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