June 2, 2023
Friday marked my last day of independence. So naturally I figured I should maximize my exploration time in Yellowstone by setting the alarm for an absurd time. When I was roused following a mere three hours of sleep, I quickly realized the error of my ways and opted to sleep in. I’m normally sleep-deprived during my tours, but there’s no sense in overextending myself before the tour has even begun.
In this case, “sleeping in” netted me an extra two hours before I awoke on my own. Still not enough shuteye, but certainly better than the alternative. I didn’t rush out the door, and when I did finally peek outside I noticed it was gray, wet, and quite dreary. The type of weather that makes you feel like you haven’t missed much beyond, perhaps, the start of a head cold.
Driving through the northeast, I passed a vehicle that was idling, driver’s door open, in a pullout. The owner was standing away from the empty car, smoking a cigarette. Not sure why the car needed to keep puffing away too…
The morning’s exploration proved to be as slow as my initial impressions portended. The previous days’ sporadic sun and storms had given way to a constant drizzle. Not a downpour, but hardly ideal. I prefer the mixed bag.
My cameras gathered dust as I drove through the Lamar, waited nearly twenty minutes at the construction light in the Lamar Canyon, and passed up and down the Slough Creek Road. No badgers to be seen. I did spot what may be the lone surviving Uinta ground squirrels following Thursday’s massacre. The rain appeared to have washed all the blood away, thankfully.
A quick jaunt up the Tower Road was equally quiet. I made it as far as the Buffalo Paddock picnic area… which may have actually been here before, but wasn’t familiar to me. I recall the pullout, but all of the facilities are brand new, completed during the most recent construction phase in ‘20-21. Of course, it didn’t take long to find graffiti already carved into some of the fallen trees on site. I chose to distract myself with chipmunks, wanting to come away with at least one photo for the day.
I returned to the bottom of the hill and ventured westward a short ways. There was never any intent to go far, given all the packing and prep work I still had to do back home in the latter half of the day. So I made it as far as the Hellroaring Trailhead before turning back. At Elk Creek, a black bear with at least one cub was visible in the distant trees as I drove back through.
Fortunately, my wait at the Lamar Canyon construction was not nearly as long on the way home. This was countered, however, by the fact that I got stuck behind a driver whose skills were… inconsistent, let’s say.
Despite the occasional burst to a reasonable speed, once we reached the Lamar Valley it was apparently they were mostly sticking to the 20mph range. To spice things up, they’d unpredictably lunge into the other lane, making it difficult to pass.
I did my best to keep my muttering to a minimum, as it appeared to be a vehicle full of… nuns? Nonetheless, I’d expect them to adhere to one of the most important Commandments: Slower traffic useth pullouts.
Since you asked, these are a few of the other park Commandments, off the top of my head:
Do not covet taking thine own image whilst standing within a sheep’s length of bison.
Thou shall not name bear cubs until thou hast rediscovered thy sense of creativity.
When ordering thy F’Real, though shall not choose Smoothie, and thy speed shall be Medium.
Thou shall not hoist a bison or elk calf. If God intended the calf to be carried, it would have grown handles and a comfy strap for thine own shoulder.
After the Sisters refused to use another pullout and let the long line of cars behind them by, I finally managed to pass on a straight-away.
Out along the banks of the Lamar River, an odd sight: a flock of pelicans dozing. Pelicans typically don’t spend much time in the Lamar, but occasionally make pit stops as they fly through. I also noted a lot of blackbirds harassing ravens all afternoon. I now know where the Slough Creek squirrels can hire their security team.
Approaching the northeast corner, a fox was hunting in a meadow near the road. Which is silly, because everyone knows the herds of hot dogs and flocks of frankfurters have migrated to higher elevations (say, 7580 feet or so) by this point.
Speaking of Cooke City, I headed that way, passing Thursday’s moose family along the way. I stopped in at Wooka’s Wild Eats for some tacos, before returning to Silver Gate, where the Stop the Car was open and its crew were shoveling heaping piles of ice cream. Silver Gate and Cooke were arguably the hardest hit communities following the floods, since they were the last towns to regain access to the park. It’s so important to support them in the coming days, weeks, and months, to try and lessen the sting we’re still feeling from the lost summer of 2022.
I arrived back at our cabin and settled in. As I write this, tour supplies are coming out, laundry’s spinning, and I’m sitting on the porch writing this in my PJs. For an hour or two I can pretend to live the existence I still hope to achieve one day, when I can get out here and have lazy days in the shadow of the mountains in between all the fun days of park exploration. It wasn’t my intention to return to the park this afternoon, and at the moment it’s so comfortable here that I’ll likely stay put.
June 3, 2023
Client pickup day was pretty non-eventful, though the constant rain (heavier up in Bozeman) was notable and hopefully not a sign of things to come. I did have one interesting sighting. As I reached the west end of the Blacktail Plateau, a Golden Eagle zoomed low over the ground.
There are a lot of pelicans along the Yellowstone River right now. Hopefully we’ll get a closer sighting some time this week.
June 4, 2023
On the first day of the tour, you need a plan. Something for the first fifteen to thirty minutes of the morning, at least. Something to get everyone up, outside, and packing the vehicle at roughly the same time. Something to get you on the road and into the park, with a general direction to start out. After that, you can improvise at will.
We had a plan today:
1) Get up to Swan Lake Flat around the time a highly-unlikely golden sunrise was going to occur.
2) Stop for anything interesting.
3) With the decreasing likelihood of a golden sunrise occurring, and therefore the presence of something interesting and photographable also decreasing in likelihood, move on.
4) After moving on, find a grizzly bear family featuring three adorable cubs.
It sounded like an efficient way to kick off a tour with a bang. Should be a piece of cake.
We did all wake up, get outside, and pack the vehicle at the same time. We got on the road. And then made our only deviation from the plan: a cow elk was showing off her young calf in the dull gray morning light (dark?), so we paused a few seconds to snap a photo.
Though about three short stripes of pink sky glowed teasingly on the horizon, I’d already written off any sort of sunrise shoot. On the plus side, it was dry!
We headed to the top, passing a still-closed Upper Terrace Drive on the way. Disappointing, but ultimately a positive step in implementing the rest of our plan. Swan Lake Flat delivered as expected (by not delivering). Which meant it was time to move on. We almost immediately dipped down into some fog, which made for a hazy drive and raised questions about how easy it would be to spot anything, much less a grizzly bear family featuring three adorable cubs.
I put my group on alert as we entered the northern reaches of the family’s neighborhood. The most recent reports I’d received offered up differing information as to the timing of the most recent sightings (yesterday or the day before?) and the location of said sightings. I was essentially banking on my optimistic view that we’d find them somewhere along the ~5 mile stretch of road where I’ve seen this bear during my rare forays to the West Side in past years.
Conditions bordering the road remained semi-opaque. Therefore, when I did actually spot a bear grazing in a meadow above the road, it took some time to discern three tiny cub-like shapes nearby. But there they were. Our plan had come to fruition.
We were first on the scene, and frankly, it was surprising that we weren’t joined by more people over the course of the next hour that they were visible. It was a very peaceful and relaxed encounter (though every time a vehicle approached while obviously over the speed limit, the cubs seemed to tense up).
It’s up there as one of the better Yellowstone bear moments I’ve shared with clients.
When a trip kicks off with such an encounter, there’s a tug-of-war between the feeling that everything is “downhill” from here, and gratitude for landing such an experience in the first place. These two urges pull at each other with equal force… in other words, everything is in balance and we are excited to see what’s next!
What was next was something that was definitely not part of any plan. We hopped over to Hayden Valley, and were soon pulling over to photograph the same heron I had seen a few days prior at Alum Creek. The reflections were even better on this day, with blue sky flanked by some puffy clouds.
Unfortunately, the heron took off just as we stepped out of the car (it was a good 100 yards away, so I hope it wasn’t our fault). As we stood there looking collectively befuddled at this turn of events, we started to take notice of the swallows emerging from the small nearby opening beneath the road. I’m always noticing swallows, of course, but in this case it quickly became apparent that we had a special opportunity to actually try and achieve some semi-impossible flight shots.
The morning sunshine, smooth water, and vibrant blue reflected in the creek made it a bit easier to acquire focus on such fast moving subjects. Theoretically. So we settled in for a long session of Wasting Gigs of Memory on Blank Shots of Out-Of-Focus Water. Interrupted by a few keepers, perhaps.
We got going again, and barely missed another grizzly bear, which had crossed the road and the river while we were enthralled by our swallows. Continuing south, I didn’t spy any Harlequin Ducks (a goal on this tour) from the road, but promised to return for a closer look.
By this time, I’d received multiple notices that there were other bears out by the lake, so we continued in that direction. Along the way, we were waylaid by an amazing reflection on Yellowstone Lake. Mixed tones of blue, white, and gray were offered up by low clouds. Eventually we added a Barrow’s Goldeneye to the mix, while some of the group snapped some marmot photos.
We did arrive at the reported grizz spot in time to catch sight of the Lake Butte sow and her mid-twenties-but-unemployed-and-still-living-at-home cub.
The bears appeared to be moving up and away from the road, so we soon hopped back in the vehicle and ventured out to Sylvan Lake. All quiet in this notoriously challenging stretch of the East Road, so we turned around, checked on the bears (still high up), and then drove up to Lake Butte Overlook. That too was quiet, though the views of a peaceful Yellowstone Lake were majestic. I found myself distracted by a glut of butterflies enjoying the dandelions.
It was approaching lunchtime, so I hauled the group south, stopping to check Bridge Bay, and doing a slow crawl down Gull Point Drive on the way to the picnic area out there.
The afternoon went quickly, and was more mellow, yet I managed to pull through without a nap. We squeezed in one last check on the lake bears (higher and farther away), made a stop at LeHardy Rapids (some ducks, thankfully, but poor light to work with), and made it up over Dunraven Pass in good time.
Starting on the south side of Dunraven, we passed a string of bear sightings. We did stop for the first one, which turned out to be a (suspected) courting pair of black bears… one black and one cinnamon. Though they were distant, it was nice seeing the contrast between the two varieties.
We did pause just past Tower to catch glimpses of our first bighorn sheep (no new lambs though). Below Calcite Springs, at least one bear (and possibly more) was sleeping in a tree. And down beyond Roosevelt, another lone black bear snarled traffic. Thankfully, we weren’t heading that way just yet, as we needed to make a required F’Real stop at the Tower gas station.
Aside from a brief pause to photograph our first bison calves, we came up empty to end the day on the Slough Creek Road. But we’ll be back out in the northeast first thing tomorrow morning, so we’ll get another shot.
At least, that’s the plan.