I wake up around 6. Allison is still asleep so I try to be as quiet as I can. I gather my things and head next door to the bathroom. As the door clicks behind me I realize I have forgotten to take a key. By pure luck I have not left anything behind. Rather than knock and wake Allison just to say thanks and goodbye I slip a note to that effect under the door and tiptoe away.
I go out a side door and shiver in the cool morning.
I love how the geyser-steam rises and hangs in the basin I drive out. I see a very unusual geyser steaming right by the side of the road. Two steam vents shooting out and downwards in opposite directions. Huh? I laugh out loud. An elk stands perfectly still between two trees directly ahead of me. The geyser-steam is her exhaled breath condensing in the cold air. I stop in the road. She hesitates, then steps out, cautiously. She waits, stares, then bounds across the road to the safety of trees.
I love early mornings in Yellowstone.
I cross Craig Pass, enjoying the scenery that I missed on my last trip. I consider heading on to the Tetons, but I'm more Loon than Goon and the pull of Lamar, even without Druids, proves the stronger. I have the road almost completely to myself which never ceases to amaze me. I turn into Bridge Bay to explore a bit in preparation for tomorrow night's gathering.
On I go to Hayden Valley. I see a large bison herd move down-slope towards the river. I remember Allison talking of how she watched bison fording the Yellowstone River and I am hopeful I may see the same. I set up Layla and ready my camera.
A few bold ones go down to the water to drink and I enjoy seeing who follows and who doesn't. I see sparring between young bulls and rolling by some old ones. There are many calves, quite a few still orange but the majority are getting dark. I see a calf nursing while its mother drinks from the river. I see a yearling naughtily push a calf around, drawing the wrath of the calf's mother. When she comes over the bully-yearling moves off quickly. It is sweet to see the affection the large cow bison then lavishes on her offspring. As these two head down for a drink, a pelican floats by.
I spot a strangely colored coyote trotting jauntily along the riverbank. All four feet and his tail are dark brown with mud. Was he wallowing? Or is the bank that muddy? I wonder how he got so dirty and how he will clean it off? But I lose him in the sage and never find out.
The day is beginning to warm. A great blue heron flies low over the water and more bison make their way slowly down to drink. It looks as though a river crossing is not on the herd's agenda just yet, as each one that drinks then heads back uphill for more grazing.
I decide to check out the view of the Falls before the lookouts get too full. I pass elk grazing on a hillside opposite the turn to Chittenden Bridge. On a whim I pull into the parking area of the Wapiti Lake Trailhead and get a rush of memories from last year's hike to Fairyland. I get out my stove to boil water for a breakfast of cup'o'noodles. Yum! Oh, how easily I can convince myself that this junk tastes good!
The day is now officially warm. I finish my little meal and head on to the Falls. Both Upper and Lower Falls are just as pretty as I remember them, and the water level is not as low as I expected. I watch two osprey soaring above in the blue, blue sky.
I start up the road to Dunraven and to my delight I see moose! A cow and her calf are resting at the upper end of a meadow right across from the Dunraven picnic area. I park there, following the Ranger's instruction. I sit quietly on the side of the road beside a tree with a few other tourists and we snap photos contentedly. One couple turns to me and asks in what I take to be a French accent, "What is it?" "Moose" I say. The lady beams and the man's face indicates he guessed wrong. I smile at him, anyway. "Moose" the lady repeats, quietly.
The calf raises its head every once in a while but mostly sleeps. Mama watches us and the parade of cars. She seems less than happy with our presence yet not quite worried. Then all at once she gets up. The calf gets up. She heads for the road. The Ranger stops the northbound lane and Mama Moose stops the other. She stares down the lead driver and blocks the road with her formidable body as her calf darts across. She takes her sweet time following him. They move into a meadow beyond the picnic area and lower their heads to graze. This is a real treat. Mom and calf spend a half-hour grazing here in high grass dotted with wildflowers, changing position frequently and giving all us lucky tourists a nice variety of shots.
Eventually I go on up Dunraven. I stop to photograph some paintbrush. It grows here in three shades, dark red, pink-red and salmon. I also enjoy seeing hillsides covered in light blue lupine and small yellow buttercups, as well as the rich pink of fireweed. But the real surprise is the tall stalks of yellow Columbine. I've never seen so much growing in one spot. What a beautiful flower!
I look up at the hillsides of lupine and fireweed growing among the ashen-white trunks. It is so beautiful it makes me think of the Impressionists, Van Gogh or Monet, how I think they would have loved a sight like this, how it would have inspired them. I know my camera cannot do it justice but I wish someone could capture the beauty of this hillside; it deserves a place of honor beside those famous masterpieces.
When I reach Roosevelt the heat of the day has made me tired so I go to my cabin, close the curtains and take a nap, falling asleep easily to the sound of Lost Creek. An hour and a half later I head east to Lamar.
At the Specimen Trailhead I see two people with binoculars trained on the same spot. I pull over and raise my own binoculars. I look where they look. I see a bear! A black bear is roaming the lower slopes, heading steadily east. I set up Layla and watch him. He stays in the open for while, nosing here and there, near a couple of sleeping bull bison. The bear roams back and forth and once he gets a little too close. The sleeper awakens. The bison stands, clearly unhappy to have been disturbed and the bear takes off rather than listen to the details. He roams up higher on the slope and starts digging. Then he approaches a tree and I think he's about to climb it. Instead, he turns and rubs his shoulder back and forth against it. Then he moves on, going east again.
I pack up to go on to Lamar. I stop at Fisherman's and find the osprey nest and the chick. How it has grown! Next I look for the eagle nest. I find that easily, too, thanks entirely to the white-headed adult sitting on a branch of it!
I move on. There are bison across the river and two mule deer in the meadow near the road. A bit further on a badger waddles across the road in front of me. It scurries up the hill on the other side, stopping several times to turn and nail me with a defiant look. I get a chance to admire his beautiful face. I stop in a pullout to watch it top the hill and then see more mule deer. In fact, two does with two fawns!
They are in a wash at the joint of two hills, in the thick vegetation that grows there. The fawns are a delight to watch. Their spots are fading and they seem quite bold and curious. They move about in front of their mothers, not behind them. They are so sweet. The smaller of the two is most often in the lead. While their mothers are munching away, the fawns move intrepidly down the wash towards the flat. The grass is over their heads but I can see their dark eyes and the tips of their constantly twitching ears. I see them leap over what must be a little stream and then they emerge in the open.
I am nervous for them as I think they have gone too far from their moms. But then I see both does with heads up, alert, watching to see what they'll do next. The fawns take another couple of bounding hops. Then they stop, standing side by side, still as statues, except for their ears. The does head down hill. In another second the fawns have spooked. They wheel right back into the tall grass. In a few more effortless, athletic leaps they have joined their mothers on the hill and go back to exploring the wash again.
I go on to the Footbridge. I see none of the usual crowd here tonight, not Rick nor Cliff nor anyone I recognize. It's prime wolf-viewing time. Frank and Cathy and Tonya should be coming back from their 20mile hike right about now so I roam the pullout looking for their cars. Then Allison pulls in. We catch up on each other's day and she shows me the hand-made Loon flag Pat made for her. It's very beautiful. Well done, Pat.
The plan for tonight is to watch wolves. I tell Allison I suspect the Druids are still at their "country home". I suggest we move over towards the rendesvous for the very best chance but that I am not very hopeful. We drive to Trash Can. I scope in every spot that has ever been lucky for me but there are no wolves to be found. We watch the bison herd and see a few elk up high in the hills. Then someone spots bighorn way up on the ridge. Five sheep; no rams. They are fun to watch for a while. Then Pat and Lynn show up and tell us of a party tonight for Ranger Bill's birthday, being thrown by Ray and Darlene, the campground hosts of Pebble Creek. I tell Pat I don't know them. Pat assures me I will be welcome since I know Bill. I say OK I'd love to come.
Allison demures, citing her promise to meet Dan M when he arrives in the Park this evening. Pat and I try to talk her out of it (was that a premonition on our part, Dan, or just us being selfish? LOL) but Allison is a woman of her word. I apologize to her for the lack of Druids but she forgives me. We part company with many hugs.
As I near the Footbridge this time I see Frank, Cathy and Tonya un-packing from their hike. I pull in and offer my congratulations. They look beat but say the hike was terrific. Tonya's heading to Bill's party but Frank and Cathy beg off since they have a long drive back to Bozeman. For the first time since I've known him, Frank seems too tired to talk! I hug them both and wish them safe journey. I am really glad I had a chance to see them, even for just such a short time.
I arrive at Pebble as the food is being brought out. The table is set underneath one of those nice big tents made of netting. I meet Ray and Darlene who are very kind to allow me to crash their party. Brian C is here, too and it's nice to get to know him a little better. The food is great, especially the roast venison. Then Darlene brings out her special present for Bill, a fantastic strawberry cheese-cake with candles and everything.
Amid much enjoyable conversation, I learn that Ray and Darlene are from Lock Haven, PA, a particular town that figures prominently in my own history. They know well all the places and people I mention and we can't get over our amazement at what a small world it truly is!
Only when it is fully dark and we begin to worry about the noise we are making do we start to put things away and say our good-byes. Bill and I are the only two heading West. We stop at the Footbridge to talk a bit more. The glorious full moon rises above the cliffs of Mt. Norris, so bright that we could drive the whole way without headlights. I stop in the road just before the canyon and look back at Lamar Valley. It is simply stunning. The moon turns the river to liquid silver and reveals several lakes glistening on the Jasper Bench that I never knew were there. And still, bright as the moon is, there are a million stars.
If I see nothing else on this trip, I have seen Lamar Valley under the light of a full moon.
Today I saw: Bison (including calves), elk, pronghorn, 1 badger, 5 bighorn sheep, 1 coyote, 1 black bear, 2 moose (including a calf), 6 mule deer (including two fawns) and 8 Loons