Today I have reserved for the Tetons. I figure I can't be this close and not see them! I'm off at 6:30. The morning is spectacular, clear and bright. The drive is unbelievably beautiful; great thick patches of icy snow cling to the cliffs of Lewis Canyon, snow-melt streams rush and roar on both sides of the road and then suddenly the deep blue expanse of Jackson Lake backed by picturesque Mt. Moran. Oh, what a beautiful country this is!
Just before the turn off to the Jackson Lake Dam I see an osprey on a high branch, wings outspread, drying its feathers in the sun. I am struck by bright spring green of the aspen groves, or "quakies" as John calls them. I pass grazing deer on the road where the Tetons just keep looming higher and higher at every bend. I see buffalo here where I've never seen them before. At Jenny Lake I stop to change into cooler clothes - it's climbed to 80 degrees and it's not even 10AM! I explore the little bridge over Cottonwood Creek. I find a chipmunk charmingly hunched on a wooden fence, stuffing its cheeks with grass. I take lots of shots of bright yellow balsamroot which grows here in abundance. I notice a flock of swallows flitting overhead and watch them as they land again and again near the same water puddle on the river bank. I stand very still and wait. They have bright orange breasts and iridescent blue backs. I don't even know if they're swallows, but I think so. They are just gorgeous and so lively I can't help but watch them a while. Of course I marvel at the majesty of the Teton range. There really are no mountains more beautiful under the bright blue sky.
I see Elk in the woods and more Bison in the flats. I see meadows of purple lupine, yellow rabbit-brush and an unidentified white flower. I head out toward the Snake River Bridge looking for moose but find none. I take the Antelope Flats road to see where it goes. I see the name "Craighead" on a mailbox. I explore a few other turnouts I've skipped on other trips. One offers a particularly lovely view of the Snake and surrounding marshes. It has a "Beaver Habitat" sign but I don't see beaver. I see five people on a horseback trail ride, a large herd of grazing horses and one beautiful Palomino. And the sky is not cloudy all day.
Now I head for Oxbow Bend. The day is downright hot except for a constant cool breeze. Here I am treated to a wealth of sightings. First I see geese and ducks. I sneak down the path to a shady spot and just glass the area where the water meets the land. I see a great blue heron doing its stalking walk. I love to watch its gawky yet precise movement. Behind me a ground squirrel chirps and squeaks a warning. I watch some ducks a while, then move up higher. I see a big shape flying over the marsh. The crooked neck and prehistoric-looking head tells me it's another great blue. Nice. Now I try the other side of the bend. There is a pair of geese here with many babies swimming primly behind them. I watch an osprey sailing overhead. It dives for a strike but aborts for some reason and flies off. I wait for it to return. While I'm waiting a large-bodied bird in the sky catches my eye, flapping heavily. It's really big and it's white so I think swan. But just before it splash-lands on the water I see it's a Pelican! Cool. Oh there's the osprey again, up high and heading downriver. I'm very happy with my sightings and figure I can move on when I suddenly see a "v" in the water! Mammal! It could be beaver I say to myself, re-focusing my binoculars. The animal is making a fairly straight line to one of the marshy islands. I see it hump up and disappear underwater. Then it comes up again and twirls. It's an otter! An otter! I lose it for a while then finally find it again way over where the geese and goslings went. I watch its head and the "v" but it rounds a bend and is gone. I never got to see it on land which would have made me absolutely sure. It could have been a beaver but the tail looked right for an otter, not beaver-flat nor muskrat-thin. Another blue heron (or the same one) flies over and lands kind of awkwardly in the reeds.
I'm happy but hungry so I head off to Colter Bay Village for some lunch. I go down to the shore of Jackson Lake to eat my sandwich. I find a nice table in the shade with a lake view. Quite serene here, too, with giant Mt. Moran more snow-covered than I've ever seen it. I thought this had been a mild winter? I find myself thinking about...Lamar! I feel a strong pull to go back. I missed last night and this morning and I can't stand it! This is turning into a real obsession I say to myself. Soon I'm heading back to the Park.
On the drive back, near Lewis Lake, I spot a large brown body moving in the trees. I stop at a convenient pullout and walk back a little. There it is. A young moose. It's browsing along the river edge and there is a lot of forest between me and him so I take a chance and get a little closer. I walk slowly and stop often to check if he acts bothered by me. So far, so good. I hear a car door shut and then there are people behind me - a man and his wife. They are like me, intent on getting a nice shot. I feel bad that I've attracted attention. I start to back off and the couple does, too. We all stay behind trees and quietly take pictures. We are probably 100 feet away. The moose continues to browse. It is aware of our presence and looks up frequently, which of course, only encourages us to stay since the full face makes for such nice shots. We finally all move back to the road. I still wonder whether what I did was stupid or not. (Feel free to comment).
I arrive back at Old Faithful with a minimum of traffic. I feel a tremendous urge to be in Lamar and need to decide what to do about it. The point of staying here is so I could see the thermal areas of the park. I know I'll have a chance to be in Lamar many other days, I tell myself. I haven't seen bison babies up close or the Madison River, or the Nez Perce. I stop thinking and take a much-needed siesta. An hour later, thus revived, I think more clearly. I came to see wolves, so I have to get to Lamar. Even if it means I'll have to drive over two hours in the dark to get back. And that's that.
I head for Madison. As I pass the flats just before Mary Mountain I see on my left a big fountain-type geyser erupting in the distance against the far hill. It's very high and straight and there is a smaller one steaming to its left. I'd love to know which one it is. I stop to watch it and get a photo. Wow is it BIG! It shows no sign of stopping but I go on. A little further on I see my first big herd of Bison with babies, close enough for pictures. Several cars are pulled off at the Mary Mountain trailhead and I join them. Most of the herd is resting but here and there an orange baby cavorts. I watch one test its legs by doing a little hopping, bucking dance. I mean to go past Madison Junction to Norris but can't resist the urge to see the pretty blue river so I turn left. I am rewarded with a peaceful riverside scene of Elk mamas and babies resting in the cool grass. One lucky angler casts his silvery line nearby.
I head up to Norris and see another large Bison herd with calves nestled along both banks of the Gibbon in a woodsy area. I've never seen a Bison herd here but it looks great in this setting. Some adults are standing in the river cooling off. I see some babies nursing. On up the lovely winding road I go, smiling at the scenery, remembering other sightings I've had. A little beyond Roaring Mountain is a place where a small stream comes close to the road and lots of lush grass grows. A single doe Elk grazes here. I stop and watch her through my open window. She looks back at me, a little annoyed, but keeps grazing. I notice her coat looks a little ratty - but I think it's because she's still shedding the winter hair. All in all she strikes me as being sad. I don't really know why. I say soothing things to her and drive on.
I hope for the grizzly at Apollinaris Spring but find none. However up ahead where Indian Creek crosses the road there are several cars. And here is why - two moose are taking a nap in the high grass at the very edge of the creek, in easy view from the road. The people here are calm and respectful, several with great big lenses. This is a beauty shot. One moose is larger than the other. My guess is a young mom and a yearling. I feel very lucky to have seen so many moose on this trip. I have always had trouble finding them before.
Just past Swan Lake Flats I see a lone antelope on a hill. Haven't seen many in the last few days so I'm happy for it. I don't stop in Mammoth but head on out as I'm later than usual for my evening in Lamar. I can't resist photos of the Gardner River, however, because the light is so right. I make it to Lamar and check at several pullouts for a friendly Loon face. Don't see any. This could mean the action is closer to the Footbridge tonight, so I head there.
I see some familiar cars at the Hitching Post so I stop. I learn that I missed Druids not only last night but this morning, too! Evidently 21 and 42 were out at a kill very early this morning and put on quite a show. I am told that they are now back at the den. I try not to be TOO disappointed at missing this action because there is no way to have known whether I would have been in the right spot to see it anyway. While I'm thinking of this I see a cinnamon colored black bear running along the far bank of the Soda Butte, southeast of the confluence. Other people pick him up, too and we have a great sighting. The bear is really making time and I look to the right for a hint of why he's running. No clues. Some fools run out along the hill south of the pullout to try to see the bear better. Poor Rick has to go after them. Someone says if people would pay attention to how fast a bear can run, they would likely stay further away. I agree. As I try to pick up the bear again I see a rabbit dash from right to left. My first Yellowstone rabbit!
I head up to the Footbridge and find my compadres. John, Lew and Deb, Cathy W & Mike and Ball Park Frank are all here. We pick up the cinnamon bear, still running towards Dead Puppy Hill. We catch up with each other and joke around. The pullout is pretty jammed. There is a large white tour van from the Institute parked in such a way that it blocks other people's view. I see Rick McIntyre talking with Lew & Deb, probably about wolf # 147. They ask me to take a photo of them with Rick. Before I can, though, a man comes up and asks Rick a question about # 42. I hear John say "hi Doug". It's Doug Dance! Our fabulous and extraordinary photographer-Loon. I can't believe it! I was upset when I learned that his trip would start the day mine ended but here he is! "You're Doug Dance?" I ask. He turns his pleasant face to me. Yep. "I'm Wendy!" I fairly screech. Here I go again, hugging people I've never met! Doug explains that his plans changed and I am happy they did. He tells me about his great luck in seeing 21 and 42 this morning (he just got here today!) but that he is really tired and needs to get going. He promises to be at the Loonion tomorrow. He ends up taking Lew & Deb's picture with Rick and of course that's a better deal for them anyway!
Cathy W and Mike tell me that Lew & Deb told them about some Mountain Goats on the cliffs under Barronette Peak. They want to see them and so do I. It's early enough and John's radio does not indicate imminent wolf activity so I cross my fingers and hope this side trip doesn't make me miss them. Cathy drives carefully and not too fast as she knows how much wildlife there is on this road, especially now that it's evening. As we near the pullout I see the high brown cliffs under Barronette and the dizzying pattern of snow patches. How will we know where to look I think to myself. Lew & Deb said to look for a waterfall under a diamond-shaped snow patch and then to the left. As we get out of the van I look up at dozens of diamond-shaped snow patches. Mike starts to set up the scope and Cathy says "oh there they are". This is with her naked eye! She lifts her binoculars and says. "Yeah. Three of 'em. Oh there's a baby!" I think she MUST be making this up for my benefit. But in another second Mike has them too. I am so astonished I just shake my head. Cathy laughs and tolerantly gives me directions. "Look for a white spot a little more yellow than the snow that moves". To my utter amazement I see them. Sure enough. My first Mountain Goats ever. I remember when Jane R set me straight after I mistook a bighorn near Mt.Washburn for a goat on my September trip. Now I've seen both! And they are different! I see a big one (the mama) with sharp black horns, big and strong, a mid-sized goat, probably a yearling and a little tiny one, all walking with incredible agility and confidence against sheer brown rock walls on paths that you simply have to take on faith are there. We watch a while and see them drink then the yearling disappears into a cleft only to come out again up higher which gives us an idea of the depth of the terrain. I keep looking at the diamond shaped snow patch so I can remember how to find it again. And I practice looking at them with my naked eye until I can pick them out - if, of course I know first where to look!
We head on back to Lamar and find ourselves behind a Cadillac driven by, shall we say, less than animal-savvy folks. It is a cool evening after a hot day, a favorite time for animals to come out to browse. Sure enough, we spy two mule deer coming down a hill to cross the road. The Caddy shows no sign of slowing down. Then finally it does. The deer edge closer to the road in their halting way. If the car would stop, we say, then they would cross. The driver of the car is not that patient. Just when the deer stop right next to the road, the Caddy moves on, scaring them back up the hill. So stupid! But at least it's gone now. We stop and wait and the deer come down again, more wary than before. They cross and bound away south. We arrive back at the Footbridge to an even more crowded scene than before.
We announce our great sighting and check on anything we missed. I am relieved to hear I've missed no Druid action. We hang around hoping for a glimpse but I am beginning to think about my long drive back. One group of watchers has their scopes facing west, taking in the road-crossing corridor from the den site and the area down to Hitching Post. Another group watches east, covering the Soda Butte valley. We Loons are in the middle. It gets darker and darker, cooler and cooler. People start leaving and the place thins out, with only a few folks still manning the two "stations". Ball Park revs up his great bear stories and entertains us. He and John start trading off and the tales get taller and taller. I wish for a campfire to complete the setting.
I check my watch at 9:20. I say to Lew & Deb that I'm thinking about heading back soon. Ball Park nixes this idea by spinning another yarn. Suddenly a man rushes up to us and says, in a hurried, English-accented whisper, "Two wolves in the river!" We bolt over, loudly whispering "thank you!" and see to our delight two ghostly wolf shapes, one grey, the other darker, move silently down the last few yards before the River. It is dark but I can see them with my naked eye. The first one wades in and swims, then splashes the rest of the way through the shallows. I see him (her) stop to shake off on the other side and then continue walking up the bank. I pick up the second wolf in the shallows and watch it shake off, too. It follows the first one up the bank and across the flats. I try my binoculars again and have better luck. They can only be seen at all because they are moving. Each time they stop I have to guess where they are until they move again. A cow elk becomes very nervous and does the high-headed prance. I think there's about to be a chase and I wonder how I'll ever see it in this dim light. But the wolves pass by and head for the timber. I last see them heading up the slope where Tim A and I came down on our hike. I listen in case anyone else still has them but it seems to be over for the night.
Wow! That was close. We nearly missed them! Who was that guy who tipped us off? We are all asking the same question and finally find him. Our hero is Adrian from Cornwall, England and he was with the folks looking west. They, apparently, saw these wolves come down from the den hills and cross the road, without telling a soul! Adrian left to tell his wife and son who were still in their car in the middle of the pullout. On his dash over he saw us and tipped us off. We thank him over and over and make him an honorary Loon. I still can't get over how we would have missed such a great sighting if not for him. Adrian - you're the best! I hope you and your family had a wonderful trip and I hope you will tell us about it!
I find myself a little angry at the Institute folks for not being more generous. I wish now that I had kept a cooler head but I complain to a man who I think was in charge. I do think it's good manners for wolf watchers to look out for one another but I suppose it's also my responsibility to pay attention. It may be that the wolves were so close that spreading the news might result in a mad dash by 10 people from one end of the pullout to the other, which might, in turn, have prevented the wolves from crossing.
In any case it is a wonderfully exciting end to a long night of waiting. The other cars leave, one by one and soon it is only us, a handful of Loons, still talking animatedly in the night. I finally break away, sure that Lew and Deb are close behind. I stop at the Picnic area just in case I can repeat Tim W's luck in hearing the wolves howl but the night is silent. I head into the dark and soon have headlights in my rear-view mirror that I know belong to Lew & Deb. I see a number of reflected eyes in the dark on the roadside. I marvel at how the sky remains so light so long even though darkness is all around me. As I climb up to Dunraven Pass there is a magnificent dark cloud formation stark against the lighter sky. It looks like a natural reproduction of "The Creation" (from the Sistine Chapel's ceiling); the outstretched hand of God touching the outstretched hand of Man - a study in light and dark grey. I'm not kidding! It really looked like this! I have to stop and stare, it is too amazing. I take it as an omen that I will make it down the dreaded switchbacks safely. I do, but I never go faster than 30 mph!
At Canyon Junction the car I thought was Lew & Deb surprises me by turning into Canyon. I head over to Norris by myself, wondering what I would do if I had a flat! Sleep in the car I answer myself and stop worrying. I make it to Madison with no trouble at all and along about Fountain Flats I realize the worst is over. I pull off and get out to enjoy the night. No moon and a gajillion stars. I lean against my car and stare into the velvety sky. Shooting star, shooting star, and another. In the distance I hear the low grunts of bison. The Mary Mountain herd I guess. It makes me chuckle. I get back in and drive the last bit to Old Faithful. I pull into my space at exactly midnight! Made it. And I've seen the Druids.
Today I saw: 1 Antelope, Bison and babies, 1 Black bear, 1 Chipmunk, Deer, Ducks, Elk,
Geese, 3 Great Blue Herons, 3 Moose, 3 Mountain Goats, 1 Osprey, 1 Otter, 1 Pelican,
1 Rabbit, 8 Orange-breasted Swallows, 7 Loons and 2 Druid wolves.