letter written to family 2 June 2016
During the night I discover that my height is exactly the same as the distance from the front seat-back to the back hatch door. Headlights from a few late arriving campers shine in the car during the night, and we could have used more padding but overall the night wasn’t too bad. We were very lucky, the forecast low did not verify — we stayed near 40 degrees. As Dave says, “It could have been worse. We could have been trying to sleep sitting in an airplane seat.” Really, the hardest part of the whole thing was not having an easy place to change clothes as the restroom stalls were, well, … um, trust me.
Somehow we did not get as early of a start as we planned when we laid down last night. The plan this morning is to return to Hayden Valley rather than drive that pass again, have breakfast at the fountain in Fishing Bridge, and then visit the Grand Prismatic Spring and West Thumb Geyser Basin before heading home.
Mornings seem to be our lucky time in Yellowstone. Yesterday it was bears and bighorn sheep. It is 8:30 am. Today the animal signs are the strongest we’ve ever seen. Two dozen cars and campers (at least!) are pulled willy nilly to the side of the road and with no shoulder they are tipped at wonky angles. People are all over the road. Very little if any traffic is getting by. Bison are high up on a bluff to our right, and are milling about, getting into the road like they are going to cross to the river. We see all this ahead of us and before even getting close to the chaos Dave pulls the car safely off the road and we walk.
At the rear of an RV a woman stands facing the river away from the bison, eating a banana. We ask her what are people watching besides the bison. She chuckled, pointing with her chin towards the river, and says, “the grizzly having his own breakfast.”
Down the bluff and across the river at the waters edge is a bear with the rear haunch of an elk calf (likely stolen from a wolf kill). Oh my! We will regret not having grabbed the tripods out of the car, but afraid to miss the bear we head down the bluff with the photographers with their enormous lenses instead of returning for our gear.
You really had to keep your head on a swivel here. There were three shows going on at the same time. First was the human carnival with the poor park guys trying to protect the bear, get traffic moving safely through the road full of oblivious tourists mixed with unpredictable bison, and just maintain order in general. Ha
Then there were the bison. It seemed as if they were fully aware of the bear, but they were thirsty too. They wanted to cross the road for a drink but humans and cars were in the way. And some of them were quite cranky. At one point I saw one bison mount another up on the roadway mere feet from an RV trying to pass. And then they started butting heads with each other up on the road — as people were staring at their smart phone cameras, backs to the bison.
And then of course was the grizzly being very bear like.
Dave and I each found a spot to stand to watch the bear. It was quite an education all the way around. First, just watching the bear. What must he be thinking with all these crazy people scurrying around like a kicked ants nest on the bank across from him? I don’t know how long he had been there, but not too long from the sounds of the talk around us. He did a lot of looking at the meat, a lot of smelling of the meat, and then decided to lay down with his back to everyone. You could almost hear 50 people groan.
This is when one of the bison comes down to get a drink and then as soon as he does he runs back up to the road — and some of the disagreements between bison erupts on the roadway.
I am keeping an eye on the bison. Partly because there is action to photograph up there, but also I think they really want to come down where we are. One of the bison crosses the road and starts walking alongside. I call to Dave to watch this guy, I think he is coming down. The bear sits up again. The bison starts down the hill and buddies follow. I start heading up and away. The rest of the photographers start to figure it out and there is a rush for the hills. Camera equipment gets left behind. It is like a stopper is pulled from the tub — the rest of the herd crosses the road quickly and jumbles at the waters edge as if confused what to do next. One starts to run up the valley and the very next thing you know there is a stampede of buffalo running at our feet! The sound was amazing!! They were so fast you could barely pan the camera and click the shutter fast enough. Really, it was awesome! I wonder if it was instigated by annoyance with humans, fear of the bear, or just hormones on the first warm and sunny day in 8 months.
We watch the bison rumble a bit more, more head butting, a few sprints, and then they are around the bend and gone. Slowly, we move back down the hill to take up our bear watching posts. He sits on his haunches and looks around. With each twitch of his muscle you can hear all the wildlife photographers’ shutters fire off multiple shots a second to be sure to capture every nuance. When the bear stopped moving, so did the shutters — except for the tourists’. Then he laid down next to the meat, facing all of us. The sun came out from behind a cloud and lit up his fur. Perfect you think? Alas, there was a blade of grass in front of his face. Jokes started going around for a volunteer to swim over and clip the grass for the rest of us. A bird that looks like a Cinnamon Teal duck swims against the current, inches from the bank, right under the bear’s nose!
Now he decides to take a bath. Slowly he steps into the cold water, turns his back to much of the crowd, and lays down in the shallows near the bank. From where I stood it looked like he was trying to find a comfortable spot for his chin to rest his head. A few geese float by.
After a nice soak our grizzly hauls himself out of the river and decides to dine. Even though Dave had a hard time telling exactly what was going on by looking at his viewfinder, he did get some great shots of the bear eating — if you like meat tearing carnivores dining. 🙂 My battery started dying so I was very lucky I had the binoculars. It can get closer than Dave’s telephoto so in someways I saw more than he did. The funniest part was watching a crow fly over close to the bear, and then to nonchalantly hop closer to try and get a bit of a free meal — and then watching the bear give it the evil eye to warn it off — lots of shutter noise at that!
Eventually our grizzly was satiated and decided to have another snooze. I chatted with the woman next to me for a bit. She and her husband are from Florida, and every summer they come and camp in Yellowstone to follow and photograph the animals. Talking to wildlife photographers is a little like listening to pilots tell war stories. They use their hands a lot to indicate distance, speed, and angle of approach involved in discovering and photographing their quarry.
With the bear still snoozing (or ignoring us) Dave and I decided to move on. We stop into the General Store at Fishing Bridge for a late breakfast at the fountain. The waitress tells us they stop serving breakfast at 10:30. It is 10:35. Ugg. Having a hard time deciding what to order I comment it is hard to pick between burgers or salads when your taste buds have been anticipating pancakes. She said she would check with the chef and see if he had any left over batter — he was her husband. No, but he would make a fresh batch just for us! Out comes two stacks of pancakes that must have been seven inches tall! They were so fluffy and sweet it was like eating vanilla birthday cake with maple syrup on top. We could not do them justice – nor the surprise side of hashbrowns. Turns out our waitress is ex-Navy. She’d worked air cargo and served in Europe. This is the couple’s first season under contract with Xterra, one of the park’s hospitality vendors. She was scheduled to be off shift shortly and planned to go out looking for animals. We told her the reason we were late to breakfast was watching the bear (and showed her a photo) — so now she had recent sighting information to work from!
We drove across to the west side of the park in about an hour only to discover there was no parking at the Grand Prismatic Spring and no good place to park along the road. Plan B was to find the Fairy Falls trailhead and hike over for a birds eye view of the spring, but it was closed. Likely for bear activity. Rats. On to West Thumb.
We had a nice time walking around the geyser formations on the shore of the lake, but the plumbing had clearly changed and it was much drier than we’ve seen it in the past — which admittedly is usually when it is cold and the moisture collects on the trees frosting them white even without snow. There was also plenty of amusement to be had on the boardwalks. Young kids anxious to fill out their Junior Ranger workbooks had to get the courage to go talk to the rangers giving presentations to have them sign their books. One of the rangers admitted that when he was six years old he knew he wanted to be a ranger in Yellowstone. How great to be living his dream! You should have seen the eyes of the kids he was talking to!
The other entertainment has to be the odd things the Chinese are taking pictures of. I have never seen so many selfie sticks in my life! And they are poking them everywhere! I am not sure what one woman was trying to capture when she put her camera down at shoe level and aimed it at her face while standing in the middle of the walkway. The only thing behind her was the cloudy sky… Or the woman standing on the bench and aiming for a selfie with bleached white earth and a long dead tree behind her. If only they’d stop yelling at each other!
Okay, well, that’s enough, time to head for home. Dave tells me that the Marina near Flagg Ranch has the best pizza in the park and that sounds perfect for dinner. And it was!
As we pass the turnoff for Pilgrim Creek Road I see a white van pull in, raising a big cloud of dust, and a number of other vehicles pulled over up the road about a quarter mile. I mention to Dave maybe they’ve seen something. We’d driven back there a few days ago ourselves looking for animals. As we reach Jackson Lake Lodge Dave decides we’ll turn back and find out. There have been a few false alarms over the last two days. As we turn around we see a very pale fox in the roadway hunting. I try and get my camera up, window down, etc. Fox pounces into the brush – gone. Then a bird flies out of the bush and lands on the fence. We’ve never seen it before. Now my camera lets me down and no mater what, focuses on the trees across the corral. And now there is a car behind us. Oh well!! [2021 edit: it was a flicker!]
We pull into Pilgrim Creek and see an NPS official, and people with giant cameras leaving. We pull over and walk back to find out what is up. A grizzly had been in the field and everyone thinks she has headed down to the water — which means a different parking area. I happen to notice that one of the photographers that has not packed up yet, wearing a red cap, is Thomas Mangelsen. He may be our favorite wildlife photographer — we own one of his photos of Oxbow Bend. Next thing you know the bear has come back out of the woods and is feeding on the yellow flowers in the field. I am five feet behind Mr. Mangelsen shooting over the shoulder of the folks in front of me. Dave takes his camera (when will we learn to grab tripods?!?!) and scoots to a sitting spot on the ground.
Part of my brain was watching the bear and tending to my own camera (again, big zoom = fuzzy photos) but also observing what my favorite pro was doing and how he set himself up to maximize his chances of catching a good photo, when he did and did not click the shutter, etc. Really cool experience!!
Once the bear returned to the woods the discussion was where do we think she went, do we go after her, do we go look for other bears in Willow Flats, or do we go look for moose. I hadn’t moved from my spot yet when the ranger charged with keeping an eye on things stopped right behind me to report over his radio that the bear was out of sight. I asked him if the bear had a name – he stared at me – or a number? “793 I think,” he said. One of the photographers that was conferring with Mangelsen turned to me and said, “That was Blondie!” Mangelsen then commented that numbers made no sense, the animals had personalities and Blondie had her name from the time she was three years old because she had a color she shouldn’t have. If names made people feel more compassionate about an animal then what was wrong with that?? Wow, wait, how did I get into this discussion with someone I look up to?!? Am I dreaming?
Just then Dave came over and mentioned that we were both fans of his work, sir. I got to shake his hand as I introduced myself. We admitted that we did have one of his prints and that everyone that visited the house had nothing but good things to say about it. And then we excused ourselves as we knew he was working and as we turned to leave he said, “Bless you,” and patted my arm. What a really nice guy!
After all the black bears, brown bears, bison with cubs, sheep and goats, I still have not seen a moose! So we decide to drive past the cabin and cruise the dirt road down to Wilson to see if we get lucky. *sigh* We get to Wilson — a fox hunting in the marsh and a red tailed hawk, but no moose. A cut out of a moose on the road side reminding people to be careful. A highway LED sign announcing there is a moose active in the next one mile area. Yup, nothing. Okay, we tried, let’s go home. Its after 7:30.
We turn north and Dave decides five miles from home to take the back way around Blacktail Butte and go up the Gros Vente road. We bounce along and come upon three or four cars pulled over. And there, in the brush on the far side of the river are two bull moose snacking on leaves! Just a couple miles from Aunt BJ’s favorite Teton campground! Distance and low light made photos tough — but who cares!? I got to watch the moose through binoculars wiggle their lips around whip-like branches and strip off the leaves in their teeth.
We pull into the driveway and our favorite bull bison, (Dave refers to them as my Gentlemen Callers) Fred and Rickie are waiting there for us! What an amazing end to an adventure that started just yesterday morning. We unload the car in about ten minutes and immediately plug the camera cards into the computers. It is like Christmas morning — we want to see what treasures await! Since yesterday morning we have driven 432 miles and taken 3700 photos. A bunch of duds and some real gems on the memory cards, but all wonderful, rich, and endearing images and experiences
in our memories.