As I step outside I am amazed to find that in the dark quiet I can hear the Falls.
I lean against the car and listen. Venus blazes on the horizon, brighter than ever. I've never been at Canyon in the dark before and I enjoy the new experience.
I'm hoping to find some Druids this morning so I get in the car and drive Northeast. I go slowly, looking for eyes. As I near Mt. Washburn it tickles me when I realize what those familiar shapes along the roadside are…paintbrush!
At the Chittenden Road I see a single elk in silhouette on the ridge, coming down warily. I stop and so does the elk. It's so nice, just me and the elk and the first light of dawn. As I round the hairpin turn I nearly run over something in the road. The animal walks casually into the brush. My first thought is what is a chicken doing way up here? In this light the bird's feathers look bluish and I remember Deb and Lew talking about a blue grouse up at Silver Gate. I don't know really know what this was but it was totally oblivious to its near-death experience.
First light comes over the Mountains of Lamar, the familiar outline I've so often seen from the high pullouts at the western end of Lamar. I stop to take a picture and thrill to the sound of meadowlarks. There is so much space up here and that sound is so perfect.
I come down to Roosevelt and suddenly see animals in the road. Lots of them. But not wildlife. It's the horse herd from the Roosevelt Corral, including the big shaggy-footed wagon-pullers. They are free of tack, even of halters. A single wrangler walks them down the road to an open meadow on the right. It looks so cool, some special ritual that I am suddenly privy to. I hear the sound of their hooves on the road, so many hooves! They go into the meadow quite cautiously. Then the lead horse walks forward nose down. The others follow down the slope and into the flats. The lead horse finds what it seeks. A massive horse-rolling ensues. I think they've been watching the bison.
Smiling broadly I turn the corner and reach the gateway to Lamar. Across the bridge I go and into Little America. It looks dry here. All the ponds that are usually full of ducks have only yellowing reeds. The Boulder Pond has shrunk to half its size. There is a single swan here. I wonder what happened to its mate?
As I climb into Lamar Canyon I see a bull elk wading across the river. On the opposite side of the road from the top of the cliffs a mule deer peeks at me. I round the bend into the most beautiful valley in the world. The sound is meadowlarks and the smell is sage. It is so wide and wild. A bison herd grazes on the Jasper Bench and I see more in the valley proper. I drive on slowly, rejoicing to be back here again so soon.
At the Hitching Post pullout there are a number of people as well as 3 bison and 6 pronghorn. I look for familiar faces but don't see any. I drive on to the Footbridge and I am astounded to see it more full of cars than ever. In addition, on Dead Puppy Hill there are rows and rows of scopes and chairs, people standing and sitting, and there are more folks hiking out along the trail with scopes and tripods over their shoulders.
I am not tempted to join them, even though I guess it means the Druid pups are visible. It's too early in my trip for a crowd this large. I want to enjoy the solitude a little while and thank goodness this valley is big enough to offer both. I keep driving and take a look at Round Prairie. I pull into Pebble and find it unusually lush-looking. I notice many pockets of green amid the too-dry land.
I go back past the Footbridge to the Hitching Post and see Bob Landis here with his big camera set up. Only a few other cars here. This is more like it. I wish Bob a good morning and set up my scope. From here we can see the gully where the Druids often come down. But nothing is moving at the moment. After a while Bob says that someone up at the Footbridge heard howling and that a few pups are being seen sporadically by the throng on the hillside. I tell him there are too many people up there for me. He smiles and nods.
I try scoping Mt. Norris. I get a bull elk up there. Tim A had mentioned our Fairyland hike to Bob a while back and said Bob seemed somewhat interested. So I tell him that's why I'm in the Park and ask if he can consider joining us. He says thanks but no, he doesn't think his knees are up to it. He says it sounds great though and wishes us luck.
Just then we hear howling. It is just a voice or two. Enough for me to do a Druid Dance! We are happy to hear it and get ready for whatever may happen next. But nothing does. So instead I watch three bull bison cross a braid of the river. I just love watching animals cross rivers. Each bull enters the water in the same spot but picks a different place to climb out. The river seems shallow as their heavy hooves make big white splashes.
A Ranger comes walking out along the horse-ford trail here and with him are two backpackers. Bob gives me the scoop. This couple was spotted by wolf-watchers from Dead Puppy Hill, well, rather their TENT was, which they had evidently pitched last night, in the lightly-timbered area between the two pullouts. The Ranger arrived and walked back to their illegal (and just plain stupid) camp and ordered them to pack up and git out.
I watch the Ranger point out each "area closed" sign the couple passed on their way in and then he brings them to the hutch were he points to the large map of the area and all the warnings contained therein. The Ranger seems to have endless patience as he explains all the things they did wrong. The backpackers seem quite embarrassed and willing to take their medicine.
I head further west and stop at the Trash Can pullout. I see a kestrel hovering and watch it a while. Then I hear some sandhills calling and scope until I find them. After this I decide to drive the Blacktail Plateau Road if it's open. The day is quite overcast and wonderfully cool in contrast to yesterday's heat. Near Elk Creek I see some folk looking towards the burn from the overlook pullout. I have a hunch there's a bear down there. Yep. A small back bear in the timber. I see mostly his fat black butt as he rarely lifts his head. I offer my scope and make some kids smile.
The Blacktail Road is open so in I go. At the first open meadow and I am blown away again by the wildflowers. I pull off to the side and hop out. I find pale-gold paintbrush as well as some gorgeous orange-pink ones but not my all-time favorite, the bright red ones. There are bluebells and little sunflowers and pink spring beauty and lavender lupine. I take another three rolls of film. It is very nice to be back here by myself. Well almost by myself. Every once in a while a car comes by and kicks up some dust. In a marshy spot I spy some wild iris. Shortly after that I find bristle thistles and some unusual yellow flowers that I think are false lupine.
I drive on and see a lone deer bound over a ridge in the distance. I descend into the forested section and the going gets bumpy. When I'm almost at the end I see cars stopped. A black bear walks through the forest about 50 yards from the road. A woman with a video camera hangs out the window of a slowly moving van. I pull over, willing to watch a while. Two other tourists get out of their car and creep closer to me. I put my finger to my lips and they nod. They stay right by my car and we three snap shot after shot.
The bear sniffs a tree and we are hopeful he will climb it but he doesn't. It is a nice sighting and since I got skunked on Druids, two black bears in an hour is a nice consolation prize. Another van stops and a lady comes up to join us. Our bear has now gone further into the trees and is too hard to see anymore. The lady asks me if there is a best place to see bears. I smile and say you're in it! I suggest that she also try the other side of Roosevelt as well.
I move on. Just above the Tower Ranger Station I see a third bear! A good-sized black bear grazes in the meadow, very close to the road. A young woman Ranger stands on the center line, asking people to keep moving, pointing out the parking area at the bottom of the hill for those who want to stop. Most people comply. As I pass her I ask if I can come back up for pictures if I stay on the opposite side of the road. She says yes.
I watch and take some nice shots and luckily for the Ranger the bear moves further away from the road, grazing amid a hundred wildflowers. He is eating mostly the white ones. I think those are cow parsnip. This bear has a lot of extra hair on its rump, which makes him look shaggy and unkempt. He needs to find a good scratchy tree to rub all that off!
It's getting to be nap-time. I point the car toward Dunraven Pass. Just beyond the Tower Campground exit I see three young people with daypacks walking up the hill. I ask if they need a ride somewhere. They say they are Mammoth employees on their day off and they want to see Canyon. They hop in. They are college kids from the Czech Republic and have been in America for less than a week. They have seen Toronto, New York, Ohio, Chicago, St. Louis and Mt. Rushmore. They got jobs here so that they could make some money before they set off traveling again. I have no idea how to say or spell their names but they speak English quite well.
I tell them I will only stop for three things: a bear, a wolf or red paintbrush. We talk about bears and traveling and how beautiful America is. We don't see animals but we do stop for red paintbrush. There is also a stupendous field of blue lupine that we all admire.
I drop them at Canyon and go on to my cabin. I have a nice nap and I have just begun to think about packing for Fairyland when there is a knock on the door. I figure it's Leslie but it's Jake. Leslie's working but he has the day off and wants to hang out. I tell him my packing dilemma. Jake gives me tips. He says travel light, light, light. I think I am, but when he lifts my pack he tells me I am out of my mind. I have been agonizing over what to bring for the last month and in five minutes Jake has destroyed all my lists, replacing my idiotic ideas with his far more practical and sensible ones. He also tells me the big bugs I saw are salmon flies, a trout favorite.
While we are discussing all this, a bison pays us a visit. It stops by a sapling pine which he has chosen for his scratching post. The poor tree will never be the same.
Soon it's time to go look for Tim and Betsy. We find them registering at the campground. How great to see them again! We are introduced to two other members of our group, friends of theirs from the Alpine Club, Mark Whitham and Eric Larsen. They look every inch the seasoned hikers that they are.
Tim tells us that Matthew (the Funkygeyserman) and his geyser-loving girlfriend Mary are coming too. I am thrilled to hear this as Matthew was the first Loon I ever met face to face. When I was here in June we missed each other. They will be coming from Old Faithful (where they work) and will meet us at the trailhead.
I follow Tim and Betsy to their campsite. I meet Loon Jim Strope for the first time and find him appropriately loony and funny. I also meet the rest of our crew, Big Jim Collins and his friends Bob Whidney and Big Mark Reimers (nicknamed Lurch). We pop some beers and talk a while. We are quite a jovial group. But after a while, since they all have packing and unpacking to do and I need another fix of animal viewing, I head out to Hayden Valley.
I set up at the Alum Creek pullout. I see the makings of a bison jam about a half-mile away. The Hayden Valley bison herd is beginning to get up from their afternoon rest and will soon be clogging the road. I watch some orange calves starting to romp and a few amorous bulls getting a head start on the rutting season. I see no sign of Junior but I do find six cow elk grazing in the flats across the road by the river.
A lady near me swears there is an antlered bull with the cows. I look and see a tree stump with a lot of dry roots that do look amazingly like antlers. I want to believe her but the stump remains motionless. Then Jake comes driving up with Leslie. It's great to see her and we have a Loon hug. Then the lady says there's a wolf! We set the scope on it. We see two coyotes, doing what I've never seen before, they are stalking something. An elk calf, maybe? Then we see a third coyote. Suddenly the two stalkers rush the third one. The third one wheels and leaps and we see what looks like very lively play between the three animals. Just as I wonder if I am witnessing a coyote mating ritual, all three coyotes start to run full out, like I've never seen coyotes run before. One is ahead of the other two and those two seem to be working together. Now I get it. I bet the third coyote is an interloper and is being run outta town by the two residents. Wow! They are really running. That first move looked so playful, with the coyote leaping and twisting. It didn't look violent or serious. The lady still insists they are wolves. Don't I wish.
Traffic starts to back up as the bison begin crossing the road in all directions. I figure I better head back before the jam gets any worse. I arrive at the campsite with a load of firewood and find the Fairyland crew cooking marinated venison steaks, courtesy of Big Jim. I am invited to join the feast. They are absolutely delicious. Thanks again Jim!
After dinner we get a fire going and out comes the moon. I realize belatedly that today is the Fourth of July. Now THIS is how to celebrate such a holiday! Our fireworks are blazing embers and our inner excitement at what we are about to attempt tomorrow. We sit and chat and get to know one another. I tell Betsy I have been wanting to do a hike like this since 1994.
But we do want to get an early start tomorrow so we begin to think of our beds. Just then I hear a nasty-sounding crunch of metal nearby. A guy camping next to us has pulled in too close to one of the boulders lining the driveway to his site. His pick-up truck is wedged good and tight. He tries moving forward, he tries moving back. Either way he's gonna come away with damage. And then…The Basin Boys II walk over to lend a hand. They LIFT THE TRUCK and pull away the boulder to the delight of the amazed guy. Oh boy! These are the guys I'm going hiking with. Look out Fairyland! Here we come!
Today I saw: antelope, 3 black bears, bison, 2 sandhill cranes, 3 coyotes, 2 mule deer, elk, a whole herd of horses, 1 kestrel, 2 ravens, robins, ground squirrels, 1 swan, an unidentified chicken-like bird, 5 Loons and 5 Loons-to-be.