June 2018 Badlands and Beyond, Part 4, Last days in… YELLOWSTONE

June 11, 2018 – Woke up a little late for me… 8:00am. Not wanting to let the day slip away from us, we consumed our quick breakfast of cereal and coffee, then drove over to the showers. After spending some time at Canyon Village showering and then shopping at the Yellowstone Forever Store, we prepared for our hike to the Mary Mountain trail.

This trail is the same trail where a lone hiker was killed in 2011 by a sow grizzly who had cubs with her. Park authorities found DNA evidence that this female grizzly was at the scene of another hiker found dead on the Wapiti Lake Trail two months prior. (I’ve included the link to the article that explains what happened above.) It also goes over the grizzly attack in 2015 where a park employee went out for a hike and was found dead on a different trail.

Knowing the tragedy that had struck this trail several years ago, and already feeling some fear and trepidation realizing that not only grizzlies could be out there, but also the 2,000 pound, unpredictable, incredibly powerful and lightening-fast bison WERE out there, we prepared ourselves mentally for this hike.

The morning was cool, cloudy and there was a hint of moisture in the air. We loaded our day packs with rain gear, protein bars, water, our hiking buddies, (Lamar and Lamarla), and made certain our bear spray was connected to the front of our packs, close and handy. The weather looked like it could turn ugly but we had layered our clothing and felt prepared for whatever lay ahead.

Walking along the trail, I felt very exposed and vulnerable. There were no trees close by, which made visibility better, but as we walked further and further away from the safety of our van, the sagebrush began to sprout up taller against the landscape. Predators could be hiding in those bushes and we would never be the wiser.

I could see a group of three bison up ahead, laying in the grass. The trail went perilously close to these bachelors that were relaxing like cows in a pasture, lazily chewing their cud. Having read all of the warning signs in the bathrooms about the dangers of getting too close to these animals, I wasn’t too crazy about walking by them with no place to escape if they decided to charge.

They watched us with one wary eye and I breathed an enormous sigh of relief when we finally hiked past them. Most likely, these bison have seen numerous hikers on the trails and do not view humans as a threat. Even so, I was extremely relieved!

Walking on, we came closer to the area where we watched the Wapiti wolf pack several days before. We had noticed large, dog-like tracks on the trail that must have been wolves, since dogs are not allowed on this trail. Following the well-worn path, it took us up and over a hill and Phil caught sight of something moving through the grass. It was only about 25 yards away and he walked closer to see what it was. Trying to get pictures of what we now identified as a skunk, I prayed he wouldn’t get close enough to be sprayed! Phil is a very adventurous soul…

We stopped for a short time to eat our snacks, hydrate and get some pictures.

Lamarla and Lamar enjoying the beauty of Hayden Valley. The Wapiti wolf den is out there somewhere…

After having walked about three miles out on the Mary Mountain Trail, the wind picked up and it started to rain, then sleet, then snow on us. We put on all of our layers, hats and gloves and covered our packs with rain covers. Not knowing how long the sketchy weather would last, we decided to turn around and head back to the van. Would the bison be in the same area we had seen them or would they have moved? Butterflies in my stomach began their anxious fluttering…

We made it past the bison with no problems. They hadn’t moved much and didn’t bat an eyelash in our direction. Phil’s wary eye spotted something in the brush ahead… something brown and laying very still. A primal instinct of self-preservation arose inside, urging me to stay away, to just keep walking the trail and head towards safety. Phil has an instinct of curiosity and wanted to get closer so that he could identify what sort of animal the brown, furry lump was. I grabbed my bear spray and prayed that I wouldn’t have to use it!

Phil with his yeti stick

Phil slowly walked towards the animal… I stayed back, my mind playing out various scenarios like a movie in high speed. What would I do if a bear came out of the sage and attacked Phil?? I would like to think I would be brave enough to attack the attacker with my bear spray. We normally carry our sidearms but because we were going to be traveling into Canada after our week in Glacier National Park, we would not be allowed to have them when we crossed the border. Of course, they would always be a last resort.

I continued praying for safety when Phil yelled back that it was a dead elk calf. “Oh that’s just great!” I thought to myself. There could be a grizzly taking a nap nearby or the Wapiti wolf pack could be crouched in the grass, waiting to defend their kill! This was the third dead elk calf we had seen in the past 24 hours. One was over by Lamar Valley and the other was laying not more than a mile down the road from the Mary Mountain Trailhead. Phil couldn’t see any signs that a predator had gotten to this calf yet, so he surmised that it had probably died at birth or shortly thereafter.

This new discovery did put a sense of urgency into our hike. Chances are it would not take the predators long to smell the decaying carcass and with the body being so close to the trail, it could put other hikers in real danger. With added pep to our step, we hiked the rest of the miles back to the van and decided to alert the park rangers.

Later that afternoon, after eating dinner at Canyon Village, we drove back to Hayden Valley for pictures of the sunset and with any luck, see wolves or bears.

A herd of elk were visible, along with some bison, but no sign of any big predators. We talked with some people who were very knowledgeable about the wolf packs of Yellowstone and watched one of their videos of some yearling wolves chasing elk through the river. Exciting footage!

Voicing our hopes to hear a wolf howl while we were out there, the man who worked in Canyon told us he had watched a wolf pack over by Slough Creek and was able to hear them howl just before they took off for a hunt. We hoped to be that lucky someday…

June 12, 2018 – Had breakfast at Canyon Village and had our sights set on driving up to the Beartooth Mountain range. Driving by the north side of Mt. Washburn, just past the Crittenden Road access, Phil caught sight of a brown, moving object, quite a distance out. He pulled the van off to the side of the road and we unloaded tripods, binoculars and cameras. It turned out to be a cinnamon-colored black bear and shortly after, a black-colored black bear joined it. They were too far out for decent pics, so we loaded everything back up and headed down the road towards the Northeast entrance and beyond… Beartooth.

Not long after leaving the pair of black bears, we came upon a mother cinnamon and her two cubs.

We watched them for quite awhile… they were SO CUTE! Then we drove on through Lamar Valley with no predator sightings until we got just past Pebble Creek. There we spotted ANOTHER cinnamon bear, all alone, grazing along a hillside… our fifth cinnamon-colored black bear in one morning!

The Beartooth mountain range is one of our favorite places to visit, especially when the days turn hot. At over 10,000 feet in elevation, it always provides a cool respite from the summer heat. During the off season, the mountains in this area play host to the US Olympic Ski Team and many other skiers who like to play a bit more EXTREME.

Bear’s Tooth
Phil at the top of Gardiner Headwall where extreme snowboarders and skiers start their descent. The parking area is down below.
Gardiner Headwall from the view of the parking lot.

We spent a couple of hours taking video of the extreme mountain snowboarders and skiers, then cruised along the curvy highway with gorgeous alpine views. The previous year, we had given one of the snowboarders a ride up to the top of the headwall and learned that the one-legged skier we had been watching and videoing had been featured in a well-known magazine. These guys and gals had some bonafied hookspa! Just after crossing back into Yellowstone, we came upon a mother moose and her calf.

We watched them browse among the shrugs that hugged the riverbank. A dozen or more people stopped to take pictures and video and we chatted with people as we watched mom and baby eat, drink and interact with each other.

A young woman sat next to me and we struck up a conversation about her job as a teacher in Idaho and how she was hammock camping in the nearby national forest where no reservations are needed. She was all alone and I admired her bravery, wondering to myself if I would have been that brave at her age. Doubtful, lol! Phil made friends with a young couple from Kentucky who were on their honeymoon and enjoying every minute spent in Yellowstone.

We had seen a small carcass laying on a sand bar, right in the middle of the raging river not far down from where these moose were browsing. Phil had mentioned this to a woman who was watching along with us and she said that it was the twin to this calf. Evidently, the newborn moose calf had gotten caught in the fast-flowing water and was drowned, washing up on the sand bar. We hoped that this little calf would be wiser and stay out of the dangerous current.

Take a ride on the Vandura with us next week and we’ll travel to a national park that rivals Yellowstone’s breath-taking panoramic views… Glacier National Park in Montana.

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