DAY 13 - Thursday, June 8

SKY BLUE AND BLACK

I turn off my alarm and go back to sleep. I awake at 6 to cloudy weather and the rumbling of distant thunder. It begins to sprinkle. Hooray I say! More animal sightings!

I'm at the Footbridge just before 7. Only two other cars. The rain has stopped but it's windy. A man in a blanket sits on a log at the western end, his binoculars trained on the lower slopes of Specimen Ridge. I drive on down to Hitching Post but see no one there at all. I head back to the Footbridge and the man in the blanket waves me over. "Do you see anything there? he asks. I follow his pointed finger and to my delight I say Yes! It's a big bear. Maybe a griz. It's black. Yeah, definitely a griz. I see the hump. We are looking in a triangular patch of green which slopes up to the tree line. The bear walks around with his nose close to the ground. He's moving kinda fast and changes direction a lot. Suddenly he runs. Then an Elk comes out from the trees running straight at the bear. The bear stops and seems to crouch. The elk stops, turns and prances around in that high-headed way. Suddenly the bear runs straight toward the trees. Stops abruptly, nose to the ground, then runs into the trees again. I lose him at that point. The elk prances around some more and keeps looking into the trees where the bear disappeared.

It's only me and the man in the blanket who see this, or so I think. I look for animals in other directions but don't pick up anything. I get out my camp stove and boil water for more tea to warm up. I see three pronghorn running along the Lamar River trail. They are so fast! I look for a clue to why they started running but find none. They slow to a walk and then start to graze. A little while later some other people come up and tell us of a sighting they had. They were on the hill opposite Trash Can. They say they saw a black grizzly. I say I did too. They say did you see it take the elk calf? First I shake my head no, then as they go on to describe what they saw I realize I HAD seen this very thing, just didn't recognize it for what it was.

From their closer, higher position they saw a grizzly search the sage, and an elk calf bolt. I listen in rapt attention as they describe every single move I saw the bear make, being able to connect each move to the actual drama that occurred. Since I never saw the elk calf it was like I was watching TV with the sound off. With a shock I realize that the final move I saw was the bear running into the timber with the calf in its jaws, leaving poor mama elk to prance alone. This is the closest I have yet come to seeing this behavior: the daily struggle between predator and prey that is fundamental to the animal world. It really gives me pause. I sit a while in this place I love best, thinking about such harsh realities. It makes me more sure of my place on earth, my connection to it and my belief in the need for vigilant stewardship of it.

Eventually I start Mammoth for my plan of the day which is to take a horseback ride. I take my time going through Lamar, stopping at places I don't usually stop, watching at the confluence in the hopes of seeing otters (no luck). The day has cleared but is very windy with great gusts from time to time. I stop to get close-ups of lupine and almost lose my hat. I stop in Lamar Canyon to listen to the roaring water and to try to capture its power in a picture. I stop at a pullout in Little America above one of lakes and watch the ducks paddle to and fro. In each spot there is a whole world of life going on, ebbing and flowing, changing and progressing from quiet to agitated to quiet again. It is amazing how much there is to see whenever I slow down enough to see it. I realize how easy it is to try to do too much in a day, to be so eager for a particular thing that you miss what else may come your way. I think of the time I first read Thoreau. Each pullout in the Lamar is a Walden Pond, each one a classroom. The longer you stay the more you learn.

I do, however, continue to Mammoth. On the highlands of the Blacktail Plateau the wind is fierce and I am convinced a weather front is coming in. In typical Wendy style I arrive late at the Mammoth corral. Luckily, because I'm an experienced rider they give me a break. I pop into the saddle and we're off.

One of the wranglers is downright worried about the wind. She tells a story of a lodgepole snapping in a wind like this that scattered the whole string of horses she was guiding. Luckily nothing like this happens to us. By the way - if you plan on taking this ride, be forewarned that you are not permitted any baggage of any kind: no fanny packs, no cameras, etc. Apparently they've had trouble with folks dropping items they've brought, then jumping off their horses to retrieve them. Inevitably the horse bolts back to the stable. Wear shoes rather than sandals, long pants and a hat that ties under the chin. No guarantee of returned baseball caps that blow off on the trail!. A rough breeze like today is fairly normal. Also I recommend a long sleeve shirt even on hot days to protect you from the sun.

All kinds of people are on this ride, many more novices than experts, and several young kids. The horses are gentle and the wranglers know what they're doing. The terrain is stunning. We pass a special area that has been fenced off from browsing animals since the late 50's as a science experiment to see what will grow. It is thick and lush and seems to be predominantly willows. We are forced to detour off trail as there are several wary doe elk close by. The elk are very sleek, much prettier than the shaggy ones I've been seeing. Their coats shine red-gold in the late morning sun. We are assured there are calves hidden in the sage but I never see a one. The wranglers explain that doe elk can be very aggressive when protecting their babies. They have very sharp hooves which can slash a horse (or anything else). I see a murderous look in one doe's eye and I am happy we are taking pains to avoid them. The trail takes us around a hidden lake, very pretty, and we hear a chorus of croaking frogs. We pass through a timbered area into refreshing shade and I hear the squeaking of branches in the wind. As we come out into a meadow again the Wrangler nearest me points quickly to my right. Wow! On the ground, slithering away is a VERY BIG SNAKE. It's at least four feet long and as fat as my arm. "Bull snake" says the Wrangler. "Good snake. Eats Rattlers". Whoa! I didn't know that. "Yep", he says. "Ranchers love bull snakes". I decide I do too!

We get to another shady area, courtesy of an aspen grove. These aspens (quakies) have the thickest trunks I've ever seen. I ask a question that I've been meaning to ask for a while. I've noticed that most aspen have dark bark on the lower parts of their trunks and at a certain point it becomes the more familiar white. I ask if the dark part is evidence of the snow line. "No" says the Wrangler, "aspen have evolved a special rough layer to protect their bark from browsing Elk. See how it stops about seven feet up? That's as far as the elk can reach". Then he adds that aspen are often seen in clumps like this because they are all one tree. The roots spread underground and sprout new trunks. And this guy rides the rodeo too!

After the ride I go to Mammoth to wash up. Then I have a leisurely lunch in the hotel dining room and catch up on my notes. How to spend my afternoon? I think I need to see Hayden Valley again. So I head south. At Swan Lake flats I see the two Great Blue Herons and 2 Sand Hill Cranes. There are some Elk here again but no babies. Could they all have been taken by grizzlies? I hope not.

I turn left at Norris Junction and head for Canyon but get too sleepy to continue. I pull over at the Ice Lake trailhead and cat nap. The sky has clouded over and the wind is fierce. I like this just fine. Upon waking I realize I have yet to see either falls of the Grand Canyon. That becomes my priority. The gusty wind is a tonic for the osprey in this area. I see five of them high against the overcast sky, soaring smoothly with barely a flick of their great wings.

As I walk to the viewing platform at Inspiration Point it begins to sprinkle again. I tuck my camera inside my raincoat and secretly hope the rain will keep the crowds down. But I am not really bothered by the numbers here. Instead I enjoy seeing people's reactions to the gorgeous falls and to the high-flying ospreys overhead. There are thick slabs of ice still clinging to the canyon wall. I've never seen this before! Man, I've GOT to get here in winter and see it full of snow. The waterfall is everything I remembered and not a shred less impressive than my first viewing of it two years ago.

I go on south. A big buck resting 10 feet from the road causes a big jam. Only near Canyon do Elk cause jams of this size. But he is a pretty fellow and the sun infuses the velvet of his antlers with a soft glow. People generally leave him alone, content to take pictures. In Hayden Valley proper I see a few more bison than last time but still not the herds this valley is famous for. A steady rain begins. I see a lone pelican floating on melt-lake near Alum creek. A huge flock of geese feed on the shore above the Yellowstone River. I stop counting at 50. Few snow patches remain but the grass is still reluctant. So much sky is visible here. I watch it change as the front arrives and takes charge. It seems blue and black all at once. I am very glad for the rain as it is new and soothing.

Up to Dunraven I go. The sky turns darker and darker, and I embrace it. I love storms in Yellowstone. I am singing as I go. The higher I get, the wider gets the sky until I think I can see forever. Outrider clouds drop a thin mist, then move on. Along the switchbacks between the Pass and the Chittenden Road I remember the gorgeous red and orange paintbrush I saw here on my first trip. I tell myself it's too early for it this year. Just then I round a bend and THERE IT IS! Bright red paintbrush, just a small patch on the hillside to the right. I pull over the first chance I get and walk back, nearly skipping for joy. I climb the hill. They are so gorgeous, really deep red with those tiny tips of pale green at the ends and the fuzz on the stems. I take my time and get some good shots. As I am leaving I see another car stop, then pull off. An older couple now walks down the road. They've seen the paintbrush, too. They are just as delighted as I am.

As I round the bend past the Chittenden Road I catch my breath. The sky is an epic tale revealed over miles and miles. I stop as soon as I can and look at it. The green of the hills is lit with golden light, the heights above in grey-blue cloud shadow. The mountain peaks beyond are silhouetted blue-black against dull white. Above this is a bank of orange storm-sky dripping tattered strings of grey rain showers from its topmost thunderclouds. Straight overhead, though, is bright blue. The scale is simply awesome. Then I realize what will surely be in store for me next. A rainbow, of course. It's the perfect setup. I drive slowly through this giant landscape, unwilling to miss a thing. The folds of the hills never looked so soft, the heights beyond never so sharp. And then there it is. The biggest, brightest, most complete rainbow I've ever seen, curving in a wide arc from horizon to horizon. Through it I see the mountains of Lamar and the storm upon them. The rainbow doubles for a few moments then melts back to one again. It is just TOO MUCH! This is my last look at this area and this is the sendoff I get!

I am jazzed like never before. What a place! What a country! What a lucky girl am I.

Again I make the turn from Roosevelt to Lamar. Again I see the beckoning hills and the golden light twinkling in the little stream. The great grey boulders are especially inviting today, suggesting even more ancient wisdom than usual. At Dorothy's Knoll I come back to earth again when I see Mark's bear truck. I pull over and say hi. We catch up and yak about this and that. He shows me an eagles' nest and with an eaglet in it. We watch an adult perched in the nest. It flies out and back several times. Then Mark gets a big black bear and lets me see. He's seen this bear before - he says it's the female of a courting pair and the male is around here somewhere. We watch and wait as the bear goes up hill then down hill then sits then rolls then moves again. We never see its mate.

Another car pulls in and two ladies ask what we're seeing. "Black bear" says Mark. "Have a look". The younger woman is over-eager and the older one says "wait, let his wife look first" meaning me. Mark and I both find this oh-so-amusing so we play along. We start saying "yes honey" and "yes dear" to each other while these two well-meaning women are looking at the black bear. That's how rumors get started, of course.

Anyway, eventually I tell Mark that I'm a hankerin' for a wolf sighting so I'm gonna head down a ways. He says he's heading that way, too. We stop again at Trash Can because Mark thinks he sees another bear. While we're looking a lady pulls up in an old car. She's from Albuquerque and she's 70 years old and she's driving all over the country seeing what there is to be seen. We both get a kick out of this woman. She's got her dog for company, and anyone she meets along the way. She tells us she saw a wolf. We ask her how big, what color and such, figure by her answers that she probably saw a coyote but see no reason to let on. She bids us adieu with a "well I better get goin'. Got reservations at a motel 6 in Red Lodge." What a hoot! I hope she's still going!

I head for the Footbridge and check in with Tricia who fills me in on the Druids. I learn that this morning, while I was watching the grizzly take the elk calf, the alpha pair, 21 and 42, were setting out for a hunt across from the Institute, wowing the early birds who happened to see them. She says they are still out. She also says 106 was seen in Round Meadow earlier this evening and may still be there. I think maybe the Alphas will come back soon and I'll finally hear howling.

I decide to stick around. Gary and Mark show up and we joke and gab. The clouds come back and the wind kicks up. It starts to rain but that doesn't dampen our enthusiasm one bit. We all just get out our rain gear. A man in a fancy car locks his keys inside. Mark helps by fashioning a tool out of several short wires he fishes out of the back of his truck. The rain pours down and the temperature drops as the man struggles to flip the button. Robin Smith and Barbara arrive. We catch up on our journeys since we last met and of course, end up talking politics again. Eventually the man succeeds and gets his door open. Ranger Bill comes back, soaked, from his viewing post out on DPH and I chat with him a while. It's really cold all of a sudden but I'm determined to stay.

The rain stops and the wind changes. Night falls and people leave. I wait and wait. One time I imagine I hear howling. But I can't really be sure. Oh well. I had a great day. I finally head back to camp. I haven't had a fire this whole trip and this is my very last chance, so I build my little twig teepee and start it up. I sit on my three legged stool and watch the flames dance. The river music Is so loud it muffles all other sounds, so I start to sing. I sing an Elvish song, which is entirely appropriate as I feel like a hobbit camping alone in the Misty Mountains. The fire crackles and the river gurgles. The Wyoming sky above me is so big that even when it's heavy with clouds thick enough for rain, at its edges you can still find stars. One bright beauty winks a last blessing on my day. Ah Elbereth! Gilthoniel!

Today I saw: Antelope, 1 Bald Eagle and 1 eaglet, Bison, 1 Black bear, a Bull snake, 50 Canada Geese, Ducks, Elk, 2 Blue Herons, 1 Grizzly Bear, 5 Osprey, 1 Pelican, 2 Sand Hill Cranes and a Rainbow.


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