Thursday, June 14, 2012
Silver Gate, Montana

    As the sun begins to warm Lamar Valley, two coyotes are driving a wolf off a bison carcass near the cottonwoods. The wolf, from the Mollie Pack, runs off to the west as the coyotes viciously pursue it. 820F, a light gray Lamar Canyon yearling, has been waiting in the wings and tries to sneak in and grab a bite, but she, too, is run off by the smaller canines. The coyotes are a feisty bunch, most likely defending a nearby den while enjoying the kill. 820F crosses the road somewhere and beds on top of a ridge north of the road. She surveys the landscape from her perch in no hurry to tackle the coyotes again or the crowd below her.
   On the other side of the river two gray Mollies pace the shore before deciding not to cross and head up Amethyst Bench.
Bison circle the carcass keeping even the coyotes and wolves away from their meal. High on Specimen Ridge a grizzly sow and her cub forage on the green slopes, two dark brown moving dots, while the wolves retreat to wait it out.
   On our way to Mammoth we pass Yellowstone Picnic Area and drive the Tower Road looking for black bears with cubs of the year. The sows and cubs seem to be hiding from us this year, keeping their cubs far back in the trees and deadfall, away from the road and out of view. But near Petrified Tree and Elk Creek, a small black bear climbs over logs and wades through the tall grasses of the low meadows abutting Yancy's Hole, and farther down the road another small black bear ambles along in the meadows near Floating Island Lake.
   We check the rock covered slopes near Hellroaring trail for Pika and hear a chirp before one scrambles in and out of the dark openings of the jagged landslide. A tiny cross between rabbit and mouse, pika are difficult to see, blending in with the landscape and scurrying back and forth.
   The sandhill crane nest at Floating Island Lake is hidden, the island itself a narrow strip of tall reeds with a brown patch in the middle. Geese are raising their young here. The goslings are fairly large and golden brown, flapping their fuzzy wings as their parents herd them into the tall reeds at the northern edge of the little lake. For as long as I can remember, a pair of sandhill cranes nested in the center of Floating Island Lake and it's strange to see the lake without them. They may have left the nest for the surrounding meadow, the young (called "colts") big enough and old enough now. Much later we learn this is the case and the family has been seen along the shores of the lake.
   We run into a bear jam at Sheepeater Cliffs. A blondish black bear is roaming the edges of Indian Creek, his long, light fur ruffled by the breeze. We saw this bear last year - he is unusually light and this year he is showing the beginning of a black coat as he sheds. The road and bridge are crammed with vehicles, visitors armed with cameras lined up along the pavement. We park near the campground and sit on a log, waiting for the traffic to disperse.
   This afternoon we hike the trail to Lost Lake. A little black bear is foraging between a pair of bison in the ravine near Petrified Tree. He crawls over dead trees, ignoring the crowd. The trail crosses the creek and winds through a low grassy meadow filled with larkspur, many-flowered stickseed (of the forget-me-not family) and woodland strawberry. A hairy woodpecker lights on a dead tree. Similar to a downy woodpecker, it has a red capped head. A very striking bird. Lost lake is really a large, quiet pond filled with yellow pond lilies. The trail passes the lake and climbs up through the woods, curving around the ravine and surprising us with a fabulous view of Lost Creek Falls. Hikers can follow the path to Roosevelt Lodge or Tower Campground. We walk farther toward the campground, turning around when we reach a large grassy meadow above the Tower Road.
   It's still bright at 7 p.m. when we begin the steep climb to Trout Lake. The lake is closed to fishing and the surface is smooth, reflecting the beginning sunset. Here and there a ripple disturbs the glass-like water. Where a short, wooden bridge crosses a stream bubbling into the lake, trout are spawning. They lift their noses to the surface and wiggle their way upstream. We watch from the narrow, muddy path, fascinated. A pair of wary cow elk stare from the far end of the lake, then run off. We continue marching along the shore when two other hikers suddenly wave us back - a furry brown otter glides past us toward the bridge and begins the entertainment for the evening. He dives after the trout and pops up, halfway out of the water; then dives down again and chases fish, wiggling and splashing. Back and forth, up and down, all at top speed. A diligent fisherman, the otter repeats his routine, chasing a trout almost halfway across the lake before catching it. Head above water, fish firmly in his jaws, the otter glides to a log opposite us where he disappears to eat his catch.
   Before heading toward Silver Gate we make one last trip into Lamar Valley just in time to see 820F and another gray chased across the road by the coyotes again. As the sun goes down, a large cinnamon colored black bear forages near the trees at the edge of Round Prairie while above him mountain goats climb the rocky slopes of the mountains. Masked by evening shadows, a moose with her long-legged calf stand at the edge of the pine trees in a meadow near Barronette Peak, a silhouette against the conifers. The fragile calf appears only a day or so old next to its mother's outline, a peaceful and poignant memory of this day.

Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer

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Yellowstone Experiences 2012