DAY 5 - Wednesday May 30th

THE GHOST CALF

I'm up early again this morning. I hope to see a black bear on the way down from the campground but none appear. Just across from the Yellowstone Picnic area I see 3 mule deer. They stop their grazing to look up at me. Hello mulies! I drive on to Little America. At the Boulder Pond I get out to look for 103 but see no movement. However a gorgeous dawn arrives, turning the sky bright orange and yellow. Oh that's pretty.

I find the action at Dorothy's Knoll. On the north side of the road is the same (presumably) grizzly sow and 2 cubs from last night. Good, she escaped the boar after all. I set up the scope and try to see the bears as the move uphill just below the ridgeline. The sun is still behind the mountain and they are pretty hard to see. There is an elk walking nervously ahead of the bears but I don't grasp the significance of this yet. Charles is here this morning. I recognize most of the folk in the pullout as the same ones from last night, as well as Anne, whom I remember from last year.

In talking to Charles I learn that the Druids are hunting up on Cache Creek. Well, good, then I can watch this bear without worrying I may be missing Druids. The light reaches the ridge where the bears are and I suddenly have a photo op. I attach camera to tripod and click away. To make it even better the sow & cubs make steady progress downhill, getting closer and closer.

I hear someone say something about bison, but who cares about bison when you've got a grizzly in view? I remain intent on getting my shots. The next thing that happens is I hear a deep rolling "wuuummph" behind me. I pull back from my viewfinder and see THREE GIGANTIC BISON less than ten feet away, walking in a line right beside our cars! I grab my tripod and move with Charles to the side of a van. People scurry in all directions, grabbing scopes, taking what little cover the cars provide. What are these bison doing in a pullout full of cars and people? Well, apparently they want to cross the road and they want to do it NOW. They look as though they feel trapped by all the cars. But only for a moment. The leader walks between the end of one car and the front of another. How can there possibly be enough room for him to do that?!? Well, apparently there isn't. Something spooks him and they all start to run. Yeow! That is too SCARY!

Three bull bison gallop across the pullout and across the road. They plunge down the bank on the other side, and then, defying all logic, they turn and walk briskly east - exactly the same direction from which they came.

When they are finally a proper distance away we all catch our breath and start to laugh and make light of it, but really, it could have turned out much worse. One by one we re-set our scopes and get back to our bear watching. I am left with a sneaking suspicion that those bison did it on purpose, just for the fun of seeing us scatter. I wonder if bison talk about us when they all gather in their herds, telling "can you top this" tales of tourists?

Alright now, back to the bears. They have come down a full level and I wonder if we will have to vacate the pullout again. I watch the sow walking in a sort of random pattern that I will soon learn to recognize. She walks nose to the ground, often turning left and right, doubling back, sometimes rushing only to stop and change direction. Her cubs follow dutifully, stopping on and off to entertain us with their delightful roughhousing. I just love watching little bears. Suddenly the sow makes a different move. She bolts in three big strides up hill, then turns back and then her head goes down into the sage. I hear a terrible, plaintive mewing, a horribly desperate cry. Three, four times. Then silence. The bear's head comes up once and there is something in its jaws. Then her head is down again. The cubs race uphill to her and are hidden from view in the sage. Now I understand.

She has found and killed an elk calf. She had been searching for it the whole time. The nervous elk on the ridge was trying to distract the sow, to lead her away from the helpless calf she had hidden in the sage. I am told that elk calves have no scent. This explains why the bear (with its legendary olfactory powers) does not simply make a beeline for it. The bear has to search and practically stumble onto a calf in order to find one. I am guessing that this calf bolted at the last second, which is why the bear suddenly ran. I will never get that plaintive sound out of my head. I am not sorry I saw so little of the actual capture. The sound is hard enough to take. I know the bears need to eat and I know there are many, many elk but I can't help it. My heart hurts for that tiny thing. I suppose I am still very naïve when it comes to coping with this aspect of nature.

I look at Charles and see it affects him, too. Then we see something else that affects us. As the bears feed, steam rises from beneath them. It hovers above the predators in the cold morning air and seems to remain a long time. I think it is the ghost of the lost calf and that this is the only gesture of mourning the wild will allow.

When Mark and Carl show up, Charles and I fill them in on the joys and sorrows they missed. Ravens have gathered on the hill now, waiting their turn. The bears finish and move up and out of viewing range. The ghost calf is gone and the ravens take over. We turn away scanning for other subjects. Someone finds a bighorn ram, then a second one on the brown cliffs below Specimen Ridge. I have never seen bighorn here before and in fact, never thought to look for them here. They are amazing, defying gravity as they do. One of them is actually running along the top ledge, leaping lightly over gaps that lead to thousand-foot drop-offs like they were cracks in a sidewalk.

I decide to move east to get a better view of them. I stop at a high pullout east of the Institute. I'm not sure what this one is called, maybe Mid-point? It offers a straight-on view of the cliffs where the bighorns are. I get them in the scope and watch happily. Mark and Carl join me and then so do Pat and Judy. They regale me with tales of their wonderful sightings. They are having a great trip alright! I think Judy is plunging into Loon-hood faster than she ever meant to. We hear cranes in the meadow and finally find a pair of them at the river's edge. I look for wolves in the rendesvous area. No wolves but I notice the large bison herd with many calves quite far away. I also see a few antelope.

I've got an hour or so before the hike so I roam around. I stop at the Footbridge a while, looking at all my favorite spots. I find a kestrel hovering above the water and watch it a while. Then I hear some duck-drama going on and watch that. Just the usual squabbling over water rights is all. And I sit for a while watching the rapids below Ice Box Canyon.

I park at the Trout Lake pullout and get my pack ready. I do a little foot mending. The blister I'd gotten on my short hike to Eagle Lake is nearly healed but I add some moleskin just to be safe. The rest of the Loons arrive and start to pack up. We see a couple head up the trail with fly rods and Jake wonders whether fishing season has opened earlier than expected. The sign clearly says June 15th. Hmmm. A big bus pulls up and about fifty school kids get off, squawking and chattering like geese and red squirrels. Just like last year, we will be sharing the beautiful serenity of Trout Lake with a bunch of kids. Ah, well, I think to myself, they may be the environmentalists of the future.

Jake decides at the last minute to leave his fly rod in the car rather than risk a ticket. Up the trail we go, spirits high. They sun is bright but the air today is distinctly cooler. Trout Lake is just as gorgeous as I remembered it. Everyone is amazed at how lovely the view is and we all enjoy seeing the abundance of wildflowers so early in the year. I see blue forget-me-nots, deep-indigo larkspur and a new favorite - Prairrie Smoke! Bonnie, Joette and Pat are all good at identifying them. Jake is good at identifying trout.

The kids have gathered at the inlet stream so we pretty much figure we will not see otters today. We find a relatively flat spot on which to rest and have our lunch. The mosquitoes are no problem today, but there are a few bees. We all share our food and laugh and talk as Loons always do. Pat, Judy and Bonnie decide to forego the bushwhack and explore the Lake instead. Finally we notice Jake is getting restless, so we gather our stuff and off we go.

We begin by following the inlet stream. We see evidence of a road once leading this way but it peters out. Jake naturally takes the lead. We have all read the Fairyland trip reports in which his superb trail-finding skills were revealed. He also has boundless energy. I only wonder how we'll keep up with him! But he proves to be attentive as well and though he scouts far ahead at times he always returns to catch us up.

As usual I have trouble going uphill - I huff and puff and my knees protest. Joette is doing the same. Ryan stays up front with Jake, enjoying the adventure. Mark is beside himself with joy and excitement that we are actually doing this and Carl is his usual easy-going self. We reach a meadow in which the stream forks. I ask that it be named Wendy's Fork because, well, I think it's really cool to have a little stream named for me. Luckily no one objects (with apologies to Mr. Whittlesey). From here Jake leads us higher and soon we come to a body of water called Shrimp Lake; who knows why it's called this? It's very spooky-looking. It's surrounded by trees and the water is dead-still and covered in green scum. I would call it Dark Lake.

The forest gets thicker and so does the deadfall. Joette wonders out loud a few times "how will we know how to get back?" I point out distinct-looking Abiathar Peak, which is directly behind us and has been since we started up the inlet stream. I tell her if anyone gets lost, just keep that peak in the center and go downhill. As much as Joette likes hiking, she is not overly fond of bushwhacking. But she remains game.

Our luck in seeing wildflowers continues and Joette and I are delighted to find several scattered pockets of the elusive and beautiful Fairy Slippers (Calypso Orchids). We also see an abundance of wild Clematis. We reach a spot with a huge boulder that Jake climbs nimbly as a mountain goat. He stands on top looking down at us, as high as the trees. It gives him a good view of our direction and soon we head off again. There is no encouraging view for us, though. We see only forest. Beautiful forest, to be sure, but we are hoping for a glimpse that will let us know how close we are to our goal.

Soon after this we reach a strange area that has many huge boulders like the one Jake climbed. So many that I want to call it The Boulder Forest. But they are not like the smooth granite glacial erratics found in many eastern forests. These are jagged and rotten rocks, which crumble easily. Most are covered in moss and other plant growth. I suppose the porous nature of the rock invites the gathering of sediments in which seedlings can and do take root. The land itself is broken and sharply undulating which contributes to the weird feel of the area. I've never seen a place like this and it makes me very curious about its geological history.

The way gets harder. Both the undergrowth and the deadfall gets thicker and there are a few tricky places that sap our strength. Jake tells me this is what I will have a lot of on the way to Fairyland, minus the weird boulders. This gives me food for thought. We pass some whitened bones of an elk and I find a rubbery hoof still attached to the whitened bone. I am getting winded and Joette is, too. She says she'll sit here and wait while the rest of us go on. I don't want her sitting there alone without bear spray so I say I will stay with her. I don't mind the rest either. We all agree that if the others are not back by 3PM, Joette and I will start down. We sit on a big fat log in the cool shade and talk. She is gutsy, my friend Joette, still raw with grief from her loss. She says she is glad that Ryan has someone his own age to hike with today and I comment on how sweet he has been to her.

After a short time we hear shouts that sound happy. Jake appears and says he has found a place where the falls are visible. He says it's not far. And he's right. In short order we arrive at Joette's Overlook, a small clearing dominated by a rounded boulder that affords a view of the falls and the steep-sided, thickly-forested valley in front of it. The edge of Joette's Overlook drops rather precipitously into this valley. To get across it to the base of the Falls looks like an all day hike to me, a bit much for this group to do today. But Jake is making all kinds of plans. He says he bets he and Leslie can get up there using a different route.

We rest and eat a second lunch looking at the lovely view. We notice how the wind effects the Falls, causing it to disappear completely as if it suddenly dried up. In the next second the water returns and pours off the precipice in a wide white torrent. We can even hear it at times. I try to follow the water as it drops over the edge and falls into space. The wind blows and buffets it. It is never the same from one moment to the next.

Jake wants to take a picture of us all with the Falls in the background and sets about roping his camera to a tree in order to accomplish this. Of course it works. He sets the automatic shutter and rushes into position with the rest of us. It's a comically surreal moment as the camera plays a phone-tone melody-countdown before it clicks; Beethoven's "Fur Elise".

After several last looks we head back down, a proud little group indeed. I know Mark was hoping to reach the cliff itself but he seems pleased to have done what we've done and I know he is tickled that so many Loons shared the experience. I have not done any serious bushwhacking in a very long while and I rediscover the joy of it on this hike. There is something intoxicating about being in the animal realm, far from the trodden path. Despite my huffing and puffing I find myself more eager than ever to attempt Fairyland.

Jake stops a few times to reconnoiter and adjust. Abiathar Peak looms into view. At Wendy's Fork we decide to try a different way back. We find a spot the elk use to cross the stream. It's not deep and we could easily walk through it if we either took our shoes off or didn't care if our boots got wet. But instead we make stepping-stones of some handy rocks. It is still chilly today, and no one is particularly inclined to go for a swim.

We come out into a high meadow way above Trout Lake to an awesome view. Snow-topped peaks rise directly ahead and higher, jagged ones scrape the sky to the left. To the right a braided river winds on and on through a broad green valley and ridge upon ridge of hazy-blue mountains rise beyond that. It looks and feels like we have just discovered Eden. I am struck by the thought that once upon a time, all the world looked like this. And in the wide sky above soars an eagle.

We head down to the Lake, each at our own pace. The kids have left and the place is ours. We hike the long way around the Lake and then back down the trail. We are laughing and talking when suddenly I see Mark's hands up. Ryan has his finger to his lips. I stop, wondering what's going on? I creep up to the others and then I see it. MOOSE! A big moose (are there any small moose?) is munching the lush greenery about 20 feet from the trail. The six of us crouch on the hillside and watch him. He sees us but seems to have no intention of moving just yet. Too much yummy stuff right here. This is a much bigger and older moose than the one we saw on the Beaver Ponds Loop. Much thicker body, darker color, bigger antlers, and uh…well, 'nuff said.

I finish one roll of film and put in another (I am finally learning to always carry extra film with me). The moose moves only enough to get at the next clump of grasses. He remains too close for us to attempt the trail. But, heck, we are now certified bushwhackers so we pick a route far to the right and leave Mr. Moose to his salad. We go slowly, though, watching him for signals that our moves are not to his liking. I try my best to keep the thickest trees between us but he barely pays us any mind at all.

Back at the cars we talk about having dinner but in the end it is just Mark, Carl and I who head up to Silver Gate to dine at the Log Cabin. Lew and Deb have always raved about it. Well, they are right to do so. Not only is the food REALLY good and right for the price, but the service is, too. In fact, our waitress is the same nice young woman who checked me in across the street at the Silver Gate Cabins. I have a steak. Delish!

It is now after 6PM and Lamar is calling. We head back down in hopes of some more sightings. At Barronette Peak we look for mountain goats. Carl finds them first and I pull out the scope. As I am closing the hatchback of Ms. Jeep another car pulls in behind me and gets so close I am nearly squished. I turn to see who this imbecile driver is and get a surprise - it is Chief with a wicked smile on his face. We have a hug hello and I meet Maria and her son. Chief and I make our usual cracks to each other and then I get the goats in my scope and let them all look. Chief is impressed with my new scope.

We all have fun watching the animals. I see only two but I think Mark saw three. They are much lower on the cliff than where Cathy W spotted them last year. Carl says it's my job to find wolves tonight so we head on down the valley. I pull into the Footbridge out of habit. I see friends from last year, Ruth and Fuad of Boston. We have a nice reunion. In no time Fuad has a grizzly high up on Mt. Norris. Out come the scopes and binocs. I see a bull elk in a Disney pose on a grassy ridge. Below him and to the east I find the bear. It's a sow with two cubs of the year! This could be the same bear from this morning but I think not. Mom is busy grazing and grubbing. The cubs pay no attention to food at all. They are having a boxing match like I've never seen before. They are really going at it, knocking each other down, sliding, scrambling back up, rearing on hind legs lunging and biting. I know this sounds violent but really it is just too cute for words. I am so engrossed in their antics I forget to step back and share the scope.

I think this is may be the night I meet Michael, the former Lurking Loon. He has now begun posting some of the best-written trip reports since PeggyB burst on the scene. Great to meet you, Michael. Don't be a stranger! From Ruth and Fuad I learn that most of the Druids are still out hunting in Cache Creek. I figure I'll head west to check on 103. Mark and Carl say they are going my way, too. Somewhere in here (my notes say) I also saw a courting pair of grizzlies on Specimen Ridge (!) At the Boulder Pond I get set up but nothing much is happening. Nothing except an awfully pretty sunset that is. People tell us that 103 and the pups were seen on and off today but that now they are presumed to be inside the den.

Jake and Leslie join us then Lew and Deb drive by, see us and stop. They regale us with tales and then show us their video playback of a grizzly and two yearling cubs in the Sylvan Pass area. It is a stupendous sighting, very close and Deb is all excited because she watched one of them poop! I understand, Deb. They also tell us of their bizarre sighting of hundreds of worms in the road. We decide they need a bumper sticker on their car that says "Caution: I brake for worms".

A swan flies overhead and lands on the far side of the pond. We are losing the light and I know people are thinking of leaving. A young couple gets in their truck and turns on their engine. Suddenly Deb and I both think we hear a howl. I convince the couple to turn off their engine. We wait. Silence. Others try to convince us it was the whirring sound that the truck makes just before the ignition catches. Ruth says she thinks she heard it, too. The couple drives off. Silence again.

Now it's just us Loons, hoping for one more sighting before we call it a night. The light fades. I keep thinking this is when I always see wolves, when there is barely enough light left. Carl and Mark have a long drive back to Mammoth so they start their car and pull away. Then it happens. Shapes move at the den. It's 103! The pups are out! Somehow Mark and Carl figure this out by our body language. They turn around and get back out. We train all the scopes on the far away densite and watch three black dots romp and play. Everyone gets a turn to look. Everyone gets a four-wolf sighting. I do a Druid dance, in fact I do several. After this it is really impossible to see so we finally accept it and say goodnight. Boy, it's late! You know how some people close bars? Well, Loons close pullouts.

Today I saw: antelope, 8 grizzly bears (4 adults & 4 cubs), bison, 2 Sandhill cranes, 4 mule deer, ducks, 1 bald eagle, elk, 2 mountain goats, 1 kestrel, 1 moose, 2 bighorn rams, ground squirrels, 1 swan, 4 Druids wolves and 15 Loons


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