It is so lovely to be the only one up in a forest campground on the last day of May.
I tip-toe about and gently close my car doors. It's wonderfully chilly and I am glad of my fleece jacket. Again I head out hoping to see bears but settle for two mulies instead. They are very bold and stay in the road as I go by, then move oh-so-casually into the timber.
I approach the Boulder Pond pullout. Aha! There are cars here already. I stop and set up as quietly as I can. There are two guys here who I have seen almost every time I have stopped here. I think the one guy's name is Don. He has a distinctive wooden tripod and a set of binoculars on it as large as Photodude's Magoos. I wonder if they are part of the research team.
I train the scope on the den area and instantly see movement. A black pup scratches his neck with a back leg. Darn fleas I guess. It flops back as if exhausted but he is only taking a nap in the early morning sun. I scan the hillside slowly for other pups but don't find any. I go back to the sleeping one and can't find him either. I look around to gauge if other watchers are seeing any movement and I suddenly see Charles. I go over to him and we gab a while. He introduces me to the owner of a blue van - it's Bearman (aka Kevin Sanders). He's a very nice, friendly guy. I thank him for the many tips he's posted on the page over the years. Charles warns me not to say anything funny as Kevin is not allowed to laugh - poor thing had a run-in with an ornery horse that left him with a cracked rib. Hope you're feeling better now, Kevin!
Eventually we find 103 in a small patch of green below and to the right of the den. I am told she is often found here. It is thought that every now and then she needs a break from the antics of the pups and this spot is far enough for them not to follow, yet close enough for her to keep watch. There's not a lot of activity this morning but it is SO NICE to lean into your scope and find a resting wolf there.
I am just about ready to head off when the other two pups are spotted and the three of them start to tussle. Of course I stay to watch. I hear some people refer to the "runt" but the three black pups look all the same size to me. I suppose like anything else, the longer one observes, the more subtle differences one finds. I wish I had time this morning to do more study but it's a pretty long drive from here to the Midway Geyser Basin. I bid Charles and Kevin adieu and drive on.
For the first time on this trip I take the Dunraven Pass road. It is definitely done-meltin' this year, Steve. There is barely a smidgen of snow to be seen until I get halfway to the Mt. Washburn Trailhead. Only where the forest is thick and green do I finally see some leftover snowpack. I remember six-foot white walls last year in this spot. This year there is barely a foot. I have the road to myself though, and make good time. I see two hawks riding thermals and some elk high up but no other animals on this stretch. The views are just as breathtaking as ever.
As I make the turn at Canyon I realize I will arrive at Norris Junction before 9AM, before the road to Madison is open. So I decide to go north to see if I can spot the Obsidian bear with her first-ever successfully-raised yearling cubs. In the big meadow near the Norris campground I see elk and bison. I pass Roaring Mountain and see a lone photographer looking off. I slow down but don't see what he's looking at. Perhaps I should have stopped. On I go until I see a familiar car coming the other way. It's Mark and Carl. I tell them what I'm looking for. They say they just came from Mammoth and saw no bears or bear jams. They head off and I turn around. On the way back I see a magnificent bull elk in a meadow that I have to stop for. I sit on the hillside and watch through a gap in the trees. To my delight I find two more big bulls resting in the high grass with only their heads and antlers sticking up.
The day is warming quickly. At a spot where the Gibbon River is close to the road I spot an animal and pull over. I have a young bull elk right by the river. That might be a nice shot. I move Ms. Jeep further off the road and attach my 300mm lens. I sit on the hillside about 5 feet from the road and wait for him to come into view. He does, and quite elegantly. He nibbles grass, looks up from time to time, checks me out, finds me acceptable and munches again. Then he raises his back leg and deftly scratches behind his ear. He makes this awkward move look easy. He fine-tunes his aim and hoof-scratches between his antler-tines. I wonder if the velvet is about ready to come off. His rack is not huge (4 points) but it is very finely shaped and probably full-grown. He looks straight at me again. I smile and compliment him. He looks around, un-moved by my flattery. I sigh contentedly. I could sit and watch him all day. But I check the time and force myself to move on.
I see something in the road ahead: a lone bison walking in the middle of the road. I slow to a crawl. The bison makes no accommodating moves. He is not about yield the road to Ms. Jeep or anyone else. I pull as far over as I can and stop. The bison walks at the same steady pace, grunting softly. As he passes me his left eye locks on mine and stays on me as he moves by. Then he blinks and looks front again. Whew! That was surely a warning if I ever saw one!
A bit further on I see stopped cars and a flagman. We are waiting for the pilot car to arrive, leading its string of north-bound cars. It's a gorgeous place to be stopped and I don't mind a bit. In fact, I use the time to catch up on my notes. I also change to cooler clothes for the hike.
On the way up the hill past Madison Junction I see two tour buses and many cars pulled over and a parade of 50 Asian tourists at the edge of the road. A large bison herd has apparently crossed from the flats of the Gibbon to a bowl of new growth in an old burn. I see bison patties all over the road in a wide swath. It looks like they may have blocked the whole road for a while. I negotiate past the jam and keep going.
I get to Midway Geyser Basin only a few minutes late and no-one yells at me. Our Loony group consists of Joette, Ryan, Lori D, Rosser, Mark, Carl, Sandi, Rick and Leslie. I was hoping Funky Matthew would show for this but since it's his one day off in a while he told Joette he needs to take care of some personal stuff. I slap on sunscreen as I know there is little shade on this trail.
I walk with Rosser for a while and we have a funny conversation about celebrities. Rosser does have a great sense of humor. This hike also gives me a chance to get to know Leslie a bit better. She's a doll. She confirms that Jake wants her to hike to the base of Mark's Falls with him (and they did it, too!) Joette seems in a lighter mood today, after all we are on a regular trail, much more to her liking. She pays her usual close attention to wildflowers as we go.
We reach Fairy Falls pretty quickly and I am glad to find the shade. The Falls are every bit as lovely as I remember it. I notice a patch of snow about half-way up. I don't remember that! Rosser and Ryan are suddenly scrambling up the far side of the cliff, attempting to get to the very top of the Falls. They get so high we can hardly see them but in the end they have to stop before the top as it is just too dangerous.
A chipmunk peeks out from a log. It sits on its haunches sniffing and staring intently at us. I know that look! Then Joette and Lori D see a marmot pop up on a rock on the near side of the falls. It scampers about and stops here and there to nibble. Two young boys with their dad have just arrived. The kids squeal with excitement at the waterfall, then one of them sees the marmot. "A beaver!" he shouts and rushes toward it. The marmot escapes easily and hides among the rocks. The boy's brother joins the hunt. They charge this way and that, bursting with primal excitement while the marmot pops up again a good twenty feet away in the opposite direction. I keep waiting for the father to see the animal and correct the boys' mistake.
On my side of the cliff two more marmots begin to scurry about, one very fat yellow-bellied one and a smaller darker one. The boys make their way over to my side of the cliff and see these two. I say "You know what I think that animal is? I think that's a marmot". The older boy says "oh, we thought that was his dam". He refers to the logjam of deadfall in the creek beyond the waterfall pool. Well, I give him points for noticing habitat at least. I tell them that marmots love rocky spots like this. That anytime they come upon a spot like this they are likely to see marmots. Just then Rosser and Ryan, making their slow descent, cause a small rock-slide. One rock is of lethal size and for a second I think we are going to lose either a boy or a marmot. But both are spared as the rock takes a different path.
Sandi and Rick are about to take off so we give them Loon hugs good-bye. Then the rest of us hike on to Splash & Imperial, On the way we see a bison, but luckily it is far enough from the trail not to worry us. The colors in the runoff at Splash are even more vibrant than I remember them. While the others take the conventional route, Joette and I hike along the orange stream, just as we did in reverse a year ago. We emerge behind Imperial and have a fine view. As we walk around the to join the others we notice the mud pots are nearly dried up. They were so fun and ploppy last year. You can always count on change in a thermal area.
The day is now officially HOT. When we get back to the falls I dribble water on my head which helps refresh me. I take a final photo of the lovely Falls. Carl and Mark seem to be pseudo-arguing. Carl wants to know if I see a second waterfall coming out of the rock near the snow patch. I think I see what he means but I believe it is an optical illusion. But who knows? Maybe Jake and Leslie can check that out for us, too!
On the way out Carl and I find a pair of expensive sunglasses and a few feet beyond them we find the case they belong in. We leave them at the trailhead, tied to the metal gate hoping the rightful owner will see them and be glad. Leaving them on the trail to be crushed didn't seem like the right thing to do. I tell Mark & Carl that I think I will skip tomorrow's planned hike to Lone Star as I will probably be driving down to Teton in the morning. Joette and Ryan decide they will leave tonight to try to get the early flight back home. I give Joette a long Loon hug good-bye. She says she is glad she came.
It's been a good hike but I'm tired. Day after day of too little sleep is getting to me. And I need a shower! I go on to Old Faithful and check in to my cabin only to find it HAS no shower! Oops. I have to walk back to the lodge to use the ones there. No problem, really, except I am not paying attention and suddenly find myself lost in an employee area. Some kitchen guys come to my aid and lead me on secret paths through the employee gym (who knew?) and finally to the shower area. At last! It feels good to be clean and fresh again. Now back to my cabin for a nap. I meet an aggressive chipmunk that lives next door. It squeaks at me clearly demanding that I toss food to it. When I try to take its picture instead the chipmunk disappears in a huff.
I write a few notes before giving in to sleep. I hear kids playing some kind of ball game in the gravel area outside my cabin. Then a sudden banging on my door. Huh? I get up and open the door only to find a small boy there. "Can Jimmy come out?" he asks. "Well" I say "you'll have to tell me who Jimmy is first." The small boy looks quite perplexed as I guess all cabins look alike. Then I see him figure it out. He bolts to the left. I chuckle and close the door.
I nod off for a while and have lovely mixed-up dreams. I get up and make some tea. Now I'm able to think more clearly. Here I am at Old Faithful and I haven't even seen The Geyser yet! Out the door I go. I am in luck as a large crowd is already assembled; an eruption must be imminent. As my foot touches the boardwalk off it goes! Wow! It is just as beautiful as always. It whooshes and churns and splashes and the crowd loves it. I join in the applause at the end. I really do love this geyser. What was I saying about thinking clearly? I left my camera in Ms. Jeep.
Now I'm off for an evening of animal watching. My goal is to photograph bison babies. If I see elk babies too, even better. On way to the loop road I see a raven pecking at road kill, probably a ground squirrel. Suddenly an animal charges the raven from the side of the road. It's a coyote. The raven flaps its wings and rises about three feet. The coyote snatches the small carcass, wheels and dashes back into the brush. The raven lands on the far side of the road and stares, wondering what just happened. Surely a raven is a match for a coyote when there's food at stake? Yet the coyote was fast and fierce and had the element of surprise in his favor. I am so happy to see a coyote I almost stop and get out to watch him. Then I think better of it and leave him to his cleverly snatched meal.
I find what I want just past Madison at a large pullout along the river. It is a large herd of cows, yearlings and orange cuties. I get set up and click away. I watch a group on the move from one meadow to the next. I notice one little orangie is limping. Not a broken-leg limp but a sore-leg limp. It sticks close to its great big mama. At one point the mama stops and the baby comes right up and puts its head under mama's neck. Mama drapes her shaggy chin over the baby's shoulders in what looks to me like a bison hug. They stand like that a few moments then move on, with the baby limping gamely all the way.
I watch another group grazing the lush green near the deep-blue Madison River. The youngsters in this group are getting boisterous. Several of them look bigger than others; males, perhaps? Or just born earlier? One begins to dart around earnestly as if playing a game with itself called "escape-the-predator". Two other calves run over and join in. The first little bruiser starts showing off his hind-leg kicks. He makes a dash and tosses back a left leg. Another dash and out goes the right leg. He nearly knocks himself over in his exuberance. A second calf tries this and then a third. But the third one follows his wild bronco of a buddy too closely and SMACK catches it squarely on the chin. He stops in his tracks and I can nearly see the cartoon stars swirling above his head. The other two calves are still at it dashing and flailing and nearly losing their balance with each kick. The third calf's head finally stops spinning and he trots over to mom for some comfort.
A few of the bison yearlings have moved closer to the river. How nice if one of them goes in for a drink or a swim. It takes a while but I get my wish as one cow and a yearling take tentative steps down the bank and, with two hooves at the waters edge, lower their heads to drink. One of the calves thinks this looks cool so he tries it. Then he finds some yummy grass and starts to munch. In a little while the two big bison have all four legs in the water but continue to graze the grass at the edge. The water is less deep than I expected and soon two calves are in the water with them.
Just then I hear a noise behind me. EEK! Two big bison are crossing the parking lot right behind me. What is it with me and bison on this trip? I am protected to a degree by Ms. Jeep but I move myself and my tripod further back while they continue across the blacktop into the grass. It is a large cow and a yearling. I notice something amiss about the cow. Oh, man! She has some kind of wound on her left hip. What is that? There are pink spots and various layers of torn skin - it's hard to tell what is scar-tissue and what is shedding fur. Now I notice her left hind leg, it doesn't hang properly at all, and she barely lets it touch the ground. Oh it's sad to see this. Something bad happened to this bison. It doesn't look like a gouge wound, like from a predator. It looks like maybe the hip or pelvis is broken and her tough hide has begun to heal over. I'm gonna guess a car hit her. She walks slowly and it looks like it hurts.
The yearling stays right beside her. Man, it is sad to see this, and yet this animal seems resilient. She looks otherwise healthy. But I wonder if she will be able to escape the notice of the Nez Perce pack? Will the herd protect her? The two of them walk steadily towards the big meadow. They join the main herd and lower their heads to graze, becoming just two more bison.
I notice a few other animals among the herd; a single cow elk and a pair of sandhill cranes. I wonder if the elk has a baby? I search and search but don't find it. I could stay out here like this all night but I figure this is the one chance I have to get to bed early. I bid the animals adieu and drive back to Old Faithful. On the way I see some elk in the meadow by the Gibbon River. The pullout there is so convenient I have to stop. I watch two elk leave the timber on the far side and cross the river to join the others grazing in the center of the meadow. One of he grazing yearlings looks wet, like she swam the river recently. She begins to groom herself and shows great dexterity. She can reach her head around all the way to the start of her white rump patch. Now she lifts her hind leg and gives her neck a good scratch. As she lowers her leg she sees me up on the hilltop taking her photo and she gives me a perturbed look. I back up. She moves very close to another elk who might be her mother. They graze together for a while.
This is a sweet last picture to close the night on and I set off again. At my cabin I ignore the aggressive chipmunk and boil water for sleepy-time tea. It's barely 9PM when I hit the sack. I fall asleep with thoughts of Druids in my head.
Today I saw: bison, 2 chipmunks, 1 coyote, 2 sandhill cranes, 2 mule deer, elk, 3 marmots, 1 raven, ground squirrels, 4 Druid wolves and 11 Loons