DAY 5 Wednesday, May 31

THE SECOND LOONION

I awake to lovely birdsong but stay snug in my sleeping bag, remembering the events of last evening. At about 7AM I get up. It's chilly this morning. I fire up my stove to warm some water to wash my face. I place my mess kit and tea bag and sugar jar on the picnic table. A magpie lands on a low branch of a pine tree. I notice how pretty her feathers are. I get my camera and take a photo. The magpie watches me intently. I check to see that any edibles on the table are sealed. I bend down and pour warm water over my scalp. Ahhh! It feels SO good. I soak my washcloth and wipe my face. Oh, yes that's better. I see the magpie suddenly fly past me into a higher branch with something white in its beak. Another moment and a packet of kleenex falls from the tree. The magpie takes off. I pick it up and realize the last place I saw this packet was on the back seat of my car. I now see I left the door wide open. This wily bird had gone right into my car and snitched the kleenex from the seat! Campers beware! Thus was I instructed in proper magpie etiquette.

A little later the Loon Boys join me for breakfast at my table. We discuss what to do before our 10:30 rendezvous with the new group of Loons. We all want to do a hike. We agree to make it short so we can still get showers before the hugging begins. We decide on the Beaver Ponds Loop Trail since it's so close. But we forget to take a map, or any of the several hiking books we each possess. Just beyond Liberty Cap we see a sign that says Beaver Ponds Loop .7mi. Great! we say, even shorter than we thought! Of course that's the mileage uphill to the START of the loop trail! We are all in perfectly respectable hiking shape but we're also all flatlanders so we go slow. We meet people who tell us this trail was closed two days ago due to a bear on a carcass! Guess what else we forgot? Pepper Spray! We experience our first mosquitoes in the cool shade of the forest and I add insect repellent to the forgot-it list.

But we see great views of Mt. Everts above and Mammoth below and we see gorgeous wildflowers. We tell hiking tales and sing songs and share water and snacks. The sun warms us and the wind cools us. Tim W tells an inspiring story of an American WWII vet who finally meets his once-upon-a-time Japanese enemy. I am in Yellowstone and I get to hike with people who shared my first ever wild wolf sighting. All is right with my world.

We do make it back in time for showers (barely!) and we join up again on the grass in front of the Web Cam. Here is John, Geri, Bruce, Cathy W, Mike, Mark R and his dad Carl and NEW Loons Brenda and Dave. I learn that Brenda DID find the hats and warmies I had urged her to bring, and that their daughter loves horses. Me too! We head to the Grille and take it over again. Cathy presents the framed photo of the Loons to John. I am teased again for missing the shot. We pull the tables together and chow down, chatting merrily, catching up on what we missed in other parts of the Park. John saw a wolf in Lamar this morning a nice long sighting was it 42? can't remember - trotting along the Soda Butte. I am jealous of course but I remind myself I can't be everywhere at once! Geri and Bruce tell us they're doing the Beartooth Drive today. I think about going to Glacier for a few days just to see it. Mark R listens to our tales of Druids and I can tell he wants to see them very badly. I make the depressing discovery that the roll of film from last night was inadvertently exposed. Aarrgghh! No photos of Druids. I console myself by saying the light was probably too dim anyway. I'll just have to see them again, that's all!

Most of us now go over to the Albright Center to see BallPark and wave at Loons on line. Web Cam Tom invites us upstairs to see the inner workings. Man they squeeze a lot of office machines into those small spaces! It looks kinda familiar to me, like a New York apartment. Tom's enthusiasm is catching. And his generosity is MUCH appreciated. Now we head downstairs to see the Return of the Wolf again. Bob Landis again does the intro, wryly adding his take on the unfathomable practices of NBC and National Geographic. The lights dim and there are the beautiful Druids. I am swept up in it again. I compare my recent sightings with the same individuals on screen. The difference is seasonal and perhaps the effect of distance. The wolves I saw were lean and scraggily; the ones on film are robust, almost plump. Those thick winter coats are now being shed; the extra pounds of muscle or fat no longer needed for protection in the warmth of spring. I marvel at the economy of nature. I spend thought, money and time choosing and packing a down coat, rain coat, gloves, hat & scarf so that I can stand outside of my car to watch and follow these animals. The animals just grow their insulation on their backs.

I am able to have a quick word with Bob Landis afterwards. I ask about the "story line" of another of his great films "The Realm of the Coyote", shot in Yellowstone before the wolves were re-introduced. He confirmed that the story of "Cain (Kane?) the Coyote" was pure fiction. And that anyone can see that the hero animal is not one but several individuals. He assured me, of course, that the behavior was all real (not that I doubted it!). It has always confounded me that prestigious companies like Nature and National Geographic seem to think that presenting quality film footage of everyday nature is not sufficiently "interesting". How ironic it is that the actual drama of the Druid Pack surpasses most fiction. In my limited experience in Yellowstone, just spending a half-hour watching an animal go about its day can be utterly fascinating and full of surprises. True, life is also lots of standing around, munching or sleeping but if you are patient and fight that urge to move on, I promise you will be rewarded.

We linger on the porch, reluctant to leave each other. We talk, as usual of the sightings we've had. The prize for Best Sighting Of The Day goes to Cathy W and Mike who watched a young grizzly put on a real show with an elk calf he (she) caught near the Sheepeater Cliffs. I won't spoil her story by telling it myself but, after hearing it, several of us are eager to see if it is still there so we head off through the Golden Gate. Unfortunately the griz is long gone. I somehow lose the others on the way. I drive as far as Apollinaris Spring, hoping for another sight of the two little grizzly cubs, but no luck there either. It's been nearly 24 hours since I've seen a bear!

I go back towards Mammoth and Lamar. I think maybe I'll just drive to the Footbridge and take a nap. Then I'll be refreshed and ready for whatever happens in Druidville tonight. I cross the beautiful Gardner River canyon. Just as I near the summit of the next hill, I spot a coyote right off the road. A pullout looms ahead and I swoop in. Off with engine, up with camera. The coyote is headed my way! He's a typically perky guy, trotting smartly, alert. He sees me but pays no attention. He trots into the clearing beyond the pullout. Goes behind a fallen tree. I quietly open the door and get out, using the open door as cover. I see what he's after. There's an old carcass here. Mostly bones but some skin & hair. The coyote noses around, tugs on a scrap or two. I get some nice photos. One time he looks up and just stares at me. I don't even click the shutter, I just look back at him through the lens, Wow! He seems to be making sure I'm not going to bug him. He noses some more and then another car pulls up. I hear the people gasp as they see him.

I smile over at them and put my finger to my lips. They nod and turn off the car. They just watch happily through the windshield. After a short while, the coyote lifts his head and trots off into the woods without a backward glance. We watch until he is gone. They get out of their car. I point out the carcass. They say they didn't see the coyote till they pulled in and they're sorry if they ruined my photo. I say not at all. I'm sorry they didn't get to see him as long as I did.

I can't tell you how nice it is to meet fellow tourists with such sensitivity!

Thus re-enthused about both coyotes and humans I drive on. Just below the Children's Fire Trail I see red-tailed hawks swooping again, so I stop. I can't tell if they are hunting or fighting. After watching many dips and swirls and dives I surmise that they are courting. Their movements are too gentle to be fighting and too ritualistic to be accidental. Just then I see them touch talons, lock talons even, then they break apart and swoop off again. This is too cool.

I decide I have to stop for a nap, that I have plenty of time before the evening session will begin. I pull in at the end of the Blacktail Plateau Drive. There's a little space before the barricade. I shut the engine off, lower the seat and I'm out like a light. Later I stir awake. I look up and see a car facing me. I think they want to get past me. Two women inside. One puts her finger to her lips, just as I had done earlier to the couple. The woman points behind my car. I lift up a little and see what has come by while I was asleep: a lovely pair of coyotes. I lift my camera and VERY quietly slide out my door. I sneak to the back of my car and use it for cover. The coyotes are very close, maybe 15 feet away. One is distinctly larger than the other so I guess this is the male. As I click away, the female trots away but the male has begun to dig. It digs and digs, changes position and digs some more. Changes position again, Dig, dig, dig. I am utterly delighted at this behavior and get some great shots. He keeps at it for 10 full minutes. Suddenly he digs more intensely and then up comes his snout with a long brown thing, close to a foot long, hanging out. Not a mouse, I bet a gopher. It takes several chomps and chews and gulps to get this nice fat dinner down. He seems quite proud of himself and gives me a look. I give him a smile. Good work, Mr. Coyote! His pretty mate comes back, could she tell he'd gotten something? There isn't a scrap left to share. They trot off, cross a creek and melt into the woods.

I chat with the two women a little, comparing notes. The Park seems full of coyote lovers today. I thank them for tipping me off. I look at my watch and learn that an hour has passed since I'd begun my nap! The women say they're staying at Canyon and are on their way back. I encourage them to come to Lamar to look for wolves. They say they've heard of it but where was it? I give them directions and suggest they try tomorrow morning if tonight is not possible. I never see these two women again but I hope they got to Lamar. If they recognize themselves from this, I hope they check in with the Page and give us a report!

Now I make the turn at Roosevelt, heading to my favorite spot on earth. In Little America I pass three bison very close to the road. The light is turning on its charm so I get some nice photos. As I head uphill past Slough a Sandhill Crane flies over head. I spook a mule deer along Lamar Canyon and watch its while banner of a tail flounce away. The light gets better and better as I go. Finally I come around the bend into the Lamar Valley. Gorgeous as ever. How I hope I never tire of this sight! I skip the early pullouts but stop at Trash Can. I have been watching a very large herd of bison on the wide flat across the River. The whole herd is on the move, tightening its ranks, walking with purposeful speed that seems strange. Suddenly I see why. Three people on horseback! One of the riders holds a telemetry aerial. All three ride slowly, well behind the herd but it looks for all the world, like some strange modern cowboy movie. The riders don't seem to be harassing the bison but the huge animals are definitely trying to stay away from them.

At the Footbridge I find the Loon crowd: John, Tim W, Tim II, Jay. I tell John about the bison herders. His guess is that it may be part of the Park's brucellocis research. We wait for stuff to happen but it doesn't. John's radio tells him the Druids are out, likely up the Cache Creek drainage so we rationalize that they will have to return to the den and when they do, we will see them. The two Bearmen show up and I wave them over to John. They obviously know each other and they joke and laugh like old buddies. I ask their names. Mark is the LHM and his friend is Gary. They both think I'm weird, which of course, is true.

We decide to move back down the valley (west) in the hopes we'll be able to spot the Druids on the long view coming back from Cache Creek. We go all the way past the Institute. Cathy W, Mike and Mark R & Carl are here. They had some bear sightings. We hang out, talking and joking. The bison herders are gone but the herd remains at this end of the valley. Four bulls seem to get the idea that swimming the river is a good idea right now. It has been chilly all day today and it looks like a front is coming in. I can't imagine how cold that water is. But what do bison bulls care? One goes to the edge, hesitates, changes his mind, then lurches in and he's off. This HUGE animal is swept downstream and I'm sure he's fighting with all his considerable strength. After a while he makes headway and gets to the shallows a good quarter mile downstream from where he started. This humiliation does not phase him. He just shakes off like he's done with that river. Two more bison cross, each with his own special ritual of preparation. A fourth seems less committed and pays for it by getting caught in the current and spun fully around. Finally he decides he's had enough and heads back home. When he gets out he shakes off and goes back to grazing. I think he got so turned around he may still think he crossed like he meant too.

We listen for clues about the Druids' return but no news is forthcoming. We go back to the Footbridge and learn we missed nothing here. We see the 10 bighorn rams again. After the excitement of last night it seems impossible that we wouldn't see any Druids at all tonight but that's the way it is sometimes. This is the last evening that I'll be with Tim, Jay and Tim so we're a little sad. Tim W is a naturally cheerful person, though, and always finds blessings amid any disappointment. We comfort ourselves by repeating our incredible bear tallies and retelling the tale of the Five Druid Hunters of the night before.

The air is really cold now and it looks like snow is coming. As the night descends we decide to head for home. I lose the Tims on the road (I just can't seem to keep track of Loons while driving at night). When I get back to Mammoth I think about having a fire but again I feel too tired. It's also starting to snow. Just little flakes but snow. Tim and Jay and Tim pull up and rush over. Guess what? they say. Before leaving Lamar, they stopped at the Picnic area to use the bathroom and as they got out of the car they heard howling! Druids howling in the night! Man oh man! I'm happy for them, of course, but oh how I wish I could have heard it, too! You see those Druids are tricksters! You just can't predict what they'll do. The guys are psyched, but regretfully agree that it's too late and cold for a campfire tonight. I congratulate them on their good luck and head up to the heated bathroom for a wash. The snow is still falling when I come back out. I may pull out my extra warmies tonight! I jot a few notes in my journal and then turn out the light.

Today I saw: 10 Bighorn sheep, Bison, 3 coyotes, 1 Deer, Elk, 2 Hawks, 3 Sandhill Cranes, 14 Loons, and 1 big brown gopher aka coyote meal.


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