DAY THREE - Friday June 7

THE BRAVE LITTLE CALF

I wake up just before my alarm rings. Oooh it's wondrously dark. I sit quietly for a few minutes, enjoying it. I slip a fleece hat on my head. That feels good. I scootch out of my sleeping bag and slip on wool socks and tevas. I grab my toothbrush and water bottle and my tiny flashlight. Now I'm ready to brave the short dark trail to the outhouse.

There are many monsters lurking in the bushes but luckily they remain there, content to watch. When I come back out again I walk into a friendly darkness full of birdsong.

Back at the car I gather my stove and matches and pans and washcloth. I warm some water and wash my face, then, in my favorite ritual, I lean over and douse my head with the rest of it. I give my hair a quick rub with the towel. I've found a wet head on a cold morning wakes me up faster and better than coffee or tea.

I am not the only one up. The camper next to me starts its motor and there are muted human sounds coming from across the creek. My plan for today is to hike up to Dead Puppy Hill and scope with Carol and Mark for the early part of the morning. Then I'll meet the core group of Loons; Doug, Veronica and Tonya at Roosevelt for breakfast around 9:30.

I arrive at the Footbridge to find Mark and Carol strapping on their packs. I tell them not to wait for me and off they go. While I am futzing with my daypack Gerry pulls in. I tell him my plan and ask if he'd like to go along. He would. Soon we are traipsing across the footbridge and out among the sage. I feel much better having a companion for this hike as I have seen far too many bears on the slopes of Mt. Norris in my short time coming here to feel safe by myself.

Gerry is an excellent spotter and a hardy hiker. We find the hill a bit rough going as there are some slick spots. We're hauling our spotting scopes on our shoulders so slipping is not an option. But we achieve the top and I am surprised when we don't find Mark and Carol up here to greet us. The reason is that their spot is further up and cleverly hidden from the road by a rocky knob. Thus our presence here is not as much a scenery-spoiler for those in the pullout as I remember seeing last July.

The first thing I do is scout the hills behind us and to both sides, looking for bears. None. Then I get instructions from Mark and Carol about roughly where the den is and the woodsy area where pups have been seen over the years. Both areas are empty of wolves at the moment. In fact, we see elk grazing there, so we doubt the Druids are nearby. So we turn our focus to the rendesvous area which can be seen easily from here. In fact, this spot offers a gorgeous view of the confluence area and upper Lamar as the Lamar Valley west to the Jasper Bench.

The sun is barely up yet and the air is chilly. It's windy, too! I am glad of all the extra clothes I brought. But the cold becomes secondary as Carol announces that we have wolves. Four of them. It's 254 plus 3 un-collared blacks. We watch them stretching and nosing each other and moving here and there. We hear constant peeping of ground squirrels all around us. At times they become bold and dash from one hillock to the next. I try to get used to seeing sudden movement out of the corner of my eye.

We watch them mess with some bison but overall the wolves are not being especially interesting this morning. We scoping around in other directions. I find a grizzly turning rocks way up on a ski-slope hill. He is a dot but looks bigger than the one I saw up high last night. It could be the same bear although I think the hill he's on is further west. Mark finds two mountain goats grazing on a patch of green lawn on the very top flank of Druid Peak.

We hear chatter on the radio. Another of Rick's units has spotted a black bear sow and two cubs. We can't see them from here so we listen to the speculation that the bears may be interested in what's left of a wolf-kill. I realize they are talking about the high bench area where I got my first Druid sighting of this trip, two nights ago. Two nights ago! It feels like more than a week, so much has happened.

Periodically we look back at the den area to check for movement but we only see elk moving calmly in and out of the trees. Mark looks east and sees a cow elk in the flats right at the edge of the Soda Butte Creek. I see it too and then we realize she has a calf with her! She's trying to cross the swollen creek and the calf wants no part of it. Oh, look at him! He's very wobbly. He's having a load of trouble just standing.

I watch the mom step off the bank into the water and swim to the other side. Perhaps she's actually walking but the water comes above her belly. The poor forlorn calf sways and stamps but remains where he is. He turns and wobbles to slightly higher ground. Mom comes back and puts her nose down to him for encouragement. She is very vigilant, not what I would call nervous; she is attentive to her baby but her movements are calm and determined.

Three times I watch her enter the river and travel all the way across, clambering up the bank on the other side. She looks back at the calf. If they are calling to each other we can't hear it. The elk mom has chosen a particularly bad spot for this lesson. The bank is abrupt and the water is particularly deep. Looking at the way the creek curves and winds I can pick three other places that might be easier for the calf to try but I don't speak elk.

The third time she leaves the calf, the calf turns and walks decidedly away from the bank as if this is his final word on the matter. After many agonizing minutes (to me, I mean; I can just imagine how scary it must be to the calf) mama elk comes back and this time stays with him a long while.

It starts to rain lightly and we all toss on our raincoats. I have not brought my brimmed hat and I miss it. I have a hood but it doesn't shield my glasses very well. I turn away from the elk drama and go back to watching wolves. Three black wolves have begun a trek west, heading generally in the direction of the black bear family. We follow them a while, loosing them more often than finding them. They are hard to see since they are far away and well-camouflaged in the sage.

I remember my plans to meet the Loons for breakfast. Gerry seems ready to go as well. We bid farewell and good luck to Mark and Carol and pack up our gear for the hike down. Periodically we stop to check on the progress of the elk and calf. They are still there but have moved a bit downstream. I am hopeful this will be a better crossing point for the calf.

As we arrive at the pullout the rain falls more heavily. Regardless, Gerry and I set up right at the end of the blacktop and continue to watch the elk drama. The calf looks to be trying to screw up his courage. Finally I see him plunge in. Mom has taken off in a different direction. The calf is on his own, swimming ok for a tiny bit then he strikes a shallow spot and instinct makes him stop there. The calf struggles and drags his awkward body onto the relative safety of the pebbles. He stands there, in water up to his knees, his poor soggy head drooping. My heart aches for how cold he must be. Mom appears behind him and swims back to the original spot. The brave little calf turns and clambers out of the water, ending up pretty much where he started. Mom stays with him again for a long time, nuzzling him and licking him a little. Oh he looks so pitiable.

After another 10 minutes the calf tries again. This time my heart is in my throat as he gets caught in the current. We can hear his plaintive cries. It looks very bad and I think his little head goes under. But there he is again! He's found his footing. And he turns and struggles and finally hauls himself up onto another pebble bar. This time he has managed to actually make progress. He has crossed one braid of the creek and is now a third of the way across. I wait until mom is behind him and he seems stable. I figure if I don't take off now I won't go at all. Oh so reluctantly I bid farewell to the brave little calf and to Gerry.

Off through Lamar I go, praying and praying for the calf to find the strength to get across the creek and live another day.

As I cruise through Little America I see a bunch of photographers with mighty big glass on a low sage hillside. I figure it's bear but no, it's the badger family. I resist it though, because I don't want to be late. Just before the stop sign I see Doug heading back my way. We stop in the road and chat. He says the Roosevelt kitchen does not open until tonight. Bummer.

I pull into the lot beside the Roosevelt driveway, get my stove out and boil water for coffee. I find some dry cereal and a jar of olives that makes Doug smile as he gobbles them. See Peggy! We're not the only ones! Veronica and Tonya and Doug decide to head on to Mammoth to grab breakfast there. I opt out, as I just don't feel like leaving Lamar this morning.

After a second cup of coffee and a bit more food I decide to go get the Cache Creek camping permit. So I wander over to the Ranger station. They check the computer and find the site we want is available. They tell me the ford is not "open" yet and I assure them I have no plans to cross it. I fill out a form and answer some questions. I recognize the Ranger and laughingly remind her of the January day when I got my Jeep stuck in the snow across the way. She remembers! Not me, of course, but the situation. She says "and Bob Landis shoveled you out". "Yes, and Dan Hartman" I say. She smiles and asks if I have seen his Wildlife Gallery. "Sure" I say. "I bought a print from him partly as thanks for his help" (and also because I liked the print!).

She heads off to handle a bear jam and the younger Ranger pops in a video for me to watch. It's a good video but I'm glad it's stuff I already know. The young Ranger asks me a series of questions to see if I was paying attention. I answer as thoroughly as I can, as I don't want to screw up our chances for a permit. I hope all hikers are quizzed like this, but it makes me wonder what is done if someone answers poorly.

The Mary Mountain hike starts at 1PM so I head that way now, leaving plenty of time for stopping. And sure enough, right below Calcite Springs there are cars pulled off the road. I park and haul my stuff down the hill, thinking it is the sow and cubs again. But I get a sweet surprise. Today's bear show is "Sleepy" a fairly large black bear who is sound asleep in a fir tree.

Some nice folks are kind enough to give me directions, otherwise I doubt I could have found him. He is about 100 feet away and a good 30 feet up from the base of the trunk. He is lying on his stomach on a strong evergreen bough, resting his chin on a bed of thick pine-needles. His brown nose is the most visible part of him. I knew bears climbed trees but I never new they would get up this far nor that they would be able to sleep this way. It's more like I've seen leopards do (in nature films, not in person!).

What's nice about this sighting is that there is enough room for people to stop to look without hindering the flow of traffic, and Sleepy is far enough away that we can admire him without ruining his snooze. I set up my scope and watch him with my binocs.

As people come by I offer the scope. I especially like letting the kids see him. Then I hear my name and there is John Deere! Howdy again! It's too bad it's his last day but he says it's been a great trip. It was fun to share this sighting with him and his family.

I enjoy the drive up and over Dunraven Pass, even though I'm not crazy about those twisty turns and drop-offs. There is quite a bit of snow on the high peaks and some sections of the road are bounded by huge piles of snow, compacted into hard walls by the plows. I see lots of slopes are still barren like they only lost their snow yesterday.

On my way down the other side I see some gorgeous bright yellow flowers growing in profusion right out of the last patches of snow left on the hillsides. I think they may have been glacier lilies. That's Yellowstone for you. Beautiful surprises around every corner.

I find the others at the trailhead already and it takes me a while to get my gear together. I offer more oreos to compensate. Doug says his toe feels good enough for this hike since the trail is mostly flat. Bearman Gary pulls in behind me and I ask him to join us but he declines. I wonder to see him so far from his usual haunts. He says he figures he'll try a change of pace. Off he goes in search of his three-hundredth sighting.

It is really windy and the sun is muted by high thin clouds. I have managed to get my neck sunburned already so I devise a way to shield it further harm. I drape a white towel under my brimmed hat; it looks like vaguely French Foreign-Legion-ish. Of course I am laughed at but having spent so much time with Loons I am now quite used to it!

We happy few set off on another Yellowstone adventure.

Right off the bat we find a huge grizzly track in the mud of the trail. We stop and Veronica and I take photos of it. Doug offers a quarter for scale. The track is pointed towards the road so we don't worry that this bear is ahead of us.

Sections of trail are drowned in standing water. Tonya does her best to find a dry route. In the soggiest areas the trail peters out completely, so we seek high ground until the it appears again. The views are sweeping and the wind is strong. It makes constant music in the trees at the top of the slope to our right. We check up there often in hopes of seeing some of the large beasts we've been warned about. Bears are often seen on this trail but it is far more common to cross paths with bison. We are on the lookout for both.

We find scat that I am sure is wolf but for the time being we call it coyote. Then we come across some prints. These are unmistakable. Wolf tracks. As big as my hand. We use Doug's quarter again and take more shots. We figure it could be one of the Nez Perce wolves or maybe one of the Mollies.

There are also some early wildflowers in this area, particularly shooting stars. Most are the usual bright pink but some are extraordinarily vibrant and more magenta than the others. There are also some teeny tiny white ones and some equally tiny blue ones, as well as forget-me-nots, phlox, harebells, buttercups, prairie-smoke, violets and what I think are the little yellow flowers of the holly-grape.

We also have some funny conversation, lots of NHS* comments and other silliness. Veronica finds some long, white feathers that seem to have been yanked out of some poor bird. We figure the possibilities are gull, swan or pelican. We also find clumps of shed bison hair.

We come over a rise and in the distance see some grazing elk. They look up immediately to check us out, then move into the trees. Way beyond them we see a big herd of bison.

After about two hours we stop to have a snack lunch on a rock. We find ants and a few other odd bugs. Doug tells us about the time he saw a Yellowstone version of a dung beetle, rolling a little ball of…well…dung across the ground. At one point the wind ceases and it is amazing how suddenly quiet it is. Then it whips up again. Doug looks at the sky and thinks it portends a change to come. Tonya reminds us of the weather report, which is predicting a snowstorm on Sunday with up to 2 feet of accumulation. I don't mind this news as I like cold weather but Sunday is the day of our Cache Creek hike. I sluff it off since I believe no-one can accurately predict the weather in a Park this size. Maybe Canyon will get two feet. That doesn't mean Lamar will.

We contemplate hiking a bit further but since we are all planning to be at the Loon dinner at Roosevelt we decide to get back there in time to freshen up. On our way back Veronica and I find a little frog in the mud, a first for both of us! Veronica says it's a Western Chorus Frog. It's little and mottled green and cute and it hops away quickly.

I am tempted to explore a pond to our right, a low spot with poor drainage full of snow-melt. I imagine it is full of wildlife, but the water is surrounded by a large area of marshy grass. I take a few tentative steps and start to squish in watery mud. OK, some other time.

Tonya is in front as usual and we notice that she stops as she tops a rise. When we catch up she says she saw elk run out of the trees on the left. I still see them, running across the flat and just now gaining the far slope and the trees. She says she figured she'd wait to see what spooked them before continuing. But nothing ever shows.

We arrive back at our cars, happy to have shared a little bit more of what Yellowstone has to offer. We head back to Canyon and over Dunraven, following the leader. As we pass an open meadow on the right Veronica and I both slow down to watch two elk cows and a strong, sturdy calf trotting smartly behind.

A bit past Tower Falls I notice some kind of filming in progress in the osprey nest pullout. I figure someone is documenting the chick's growth. Come to find out from another Loon's trip report (thanks Michael!) that it was a car commercial!

I check in at Roosevelt and find I've been given a lovely cabin, way in the back right next to Lost Creek. I know I will enjoy falling asleep to its water music. I head to the bathroom to freshen up and then I join Veronica on the porch to wait for the others. We relax in the rockers and Veronica treats me to a beer and some tasty snacks. I tell her how I have so often thought of kicking back with a beer on these rockers but have never done it until now. We talk about the possibility of snow coming and she remembers how she got caught in a snowstorm last year on nearly the exact same date! She is contemplating making an early exit to avoid the worst driving.

We are just about ready for a second beer when the Demlers arrive. Lew & Deb hello! They have had a travel day from hell but we tell them they are safe now! Then Doug and Tonya pull in as well as Sue and Bob, Mark R and finally the Head Loon himself, John Uhler, along with Carlene and two of their grandkids, Hayden and Cheyenne. We have Loon hugs galore!

We pose for group shots on the steps and a very nice man takes pity on us, kindly volunteering to snap the photos with each of our cameras so we can all be in the shot.

As we are yakking and hugging two people ask us if we are the Loons from the Total Yellowstone Page. This is The Unknown Lurker as well as The Other Lurker. We give them Loon hugs too and invite them to join us. There is a third Lurker here, too but as per their wishes, I don't want to give anything away. Suffice to say that all the Lurkers I met that night were just as fun and nice and generous as all the Loons I've ever met.

Finally we head inside and give the staff quite a time begging them to let us sit at one long table. We end up at two tables of eight. The food is yummy and the company is great. I find the portions very generous, in fact TOO generous for me. Half my fried-chicken ends up in a doggy bag and Carlene takes it for the kids.

After dinner it's time for wildlife watching. Mark puts his scope in my car and rides with me. Just before the swan pullout I see cars pulled over and think, oh boy what's this? I look to the right and there are two big bears! I am excited and say "grizzly!". Once we pull over, though, Mark teases me because it is now plain to see they are both black bears.

Mark and I gleefully hop out and set up our scopes. We hardly need them as the bears are visible to the naked eye. The other Loons join us and we climb a little rise to watch. Once again I am sharing a wildlife sighting with John and family and it feels great. Then John points out a friendly looking man with a tripod and video camera. He introduces me to Ray T, who has been kind enough to post links to his great videos of Yellowstone animals. As you might expect, Ray is even nicer in person.

The bears are in the open in a little meadow just below some trees. The big male is cinnamon colored with a spray of blonde across his shoulders (my excuse for thinking he was a grizzly!) and the female is jet black. Since adult bears do not normally socialize, we deduce they are a courting pair, a first for me.

The bears roam around about 20 feet apart. Then both sit down. The cinnamon seems to be looking out at us. He raises his nose and sniffs the air. The black has gone from sitting to resting on her side and seems ready to take a nap. The cinnamon approaches the black casually and they nuzzle, nose to nose. Then he flops on his belly next to her, his head away from hers, close, but not really touching. After less than a minute like this the female raises her head and looks like she's growling. She gets up and walks away. The poor besotted cinnamon gets up and dutifully follows her. They head further away from us and I start thinking of Druids.

Mark is ready, too. John & Carlene says they're willing to stay out a bit longer and John mentions wanting to check out the beaver that is supposedly hanging out at the confluence. We drive on into Lamar and stop at Trash Can. Ruth and Fuad are here and I suggest to Mark that we join them. I thought John and Carlene were behind me but as it turns out I don't see them anymore tonight. I am sorry I didn't get to hug them goodbye. I look forward to spending more wildlife time with the King and Queen Loons in the near future.

Mark and I set up on the hill with Ruth and Fuad and check out the r-v area. We are told there are wolves out there but no-one in this group has seen any movement for a while. We see a herd of bison with calves, a number of pronghorn and scattered elk moving here and there. The wind is STILL blowing strong and we bundle up against it. Darkness is creeping our way, too and the radios are strangely silent. I am starting to think of heading towards the Hitching Post when Mark says "I think I've got something. Can you check to make sure?"

My heart races and I rush to his scope. I see a dark, long-legged animal in the foreground moving past bison in the background. "Black wolf!" I say and look back at Mark, beaming at his success as a spotter.

The folks on the hill get very excited and everyone re-focuses on the r-v. I try to describe the area but I am flummoxed since it's Mark's scope and I don't know where he started from. I dash back and get the wolf in my scope and then begin to describe its movements. At one point the wolf lies down. The herd seems utterly unconcerned with his presence but I have seen this before. Then again he is only one animal and it is a pretty big herd.

Mark and I do a Druid dance. Then I watch a yearling bison walk in a similar course that brings him right next to the lying-down wolf. Neither animal reacts to the other at all. Ruth says "I see a bison lying down but no wolf". Denial leaps to my defense. "No, I say. I saw a wolf. It walked from left to right just like a wolf does." Funny though. Not a single other person on this hill sees a wolf. They all see a bison. Then my wolf touches noses with the yearling bison.

"NOOOOOOO!" I whimper pathetically. "Noooooooo!" Oh how humiliating. How mortifying! My wolf is a yearling bison. I hang my head and apologize to Mark. I apologize to Ruth and Fuad and the rest of the folks on the hill. Most folks find it amusing but I think some are a little ticked off. "You'll never believe me again" I whine. Ruth waves her hand and chuckles. Fuad says "at least it was moving! I've been fooled by rocks!" Thanks, Fuad. That helps a little.

Whatever wolf action occurred this night happened out of our sight. Actually I don't think I later heard any reports of Druid activity from this night. Maybe the Druids were hunting in the more private meadows and woods of the back-side of Druid peak. Mark and I decide to call it a day. We pack up and head downhill to the car. Mark continues to tease me and I whine and whimper about my ruined reputation. Ahhhh. What a lesson in humility!

On the way back we finally change the subject to other sightings of the day and I tell him about this morning on DPH, the suicidal ram and the brave little calf. I drop Mark at his car and head to my cabin. The stars are out again, somehow able to pierce through the high clouds that were there only an hour ago. It's so lovely that I just stop in my tracks and look up for a while.

My cabin is chilly since I left the windows open but I don't have the energy to start a fire. Instead I just grab a hat & socks and that works fine. I write a bit but can't seem to keep my eyes open. I drift into dreams of the brave little calf struggling against the current and then hauling his bedraggled little body onto the far bank in triumph. It's my dream and that's how I want it to end.

Today I saw: Bison, elk (including two calves) pronghorn, ground squirrels, 3 black bears, 1 grizzly bear, 2 mountain goats, 1 western chorus frog, a rare bison/wolf, 4 Druid wolves (including 254) and 23 Loons


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