I'm up in the dark after a restful night.I head south to Oxbow Bend and spend about an hour wildlife watching as the sky lightens. There are elk in the meadow and beavers crossing and re-crossing the water. The serenade this morning is from several squawking geese who apparently don't wish to share their watery abode with five white pelicans. The knocking pair of cranes from last night is here still, making beautiful noise to each other.
I also enjoy watching swallows swooping by, skimming low across the water, scooping up bugs I can't even see.
After a while, I move down to Willow Flats, another pullout I like very much. Here I leave my car in the lot and haul Layla out into the sage to a place that overlooks a wide expanse of willows and the edge of Jackson Lake. I am hoping to spot a moose.
Instead I see another pair of courting cranes and watch them a while. Then I notice a small group of elk, walking cautiously through the willows. They lower their heads to graze in a clearing and the sun peeks through, making them glow with golden light. Then I see the elk alert and bunch up. All seven heads are stretched on their lovely necks, eyes and ears tuned to the left. They stand that way for several seconds and then move quickly to the right, disappearing into the thicket.
I scan to the left and find a lot of bird activity I hadn't noticed before - crows and magpies hopping around on what look to be the leftovers from an old carcass. As I am trying to figure out what the carcass used to be, a large shape enters the field of my scope. I say out loud "that looks like a bear". I adjust the focus, expecting to see a black bear...but it's a grizzly. As I am marveling at my luck at finding a grizzly, another shape enters my view, and another and another! Yearling cubs, large ones, accompany the first bear. Whoa!
I remember Veronica's tale from last year of seeing a female grizzly and three cubs of the year in this area. I am certain this is the same bear. And look at that! She's gotten them through another year and look how robust they all are! I have the bear family all to myself for a good 45 minutes from this spot. I watch them grub and dig and I watch the youngsters tussle with each other and nuzzle their mom.
The mother bear is a beautiful bear - classic coloring with a shimmering silver vest. The three cubs have particular fun digging in one spot. I wonder if its a ground squirrel nest or a tasty tuber, but they really go at it. Dirt is flying every which way. I notice one cub is smaller than the others, the runt, so to speak. This bear is extra active, digging most furiously and getting sand all over its snout. Then it sits down, grabs its hind leg toes with its forepaws and rolls back and forth like a great big baby!
Then it heads over to its siblings and initiates a wrestling match. Mom is all business, moving here and there, glancing back every once in a while to check on her babes. Only now do I notice the road to Jackson Dam, along which about six cars are parked, and various people with cameras and scopes standing beside them. Aha! So I am NOT the only one enjoying these bears. I like my spot here, though. I have meadowlarks and sage-thrushers for company, celebrating the cool, sunny morning. One warbler is so sweet, I take a break from watching the bears to see if I can find it. I do and see tawny stripes on its mottled belly.
The bears amble more and more to the left and ultimately disappear into a gully, so I take it as my cue to move on. What a terrific sighting to start the day!
I head back to Colter Bay to check out and start the long, gorgeous drive back to Yellowstone. Along the way I find a picnic area along the shore of Jackson Lake, with a stunning view of the Tetons, and have a proper hot breakfast. I take some photos of Cascade Canyon across the lake. There are birds on the water: pelicans, geese, gulls and various ducks. And one raven in a tree who mistakes me for a food cart.
When I head south again, I'm not on the road more than five minutes before I come upon a bear jam - the first highway bear jam I've ever seen. It's on a straight stretch of road and I see a convenient pullout on the right. I stop to join a small group of people sitting on the grass by the road, snapping photos of a lone black bear about 100 feet away in a clearing, visible between tree trunks. He is grazing and stops every once in a while to look up at the group of us. I watch him through my binoculars. I am always surprised that bears eyes are so small.
As I drive on the day steadily warms and by the time I reach the Snake River crossing it is actually hot. I stop in the large pullout here and walk down to the river. I soak my head and feel instantly better. I find the turnoff to the Grassy Lake Road, and although it is "closed" at least I now know where it is.
The birds are still singing.
I travel on and the road begins to climb. I see my first views of Yellowstone Lake but head away from it up Craig Pass. There is still a bit of snow, but not much. Once at the top it seems like I have entered a new weather system. It is suddenly quite windy - the clouds are sailing across the blue expanse with great speed. It is a marveously bright and vibrant day.
I reach the Old Faithful area and re-enter the world of "civilization". I drive around the snow-lodge area and see a limping cow bison and her orange calf. Then up ahead I see a tree has fallen over across the road and work crews are sawing it into moveable chunks.
With wind this strong I decide to get out of the dead-tree area and continue on. I pass another blow-down in the road around Biscuit Basin. A ranger is already here with a chain saw. As I come down the hill at Madison Junction I notice how high the seedlings have grown.
As I reach Gibbon Meadows I stop for a bison jam. A whole herd, with babies, is crossing the road. One man apparently left the road to get a closer shot (like two feet away isn't close enough!) and is now trapped behind a tree when more bison appear. A few of the mother bison see (or smell) him, and suddenly spook, starting a stampede. Suddenly all the bison are dashing across the road and down the embankment. Some yearlings start a head-butting contest. The man at least has enough sense to stay beside the tree and not move a muscle until the herd is well past and calms down again.
I hope he learned his lesson.
On I go to Norris Geyser Basin and I arrive in time to join the Roadie-led hike. It is well attended and I enjoy meeting Loons CT Carolyn and Victor, Hellroarding Cat, Brutus and Tillie and Adam, Frank Auwingwalker, BJ, old friends Ballpark Frank, Bruce & Geri and as a special treat, John Uhler.
Roadie gives us a great tour of Norris. We learn various historical details about a hotel that used to be just above the basin, and about planks set across run-off that tourists used to walk over. One spot was once a stage coach stop and while people were waiting they would toss pennies or other unwanted items into a nearby geyser, all of which clogged the geyser to the point that it stopped spouting.
We end up at Steamboat. It splashes a lot and makes grumbly noises but we are not blessed with an eruption as some had been praying for. After the hike a bunch of us drive over to Canyon to get a bite to eat. We arrive 5 minutes before closing time and it takes some doing to convince the staff to serve our group of 10 people.
Then I head over Dunraven and stop to glass the hills. I run into Gerry from Scotland and we catch up. I get to Tower Camp ground in time and get my usual spot #9. Once I register I head off to Lamar. I stop in Little America to watch a herd of bison with calves. As I head up Lamar Canyon I note that it is blue and rushing, instead of the frothing coffee color I expected.
I enter a VERY green Lamar Valley with bison all over the place, accompanied here and there with elk. Druid Peak looks gorgeous.
I stop at Dorothy's and right off the bat I see a wolf! It's 526 of the Sloughs - she trots all the way from the top of Jasper bench to the other side, where she disappears into some trees. There are more bison in view from here, several pregnant-looking elk and a pair of sandhill cranes.
It's a fairly quiet night and as the light fades I begin to think of bed. So back towards Tower I go. A chipmunk dashes across the road near Rainy Lake but I see no more animal activity. As I pull into my campsite I see a nice crackling fire going at the site next to mine. The campers surrounding it are talking quietly and are no bother to me at all.
With the sweet smell of burning wood in my nose I fall asleep.
Today I saw: Antelope, 2 beavers, 1 black bear, 4 grizzly bears, bison, 1 chipmunk, 4 sandhill cranes, elk, geese, pelicans, swallows, 1 wolf (526 of the Sloughs), 14 Loons and the spirit of Allison.