The first sound I hear is the soft staccato of a woodpecker. Then the river music; insistent and ever-changing.
I get up and survey my surroundings. It's just dawn, quite overcast and chilly. I'm glad I have my down jacket. I mosey over to the fire-ring and get the flames going again. I lower our packs and take out a few necessities. I sit on a log and write. I sketch the bobbing birds we saw and the hillside in front of me. I look around at this lovely place, committing its beauty to memory.
The sky looks altogether different from last evening; thick white going to grey. It's getting ready to dump something on us. I decide I'd better wake up Tim and see what he thinks. One look and Tim agrees. He suggests we pack up the tents first, then have breakfast. While we are sipping coffee and eating pancakes (with maple syrup) the first drops begin to fall. It's just a light sprinkling but it promises more. We pack up the remaining items under the protection of the trees and I start to put out the fire. Then nature lends a more efficient hand as the downpour begins.
Across the meadow we go, heading for the bluff. I turn to look back at 3L1. It is a very nice site and I'd like to come back here again. Perhaps some Loons will join me?
As we climb the bluff the rain eases back to a drizzle. Once we reach the top, though, it comes down again, hard and steady. When we come out into the open all the mountains we saw yesterday are gone, hidden under grey-white hoods of cloud. I find this exhilarating. To have weather like this in June is unusual enough, and the Park needs it desperately, but to be out in it, away from the comforts of the road makes it great. Luck keeps the rain at our backs, allowing me to keep my head up to watch for animals. There are a few thunderclaps and lightning but not close enough to worry us. I keep up a good pace, although I know Tim could have made it back in half the time. We are a sodden pair, and with my rain hat drooping and dripping, quite comical to see. But I am happy.
Our grumpy bison has moved much further up hill so we stay on course. The old guy sits stoically, indifferent to the steady pummeling of fat raindrops. Around the next bend we are treated to an achingly beautiful view of the Lamar Valley as it gulps down skyfulls of moisture. A steady, drenching rain is just what the valley has been wanting and it seems to relish every drop.
Then below us we see a herd of bison running, about 30 animals with calves, galloping across the plain. Did we spook them or are they just enjoying the cold shower?
At last we reach the spot where we can see the road. Our cars are dots in the distant pullout. But seeing this makes me eager for the comfort of dry clothes and warm tea. There is a last obstacle to overcome when we drop down to the flats above the Soda Butte Creek. I expect the hill to be a wash of mud. But when we get here I find to my relief that the gravel base is deep and holds my feet just fine. This last stretch seems to take forever. There are puddles galore and I get sloppy by walking through them instead of negotiating around. Of course I find a deep one. Mud water rises over my ankle and into my boot. I walk the rest of the way with one totally soaked sock.
I arrive at the pullout, unclip my pack and lean it against Ms. Jeep. Tim greets me with a cold Coke. Oh yes! There is nothing so nice to drink after a hike than a cold soda. I find I don't mind standing in the rain a bit longer. It makes sense. After two hours of it, rain seems like just another form of air.
There is just one other car here - a couple in a pick-up. They ask us where we've been. They say it's snowing in Canyon and that there have been power outages. I feel that we are the only four people in all of Lamar Valley. The roads seem utterly deserted.
Tim takes off for Mammoth, where we will meet the other Loons for lunch at the Grille. I tug my gear out of my pack to see what survived the downpour and what didn't. I am most worried for my down sleeping bag. It's fine, though, just a small damp patch right at the top. I drape my soggy raincoat over the passenger headrest hoping it will dry out as I drive.
From the Confluence to Dorothy's Knoll I look out at the valley. There is something so right about this picture. The land looks so relaxed and content, soaking in a giant bath of cool rain.
It's still raining as I walk into the Mammoth Grille. Today's contingent of Loons includes Ballpark and Cathy, Dave and Randy, Tim, of course, Lew and Deb, Mark and Carl and Mark's sister Diana. We have a blast as always. We catch up on the weather news. Apparently it is snowing above 7000 feet which means pretty much everywhere but right here. Dunraven Pass has two inches of slippery slush and will soon be closed. While we talk, the sun peeks out once then slips back into hiding. As we are looking out the window a coyote trots by, looking perhaps for ground squirrels but more likely for tasty morsels dropped by careless humans.
Tim and I tell our tales and laugh at our weather woes. We goad Ballpark into telling some stories he didn't get to when we were together at John's last week. He obliges and launches into the Las Vegas Lip Transplant story (my favorite after the Mt. Norris Grizzly) He tells a few more and then people take turns relating various military misadventures; hilarious tales involving the incorrect and possibly illegal operation of large destructive machinery.
Eventually we wander over to the parade grounds to pose for a web cam shot. We never really do it, though, and just stand in the drizzle, yakking and talking, the way Loons do when it's time to go. We just don't like to leave each other. You know, when it rains in New York City, people dash about desperately seeking shelter as if they were being pelted with poison bullets. I find this more relaxed attitude toward raindrops displayed by Loons to be much more civilized!
I remember at the last minute to return Tim's bear spray and I thank him for the great food and companionship. He reminds me that Fairyland is next! Yippee!
I decide to be a wimp tonight and dash over to the Hotel to see if I can get a room. I have such great luck in this Park. I get the VERY LAST CABIN. As I come out with the key I see Deb and Lew and Ballpark and Cathy still talking in the rain where I left them.
My cabin has a porch, which faces a greensward, and is warm and cozy inside. After a shower and a rest I set about drying my soggy camping gear, most particularly my boots. Hmm. They are going to need some help. I set off for the Ham store to buy paper towels. On the walk over there I see a coyote behind the gas station being scolded by magpies. I wonder what he did to deserve that?
For the next two hours the weather is schizophrenic, dropping soft powdery snowflakes one minute, blazing hot sun then next, only to get spookily dark again. And all the while the wind gusts mightily. I take advantage of the porch, the wind and the sun and drape things everywhere. I sit on the step and enjoy the crazy weather.
During one sunny phase I hear lots of peeping from the colony of ground squirrels that lives here under the lawn. Their burrows are everywhere, including many leading under the cabins. They scamper across the lawn in hesitant moves, grab a mouthful of grass, rise on their hind legs, dash out of sight again. I sit still and they come quite close, allowing me to observe a cute characteristic I have not noticed before. Perched on its haunches, gobbling a mouthful of grass, a squirrel will use its tiny front paw to push errant green blades back inside its mouth. I watch, fascinated as each squirrel repeats this act. The grass looks quite yummy and must taste especially good with raindrops on it. I expect them to approach me for a handout but none ever does. I count 15 of them at one point, in a roughly 60 X 30 foot area. I notice distinct size differences and wait patiently for the babies to begin their grazing but their little heads never do more than poke out of the holes. I see evidence of a ground squirrel hierarchy, as certain individuals are repeatedly harassed from the center of the green to the farthest sides.
The clouds pile up again and I retreat indoors. I turn on the room heater to help finish the job on my boots. I take a real nap this time and get up again around 5. I am anxious to get back to Lamar even in the rain. But first I want to check out the conditions on the other side of the pass.
Right around the HooDoos it starts to snow again. Then it changes to tiny snow-pellets. I have never seen this particular type of precipitation in my whole life. They are tiny white balls of snow, not hail. I catch a few on my glove and taste them. Hmm. Like a snow-cone, minus the syrup. Once through the Golden Gate I find myself driving on slush. It feels really wild and desolate out here. The visibility is too poor to see anything though. I turn around and head for Lamar, trusting my luck that things will clear up.
At Floating Island Lake I see a guy with a big camera lens focused on something. It takes a while but I finally see it is a pair of Sandhill Cranes walking up a hill beyond the marsh. But then I see they've got a chick. A Sandhill chick! Another first for me. It is impossibly tiny. I only see it for a minute or two. One of the adults reaches its long neck down and either caresses or feeds it. They walk up the gentle slope with the chick between them like they are showing it the neighborhood!
This is a nice sighting and bodes well for the evening. The rain lessens and finally stops, though it remains overcast and the wind blows steadily. I stop at 103's den and find some intrepid folk here but no wolf activity. However, as I scan away from the den I see a pronghorn on a nearby slope. What's that near it? Oh! A calf! A pronghorn calf! Another first!
The calf walks slowly away from its mother. This seems a little odd. The calf's attitude seems very sad and dejected. It pauses by a sage plant, folds its spindly legs and disappears. I suppose I came in late to this story. The calf had probably been out for a nursing session which is now over. I wonder how the mother communicates that it's time to hide again? I know it's my imagination that makes the calf look sad but something about its slow, head-down walk gives me that impression. I try in vain to find the little one again, just an ear or nose but I don't. The mother seems calm and I am struck by how she avoids looking in her baby's direction, never giving away its hiding place.
I head on up the valley to see what's next.
I find the action on the Exclosure Fence hill. There are about six cars off the road and I recognize three of the people up there; Gerry and Peter, my Scottish friends, and John, who is part of Rick's wolf-team. I head up the hill with my scope. After about three steps I turn back to grab another coat, my hat and a pair of gloves. The wind is fierce and it will only get colder from this point on.
I set up and talk softly with my friends, catching up on the day's events. It seems Tim and I missed a very eventful evening in Lamar while we were exploring Cache Creek. Gerry relates that there was wolf activity at the rendesvous site and a group of Druid yearlings went after a bison calf. One of the yearlings was caught and tossed by the mother bison. Some saw the bison accidentally kick her own calf, which left it stunned. Gerry adds that both wolf and calf survived the evening, yet the wolf thereafter walked with a limp.
There are five wolves in view at the moment far out in the rendesvous area, bedded down. The wind drives against us steadily and I am worried that the tripods might blow over. Over John's radio we hear an unusual call. He is asked to keep an eye out for four horses, which have apparently escaped from someone in the Cache Creek area. These horses are hobbled, and there is great concern that they could injure themselves or become easy prey for wolves or bears. There is discussion of what the Druids' reaction is likely to be to horses, animals they rarely see, and most believe the wolves are likely to avoid them. Yet when I think of what the restricted movements of a hobbled horse would look like to a typically curious yearling I am not so sure.
The announcement gives no clue as to where on Cache Creek this happened or how four hobbled horses could have "escaped". I can't help but be intrigued by this situation, given my love of horses and my recent introduction to the wild country watered by that very Creek.
We spend the next hour talking, getting colder and hoping for action. Then finally someone reports that wolves have just appeared in the confluence area. Then we hear howling; distant and broken by the wind, but howling for sure. I notice my scope has become loose and I attempt to correct it. The next thing I know my brand new Leica scope drops to the ground in front of me. I am paralyzed for a moment, utterly shocked that I could have let this happen. What did I do? Surely it's broken. It fell four feet onto rocky ground. I've had it a week and I've broken it?
I kneel down and pick it up. I hear nothing rattle but surely the optics in a scope like this are delicate? I try to re-attach it to the tripod but can't. I pull off my gloves and try to make my cold fingers fix whatever is wrong. Gerry, bless his sweet and generous heart, leaves his own scope and the sudden exciting wolf action to lend me a hand. He calmly examines my scope and says a part is missing. I search the ground but find none. I tell him whatever is missing must have been lost before the drop because that must have been what MADE it drop. Yet it was working mere moments ago. There is no solution to be found. The scope will NOT attach to the tripod. The threads simply do not line up. What happened?
Gerry makes some suggestions of places that I might visit tomorrow and convinces me that it may be as simple as buying a new ball head for the tripod. While we are talking we hear a steady play-by-play of the wolf action by the other observers. I thank Gerry for his kindness but encourage him to get back to his scope before he misses it all. I put my gloves back on and hold the scope atop the tripod with both hands. There are Druids out there and I'm gonna watch them!
Miraculously, it seems the optics have survived the fall but I have no way to steady the instrument. Nevertheless I get the moving Druids in view and I relax again. It is a struggle as I must keep both hands raised and tensed in the same position. The wind never lets up and the temperature starts to drop. But when I have Druids in view all these annoyances are forgotten. Someone says the elk are running! I look where they look and find running elk with small dark shapes behind them.
The wolves break off this chase, though, and now we watch a greeting session. Apparently the five that were bedded down have come east to join this larger group. One observer counts 18. I don't see that many, maybe 10 at the most, but I reckon that's mighty good for a hand-braced lens!
The wolves turn west and begin to worry any animals they get close to. A band of pronghorn take off at a brisk pace. At one point the wolves are very visible trotting in a line along the edge of the riverbank. I try another count but get frustrated due to my precarious set up. I try again and I get 12. The light is going and my frustration is mounting.
I see a grey in front; it's not 21. This grey takes off and a few wolves follow it. They are chasing a bull elk. They run leisurely and it occurs to me that they may be testing this animal. The elk runs head high, antlers nearly scraping its back. It runs uphill into timber and I lose it. Some wolves follow it into the trees and others stop below. The wolves' attitude seems casual and playful. They have another greeting session. Some bed down. Now the other wolves come back down from the trees. Boy, they really own this valley. Once they get down to business they will undoubtedly make a kill and from the looks of things, the hooved animals know it.
They remain at a distance at the base of the slopes and with my shaky-cam it's hard to make out individuals. I can barely see the greys; only the blacks are possible. My hands are getting shaky from bracing the scope and I dare not drop it again. I finally give up on the scope and lay it carefully on the ground on top of my jacket. I revert to binoculars. I see the grey leader start off again, loping easily with maybe 10 followers strung out behind. Another bull elk, or maybe the same one, is far ahead of them prancing across the flat. He seems to be showing the wolves he is in fine shape and that they should try someone else tonight. I look back once more to try to pick up 21 but it is just too hard to see now. Oh-so-reluctantly I say goodnight to Gerry and make my way down the steep hill, carrying my wounded scope, hoping that the morning will bring an answer.
I make my way west, my mood as gloomy as the descending dark. I reflect on how much good luck I've had this trip. Could it be that I've just run out?
Today I saw: Antelope (including a calf) Bison, 2 coyotes, Elk, 13 ground squirrels, 3 Sandhill Cranes (including a chick), a woodpecker, 12 Druid wolves and 12 Loons