Monday Sept 20th
The dawn was clear but it clouded over soon. I set off for the drive to Grand Teton. It had obviously stormed south of Madison: the road was wet and there were numerous downed trees. The day grew cold and rainy, the first “bad” weather I’d had. I still took lots of photos as water has a way of enhancing fall color. Saw a fat marmot hurry across the road, some very small deer hopping through the woods, and several lone buffalo grazing, unfazed by the rain. A ranger stopped to drag a fallen tree-branch from the roadside. He told me of a spot up the road where he had seen four moose earlier in the day. Sure enough I found the place and stopped. I only saw one moose and he was sitting down but he had chosen an absolutely lovely spot in a marshy section of the Lewis River. There were low bushes with leaves of a purply-red color still covered with a film of ice interspersed with patches of willows, some still green, some golden and a few brown, and the jet-black remains of burnt trees, all contrasting with each other yet all washed in a living watercolor - another incredibly gorgeous spot.
As I came out of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton I was looking forward to my first glimpse of that astonishing range –except that I didn’t because they were shrouded in cloud. Now this was a real disappointment. On the wall of my office I have many photos from my last trip including a great one of the Tetons taken at Lupine Meadow. I have looked at that photo a thousand times in the last 14 months in anticipation of just this moment when I’d see them again for real. But instead I got a grey shroud that disguised their singular beauty and dramatic craggyness. I had come this way today to take an afternoon float-trip on the Snake. I began to worry that this was a serious cold front and that I was in for some nasty weather. I had rain gear and plenty of warm clothes but I guess I’d been spoiled by the bright sun and warm days I’d had so far. Still, the aspens around me were bright yellow and they were mixed with some that tended toward orange. I reminded myself that there was still plenty to admire.
I stopped at Colter Bay Village and had lunch down at the picnic area by the Lake. I think it’s Mt. Moran that you can see there, but today I saw only its blue flanks. There were geese and ravens and other birds along the shore but four-legged creatures were scarce. Later I drove on down to the Jenny Lake road and wouldn’t you know it, the clouds began to break. There was a giant car-jam on both sides of the bridge over the Snake. This could only mean moose. As I parked I noticed a group looking the OTHER way from the masses. A group of birders they were, delighting in the sight of a “dipper”. I think they’re called “Ouzels” (please correct me, those who know!) I stood with them and looked where they looked and I saw it, too! This bird just sort of melts under the current, then comes back up in a different spot like it was swimming underwater! That was an unusual first for me.
Anyway I tried to see the moose from the bridge (was told that actually there were two) but my angle wasn’t right so I left the bridge and followed the various people coming and going on the trail through the brush. The sun actually came out at this moment and it warmed up fast. By and large, the moose-watchers were well behaved. There were two young rangers keeping an eye on things. I noticed at least five big spotting scopes and their owners set up in a thicket above the river. I crept up and found room. And did I see a Moose! Boy was he monstrous! The second one (reportedly also male) had moved into cover by this time but I didn’t mind. This big daddy was enough for me! His rack was huge and white. He looked as big as a Clydesdale horse, maybe bigger. His beard (whatever the thing is that hangs down from under his throat) was thick and really long. Some of his coat looked grey to me - like what we call “salt and pepper hair”. It may have been the sun but it made him look extra old and distinguished. The group of us was very quiet, talking a little in whispers. New people would come up, gasp, and fall silent. We watched him eat a long time. Then he folded his long legs beneath him and seemed to take a nap.
Later that day the skies cleared completely and I took my float trip as planned. I met two funny and fun-loving ladies from Alabama, Mary and Kitty. Kitty had worked in YNP 20 years ago and this was her first visit back. Kitty if you see this: WRITE YOUR BOOK! I’m telling ya, Just Do It! The float was really nice and soothing; I was treated to breathtaking views of the magnificent peaks, which seemed even better for my having had to wait so long for a glimpse. Really – those mountains are too much to take – it’s a sensory overload. Especially from the glittering river, they seemed imaginary and fantastical, like something conjured by the animation wizards at ILM. Our guide commented that there was suddenly snow on the tops where it hadn’t been all month. We saw two bald eagles, an osprey, three beaver (one REALLY huge one), a muskrat, many, many geese and ducks and a few anglers (don’t they count as native species?).
The last half-hour of the trip got very chilly as the sun went behind the mountains and the current picked up. I was mighty chilled when I got back to Colter Bay. I was glad I made it in time to eat at the Chuckwagon. A bit pricey, maybe, but the thick, hot soup hit the spot. I can also recommend staying at the Colter Bay Cabins. Mine was quite spacious, had a private bathroom and a really good heater! (Not all the cabins are alike). I remember how bright the moon was as I carried stuff in from my car. The stars were all out and it hardly seemed possible that it had rained half the day! That’s what I like about this place.
Tuesday Sept 21st
Next morning I was up at 5 again. Oh, if I could only show you what the sky looked like! Jet black, clean and polished with a million diamond-bright dots. It was like they were singing to me Look at us! Look at us! ! It was sharp and clear and dead quiet and it was all mine. I cried for about the twentieth time and thanked god or whoever that I was alive to see it. It was hard to go about my business of loading back up and getting on the road. I stopped at the Ox Bow Bend turnout to listen to the dawn. I was immediately rewarded as a chorus of coyotes began, yipping and barking and howling. A few lone geese added their comments as well. As I continued down the road I began to see Elk. This was where the road straightens out and there are flats on either side. Two young bucks traveling together each leapt a five-foot fence as effortlessly as we step over a pebble. A beautiful bull with a timid cow waited nervously behind a clump of sage for my car to pass. Another cow and bull couple galloped across the road and kept on running. I felt very much like an intruder in their lives. I really began to feel guilty because their movements seemed so reactive to mine. I loved seeing them but I wondered if there was a way to travel without disturbing them so.
I was about to discover it. I was on my way to meet friends for a back-country hike to the famous Bechler area of YNP. I was going with Jill and Dave Hodges of Jackson Hole Llamas. If you’ve never tried it, I think you should check it out. All kinds of people go, families with kids, couples, groups, old and young. You don’t ride the Llamas; they carry your heavy gear. You carry a day-pack and lead your llama. I discovered them last year after a planned hike in Teton fell apart. Normally you’d see me happily carrying a 50 pound pack but I don’t think it’s a smart idea to hike alone in grizzly habitat or in unfamiliar back-country. My first llama trek was into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the Idaho-facing side of the Tetons – also a great trip – where, incidentally, one of my dreams came true when I had my first back-country grizzly sighting!
Anyway, it takes a while to get to the Bechler Ranger Station especially when one of your party is driving a truck with a trailer full of llamas. There were eight people and ten llamas on this trip. We began in a beautiful golden aspen-wood and it just got more and more lovely from there. The fall colors seemed to be straining to please us at every turn with more and more inventive combinations. The weather was heavenly – bright, warm sun, clear skies and a lovely cool breeze. I learned to ford a river (you change from your hiking boots into your Tevas or old gym shoes, but make sure you don’t drop your boots!). The first crossing was the hardest for me – the water was so cold my feet immediately cramped up. Once you’re in you’ve got to go on – there’s no other way. You struggle against the current with legs so numb you’re not sure they’re yours and it seems to take an hour to get across (actually only a few minutes). It felt SO good once I got out. But I was instantly hooked. I wanted to do it over and over again. We hiked in about 7 miles. We set up our tents in a meadow; our campfire and kitchen were away from them in the trees. The llamas were staked near the tents where they have plenty of grass to eat. Our meals were excellent – unlike any ‘hiking trip food” I’ve ever had – and all cooked for you by chef Jill. We’d had a great day.
After dinner we noticed all the llamas standing up, facing the same direction, very alert. Bear I thought (I ALWAYS think bear). But it was a porcupine! That was a first for me. He was big and waddled around the woods a while. We had to shoo him away because evidently porcupines are notorious chewers of leather and we had a lot of tack.
It was cold that night – Dave’s thermometer read 24! But we were toasty in our sleeping bags. Late at night in the middle of sleep I heard a sound. A lone wolf-howl, long and sad and solemn. There is nothing in the world like that sound!
Wednesday, Sept 22nd
In the morning our tent was covered with a thick layer of frost, as were the llamas’ thick fur coats. Being native to the Andes they don’t seem at all bothered by cold. Some things I’d like to tell you about llamas: they don’t spit at you but they sometimes spit at each other. They only have bottom front teeth so they can’t bite you. They are very alert as they hike along so you get advance notice of any critters they see, hear or smell. Since they are non-native to Yellowstone they are a curiosity to the native animals and vice-versa. A bear will think more than twice before proceeding into an area where there are llamas. Llamas have a peculiar alarm call that they use to warn each other of the presence of any large animal. It sounds a little like a turkey-gobble to me. Most horses don’t like llamas (horses tend to shy or bolt in their presence) and therefore many horsemen and horse-packers are none too fond of llamas either. Llamas are less destructive to a trail and to a campsite than horses are. But I love horses, too, and there is nothing like taking a horseback ride in the mountains of Wyoming.
From this base camp we took day hikes to some of the many waterfalls the area is known for. (Iris Falls and Colonade Falls) More gorgeous fall color on the slopes but this time against a river and waterfall backdrop. I tasted wild raspberries and service-berries and learned what grouse whortleberry looks like. As we hiked, a little weasel came bounding into a clearing in front of us, running along the many downed trunks, leaping from the end of one to the beginning of the next.
After dark as we walked from our campfire and approached the tents to go to bed we saw two sets of eyes in the dark at the edge of the woods. I never found out what they belonged to – some thought coyote, some deer. (I, of course, just know it was a bear - heh heh)