July 2020: Yellowstone National Park

The original plan was that we would explore Yellowstone for a day or two during the Grand Teton stay, and then spend a week exploring Montana the following week. But, Grand Teton turned out to present more opportunities than we had time for, and Yellowstone (at least part of Yellowstone) was more accessible from our Montana location anyway. So, change number 37 to this itinerary: Do Yellowstone from the north.

Then, we then further modified that modification to spend time focusing solely on the Lamar Valley and the Northern Range area of Yellowstone, skipping all of Yellowstone’s more familiar geothermal features, Hayden valley wildlife, canyons and waterfalls, and the gazillion other things that Yellowstone has to offer, to follow a concept much like we did at Grand Teton: select an area that was relatively unknown to us and then just wander around, with no particular objective in mind, and see what happens.

This was by far the best two days we have ever spent in Yellowstone. I’ll leave the highlight of the trip, though, for last.

The northeast corner of Yellowstone is the least visited area of the park. It consists of three regions, the Northern Range, the Lamar Valley, and the Soda Butte Canyon (which leads up to the northeast entrance to the park).

So, to explore the area, we did our usual motor touring and day hikes.

Undine Falls: No hike was required — the falls were visible with a walk of about 20 feet off the parking area.
Wraith Falls (although it might actually be more of a cascade than a waterfall), which required an easy, half-mile hike. And along the way we saw blacktail deer, including a cutesy-putesy little fawn (still with its spots).
One of the things we like doing is the self-guided trails put up by the park service along the roads. This one explained the flora and fauna of the Northern Range, along with the incredible forces that created the topography in this area, including at least three massive volcanic eruptions (the last one of which occurred a mere 600,000 years ago and was so powerful it blew debris into Louisiana). Experts say the next one could happen at any time.
This pretty much represents our standard M.O. for the trip: find a scenic place around lunchtime, set up the lawn chairs and picnic table, haul out the sandwiches and chips, set up the camera, and spend an hour or two enjoying life. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
Wendy and I disagree about the story here. I think these are two not-quite-fledgings, waiting impatiently for mom and dad to come back with some fish. Wendy thinks this is two fledglings with an adult perched in a nearby tree, and with another fledgling (making in all, three) and the other parent off on a training mission. Either way, I missed seeing the other birds take off from the nest, so Wendy and I set up our lawn chairs (see above), had a picnic lunch, and waited for over an hour for those birds to come back. Didn’t happen. But even still, what could be more fun than sitting by a deep canyon, in the beautiful splendor of Yellowstone, watching nature and anticipating action?
Upper Soda Butte Canyon.
Trout Lake: We actually didn’t plan on doing this hike. Well, we actually didn’t “plan” on doing any hike, or anything else for that matter. But one benefit of this kind of travel is that we just do whatever strikes our fancy at the moment, and we fancied hiking up to this glacial lake.

But none of that is what made our exploration of this area so special. The Lamar Valley has been called the “Serengeti of America,” and it is an apt designation. Coming over a rise and descending into the valley, one sees this:

A herd of several hundred buffalo, and this is only one of a dozen or so herds. Seriously. Mile after mile of herds of buffalo. There are probably 1000 or more buffalo in this area. As we drove through the area, we tried to imagine the 19th century experience when the plains were home to maybe 60 million buffalo.
This may indicate that we’re incurable dorks, but we actually found it interesting to watch the buffalo cross the Lamar River. I know it’s like watching cows.
A different guy crossing a different water body. Exciting, eh?
Maybe this just cinches the dork assessment, but we think buffalo are just interesting. We spent hours sitting in our lawn chairs watching them. Apparently the rut is just beginning and Wendy saw one pair engaged in, shall we say, a “romantic moment.” We were going to send a photo home to the families of “the act” so the parents could use the photo as an opportunity to have “the talk,” but the moment was over before Wendy could grab her camera.

And, something truly exciting for me, we got to see a wolf prowling the valley floor.

Trust me. That little dot is actually a wolf.
See? Told ya. OK, so this one isn’t that much better, but the wolf was a long way off and I haven’t been able to sweet-talk my dear, loving, beautiful, and understanding wife (in case she’s reading this) into letting me buy a new super-telephoto lens. Maybe this insufficient photo will persuade her. In any event, I know that watching a little black dot work its way across a distant slope may not seem all that exciting, but I believe it’s the first time I ever saw a wolf in the wild. In any case, things are about to get a lot better. Keep reading.

Finally, here’s the highlight. It’s hard to explain, but Wendy and I have been RVing and camping since the early 1970s. Although all of these trips have been special for us, and are chock full of memorable moments, in reality they are largely the same kind of thing that anyone would likely have spending time in the same area. But not this time.

It started when we struck up a conversation with some random guy, who mentioned to us that there was a buffalo carcass up the road, and earlier that morning there were wolves and bears on the carcass. Even more, if nature holds true to form, the wolves and bears would be back around 5:00 or 6:00 later that afternoon. So, we drove off, marked the location of the carcass, and vowed to return at the appointed hour. Except we got nervous and returned at 2:30 instead, setting up our lawn chairs and the camera, binoculars at hand, and waited for the appointed hour. And waited, and waited. Waited for two-and-one-half hours sitting in the sun to be precise. But, that’s us. If you’ve ever seen a dachshund waiting outside a chipmunk hole, you know where the phrase “dogged determination” comes from. Well, that’s us. “Dogged determination” for two-and-a-half hours.

The buffalo carcass, with a (former) buffalo cousin walking by. According to a professional photographer with whom we were chatting, the most likely cause of the buffalo’s demise was a rut-induced sparring match between two bulls competing for the affections of a buffalo temptress. It occasionally happens that the fight results in a puncture to a blood vessel or a lung, and it’s pretty much cookies for the loser.

At around 5:00, a guy with a spotting scope standing next to us said that a pack of nine wolves had emerged from the woods, quite a bit to our left, and was headed towards to carcass. Sure enough, all nine wolves in the pack worked their way across the sagebrush prairie, and pretty soon we saw this:

There are only seven wolves visible in this picture. The other two are in the sagebrush somewhere. Seriously. A pack of nine (!) wolves, roaming the prairie, and feasting on a buffalo. We are totally engaged: this is reality, not some nature show. It was fascinating. The pack’s behavior was not what I expected. No howling, snarling, fighting over pieces of rotting meat, whatever. They basically just walked around, taking a bite every now and then, sometimes moving off or laying down, and pretty much nonchalant about the whole thing. More like a table of finger food at a cocktail party than anything else.

After 30 minutes or so of doing buffalo munchies, the wolves meandered off. And not in a “pack” per se. The just sort of separately wandered up towards the woods, laying down in the sage from time to time, sometimes going one way, sometimes the others, until after another 30 minutes they happened to all be near the woods edge more or less in one group, and then they disappeared. At this point, Wendy and I are counting this as one of the best days we’ve ever had.

Then, as if this wasn’t enough, what swoops in but a bald eagle! The only eagle we’d seen our whole time in the park. Seriously. I was hoping he’d also fly down for a tasty morsel, but after flying around a couple times, he just perched in the tree and kept an eye on the goings-on below. But wait … there’s more.

At this point, the professional photographer standing next to us said, “Stand by. There’ll be a bear here soon enough.” As it was explained to us, a grizzly might be able to drive a pack of wolves off of a carcass if he wanted to, but a black bear certainly couldn’t. So, said the photographer, there was almost certainly a bear watching the wolves from the tree line, waiting for them to finish up. And, sure enough, a few moments after the wolves entered the woods, we saw this:

This medium-size (estimated 400 pound) black bear, literally running across the sagebrush prairie towards the carcass...
…and then he settled in for about 30 minutes to get his fill of delicious, sun-roasted buffalo steak. Just like with the wolves, this was completely fascinating. The bear would wander from place to place, pulling off a piece of something here and there, then pause, look around, and go back to munching. Just like the wolves, he seemed pretty nonchalant about the whole thing.

At this point, we’ve been watching the wolves-bear buffalo-buffet going on for over an hour and then the unthinkable happens. A bunch of onlookers headed down the hill from the roadway and started walking towards the bear! Yes, there’s a river between the bear and the tourists, but it’s the same river that the buffalo waded across a few moments ago and one that would take a charging bear about 10 seconds to cross at full speed.

So, this is the moment of truth. In a way, we were rooting for the bear, not wanting any of the tourists to be eaten per se, but a nice mauling would be OK. Unfortunately, though, the bear decided that mauling a tourist might mean he’d end up getting euthanized, so thinking that discretion is the better part of valor, he decided to vacate the carcass instead. A-a-a-a-a-r-g-h! These stupid tourists had managed to drive off our bear!

But then, ta-da!, the heat showed up. A ranger walked down and rousted the tourists.

Eleven morons being escorted away from proximity to the carcass, although at this point they had already shooshed away the bear. The photographer explained that, even though approaching wildlife close enough to disturb its behavior is an offense, the rangers usually settle for “education” and simply remove the tourists to a more appropriate distance. On occasion, they will issue a citation, and in rare circumstances will actually double-tap the offending tourists, but unfortunately not so in this case.

At around 6:30, we decided we needed to head back to the camper. There was a chance that the wolves would return for second helpings, or maybe even a grizzly would show up, but we had a two-hour drive home and wanted to get there before dark.

So, for this last day, we had spent nearly 12 hours simply wandering around the northeast corner of the park, with no particular plan in mind, taking up whatever delights we happened to come across, culminating with watching, in the wild, unaffected by human presence (until the very end), the wild behavior of a wolf pack, a bald eagle, and a brown bear. What a day!