The one day I should get up early, I don't. Only when the sun hits me full in the face do I stir.
I crawl out of the tent and find the world bright and warm already. Tim is up, rousing the troops, military style. Our sandhill neighbors are knocking and air is clear and breezy. I head across the meadow to get the fire started.
Everyone seems a bit groggy and slow this morning. Except Tim. He's pumped! We eat breakfast while the tents dry out. Actually we get packed up pretty fast for us. We're on the trail before 10:30. We have 12 miles to go today. It's the longest hike I have ever attempted but I no longer doubt I can do it.
Jake and Pete want to explore more of Colter Peak so almost immediately we say "see ya later" to them and the four of us hike on. We see a sage-grouse wandering carelessly ahead of us, making no attempt to flee. They are well known for this baffling behavior. We stop at a spot with a stunning view of the river below and see a bald eagle land in a tree. I keep my camera handy for all the shots I missed on the way in.
Wherever the trail is moist we see tracks: bear, coyote, elk and deer. We meet a Yellowstone Youth Camp group, carrying heavy gear including shovels. They will be staying at the campsite just north of 3 Mile Bend for nearly a month in order to build a horse-bridge somewhere. Some of these hikers look like old hands but others seem pretty green. We tell them how pretty it is back here and what animals we saw and heard.
Laurie gets a kick out of it when they describe passing two "scruffy guys" earlier.
On we go through beautiful meadows and cool forests and burned-tree ridges. The wildflowers and flutter-bys remain a constant delight. The views are just amazing and I sing as I walk. We are winding through a woodsy glade when we see horses coming our way. First is a woman rider with a strong, tanned face and long silvery hair beneath her cowboy hat. She smiles and waves and leads her horse to the side. The horse behind hers is a familiar black one and in its saddle is Bob Jackson. He reins in and says hi and introduces the lady as "my partner, Sharon" and we're pretty sure he means more than just the Iowa bison ranch. We stop and chat for a while.
Bob and Lonnie get into a conversation that I lose the thread of because I am distracted by the antics of Bob's pack-horse. He is vigorously rubbing his itchy face against the rough tail hairs and occasionally the butt of Bob's tall black. The black horse is a very tolerant animal. I've never seen anything quite like it. After a bit more discussion we bid Bob and Sharon adieu with many thanks and good wishes, and on we go.
Tim and I are ahead of Laurie and Lonnie when we approach Beaver Dam Creek. I find I have an easier time crossing the standing water spots that gave me so much trouble on the hike in. I guess I've learned something! We pass a great deal of bear scat here and the willows get thicker and higher. Now they are way over my head, and the trail becomes a virtual tunnel. I do NOT like this one bit.
We're crossing a lengthy wet spot via some submerged and very slippery logs when Tim whistles. I stop and he points out a huge paw print. Fresh. Oh my god. Why are they always so huge? There is no doubt a bear is nearby, perhaps more than one. I do NOT want to run into one. I begin talking out loud, nonsense mostly, anything that comes to mind, as we continue through the giant willows. "Hey bear we know you're in there. Tim and I are just passing through. We're just walking here, we're not gonna hurt you". Tim makes noises, too. The willow-tunnel seems to go on forever. My steady yakking seems to keep up my courage and finally I spot the river's edge. We are cautious here, too, but neither see nor hear a dreaded bruin. I rip off my boots and plunge in barefoot, happily wading into the middle of the stream and only then do I look back. All is well and we make it across fine.
We stop on the far side to wait for Lonnie and Laurie. The water sparkles. I surround my new blisters with moleskin. While we are sitting here a mule deer crosses the river far upstream. Downstream we see some cute little diving ducks.
I take pictures of Lonnie and Laurie as they cross. They seem relieved to be out of the willows, too. They saw the big print and the scat. We've now come a third of the way and we all feel fine. Confidence is high and so we start off again. Laurie and Lonnie take the lead now and head uphill. A little while later we get our first view of the Lake, shimmering in the distance. It is still far ahead but it inspires me.
As we reach the high meadows above the lake we pass some horse-packers going in. It's a very large group and I see a number of novice riders. They have 16 pack-mules and at least that many horses. They are going to Bridger Lake. We wish them well and continue on.
We stop at Many-Scat Meadow for a well-deserved lunch break. The breeze is delightful and the sun is intoxicating. The white teepees are gone from across the way and we wonder whether the First Lady and her girlfriends got hailed on. I rest with my feet on a rock. Tim zonks out. There are snap-hoppers all around, lulling us to sleep. Before we know it we've spent an hour here. Reluctantly we lift our packs and start on our final leg.
We pass fields of Mariposa Lilies and Golden Eye and zillions of attendant flutter-bys. In the cooler damp of the forest I have to break out the bug spray again. I remember all the gullies from our first day and I am curious as to how many there were. I decide to count them as we go. It will be my contribution to the trail lore for the next time.
A gully, by my definition, is a downhill slope of 10 or more strides followed by an uphill slope of at least the same length, with water at the bottom that requires more than one step to cross. Easy, gradual slopes down and up are not gullies, nor are short dips. My original thought was to name each gully for some distinctive feature but I fail at that task. I make a guess that we passed a dozen gullies on the way in. I come to discover that from Many Scat Meadow to the Brimstone Basin there are, in fact, 20 BFG's (uh, bona-fide gullies, yeah, that's it), a number that makes me feel quite justified in complaining about them.
In addition, and far more worthy of rebuke, are the Two Un-Necessary Hills that the Trail Makers could have avoided altogether had they wished. Unfortunately, I cannot now recall where these TU-NH's are in relation to the gullies. I do remember that the 13th gully was the worst (naturally) since the bottom of that gully and a good deal of its uphill portion require extreme skill of foot, since it is black, gooey mud, pocked with hoof-holes full of horse-urine.
My gully-counting exercise, of course, proves to be a helpfully humorous way to get myself through mildly daunting terrain. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.
We arrive at the spot where, on our first day, the boys left us to explore the Brimstone Basin. Tim and I decide to take a break. There is a whisper of bug-deterring wind here and some shade. We are tired but feel pretty good since we now have less than two miles left. Laurie and Lonnie decide to press on.
We drink and snack and Tim jokes that he bets we'll find Jake and Pete in camp already. A minute later, up come Jake and Pete, unfazed as ever by a full day of hiking and scrambling. They are happy because they found something worth reporting. Not quite a Medicine Wheel but cool nonetheless. They show us the digital photos they took of a strange rock shelter, how it seems to have two sections, one old, the other new, as if an attempt was made by someone to repair it.
My feet are now officially hurting. But we are jazzed by the triumphant return of our buddies. We shoulder our packs one last time and hike on, talking about buffalo burgers and hot showers.
Finally we come out of the trees to a view of the Lake. How wonderful! A strong breeze hits our faces and I catch a slight dead-fish and warm sand smell. Lonnie and Laurie have their tent up already. I check the time: 7:25! Very respectable, for me at least. I drop my pack and flop on the ground.
I rest for a bit, enjoying our lovely surroundings. There are horse packers in the next camp. Another big group it seems. This area sure is popular with the outfitters. I watch them lead their horses to the lake for a drink. Many of the horses don't know what to make of it. Some stand in the water up to their hocks but a few others shy from the waves. Horses look so beautiful without their saddles and I imagine them all running wild here, drinking from the lake at their leisure, munching on the lush meadow grasses.
Gingerly I remove my boots. Once they are off I cannot imagine putting them back on for a month. Oh my poor tootsies. I have a side-blister that will be rubbed by the strap of my sandal so I try going barefoot. Nope. Too many sharp rocks and thistles. I carefully slide on a dry pair of socks and then a second pair. That's better! Now I can walk about.
The others are at the fire ring. I hobble over and join them. Jake and Pete have just finished making a windbreak out of driftwood logs. The bugs don't stand a chance here and Lonnie gets a flame going. The waves are high on the Lake and their rhythmic pounding sounds like the sea, and is just as comforting.
It is very beautiful here and we all feel good, despite our aching feet, since we've had a great trip and we know our walking is over. The evening descends and we prepare our last camp dinner together. Tonight Lonnie and I join Tim in a drink of Vodka and Gatorade. The sunset over the Lake is astonishing. We take tons of pictures and it just keeps getting better and better. We even see an osprey dive.
At the precise moment the sun goes down the wind changes to the opposite direction, like someone flipped a switch on the fan. I've never seen this happen so noticeably. The sparks of our fire are now landing on the wood of the windbreak but we are careful to keep the fire low.
The waves die back to nothing and the surface becomes almost glassy. Out come the stars. It just doesn't get any better than this.
We pack up our things and put out the fire and hobble over to our tents for our last night in the wild. As I drift off I hear the soft jangling of a cow-bell around the neck of one of the horses as it roams about the meadow. It's a nice sound, actually.
I wake up once in the middle of the night and hear another sound. It's not the cow-bell, but high pitched and sort of mechanical. A steady note that wavers only slightly, less than a half-step, like a steady ringing or humming sound. I can't figure what it is. Suddenly it hits me. Could this be the mysterious ringing of Yellowstone Lake? I lie awake and listen so I'll be able to describe it tomorrow. It is most unusual. I wonder what it is that makes such a sound?
Today I saw: ducks, gulls, horses, mules, pelicans, 1 bald eagle, 1 mule deer, 1 osprey, and 6 Loons