I lie awake snug in my sleeping bag, listening, amazed that I am where I am.
It's past dawn but just barely. I decide to get up and see what the day looks like. As I reach up to unzip the tent fly I hear a sound that stops me, cold. A welcome sound but quite unexpected.
The howling of wolves!
I call to Tim and Betsy. They hear it, too. It is unmistakable, so clearly different from the coyotes last night. Although not as many as the 27 Druids in January, I would guess we are hearing at least 6 distinct voices.
The beautiful sound trails off. I step outside into the beautiful morning and do a wolf-dance. How I wish I could start every day this way!
Betsy and Tim step out of their tent, smiling at our surprise greeting. We figure it must be the Nez Perce pack. Now if only we could SEE them, too! We begin our morning rituals. I comment that I woke up once during the night and heard a bird singing the type of song you hear at dawn but I knew it couldn't be dawn yet. Tim says he heard it, too and looked at his watch. It was 2:30 AM! Someone needs to have a talk with that bird. Either that bird is confused or there is a practical joker in the bunch. I name him a "morning-breasted-nutcase".
Breakfast is just as nice as dinner. Betsy makes pancakes and we have real maple syrup! I discover I have forgotten to bring a cup for my coffee. Luckily one of Betsy's plastic cups works just as well. Nothing like coffee in the morning in the woods. Betsy has sugar and I have cinnamon so we are set. We see the eagles again and this time find where the nest is, less high than we expected, and well-concealed. We watch their behavior and decide it means they have chicks.
Suddenly we hear the wolves again. Another nice long howl session, coming from a slightly different spot. Wow! We speculate they may have a kill and are celebrating. Betsy searches the meadow with her binocs but doesn't see them. No matter. It's enough to know we are sharing this corner of the world with them.
We take it easy as the daylight grows, enjoying our lovely spot. We talk about our plans for Fairyland and the upcoming days. We watch the beetles swimming happily in the shallow water and hear the scolding of squirrels and the chattering of birds.
All too soon we find ourselves breaking down our tents for drying and then packing up for the hike out. We are about half-way back when I realize I've left a water bottle behind. I don't want the next camper to find what will look like litter. Tim and Betsy are willing to wait so I drop my pack and hurry back. As I walk I practice taking the orange safety off my bear spray canister. As I am putting it back on the second time, my finger presses the trigger. FFFFTTTTTT! A bright orange cloud explodes to my right and is blown harmlessly behind me. Wow! So that's how it works! Fast and furious. Boy am I glad my arm was extended!
I find the bottle with no trouble and hurry back to my comrades. We hike on a bit further then decide to explore the thermal area on the banks of the Firehole River. We leave our packs and move cautiously along the trail. We find a large plopping mud pot, many hot-springs and spouters. The trail peters out and we forge ahead on our own, exploring. We cross some scary spots where run off streams find their way down to the main river channel. Then we come across a notorious spot - Cavern Springs where Sara Hulpers lost her life and her two friends were scalded last summer.
We become quiet. My heart is sore to see this spot, yet I want to pay some kind of tribute to a brave young girl I never met but who, from all reports, loved Yellowstone as much as I do. My senses are full of contradictions: it is a beautiful spot. It is so easy to see how the accident happened. There are still telltale impressions in the thick white deposits on the bottom of the spring; you can see where the edges were disturbed in a frantic grasp for life. There is a small cairn of rocks and a few feathers left in tribute. Whether left by strangers or friends, it is moving to see. I leave a small rock of my own and say a prayer for Sara. I say two more for Lance and Tyler, that they will heal. I treasure the reminder of how precious life is, how in an instant it can be over, even in a place of beauty and love.
There are other sights in this area: a large multicolored runoff flows over a hillside into the River. There are delicate yellow flowers grasping a living at the edge of these flows and other stark pools of crystal-clear deadly water. We see ample evidence of hooved animals that have broken through the thin crust. We can only speculate whether or not they avoided serious injury but we find plenty of whitened bones. And there are fly-fishermen plying the waters
After a while we head back to the trail and out to where we left our cars. On today's Loonion schedule is a tour of the Lower Geyser basin guided by Dave M. One of these days I will finally meet this fabled Loon but unfortunately not today. I thank Tim and Betsy for a terrific first day.
I head off to points north and east. At Madison Junction I find a large bison herd, which has caused a major jam. It's Sunday after all and this is what Yellowstone is famous for. I head up the Gibbon Canyon road. The construction has begun but I have good luck in that I have no delays. However it is distressing to see how the land has been torn up. Particularly at the Gibbon Falls picnic area which seems to be used as a staging ground for the whole project. There are huge brightly colored earth-moving machines and a sickening mound of uprooted trees, live ones, in a dying pile. I guess it is impossible for man to re-build a road without this destruction but it is awful to look at. I hope they complete it as soon as possible and give the land a chance to heal itself.
There are two more bison herds visible from this road along the river and I take comfort in the fact that they don't seem too bothered by the road repairs. The scenery remains stunning. Again I find myself remembering sightings from past trips. I also wonder how this part of the park looked under the snows of winter.
I pass Norris and continue on. At Roaring Mountain I hope for a sighting of bear 264 that I've heard so much about. But it is the middle of the day and an unlikely time for a sighting. In Willow Park I notice a few elk far out in the meadow with heads up. I stop and sure enough I am rewarded with a cow elk and a nursing calf. How sweet! I watch a good long while. Some other people stop, others move on, perhaps not appreciating the rarity of the sight. This calf can't be more than a day or two old. It nurses a long while then takes a few hesitant steps. After a little while mom leads it into timber at the meadow's edge, stopping and looking, stopping and looking.
I drive on and in very little time find a sizeable jam around Indian Creek. I am still hoping for 264 but it is a moose, resting in the timber. Lots of people are out of their cars but most stay just off the road, taking pictures of the laconic fellow. It is rare for me to get a moose this early in my trip. Thanks, Mr. Moose!
I go on again as the sky clouds over. Little drops begin to spatter the windshield, hardly enough to require wipers. As I reach Swan Lake Flats however, I drive into a squall and Ms. Jeep is drenched. Then the car ahead of me slows down abruptly and I see why. A young moose has trotted out of the sage on the right. It crosses the road and continues to trot through the sage on the left. He continues along the lake edge, his large gangly body in silhouette against the bright water. There is no one behind me so I just watch the moose as he gradually slows to a comfortable walk. On the lake beyond him two swans glide in elegant precision.
I drive on through this grand landscape. The sky darkens. At the top of the Golden Gate Ms. Jeep is ticked with hail. Hail the size of, let's say, peas. Plump peas, mind you, then marbles. I slow to 15 mph as the road winds around hairpin turns and steep drop-offs. At the hoodoos it becomes dark as evening. The hail pummels my roof and windshield. Then suddenly it changes to big fat drops of rain that bounce and splash off. The trees love it and drink it gladly. The sage and the ground beneath soak it up, relishing its sweetness and giving off a warm, nutty smell.
I stop at Albright to look for Ballpark Frank. I dodge T-shirted tourists as they scurry to their cars with purses or maps of Yellowstone over their heads. Inside I learn from the helpful Emily that Frank is not here. Then around the corner comes Ranger Bill. How nice to see him. We talk wolves a little but I fear I am keeping him from his duties. John isn't here either of course, because it's Sunday. Silly Wendy.
I head to Lamar with a hard rain falling. It is just heaven to see the Park this way, drenched and happy and bursting with the life of spring. I seem to have the place all to myself again as the storm has scared a good many people inside. I am amazed at the incredible bright green of the aspens - a marvelous, palpable green. I got to know this drive pretty well under its winter blanket. It's so nice to see the same hills and forests green and growing again.
As I make the turn at Roosevelt a warm feeling washes over me yet again. This is the gateway to Lamar. I am home. Home again. My lungs fill up with clear air and I start to sing. I call hello to each of the hills and turns and vistas I love best. Just past the Yellowstone Picnic Area three mule deer dart quickly through the wet brush into the trees. These mule deer were not to be found last winter. I welcome them back.
In a few more moments I have reached Little America, the land of the grey-green boulders, upon whose snowy white tops I had seen coyotes perch and howl. No snow now. And no coyotes either. I long to see one in the worst way. But after another few turns I come upon what must be the place to see 103's den. There are three vans here and three scopes and several lawn chairs! Yep. This has got to be it.
I pull in and as quietly as I can, start to assemble my scope. I listen and hear enough information to know that the pups are out and that 103 is in sight as well. I am giddy with excitement and it's hard to make my fingers work. I finally get set up and follow the line of sight of the scope next to me, a lady whose husband sits smiling in his camp chair, happy as can be. A young couple arrives and searches the far hillside with their binoculars. I listen as they are given directions by the lady. I follow along through my scope. I keep it on low power as I scan, then increase the power once I have a target, as Doug instructed. This works well. I locate the fallen-down-tree. Mark said the den is to the right and a little down from that…OH! OH! OH! Black dots moving! One, two! OH! OH! I see them! Black wolf pups! I've got wolves! I see Druids! Of course I cry. I also do a very muted version of the Druid Dance close to my Jeep since there is no one here to properly appreciate it.
Wow! That den is far away! This is exactly why I have a scope. Thanks Doug! To my everlasting delight I see now THREE BLACK PUPS, cavorting up and down and over and back on a fairly steep hillside. The ground around the den is slightly barer than the rest and looks a little reddish in contrast to the sage. I see the pups play a version of follow the leader except the leader keeps changing as they spar and tussle. Quite frequently one will just plop down as if plumb tuckered out, only to burst up again and join in all over.
I watch this quite happily and then begin to hear people quietly saying things like "she's up", or "she's moving uphill". I know they must mean mom, 103F so I start searching the hillside for her. But I forget to reduce the power so I don't find her right away. Someone says "she's right at the den now. She's looking over at the pups". I scoot back to the den and OH! There she is! Pretty girl 103. She's much harder to see than the pups. I think it's because she has some grey in her and also because she stands still while they are mostly moving. There, the pups are all with her now.
OH! How sweet! They greet her and bounce around her. She just stands there, serenely. I can't see all of her as she is blocked by what I suppose is a tallish sage plant. It could be the pups are nursing. In another moment or two she goes inside the den (well I guess she did - she basically disappeared) and the three bouncy black dots disappear, too.
From the comments I overhear, the other spotters saw her go into the den as well. People look around at each other, smiling in a special kinship, as if we all had just won a ball-game together. It's a good feeling. I fold up my scope and thank everyone at the pullout. Before I go I take a good look at the hillside far away where four wolves live. I want to be able to find them again.
I head east but I don't get far. I see a tall man setting up his scope and pull over ahead of him. It's Gary - one of my "bearmen" friends from last year. I tease him for being such a loner, he teases me about Chief. While we are talking a pretty blonde lady walks up and asks who I am, referring to my Loon flag. I'm Wendy I say, who are you? Tonya says Tonya and now I've met another NEW Loon. I introduce Gary to Tonya and we talk about wolves. I chide Gary about spending his time at a wolf den when there are bears about. He says it's been too hot, the bears are all hiding. Tonya tells me there is not much Druid activity yet in the direction I'm going, then tells some tales of her glimpses of 103.
After a little I bid them both adieu and try again to get to Silver Gate. The rain is only a drizzle now but it seems unlikely to let up. In Lamar Canyon I notice with surprise that the river is running clear. I had expected the milky-brown color from last spring. This is a big difference and the effects of the dry winter hits home.
I choke up again as I enter the Lamar. It is more beautiful than ever and looks just as rugged and wild as ever. I force myself to keep driving rather than stop at pullouts but I take everything in, the smells, the sounds of meadowlarks, the snow on the mountain tops, the contented bison grazing. I see scattered elk and some antelope at one end of the bison herd. I want to see a coyote. I haven't seen one all day! I scan the meadows as I drive but miss the coyotes that I'm sure are there. I stop at the confluence because it is such a wonderfully wild tangle of life and I forgot how wide it is. I drive slowly where the river runs close to the road. I like to hear it gurgle. Then the river curves away and before me is the Druid nursery. Hello Druids! Hello 42! Hello 21! I hope I'll be seeing you both soon!
I stop at the Footbridge. I get out to look out at the brown cliffs and the river that I've missed so much. A kestrel hovers. I smile and thank it for greeting me so nicely. There are a few lone bison out there but overall it is quiet. The kestrel dives and swoops off to the south. I stand in the drizzle awhile just breathing and looking and loving it more than ever.
On and on I go up the valley. Somewhere after Ice Box Canyon I notice some white stuff on the sides of the road. It looks like the sinter of thermal areas. Ha! I laugh out loud. It's SNOW! Just a feather dusting but it's snow all right. Some of the evergreens hold it, too. 80 degrees, hail and snow! I love this place!
I make my apologies at Silver Gate and pay for the extra night. Lew and Deb are supposed to be here and Peggy B and John and Carlene but the place looks deserted at the moment. I check out my room and declare it perfectly fine. I crash out for a rest as the rain falls again in earnest. I hear it through the window I opened and I fall asleep to its gentle drumming.
Now I'm back up and refreshed. I have a quick dinner and pop into the grocery store next door for some honey for tomorrow's tea, then zip up to Cooke City for gas. Now I am ready for the evening 's viewing session even though it is still raining. I'm betting it will clear up. I head back down to my most favorite place in the world. I pass both mulies and elk foraging near the road. Their coats are all scraggly as they are still shedding from winter.
At the Hitching Post pullout I see Tim and Betsy in their truck. They are talking to Frank and Cathy! Yay! This must be the place tonight. I pull in (we should call them pull-ins, not pullouts) and we have a great meeting - Loon hugs, of course. Everyone catches up with each other but the topic keeps coming back to one subject - The terrific campfire-sing-along-weiner-and-marshmallow-roast that I missed last night while Tim and Betsy and I were out hiking. And if that isn't enough, I'm told that Photodude joined the group! And everybody liked him! This is NEWS of the LOONIEST kind.
We stand in the pullout with the rain falling gently on us, not minding a bit. Frank tells me Photodude is looking for me. I'm not sure if I should hide or what. We all just keep gabbing and joking and all kinds of Loons start showing up. Lew and Deb drive by meaning to go back to Silver Gate but they stop and now they're hooked. It's great seeing them and I hear all about their sightings and how today's tour of the geyser basin was cut short by a hailstorm. They tell me they heard that 42 was seen heading toward 103's den yesterday and they were worried that she may have come to kill the pups, as alphas sometimes do. I want to have faith in 42 as a tolerant sort but such a tale gives me pause. Frank helpfully distracts me by telling of the most amazing grizzly sighting at LeHardy Rapids reported by Cathy W and Mike, whom I haven't seen yet. Cathy W always gets incredible grizzly sightings. Then suddenly Frank is introducing me to Treemover (another New Loon) who is here with his large family and then up comes Jakeman along with his girfriend Leslie and four of their Canyon buddies. Jake starts ripping into me right away but somehow I don't mind it.
I show the kids my new scope and Jake chides me - well do you have an animal in it? I sheepishly reply that he's right, I've not even looked yet I've just been yakking. He trains it on the brown cliffs of Norris and promptly gets six bighorn sheep. Yay Jake! So we watch sheep a while. Then he finds five more on Druid Peak. Just as I hoped, the sky begins to brighten and looks very much like its going to clear up after all.
Then Jake says he sees some people feeding coyotes. We all look towards the confluence and sure enough about four cars are stopped in the road. There are two coyotes in the road right next to a car. Jake watches through his binoculars and keeps describing what he sees. I can't stand it and get in Ms. Jeep. I drive down, asking myself what the heck do I plan to say once I get there? When I get there the coyotes are in the meadow heading south. One car has moved on but three are still stopped. I call out my open window to the first person "did you see anyone feeding those animals?" Nope says the guy. I pull over and get out. I walk along the road asking all the people IN the road who are taking pictures of the coyotes if anyone saw anyone feeding the animals. A German couple, clearly surprised by the close sighting says "they were right on the road." I say "yeah, that's because someone was feeding them. People do that and then the animals get used to it and then they get hit by cars and get killed" I add, wincing at my belligerence. I ask the next couple if they saw anything. They say "no, just the coyotes were in the road." I wave toward Hitching Post and say by way of explanation "someone back there said he saw people feeding those coyotes". They shake their heads and seem concerned at the idea.
There is one man left and I ask him. He denies it, too. He says "I just saw the cars stopped". I have to admit none of these people seemed to be lying or covering up. So maybe Jake was mistaken. Or maybe the one doing it took off already and the others just couldn't see because of the angle. Anyway just as I am feeling the most foolish another car pulls up. It's Frank. I shrug. Frank smiles. I turn around and follow him back to the Hitching Post. I guess he thought I might just get myself into trouble to big for me. I guess I could have, too. Frank, I don't know if you came down there to back me up or to scrape me up but it was awful nice of you. Thanks.
Well I said I wanted to see coyotes, so I guess I got my wish! After this little episode the rain stops completely and the sky shows real promise. Someone mentions moving west and we seem to be in agreement so on we go. As I am passing the Trash Can pullout I recognize Sandy and Rick. I pull in and we do our Loon Hugs. What a night in Lamar this has turned out to be! And not only that but Sandy and Rick have a grizzly in their scope! I get mine set up and WOW! My first grizzly! He's a big guy, probably a male, rooting up high on a hill, maybe smelling for calves. I watch him just a little while then he tops the ridge. Nice sighting!
I thank them and tell them the rest of the Loons are moving west. I hook up with the others at Dorothy's Knoll. Cathy W and Mike are here. It's great seeing them again. We start yakking again and then a man named Gunther gets a sow griz and cubs in his scope. Lew gets them and passes the word to me and soon I have them, too! Alright! Four grizzlies in one night! They are high up on a ski slope hill. The cubs run across a snowbank and begin to play, sliding down the snow even. What fun!
More Loons arrive. John and Carlene pull in. I have a merry meeting with them. John hands out his new business cards. Pat and Judy join us and regale us with their day of Druid sightings. Then I meet PeggyB, our own Yelloweyes. Peggy has a long rope-braid of yeller hair (which she sometimes wears loose) and she seems to be the epitome of the "wise Female", just as her trip reports describe. We share stories of sightings and of course THE WONDERFUL CAMPFIRE THAT I MISSED last night. Peggy and I hug about seventeen times. We also experiment with several versions of the Druid Dance including the Regurgitation Rumba and Rear Leg Urination Rag. (Did I really say that?)
Then a van pulls in, a dark blue van with no windows. A van with a level platform built on top and a ladder attached to the side. This is the van of Photodude. He saunters over. He is very tall. He is much younger than I thought he was. Why, he's even cute, smiling and friendly-like. Could this really be the man whose peculiar and obtuse postings have sometimes led some of us to thoughts of homicide? The man whose deep and abiding hatred of all things NPS could fuel a dozen case studies of paranoia? Whose recent revelation of his Loathing of Links surprised even our most tolerant posters? Yes. Yes. This is he.
I introduce myself and give him a Loon hug. He sits down (which is far more conducive to conversation with me given my, ahem, Wendy-level). The Photodude is both what I expect and not what I expect. He is not black & white but complex, just as humans usually are. Imagine!
Cathy gets an eagle nest in her scope. We hear a meadowlark trilling right across the road but I never do see it. The bears go over the hill and we begin to lose the light. We all have a wonderfully Loony time as the dark begins to descend. Scopes are unattended and the yakking and joking goes on and on. Photodude goes to his van and brings back a nicely bound portfolio of wonderful photos, some we have seen posted and some wholly new. We oooh and ahhh and he seems to enjoy the compliments. Then he brings over his video camera in which he has footage of several of his top sightings from today as well as recent weeks. He rewinds the tapes and plays them for us all. We take turns watching in the palm-sized but crystal-clear monitor. He has several great bear sequences including one up a tree. Then he astonishes me with a Druid sequence involving a dead elk calf that is just unbelievable. Everybody wants a turn and we are all blown away.
Now comes the bad part when we have to say goodbye. I would have been happy to stay a lot longer (I'm sure most of us would have) since the company and entertainment was top notch and the location was to die for. But I feel if I don't start for home soon, I will probably have an accident. I try to get Photodude to commit to returning next weekend. He says he'll try but might have a work conflict. So we part. Loons do not like to say good bye. I noticed this last year. We draw it out as long as we can and even then some of us stay anyway and talk some more, in the dark, with the plovers and the night birds piping.
I finally make my way in the dark back up the valley toward Silver Gate. Other than eyes on the side I only see one animal on the way back - something rabbit-sized scurried across the road right before the "Entering Montana" sign. As I get to my spot I find a car blocking it. I drive on to find an alternate space. I decide to follow the cabin loop and start over. The loop is deeply rutted and the holes are full of rain-water. As I am about to turn I am trapped as another car enters from the opposite end. I stop with the intention of backing up. Oops. Three of my wheels have sunk deep into watery mud troughs. Hmmmm. Try first gear. Spin. Try reverse. Spin. Oh great. I am stuck. I am blocking someone's cabin, probably one of my friends, and it is nearly midnight.
Ha ha Ho ho. You guys will never stop razing me about this. Actually it turns out just fine. It is Lew and Deb in the approaching car and it's their cabin I am blocking. In a second or two Deb comes over and helpfully shows me how to put a 4WD rental Jeep into 4WD. Once that's done, Ms. Jeep pulls out quite nicely. Thanks Deb!
I learn something new and find a safe spot to park. I manage to brush my teeth and wash my face before dropping like a stone into dreamland.
Today I saw: antelope, 4 grizzly bears (2 adults & 2 cubs), bison, 2 coyotes, mule deer, 2 bald eagles, elk (including 1 nursing calf), 1 kestrel, 2 moose, 11 bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, 2 red squirrels. 2 swans, 1 scurrying night-creature, 4 Druid wolves (103F & 3 pups) and 23 Loons