Another 5AM morning. I'm off to a good start as my first sighting comes in the same high meadow where I surprised the Elk yesterday. Today I drive more slowly and they stick around. It's a small herd, only 6 animals, all does. I notice how sleek they've become, nearly all their winter-coat shagginess has been shed. This group is in a playful mood. As I sit and watch two beauties rear up and "box" each other. They bounce and buck and seem to be having a good old time.
After a while, they wander into the woods and it's too hard to see them. I move on but soon stop again as I spot a lone mulie coming up the slope through the trees. I stop in the road as I'm the only one around. The pretty deer crosses warily, then bounds into the trees. I listen as the sound of her passing fades. Just before Soda Butte Cone I see a few cars stopped on the right. Aha! Druid action! I recognize Anne, a Park researcher I met when I first saw the coyote pups. She tells me the Druids made a kill just before dawn. 21 was observed bringing some bloody meat back to the den, carrying it in his mouth. It is thought to have been an elk fetus (!) Anyway, there are spotters on a hill just below the Footbridge and spotters east of Soda Butte but nobody has anything moving at the moment.
There's quite a crowd at the Footbridge and it's only 6 AM. I discover that Ranger Rick is out somewhere on DPH with the telemetry equipment. This quickly becomes cause for concern because a big black grizzly has been seen in the same neighborhood. The bear reports get to Rick and soon we hear that he is coming out of there, fast! I hang out with Tricia and another volunteer named Gary. Then I spot the grizzly myself! It is just as big as everyone said it was and it moves with deadly determination in and out of the timber two levels above the flats. I know I always say how big grizzlies are but when one is that far away and still makes an impression, well, let's just say I have a healthy respect for a bear that size. I can see him with my naked eye; better, of course, with binocs and all I can say is I would NOT want to be much closer than I am. The sighting lasts several minutes and there's no doubt that this Grizzly is looking for something to eat. This is my first all-by-myself spotting of a griz in Lamar. This was no elk butt, John!
With great relief I finally see our intrepid Ranger emerging from the woods onto the flats, now well below the Grizzly. Those long legs of his are movin'! When Rick gets up to the pullout he wears a sheepish grin on his face. It's easy to joke about it now but I'd say it was kind of a close call.
The wolves are inactive for the time being so I head north. My plan today is to meet Joette at the Old Faithful Inn but I have plenty of time. I see Doug at the Picnic Area so I stop to check in with him. He's about ready to take off but suggests to me that we go see some Fairy Orchids. I have no idea what these are but the name is intriguing and I have every reason to trust Doug. Just past the Institute I stop because the light is so nice on the little stream coming down from the hill, and a bright green shrub beside the stream is full of yellow blossoms and it simply cries out to be caught in a photo. Doug makes some suggestions that I try. He offers the use of some of his filters, one of which creates a lovely golden cast. As much as I appreciate his generosity, my novice-photographer mind is overwhelmed. I'm still trying to grasp the bare essentials! However, I have now seen the results of this little experiment and I want to try them again!
I follow Doug down the bumpy road to Slough Creek Campground. On the way I notice I have less than a quarter tank of gas. Hmm. This could be a very interesting day! Finally at the end of the kidney-killing drive we get out and I follow him down a cool forest path. He turns and points to a shaded hillside on which are growing the most beautiful wildflowers I have ever seen. He is absolutely right about their uniqueness. The blossoms of Fairy Orchids (or Calypso Orchids or Fairy Slippers) are as small as a fingertip, mostly pink but with other features that simply must be seen to be believed. Here grows a small cluster, their exquisite beauty nearly hidden from the world which makes them all the more delectable. The contradiction of finding such incredibly delicate flowers in such a rough and tumble land is starling and awesome. The wonders of Yellowstone simply do not cease.
I take some photos and would stay longer but for my concern for meeting Joette. I thank Doug and bid him adieu. He wishes me luck getting to Canyon. I tell him I only need enough gas to get to the top of the Pass. The rest of the way I'll just coast!
I make it to the Conoco OK and would have been right on time at Old Faithful except for... well, can you guess? Bison Jam! On my way through Gibbon Canyon the big bison herd decides that now is the time to cross the road. It is so wonderful, both comical and serene. The herd crosses at an odd point (odd to a non-bison like me, anyway). They come from the river-side up a steep sandy hill, walk along the road a ways then continue up an even steeper sandy hill to the right. The footing is quite bad and two yearlings run into trouble right next to me. The soil gives way under their weight and they start slow-motion surfing on all four legs down the hill right towards my car. I cringe, waiting for the slam of their bodies against my car but it doesn't come. At the last second they each find better footing and avoid the collision. They are not the least concerned with me and simply move on. The hillside is rather torn up but will no doubt recover.
There are bison everywhere and traffic comes to a dead stop for a good 20 minutes. I get a great shot of buffalo butts (in three sizes) as they pass me. All around I hear lowing and groaning and grunting and maa-ing of the dozens of animals as they voice their opinions of where to go next or why these fool cars have to be here and why couldn't we stay down by the river bank, mom? The grass was really tasty.
Finally a car from the opposite direction makes it through, then another and another. And after a little more time my lane begins to move. A few bison stragglers come up to cross but soon the cars are making slow but steady progress. Around the next bend I see the bulk of the herd is well established on the lightly-timbered slope above the road. There are bison tracks and slide marks all along the hillside to the right. Just as I pass the thickest concentration of animals I see in my rear-view mirror a group of bison rebels heading right back where they started from. It looks like this jam could go on for hours!
By ten o'clock I'm nearing the Lower Geyser Basin, at the place where the road levels out and runs close to the Firehole. I glance often at the river because it is so incredibly blue and I notice the increased number of anglers now on that fabled waterway. I spy a huge Bull moose walking smack up the center of that River. Ooohh! Do I want to stop and watch! But I am late enough already. Luckily Joette doesn't give up on me. I am thrilled to find her resting in a chair in the comfy lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. She is gracious, happy to see me, and accepts my apology instantly. What a peach you are, Joette!
We then set out together, heading for the trailhead to Fairy Falls. It is an easy walk at first, although the sun is bright and hot and there is little shade. There is a stiff wind today and that helps considerably. We pass the strange wonder of Grand Prismatic Spring on the far side and climb uphill a little to see it better. No words can possibly describe it - I suggest rather that you visit the Demlers Page and see their fabulous pictures of it.
We pass wildflowers along the trail and try to guess what they are. The trail turns left and we enter an area that burned hot in the fires of 88. We find ourselves surrounded by tall grey ghosts, naked and straight, still reaching to the sun as they did in life. Between their thin shadows grows the next generation of trees, in thick profusion, so far only as tall as we are but green and robust, grabbing the ample sunlight and ground water, determined to become proud and lofty some day. Joette and I find this area a little spooky and a little sad but also quite inspiring.
We hear the falls before we see it. An incessant, rushing roar, from where we can't quite tell. We round a bend and begin a slight climb. The trail crosses a gurgling brook. A few more steps and suddenly there it is: Fairy Falls, a veil of water dropping into space from a great height, a cleft in the rocky ridge above. The top two thirds of the falls is straight down and impresses simply because of its length. But the bottom third is what makes it special and gives the falls its name.
Ancient boulders fallen in past eras bulge out from the bottom of the cliff making a rough pyramid-shaped step formation that the falling water hits with force, sending tendrils of white water in delicate patterns branching out and down, making a water-quilt. Like an embroidery of lace or perhaps a silky spider's web, the water caresses the smooth-worn rock, tracing the creases, constantly moving, constantly changing, finally sinking into the shallow pool below. The pool is cool and shady, the rock on each side bright green with mist-fed moss. Water of the pool, in turn, plunges over more jumbled rock, becoming a more conventional-looking creek, Fairy Creek in fact.
Joette and I are delighted by our discovery. We take off our packs and relax. We sit near enough to feel the mist on our faces and just let the waterfall hypnotize us. We have a bit of lunch. Soon after this my hiking boots are off and I'm wading in the pool in my Tevas. A few other hikers come and go: some chat with us, others keep to themselves. We take pictures and scramble over the rocks, watch a little chipmunk poke its head out from its rocky home. Joette tells me about another trail we can hike from here, one that Matthew TFGM recommended. We both are feeling adventurous so off we go on the Imperial Geyser Trail. As most trails do, this one gets more interesting the further in you go. It has several board- walked sections over marshy areas and some other sections we might suggest be put on the list to become board-walked! Rangers or hikers have helped by placing blown down trunks in these soggy areas to help get through the muck. Our boots get a good workout. The log bridges provide a test of balance. We stop a few times to listen to how quiet it is out here. I am not really worried about bears because the land is so open that surprising a bear would be highly unlikely, but I also take note of the lack of climbable trees! We see no wildlife in this area except…uh...ample signs of previous buffalo and elk…uh…passing. We figure with the thermal activity that this is likely a popular winter spot for them.
After a pleasant walk we come to the strangest forest stream either of us have ever seen. In form and texture it is like any other stream, winding and curving its way through the woods, full of deadfall and rocks. Except that it is orange. It's banks are orange and the rocks the water flows over is orange and its pools of the still water are orange, along with bright white and in places, yellow. Only the fastest moving water looks normal. No, I take that back. The water seems black not blue.
A haphazard bridge of thin dead trunks has been laid across this stream and the trail continues on the other side. What it leads to, we can now see - a bubbling cauldron known as Spray Geyser. We gingerly cross the deadfall bridge and trot up to take a look. This thermal feature is surrounded by a large runoff pool, mostly orange, edged in yellow. There are two spouts which give Spray a kind of a split personality. One is hidden between two large orange rocks and sputters constantly about a foot high, sometimes tending a little left, sometimes right, sometimes straight up. The other spout comes from a cone, easily two feet high. It, too, gushes constantly, but it has a sequence all its own. From a low bubbling brew mere inches above its cone it builds and builds, as if someone is turning up the jet on a gas stove. Then it really gets going with a lengthy sparkling fountain-style spout of 5- 6 feet in height. But that effort seems to wear the geyser out and after only a minute or two at this height it recedes again until it is just simmering. After resting another several minutes at the simmer stage it begins to build up again to its maximum spout. This seems to be its regular cycle and we delighted in watching it.
The colorful runoff pool feeds into the orange stream. I like this geyser especially because there is no one around to enjoy it but us. I get a taste of being an explorer that I've never had before. If I were lost in the winter I would be glad to have found this spot. I'd get used to the vague sulfur smell for the sake of the warmth it provides.
We go back to the main trail and continue on. Soon, we see a large steam plume ahead of us, signaling the presence of another geyser. Around a bend we go and emerge onto a flat white basin. We have found Imperial Geyser. This is even more incredible. We make our way across the sinter plain. I stick to the outside edge, worried that the crust is too thin to walk on and I'll slip through. I can hear the hollowness beneath me. We come upon two grey mud pots, ca-plopping and ga-lopping. I love mud pots! I take pictures, trying to catch a mud-bubble just at the precise instant of bursting. The steam plume wafts over our faces, reminding us of the main attraction.
We see a wide pool, similar to Beauty or Morning Glory, a rich cerulean blue in the center, yellow and white at the edges. Inside this pool is a fountain geyser shooting up and falling back with loud water slaps. The steam rises and billows with the each change of the wind. One moment we are engulfed in the spray, then the wind shifts and it floats away up the hill. Joette and I are utterly delighted at this find. It is a truly beautiful geyser. We sit on the hillside to rest, watch and have a snack. The ever-shifting breeze causes us to be alternately immersed in spray or cooled and dried. We watch the play of the spout as its power and reach ebbs and flows.
After a while, Joette starts exploring. She discovers that the orange stream has its source right here, in the runoff from Imperial Geyser. This intrigues her to the point that I see her wander over to its far side, exploring its banks, way off trail. she surmises that if we follow the steam we will end up back at Spray. I pack up my camera and join her. We are no longer two middle-aged women on a day hike, we are now bushwacking daredevils, explorers and discoverers, observing and appreciating both the familiar and the odd as we go. We find hoofprints of bison and elk and tufts of their shed winter coats. We find little orange waterfalls and big orange rocks, orange bones and orange sticks and orange grass. In its narrowest spots we leap across the stream for the challenge, not the need, and inside we celebrate the fact that there is no one to say "don't".
We make it all too quickly back to Spray and so we linger a while to enjoy it. The feisty little Geyser still spouts and churns unceasingly. On the trail back we find long white feathers, lots of them. A few have black tips and some are still attached to bone. I realize all of a sudden that this once was a Pelican. Clearly it met its end here, but there is not enough evidence to guess in what manner. We make our way back through the marshy un-board- walked areas, this time completely unconcerned with getting mud on our boots.
We reach the lovely Fairy Falls and after a brief rest bid it adieu. As we head back I feel the heat of the afternoon sun on my neck. I fashion a way to stay cool by dampening my towel in the creek and then draping it over the back of my head and neck under my hat. And of course, my feet get a good soaking, too.
On the way out as we come upon Grand Prismatic Spring again we climb the opposite hill to a much higher point than on the way in. The steam rising from the giant hot pool takes on an eerie blue color making it look more alien than ever. It makes me think of something my dad said long ago. He mused that if people from another planet landed here in one of Yellowstone's thermal areas, what tales might they tell of life on earth!
Our feet are now feeling the strain of all the walking and the heat of the day is taking its toll. I am out of water and that's the first thing I grab when we finally reach the cars. Joette wants to go to Swan Lake Flats. I agree happily to lead her there. But first we drive just beyond the Madison Campground to see the buffalo along the Madison River. There is a medium-sized herd here and several orange cuties so we watch a while.
Then we head North. The heat of mid-day keeps our sighting tally to a minimum. Joette stops for a cat nap. She says she'll meet me later so I go on. There are two cars at the Swan Lake pullout; one man has a nice scope. At first I don't see anything moving at all. I am disappointed that the seven does and six calves are no longer here. I hear from the man with the scope that there was a bear here earlier. Shoot! I think I need to start a tally of bears I've missed!
I scan the hills and then the meadow and find the cranes, both of them. Then a nice surprise: A Great Blue Heron at the far side of the Lake. The man with the scope says he sees a wolf. I look and see what he means but it's a coyote. The man says What pack would it be from? I tell him I think it's a coyote. Another couple agrees with me. But we talk about wolves anyway. We say there's no reason wolves couldn't be around here, there could be some from the Leopold Pack or maybe the Chief Joseph Pack.
While we are talking, the coyote trots along the bottom of the hill toward the Lake. Suddenly we see the Great Blue take off in its ungainly way - flapping its great heavy wings. It seems quite disturbed. Then we see the coyote make a dash for something in the grass right where the heron was. We see him stop there with his head down for a while. Although it's hard to see in the high grass we think the coyote either got eggs or chicks. He finally trots off around the far side of the Lake, on to the next meal I guess.
Another car pulls in and sees the coyote. "Wolf!" they cry and get the people from the back seat out to see it. The first couple says "Actually that's a coyote, folks. He just got some chicks on a heron's nest." The new people accept this and watch the coyote trot further and further away. Joette comes up and we chat. She sees the Sand Hills. Out on the lake we see the pair of Swans.
As we enter Lamar most of the animals continue to elude us. The valley is just as lovely as ever and there are scattered bison and elk and antelope. At the Footbridge things are quiet. The word is that the Druids have a kill close to the den area so sightings are unlikely tonight. I meet some nice people tonight, Robin Smith and his mom, Barbara. Robin is on the board of directors of the Yellowstone Coalition and the Native Forest Council. We talk environmental politics and I get his view on things in Yellowstone. Turns out he was a Park Ranger here once although he lives back east now. He and his mom have been doing some hiking. They heard wolves howling in the northwest area so we speculate on which pack it may have been. I've still not yet heard howling myself. Joette says she needs to be moving on. I feel bad that she has not seen what Lamar can be.
I wonder if there might be more action elsewhere so I head northwest again. On a hill opposite the Picnic area I see Mark and Gary with their scopes on Specimen ridge. This looks promising. I join them and learn after three tries why Mark has silver foil on his scope. (You'll have to ask him yourself) We get a griz up on Specimen Ridge for a split second but it's worth it. We see some pronghorn spook and run, then watch the bison herd start to move. What is causing this, we wonder. Then we see. It's a lone hiker. A rather tall guy with a big pack and a walking stick, following the high bank above the Lamar, scaring away every single animal within sight or scent. It's a good bet we won't be seeing any more bears tonight. We see the hiker start down a game trail to the river. Is he really thinking of crossing the river? We dub him Suicidal Sam. Luckily for the Search and Rescue team, Sam eventually thinks better of it. Now we watch him take out a large map and study it a while. We are giving this guy less and less respect. Finally he abandons the river and heads toward Specimen Ridge. We calculate he'll reach the lowest slope with less than a half-hour of light left. Not the time we would choose to be strolling the Grizzly Mall. Ranger Rick happens by and Mark calls to him, asking if he has seen the guy. Rick answers yes in a way that communicates his full annoyance.
I tell the Bear boys I need to head back to the Footbridge just in case there's a wolf to be heard. I thank them for yet another fun filled evening.
I find the Footbridge nearly deserted. I wait and watch as the darkness grows. When Tom takes off I figure there's no chance for a wolf appearance, so I content myself with listening to the night. There are frogs and night birds, distant duck quacks and more distant geese honks. I wait in my car, hoping, hoping. Then two vans pull in, one with the radio going and another with a barking dog. Oh well. Tonight will not be the night.
I drive up the dark road to Silver Gate, musing on the day's events. Since the Druids aren't out tonight, they MUST be out tomorrow. They've got pups to feed, right? Little did I know then how MANY pups were right now in that den!
Today I saw: Antelope, Bison, a chipmunk, a Coyote, Deer, Elk, a Great Blue Heron,
2 Grizzly Bears, a Bull moose, 2 Sand Hill Cranes, 2 Swans, and 2 Loons.