Despite getting in so late I am up at the crack of dawn. I want to see wolves today!
I am tossing stuff in the car when PeggyB rushes over from her room. She leaves this morning to go back to Texas. She has her photos and I happily look at them. We talk about how much fun we've had and how we are sorry to have spent so little time together. She insists that I take her leftover food. In fact, she gives me her whole cooler and her extra Loon flag. She is so great.
Peggy and I hug for the 27th time. She goes back to her packing and I head west. The day looks quite bright. I have mulies and elk on the way down through the forest as I almost always do when I stay at Silver Gate. But imagine my surprise when I spot a moose in the timber just below Baronette Peak.
I'm not sure it is a good idea to strive to be a good spotter while one is driving…my efforts have led me mighty close to running off the road. But this guy I see easily. I slow down and stop a fair distance away in the hopes of not spooking him. I get my camera ready while still in the car, then get out quietly and walk back, careful to remain on the road and appear as if I am "invading". He's fully aware of me but he stays in his spot. I sit on the edge of the road and watch him a while as he grazes, moves slightly forward, turns his head and then moves the other way. He seems large to me yet his antlers are short and stubby. Maybe he is young but big for his age. Or maybe he got a late start on antlers this year. At one point he looks up right at me and gives me a beauty shot. After this I feel I should leave him be. We are both alone on this beautiful morning and he deserves his solitude.
I say "thank you Mr. Moose" and walk back to Ms. Jeep. It's a perfect chilly morning, the kind I like best. The Soda Butte Valley is still sleepy. A lovely mist wafts up from the river and hovers in the flats. Just your ordinary gorgeous morning in Yellowstone. On I go, smiling and shaking my head at the absolute serenity. The Footbridge looks quiet so I go on to Hitching Post. I get out my stove and make some tea to warm up. I scan the hillside where we saw Bighorns last night but don't see them. I learn later that had I gone back to the Footbridge at this point I would have seen Druids. Ah well.
I head west to check on 103. As I round the bend past the confluence I find the Lamar Valley dressed in a beautiful morning robe of silky fog that I've never seen before. The river is a silver sash and the hillsides are draped in long soft sweeps of hushed-white. The first slanted sun-rays make the river edges sparkle. Gorgeous. I make my way slowly along the curving river-road, so happy to be able to see what I am seeing. As I near the western end the fog broadens, drowning the Jasper Bench in a rising tide of softest-white. I stop and get out of the car. As usual I am always delighted by the sounds of the morning, the meadowlarks and geese, the knocking of cranes and an occasional scolding yip of a coyote.
I give up trying to capture this ethereal splendor with my camera. Perhaps it is enough just to admire it while it lasts.
I finally make my way to the pullout in Little America opposite 103's den. I find a good assortment of wolf-watchers here including Charles whom I've been wanting to meet for some time. He is an easy-going guy with a captivating Texas accent who loves wolves deeply. He is watching along with Ranger Bill and we all have a Loony greeting. Then a nice-looking guy and a pretty dark-haired girl come over. They say they want to meet Wendy. Why it's Mike D and Alice! More new Loons! How cool. Mike D has hiked with Buck so I prod him for Buck stories.
I get 103 and her three darling black pups in my sights. We watch her and gush over the antics of the pups and I meet a few more people who have set up chairs and are in for the duration. I see Rick M up on the hill behind us. When he comes down to his car I say hi but he doesn't seem to remember me. Oh well.
I have a lovely time with the Loons as we watch the distant wolf drama. Actually there isn't much drama - it is more an "ordinary" domestic scene: Mom rests below den. Pups run around. Pups tire themselves out. Mom changes position. Versions of that. But I love every twitch of it. We share our scopes with anyone who pulls in and asks what's going on. This happens frequently since the chairs and scopes are red flags proclaiming "Stop! Serious Sighting". I am as fascinated by the different reactions of people as I am the behavior of the wolves. This morning everyone is nice, some are over-eager and misinformed but who among us has not been there?
Loons Pat and Judy show up and fill me in on what I just missed in the eastern valley. They are getting GREAT wolf sightings! I also get the story of 42's visit yesterday. I am happy to learn that I need not have wavered in my faith in my favorite alpha female 42. She came with a grey yearling to help feed the pups! 42's rise to power may have begun in violence but she has proven to be a most accomplished and benevolent Queen. Long may she reign!
But today is the Loonion and I have a schedule to keep so around 8:30 I start packing up and saying goodbye. I have been late for Loonion events in the past and don't want to do that again. I leave the Boulder Pond pullout and head towards Mammoth.
As I near the Albright Center I see Loons everywhere. I meet the wonderful Allison for the first time. When I first began to lurk on the Page, Allison's enthusiasm for the Park and her generous way in answering a newbie's questions hooked me right off. She and DBIII and Mardell (and John's trip reports) were my first links to what has become my fondest obsession. And then I see Joette. Dear Joette who so sadly lost her wonderful husband Bob mere months ago. She is so brave to come. We all had encouraged her and here she is with her thoughtful (and handsome) twenty-something son Ryan. Joette and I have a long hug and I feel her sorrow amidst the joy. She says she knows she is doing the right thing but that it feels very strange to be in Yellowstone this time.
And then we see the Oldtymrs. Out of their van burst Geri and Bruce and I get more big hugs. And here come my hike-mates Tim and Betsy, and Frank and Cathy and Lew & Deb. Then Pat and Judy pull in, and Mark R and Carl come over with Mark's sister Diana, her husband and their three kids. And I also meet Rosser and Lori D - two of the many Loons working in the Park this year. It is at this moment that I miss Dan M and Tim Williams the most. They are core members of the first Loonion and I'm sorry neither could make it this year. We call out their names and wave at the webcam. Tim brings out his cell phone and we dial up various Loons who couldn't make the trip.
We hang around the picnic table on the parade grounds, catching up, laughing and joking, figuring the webcam can see us and hope that some Loons at home might be watching. We are waiting for our fearless leader John Uhler. Rumor has it that he and Carlene went to breakfast in Cooke City. You might think with such a group that the favorite topics would be wolves and bears. But, no the big story this morning is Photodude's unexpected appearance and, to a lesser degree my getting stuck in the mud last night. No one seems to notice that, unlike last year, I left an ongoing wolf sighting in order to arrive EARLY!
John finally shows up and makes some lame excuses. But he is forgiven of course. Soon we are following him, caravan style (with much car-pooling) down the Gardner Canyon road and out of the Park. We take a dirt road to the cemetery - the same dirt road that Doug and I took to see antelope in winter. We are here to do a small service by cleaning up litter in the cemetery and placing flags on the graves of veterans for Memorial Day.
We are more subdued than is our usual style for obvious reasons. Large bags are passed out for gathering litter and glass. Each Loon takes a handful of bright new American flags (thoughtfully procured by absent-Loon Tim Williams). Every veteran receives a flag and we place the rest wherever it seems appropriate. Much of the litter is in the form of weather-deteriorated flowers left by mourners long ago and glass jars broken by exposure.
We find wildflowers growing happily here, including a beautiful flowering bitterroot plant. We find bones of antelope or deer, probably winter-killed. When our task is complete, John gathers us together and says one of his all-inclusive prayers. What he says is simple but moving and it makes me feel good about our special bond with each other, with the Park, and the ever- connectedness of life.
Then back to Mammoth we go for our Loonion lunch. The weather is stunning, warm and sunny so most of us take our food outside and sit on the lawn. Next up is an interpretive hike of the Beaver Ponds Loop trail led by Ballpark Frank. As we gather our things I see Deb stuffing a rain- jacket into her day-pack. "You never know" she says. I think this is over-doing it but toss mine in anyway. Deb saves me again!
On our way to the trailhead we pass an active edge of Mammoth Terrace which is steadily encroaching on an old building - a Ranger's house I think. A mound of earth has been man-built in a ludicrous attempt to stop its inevitable progress. It is clear that in a few short years the house will be engulfed. Photodude has often referred to this as evidence of typical NPS judgment. Then we notice the obvious reason why Yellowstone's mighty natural forces have targeted THIS house for destruction: at the back door stands a BBQ grill! (Sorry, inside joke!)
Before one gets to the Beaver Ponds Loop one must hike up a fairly steep hill. The day is hot and some of us over-forty types have a tough time. We pause often to catch our breath and gulp water. I show Carlene my trick of cooling off by dribbling water on my head or down my neck. She tries it. Oooh yeah! That feels better!
There is no one better at interpretive hikes than our own Ballpark Frank. He uses each pause to relate pertinent and interesting information about the forest, the animals or the history of the area. At one spot he shows us a trail marker from the past, which has huge significance for him. He explains that interpretive hikes are what drew him to the Service in the first place. He tells us he feels it is a core responsibility of being a National Park Ranger and speaks movingly of his concern that the practice is being woefully neglected in modern times.
To interpret well takes first a love of the outdoors, then the time and the inclination to master the appropriate lore of flora and fauna. The benefits to the Ranger and the public are a thousand-fold, from simply encouraging exercise to creating the tourist of the future to providing for both young and old the kind of connection to the natural world possible only through direct experience. As much as I love watching PBS or National Geographic nature shows, there is nothing like taking the hike yourself. And when you are accompanied by a knowledgeable Ranger, especially one with such a flair for storytelling and how each thing is related to the next, well it's unbeatable. Thank you, Frank!
The hike itself gives us spectacular views and a wide variety of landscapes. We find wildflowers and cross-billed birds and nesting Sandhills and yellow-headed blackbirds and even a young moose. We come upon him as he is resting just off trail. We remain as quiet as we can and make our way past him as unobtrusively as possible but suddenly he stands up with a HUFF! A thousand mosquitoes drop away from his body, temporarily displaced as he rises and rises and rises! He seems four times as tall on his slim long legs as he was resting. He eyes us warily and I consider the possibility that he may charge. We move along steadily until we reach a safe-feeling grove of trees. He snorts again and seems to re-consider the wisdom of sleeping so close to a foot-trail.
As we pass the second pond we hear ominous rumblings in the sky. It clouds over and begins to look rather dark. Soon the first drops begin to fall but then stop again. It rains lightly on again off again as we hike. The storm fully arrives as we reach the last long mile, an open sage flat with no shelter. After a bit of discussion about the very real dangers of lightning and ways to avoid it, Frank leads us to "Red Squirrel Hollow", a tree-filled juncture of two ridges. We leave the trail and slide down the dry-needle-strewn slope. A fallen tree towards the bottom provides a fine resting place, with good cover from the rain thanks to the interlocked branches of the surrounding trees. The temperature falls and now I see the wisdom of lugging my jacket along. We figure we'll wait out the thunder and the danger of lightning. There are several bright flashes but luckily nothing too close.
After about a half-hour of waiting, gabbing, snacking, a little shivering and exploring, we feel the worst is over and head out in the drizzle. We find a shortcut to the old Gardiner Road which is muddy but not overly so. Soaked and bedraggled, we make our merry way along the switchback road down to Mammoth. Along the way we realize from the looks of the still-threatening sky that our final event of the day, our sing-along around the campfire, will have to be canceled. John comes to the rescue by offering his living room instead.
We all agree to this modification and set about finding dry clothes and dinner. As is typical with Loons, we are never in a hurry to leave each other's company. Several small Loony groups stand in the rain talking merrily. Eventually I join Lew & Deb and Mike & Alice at the Park Street Grill for a wonderful dinner. Other Loons come in after us - I think the restaurant's business that evening was 50% Loony.
As we are eating, the clouds break enough to let out the westering sun. As if celebrating her release, the sun first lets loose an enchanting light that bathes and transforms the soft hills into a magical land of golden/green. Moments later she tops this with a curving wand of a rainbow, then tops it again with a DOUBLE curve. BTW - the next chance you have to see a double rainbow, check out how the colors in the second one line up in reverse order of the first one. Cool! We watch through the window in astonishment as both rainbows grow in intensity. The colors become so distinct and so bright I feel I could dip a paintbrush into them. People all over the restaurant ooh and ahh and rush outside every few minutes to snap pictures. I don't have my camera but I go out too and find an even MORE astonishing sight on display.
The vista before me is the landscape leading to the entrance gate to the Park, the jagged edges of Gardner Canyon, Mt. Everts and Bunsen Peak with the road and the gate in the center. Arching high over this lovely view is the double rainbow, a full, complete 180 degree double rainbow, stretching high and far both right and left, with all that gorgeous land cupped lovingly inside. HERE IS THE GATEWAY TO HEAVEN it seems to say. It is almost comical in its over-the-top grandness. If you saw this at the end of a Disney movie you would roll your eyes. But I'm looking at it.
I also look around at all these tourists gaping along with me. I get dizzy imagining that some of them are first-timers to the Park. Words fail and I just drink it in.
This, by all rights, should be the end of our Loonion day but it isn't. A short trip down the highway gets us to John's house for the evening's true capper. We head upstairs to the tower room from which I get a 360 degree view of the surrounding hills and mountains which are every bit as pretty as anything inside the Park. I learn that some Loons saw the double rainbow from this very spot!
Later we arrange ourselves in a wide circle around John's big living room and the tales begin. Frank takes the lead and has us in stitches as usual. Other Loons contribute stories and Geri cannot stop laughing about the shortcomings of a certain bear Frank dubs Junior. I look around at all the faces, at our Loon family. How it has grown and deepened. How full of love and good will. Happy Loonion everybody!
Many Loons have to leave in the morning; others have a long drive back to their lodgings tonight so sadly, the goodbye's begin. I am lucky to be staying in the tower room in my sleeping bag. Many hugs and "goodnights" later I listen to the sweet nighttime song of frogs and night birds coming through the open window. I even hear a distant coyote. What a day!
Today I saw: 1 cross-billed bird, 1 yellow-headed blackbird, bison, 1 sandhill crane, elk, 2 moose, mule deer, 1 rabbit, ground squirrels, 3 red squirrels, 4 Druid wolves (103 & 3 pups) and 31 Loons!