotes, mule deer, ducks, a bald eagle, elk, geese, a muskrat, songbirds and 9 Loons.