PRE-LOONION SEPTEMBER TRIP - 1999

PART FIVE


Sunday, Sept 26th

I got up at 4 (!) and packed up in the moonlight – as quietly as I could. I had my flashlight out but didn’t really need it since the moon was up. I sipped my coffee and ate my breakfast bar in the cold morning. The wind had died and the sky was full of stars again. I was the only one up except for the whistling Elk. What an incredible feeling.

I left Madison and drove through the dark. I wanted to see what the East Entrance road looked like and I wanted to be there at dawn in the hopes of seeing bear. I was so mesmerized by the quiet of the pre-dawn that I ran the stop sign at Norris Junction! Thank goodness I was the only car on the road. I may have passed one car near Canyon but otherwise I met no-one at all. I stopped in Hayden Valley as first light crept over the hills. The moon was still up and cast a soft sheen on the sage. It was just me and some Canadian geese. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing morning mist rise from a wild river much less this particular section of the Yellowstone. Had I stayed a bit longer I’m sure I’d have seen more wildlife but I went on. At the Fishing Bridge I saw otters in the water. At Mary Bay I saw a large Elk herd dotting a steep hillside. The sun came up over the Absarokas and I followed the winding road up to Sylvan Pass. I passed a few lone buffalo on the way. At the top of the pass is a heavy construction area which I took on faith was necessary for some future purpose. The sky began to get darker instead of lighter as 9AM approached. A few paper-thin snowflakes began to fall. I pulled to the side of the road and scanned the mountain sides for bear. None appeared but I did hear some pika or marmot calls in the tumbled rocks.

A couple had stopped in a turnout and was video-taping something way below. The man waved me over. Far below the road in a hillside clearing stood a huge bull Elk. The man said that as he was taping the view he heard an Elk calling, so he began to mimic the call until the Elk appeared, apparently drawn to the sound. At the time I was delighted at the man’s cleverness because it had produced such a magnificent animal in such a perfect setting. But now I realize many people use this tactic (and some use store-bought whistles) and I’m pretty sure it's illegal in the Park. In this gentleman’s defense, I would say he seemed as unaware of this as I was and did nothing to harass the Elk once it appeared.

I made it to the East Entrance, took pictures of the snow-topped mountains and then turned around. Still no bear. Stopped at a pretty lake (Sylvan Lake?) for a bite but the wind picked up and the snow got thicker. I headed on back but stopped in Fishing Bridge to visit the little museum. Tried to impress upon my brain the difference between mergansers, mallards and golden-eyes but I think I need more field experience. I wondered just how cold it was as I added another layer. I explored Grant Village and decided it’s not for me. Back to Hayden Valley where I came upon the largest buffalo herd I’d yet seen, 100 or so. They were pretty far away but not too far for my 600mm lens. I balanced it on a rock with my trusty bean-bag (a tip from a pro that I know) and got some wonderful pictures of two bulls battling each other.

My plan was to be in Lamar at dusk. I had not seen a single bear in 11 days and I had plenty of time so I decided to see one at the Discovery Center. I was glad I went although it didn’t turn out to be quite what I had expected. I thought the exhibits inside were terrific, combining as they do equal parts education and entertainment. Outside was something different. First I visited the wolves. On one hand I was amazed at how awe-inspiring it was just to see wolves so close. I was glad to see the “quiet” signs. And I will forever treasure the memories (and the pictures) I now have. I tried to be unobtrusive as I watched the constant drama in the “pack”, as they harassed the runt, made up, changed sides, or curled up for a brief nap. There were very few people observing them (eight at the most at one time) but they seemed to me agonizingly confined, extremely restless and nervous. I am hardly an expert on wolf behavior but I found it hard to believe that they would remain in such constant motion in the wild. I hid myself behind the cement pillars and whispered my apologies to them for coming. I know these wolves serve an educational purpose and would have been killed except for this program, but seeing them reminded me of why I stopped going to zoos. I found myself wishing I could clip a hole in the fence and send them fleeing into the Park.

Next I visited the bears. An employee was placing bear food under rocks and tree-stumps in a sensible attempt to approximate the wild. After a while he left and two grizzly cubs came bounding out, instantly putting me at ease with their youthful enthusiasm. Maybe also it was due to the fact that there were only two of them and that they seemed thoroughly interested in finding the food. Also, perhaps, there is something endearingly comical about “fat” animals going blithely about their business. These were siblings, about a year old. Their fur glistened and shimmied with underlying fat. I enjoyed seeing one yank and yank at a tree-stump to get at the food underneath. Just as he had toppled it his sibling took notice and came bounding over to steal it. They rose on their hind feet, growling with open toothy mouths at each other. But in the end they shared. They roamed the enclosure from end to end sniffing and digging and, unlike the wolves, seemed relaxed and oblivious to the staring humans. Snow fell lightly through all this, making absolutely no impression on any of the animals. My fingers were a different story.

Then on to Lamar I went. At my favorite turnout I found myself alone so I cat-napped, just breathing and listening. Later I looked and looked for wild wolves but saw only the raw and rugged beauty of the valley. Snow was noticeably thicker on the tops of the mountains. I wondered (hopefully) if this first dusting would be enough to send the Elk down to the valley and the wolves along with them. The news must have spread of the absence of wolves because very few people dropped by that night. On the other hand it was astonishing to have that place to myself. I sang a song I made up about Lamar to the tune of “Bali-Hai” and laughed at myself for some of my poorer rhymes. Later I heard a coyote howl and I watched some bluebirds flitting about a dead tree. Those few lone buffalo were the only animals moving. A really cute Ranger pulled up and we talked for a while. He confirmed that the Druids had been seen on Tuesday, 9/21 (when I was in Bechler) but not since then. He said there was a chance that the snow would bring them back but probably not right away. He said he’d seen a coyote chasing a pronghorn at the other end of the valley and joked that the coyote may have been bored since he’d never have been able to catch it.

I waited until the evening star appeared. The snow started again, and fell more heavily. I said goodbye and drove slowly toward Montana. The snow fell thicker still. I began to wonder if I’d lingered too long. It was now beginning to stick to the road. There was no other traffic and I began to wonder (hope?) whether this was the start of another adventure. I drove cautiously as the snow swirled and blew directly into my windshield. I don’t mean to suggest that this was a snowstorm; it was just flurries, but it was enough to give me an inkling of the powerful winters that visit this land. But I made it safely to The Grizzly Lodge. My host warned me to keep a lookout for a cow moose and her calf that had been wandering in the yard. But I never saw either of them


Monday, Sept 27th

I started my last full day in the Park right by getting up early again. My car made the first tracks through the snow out of the Lodge over the little bridge. Lots more snow was visible on the Beartooth tops. I drove past the empty entrance gate and down the road, through the narrow corridor of dark trees beautifully dusted with snow. Far ahead on the road loomed two large dark bodies. First I thought men but they were surely too large to be human. I realized what they were and stopped the car. I had the luxury to do this as the road was straight and I was the only one on it. My excitement grew as I rolled down my window, positioned my camera, checked light-meter, f-stop and shutter speed. All I had to do was wait for them to pass. And they did. Two gigantic buffalo, walking in the road with the simple logic of large animals. But what was thrilling me about THESE two buffalo was that their massive brown heads and their massive brown humps were whitened with a dusting of snow just like the fir trees. As they passed I think my breathing stopped - the lead buffalo eyed me with a cool warning - but they went on without incident. I stared into the rear-view mirror, mouth agape, amazed that I had really, really seen that with my own eyes. I rolled up the window and squealed for joy. What a start to the day.

In Lamar I had only to watch the sun come blazing over the hills to get me going again. This would be my last sight of Lamar for a long time so I tried to take it all in. I paused at all my favorite spots, glassing the hills on both sides, noticing a few less leaves on that aspen than before, a few more footprints on that sandy bank. On a bench above the river I spotted a buffalo herd. I watched as they would move together for a few steps now and then and I imagined wolves hidden in the timber. Off the Slough Creek road I saw a pond with a film of ice broken at one end by a lone duck. I watched three little mule deer cross the road and forage for a while. One kept looking up, turning its huge ears toward a sound I couldn’t hear. I said goodbye to the gorgeous Yellowstone River and its chalky cliffs. I drove up the road toward Tower and stopped to get some silly gifts for the folks back home. I stopped at every other turnout to glass the hills for bear. Above the Grizzly Preserve “closed” area I spotted two cow Elk walking up a ridge. I stayed with them awhile, checking their progress now and again, till I saw where they were headed. Almost at the top was a big bull, nobly posing. I moved onto the next turnout for a different perspective. And I got one - above the first bull there suddenly appeared a second bull. They apparently saw each other. The one ran up, the other ran down, but a patch of trees was between them. If they clashed, they did so in the trees. Damn! I checked the ladies. They had stopped but soon continued on. I kept looking but couldn’t find either bull.

I moved on. This whole time I was delighted at the lack of traffic. Usually my experience of this high road is a little scary due to too many cars and the astonishing views, which draw your eyes away from the road. But this morning was a rare one. At the hairpin curve I saw a hawk sail overhead. I zipped into the turnout and got out of the car to watch. What a lucky thing, too! The hawk settled in a tree just below me so I got great pictures. It was windy and the view was tremendous. But then! Up from below came a yammering and barking and howling and yipping - lots of canines. Lots of very EXCITED canines. It went on for an unbelievably long time and the hawk and I were the only ones to hear it. Just when I’d decided the howls made it wolves I’d hear a barky yip that would reverse it to coyotes. How I wished I had someone near who could tell the difference. Well the hawk probably could but he didn’t let on. Then, when it finally stopped I heard another sound seemingly from the same place. This was a moaning sound like a cow in trouble that went on a few seconds then stopped. I got a sudden, sickening feeling that I might have just heard a kill, the death of an Elk or a deer, maybe. There is a deep draw below and to the side of the road here, thick with trees, but I didn’t have a good vantage point. I really couldn’t tell where the sound came from. But wow, I’ll never forget hearing it. Or the feeling of the wind blowing against me on a mountainside with only a hawk for company. I watched the hawk sail out again, riding the thermals until he was above me again, now on the opposite side of the road.

And if that weren’t enough, on my way down Dunraven Pass I finally saw a bear! A rather large black bear turning rocks on his way up Mt. Washburn. Those of us who watched him wondered about the day-hikers on the popular trail. It had begun to snow again as I crossed the pass and it was quite cold. I never found out how cold but I have photos of thick icicles which had formed in each trickle-fall along the road.

At Canyon I paid a farewell visit to the Lower Falls. Met a wonderful man there who had been working in the Park since May. This was his last week. He had his spotting scope trained on an osprey nest and was offering views to anyone who wanted. I asked him why one section of the falls was ‘green”. He explained about the cleft. As I stood there taking pictures (the sun had kindly come out again) I heard this same question asked of him four more times. He answered each person as he’d answered me, with undimmed enthusiasm and untried patience. His love of the Park glowed like the sun itself. That’s what this place can do for you!

I went on, aiming now for my final evening in the Park, at the wonderful Old Faithful Inn. But on the way, along the Gibbon River I had to stop for a traffic jam. One man had a large white telephoto lens trained on the opposite bank. I heard a foreign tourist say “small wolf”. I looked myself and saw a lovely coyote sitting in a patch of orange-tinged grass. I chuckled at the size of the car-jam all for him. As people learned his true species many left. I stuck with the guy and his giant lens and we chatted a while. We were rewarded by the sight of the coyote’s mate who had been hunting nearby. The pair lazed and yawned and posed and napped for us. This photographer was from Massachusettes and said he’d been coming to the park for years just to take pictures of the animals. He was kind enough to let me peer through his lens. What a view!

I went on to Old Faithful and was greeted almost instantly with an eruption of the old girl herself. It was really cold and the wind had kicked up again but I wanted to walk among the geysers again. The weather was strange and wonderful; snowflakes falling in bright sun. One part of the sky was grey and ominous and another bright blue. The sun played hide and seek the rest of the day and the wind never let up. My face and neck got chapped. I took the “back” boardwalk trail and saw Beehive erupt. Then I had just passed Castle when it went off too! I waited for Giant and Riverside but in vain. There were several buffalo feeding in the basin which made for unusual pictures. As the sun set, Daisy went off. Then it was back to the hotel for me. One treat I didn’t expect but took full advantage of was that my room’s bathroom had a bathtub. So this lucky girl had a long soak in a hot bubble bath in the Old Faithful Inn and let me tell you, I’m gonna request that room every time I go back!

Tuesday, Sept 28th

In the morning I go out to watch the first eruption of the day (of my day!) I hear a child ask his dad if they turn it off at night. This morning is COLD! I didn’t know until later – Jane R’s trip report said it was only 6 degrees! This has an effect on everything. I wander around, taking it all in. Fantastic frost-crystals form in Old Faithful’s run-off. Icicles drip off the bottom a cliff into the steaming Firehole River. Thick layers of bright white frost outline each needle of each pine tree AND each spider web between the branches. Strangely colored rims of ice gleam around the edges of hot-spring pools. Whole pine trees are engulfed in white foam-like frozen mist. I am completely enchanted but finally have to drag myself away to get on to the airport. As I drive out I see that the whole geyser basin has become even more un-earthly than ever. Here at the end of my trip I feel as though the best is saved for last.

The entire geyser area from the Upper basin to the Lower has been transformed by a drop in temperature into a fairyland of intense surreal beauty. An impenetrable grey mist hovers over all, like magical dragon-breath. I can hardly drive at all, everywhere I look I feel like I’ve been dropped by tornado into my own fantastical Oz. Somehow I withstand the siren song of the Firehole River, of Fountain Flats and Nez Perce Creek. Only when I arrive at the top of the rapids above Firehole Canyon does the sun burst back out. With that I am suddenly released from the strange misty magic and I find myself back in the everyday gorgeousness of the Park. The air begins to warm.

I stop at the Madison picnic area and walk down to the river. I dip my head in the water for luck. I cry my way past the glittering Madison and the Elk herds and the ghost-tree forests. Ahead is the West Entrance. This has been a wonderful trip. I’ve done just what I wanted to do. I am more relaxed than I’ve been in a year. Thank you, you beautiful Park. Thank you every person who ever gave a dime or a thought toward your well-being. I may be leaving now but I’ve left part of my heart in a grey boulder in Lamar. I leave it there to watch and to wait until I can come back.

I know I’ll be back. I can’t imagine ever having had enough of Yellowstone.



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