Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Yellowstone Park 2004, Day Two

We awoke early Saturday with every intent to get into the park before the weekend rush. The first of October is the official rate change date, when summer rates go away and many area shops begin to close. Yellowstone is huge and mountainous and the weather changes fast. In the winter, the only road that stays open all season is from the Gardiner entrance to the NE entrance at Cooke City, everything else shuts down and becomes accessible to snow mobiles and winter enthusiasts. So this first weekend in October is just about the last weekend of crowds in the Park and is by far much less crowded than high season...still we really enjoyed Friday and hoped to not get in too many crowds.

I forgot to mention that our night in West Yellowstone ended with a huge bus pulling up and coughing out what may have been the entire male teenage population of some small Montana town, the football team which came down to battle the West Yellowstone high school team. In the morning, they evidently tried to eat anything not nailed down in the Brandin' Irons kitchen. Free continental breakfast was included with our stay, but the high school boys literally ate them out of house and home. It was actually pretty funny and the amount of testosterone floating around the hotel, if bottled, could certainly have given some of the herbal Viagra's a run for their money.

So, with not so full stomach's we headed back into the Park. Chris was the first to spot the Bald Eagle...perched high on a dead Pine Tree overlooking a river. It was a beautiful sight, that early in the morning. The sky was blazing blue and the fall colors were in full display. The Eagle was huge and so regal. It gave us all a big smile. We'd heard there were grizzlies over in the Hayden Valley, which happened to be on the opposite side of the park. We decided to swing back down past Old Faithful and zip through the West Thumb, so we could see some of the beauty around Yellowstone Lake. This also gave us a chance to stop at some more paint pots. We saw waterfalls, bison, elk, hawks, deer and some other greyish birds that i've been unable to identify in my birding books.

We made it into the Hayden Valley and saw more Eagle and a few coyotes, but no grizzly. We saw plenty of stupid people though, some getting to within 5 feet or so of full grown bison...it was amazing. Every year people get gored or cars get totaled because they forget these are WILD animals. Some of the buffoonery has led to death. Just two weeks before we arrived, a man got gored badly by a bull elk in rut, getting up close and using a flash camera on the poor beast. The result was the man went to the hospital with a big hole in his belly, the elk caused $25,000.00US in damage to nearby vehicles and had to have his rack cut off to try and ease his aggression. Anyhow, we headed up to Canyon Village and the infamous Yellowstone waterfalls, quite possible the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in person.

The waterfall is just simply amazing and the canyon it has carved is proof of the awesome power of nature. We were all in complete awe. Afterwards we decided to forego a trip south to Jackson and instead head back up and around to the Lamar Valley, a place of renown for wildlife viewing. We decided not to stop for anything and get straight to the valley, although we did make one detour, taking the Blacktail Plateau scenic route, a 7 mile dirt road that goes into the high country. Pretty amazing.

We came across a viewing area high above a massive meadow and pulled in. There were 5 or 6 other groups of people, some in lawn chairs with scopes set up looking out into the meadow. I talked to a wonderful older couple who'd been there all day...they told me a pack of wolves had killed a cow elk sometime in the middle of the night before and supposedly a male grizzly had also been feeding on the carcass. They were there all day hoping the wolves would return. We decided this might be our best chance to see a grizzly and set up shop too. There were big herds of bison, antelope and elk scatterred across the meadow and it was a beautiful sight,as the sun started to set and the gold of the grass was set off by the blaze of the sun. More and more people came, soome staying some moving on but a very nice couple set up next to us with a huge scope. Two men arrived next and they knew the couple who was next to us, so they too joined our band. The man next to us spotted a black bear (Mark it off!!!!) and so about 15 scopes and sets of binoculors all swerved over to see the bear, loping across the meadow where it rose to meet the mountainside. About that time a young girl, who had said, "is that a grizzly?" about 20 times, shouted, "I think there are some grizzly bears eating the elk"! No one really moved their scopes but sort of looked with some interest out towards where the carcass lay, near the rivers edge. Then the girls' father looked in the scope and I heard an, "I'll be damned" come from his lips...all the scopes swung in unison and sure enough, somehow a full grown sow and the griz cubs had made it into the meadow without any of us seeing them. Apparantly she used the setting sun as camoflouge to hide her approach. It was like something straight out of a nature show. We sat up there watching her and the cubs feed for about 20 minutes, cubs eating, fighting and playing, mother eating and constantly sticking her snout in the air to smell for any danger. The crowd swelled as news of a grizzly traveled. And here we were, looking at not one, but 4 grizzly bear! About 20 minutes into it, momma griz sniffed and sniffed, stood and looked and then took off into the sun, with all three cubs in single file. Soon a three legged coyote came into view...surely a coyote couldn't scare off a grizzly bear? About that time a truck pulled up and a guy jumped out holding an antennae and some sort of reader. He was with the Friend of the Yellowstoine wolf and was tracking a pack...and boom, they came, the wolves in a pack to reclaim their kill. It was astounding to see, these pack animals swooping in, the coyote running for dear life. Excitement abounded and I have to admit to more than a few high fives with the people all around me. It was one of those life experiences for us. We quickly packed up as the light faded and tried to head down the road to see another pack of wolves we'd heard about...unfortunately we only think we saw them as the light just wasn't good enough to tell. So a 30 mile drive through Yellowstone in the dark...a dangerous proposition, lay ahead of us to reach Cooke City, an end of the road town that spends the winter socked in with only one reliable road in and out...the road back through the park and to Gardiner. We stayed at the Hoosier Motel, which featured satellite TV (all 5 channels) and ate dinner at the Miner's Saloon, a local...and I mean local...bar and grill. There were plenty toothless men and spent women whooping it up on Saturday night. A true experience.
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