Yellowstone: The Big Five

Yellowstone: The Big Five

August 20, 2019: Level Achieved: Spotting all of the Big Five

These sighting span all of my trips to the Caldera.

Moose: 1989

Thirty years ago, this summer, the Moore’s had an adventure across the country. Epic, and I refer to it often. It was a pivotal trip, three weeks packed into the 1980’s, light blue Chrysler New Yorker, it talked (“A door is ajar.” No, a door is a door.). There are snapshots I remember, and stories that my parents remind me about. I had no idea we lost the brakes going down Wolf Creek Pass, I was reading, stretched out in the back seat. 

I am in awe of how a trip like this was planned, pre-internet, and recall a map highlighted in yellow (no doubt a Skillcraft government highlighter). 

I remember the horse back ride in the Black Hills, being on the train from Durango to Silverton (not the view, just being in the train car) and panning for gold, a snippet of Mesa Verde, a hot air balloon ride, doing some craft in Idaho at the time share (don’t remember the craft, but I did it, was it stained glass?).

There’s a great photo of my Dad and I with the back drop of Rushmore. Apparently, the hot air ballon came down in a field; I was told of my lack of restraint on a white water raft trip the first of the group jumping into the river; and having the picture of the moose at Yellowstone. [*and just today I mentioned that an aunt closed on a house in Coeur d’Alene and the knee jerk response was, “Oh, we got tires there!” Nope, I don’t remember that.]

I can’t say that I remember Yellowstone from 1989. It was a year after The Fires. My mom recalls the devastation, which is still visible today.

But it’s that picture of a moose where I can claim to check off the box for my first of the Big Five. 

Elk: 2014

Elk are pretty plentiful in the Park of course, and of course being in Colorado: Estes Park in the fall, how could any one elk could stand apart; but there was one. Staying on the west side, in West Yellowstone for a family reunion we were headed somewhere early. Almost all of the O’Donnell clan was in attendance that year. It was my second reunion, and third time I had been with the group, me and my folks fitting in and being welcomed just the same.

I wish I could remember where we were headed, but I was driving my parents in to the Park, heading east, and the Madison River was on our right at that stretch of road.

And there himself was, he was regal, and knew it.

The elk had crossed the road prior to our getting to that point, and was now just setting out to cross the river. The sunlight was just so in the morning, maybe an hour past the golden hour, so the blues and greens were vibrant, with shining licks of light off the water. 

He strolled, strutted perhaps, across, holding his head and antlers high, and I don’t know if it was imagined or not, but the memory comes with hoofs on the rocks through the water. To this day I will never forget that image as he disappeared into the forest.

Bison: 2016

A lucky girl, I went to Yellowstone for Christmas in 2016. One of those trips of a lifetime, and if you have the money for a trip to the Caribbean, I suggest you strongly consider putting those funds to a winter in Yellowstone trip instead.

There’s no driving into the park, I chartered a snowcoach in from Flagg Ranch (the south entrance) to stay at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful. A general note here on Old Faithful, no matter what time of year you go, sure, take in the geyser during the day, but circle back at night for your own private experience. Watching that natural wonder in a private showing, in the cold with the stars above is truly a sensory experience. 

When at the gift shop in 2018 telling visitors about this pro-tip, I had one group remark, “Oh, it still goes off at night?” [Stares blankly back at them. Yep, and I know the ranger who pushes the button…]

The geyser basin in the snow is pretty mystical. You can hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski the trails. Across the basin the bison roam, it’s warmer there of course. 

This is where you can truly witness how evolutionarily they are built for our plains and rocky mountain landscape. Their heads are like plows, moving the snow for them to get to the grasses underneath. 

Watching these beasts in the snow, not just in the basin, but on another snowcoach tour to Madison Valley, was breathtaking. There’s nothing like the sound of bison, so guttural and primal.

Yellowstone Winter 2016 Photo Album

Recommended reading: Buffalo for the Broken Hearted. This details a South Dakota rancher converting his cattle ranch to a bison ranch. I was struck by the differences between the species. Also recommended, getting bison meat from the Broken Hearted Ranch (or quite the memorable present!). 

2018 Bison honorable mention: It was my first time to Lamar Valley. Again Kioko in the back seat, and I am in awe of the massive numbers of bison in the valley.

It was time to turn back, start heading for home (I was staying north of West Yellowstone, so it would be a couple hours to get back.) Of course every few miles bison were crossing the road, and I slowed to let one have way. I don’t know what it was about the truck in that moment, he turned towards the truck, stared me down, and then started walking head-on to us, a little faster that his original mosey across the street. 

Luckily there was no one behind me, and I eased into reverse, muttered something like, “Uh boy…” and gestured that the road was his to take. 

Black Bear: 2018

I was in the Park for the first time selling my wears. I try to partner my business with pleasure, so it was my first day after wrapping up in the gift shop and I took the dog for a drive. We were somewhere near Canyon, and as always, brake lights ahead mean wildlife. The nature of this particular setting, I knew whatever it was was going to be gone long before I got up to the point where people were standing at the side of the road.

Ahead, there was a bit of a meadow stretching out to the right, but my view was blocked by a berm on both sides. People were looking out across the meadow, and slowly their heads were turning down the road towards my direction. I was thinking whatever it was was on the other side of the berm, vanishing into the wilds back there, but not a second later a bear popped up over the mound with a get-me-the-hell-out-of-here look on his face. He came down the ridge, right in front of the truck. I was shuffling to get the camera out, and figure out what Kioko was doing back there (aloof as always and never seeing the wildlife, but always afraid that just that one time, she’ll react [akitas used to be bear hunters, and really don’t need that instinct to surface at inopportune moments]).

I got a fuzzy wonky picture of the bear, but he trotted off, I’m sure to be rid of those prying human eyes.

Wolf: 2019

Lamar Valley again, my driving day again. I was thinking I’d shoot around from Mammoth to Lamar, and head out the Northeast entrance (staying on the east side this time) and down through the Chief Joseph Highway, through Cody, and out to the campsite at the Wapiti Campground. My spot was lovely, backed up the the Shoshone River. 

A girl can hope, try to conjure up an image of a wolf, but a sighting just doesn’t happen. 

While in the shop this year, there were the sharing of notes where the carcasses are, but it’s usually the bears that are there. And well, I couldn’t remember where the stories of the location of the carcasses were anyway. 

Of course I was a little annoyed with myself for taking a drive around the Terraces in Mammoth, when I could be looking for wildlife. (Lovely and fascinating landscape, so I can’t really fault myself, and if I was early…)

About 10 miles from the Tower junction into and just dipping my toes into Lamar, were the infamous parked cars. Thank heavens for having a truck, the only spot to park that was left was on a severe angle, but I got tingly. There was something out there. 

OK, that something was a group of light/white birds taking flight, but as I was out there, I followed the gaze of the the other folks.

Now you have your tourists, with the general consumer-use binoculars and regular zoom lenses on their cameras, and then there’s the much larger equipment. No matter the level of pro, there was a spark in the air: wolf.

Following their direction, I spotted it immediately. He was dark, black, and the fellas with the larger scopes said he had some grey underneath, maybe his muzzle, too, was grey.

He was heading at a leisurely pace through the valley, near the river, stopping every now and again to sniff a spot, as one does. 

A literal lone wolf, probably no collar, so no one could be sure if he was a pack member, or cast-off. Or if the grey meant older, or just that coloration. Most likely he had come from the carcass that lay just ahead. 

Recommended Reading: It’s the 50th Anniversary of the publish date of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, in which he describes his experiences on his research into the nature of the Arctic wolf. While there may be better (modern) books out there on wolf behavior/culling/restoration, this was one of the firsts, and an easy entré into the subject (behavior, as well as modern thoughts on culling wolf populations).

Grizzly Bear(s): 2019

The wolf was pretty much it, the pinnacle of spottings, and I was done for the day. Ready to hit the loop home, I headed to the NE entrance, but really only got another mile and decided to stop and check out what the next set of parked cars were camped out for.

It was indeed the carcass, a bison flanked with ravens.

It was close to dusk, and perhaps someone would stir at that hour. My neighbors welcomed me, the pros with their scopes, and phones enlarging the image to capture the scene, and allowing other to take a better look. Amateurs like me, just excited to see something. A couple from North Carolina getting ready for a missionary trip to Africa, and then another couple, the lady great at spotting a moving black dot.

Some of those black dots were bison. And about 45 minutes in, a figure was moving in from the left. A grizzly who had been napping was ready to feast again. The movement was a meander, this bear was bellying up to the smorgasbord that he’s been working on for a while.

I watched through the neighbors scope/cell phone, through my binoculars, and through my camera lens. OK, I know it’s only a 300 zoom, so my images will only be larger black dots… but I still saw it.

The sunset was lovely, and I made motion to leave, and again, the black-dot spotter saw something on the ridge.

It was a mama grizzly and two cubs.

Score! I watched them for a bit, then made a joke that if I pretend to leave we’ll see something else, but it was time. My travel companion was not with me and I had to get home to her, my little bear.

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