Day 3 May 21th, 2016
Saturday, May 21th, 2016
Mammoth Hot Springs, Montana
It's drizzling lightly when we arrive at Slough Creek at 7 a.m. Some of the Junction adults and pups have moved down the slope from the den to the lower logs, out of our sight. A single gray wolf sits below the conifers looking around and then walks into the sage behind a berm, presumably joining the rest. That is our wolf for the day.
Across the dirt road in a marshy area a pair of sandhill cranes has nested in the willows. The female sits on the nest while the male stands a yard or so beyond her, dutifully keeping watch. With their subtle brown and tan and blue feathers blending so exquisitely, they make a beautiful couple. The sandhill cranes at Floating Island Lake have not returned. Perhaps they found another site when the island flooded over and nest there now.
We leave Slough just as rain begins to fall in fat, heavy drops. It lets up quickly as we curve through Lamar Canyon, stopping briefly to check the osprey (still there) and the owlets (still there). At the Confluence two cow moose stretch their necks to reach the tasty leaves of thick willows. Maybe a mother and yearling? They are dark shapes, moving shadows in the brush. The sun comes out, bringing out their rich, brown bodies and the yellow green of the willows.
The rain begins again, sometimes just a sprinkle, other times a downpour. We drive from turnout to turnout seeking refuge, a place to watch wildlife in the rain. At Dorothy's we find a pair of coyotes trotting through the sage and bison. They do not appear to be hunting and the bison ignore them. Each has an almost white face and a dark gray body - they have been swimming! This must be the pair that has a den in Lamar Canyon and are the only coyotes we have seen in almost four days. Where have all the coyotes gone?
From this point, the weather deteriorates rapidly. Rain, rain and more rain. At Antelope the sun comes out and the valley spreads out green and vibrant below us. Surprisingly, Dunraven Pass is open today, but a visitor who has just driven up from Canyon warns us a front is passing through, so we avoid it and turn back down Tower Road where a black bear forages at Calcite Springs, making circles as it digs up roots between the trees. It starts to rain again right before a ranger arrives, clearing some of the traffic. We wait for a while, trying to redeem this day from the weather, and head toward Mammoth.
At Phantom Lake a black bear and her cub from last year root through the grass at the edge of the trees. A crowd has gathered, but there is no ranger, so parking is a bit of a free for all. Still everyone is considerate and the sow and her cub amble through the grass and around the trees entertaining the crowd. Passing Floating Island Lake, the coots are fussing with each other, chasing each other through the water. Deer graze at the edge of the water and yellow headed blackbirds flit through the grass. The rain continues, light and then heavy.
An eagle is hunting at Blacktail Ponds, circling above, searching the water below, then perching on a rock to wait. At the other end of the ponds a pair of Canadian geese tends their young. I count six goslings, but there are more likely eight. They waddle through the marshy area, a good distance from the eagle.
The great horned owlets at Mammoth grow large and more adventurous. Today one fuzzy owlet perches at the edge of the nest as its mother's head pops up from within to feed it. The owlets, their bodies, swaying in circles, are comical and almost as large as an adult. The mother on the other hand has a serious, no nonsense countenance. The branches of the tall pine lean into the wind. Later a second owlet appears deep in the nest while the mother perches on a branch. We still haven't seen her mate in any of the nearby trees, but he is most definitely there somewhere.
Late this afternoon we pass through Swan Lake Flats and the grizzly sow and two cubs are still in the middle of the meadow. Vehicles again line both sides of the road, like last night. We manage a short hike at Indian Creek campground before it begins to rain and almost snow. Passing two concerned looking elk, we are pounded at the end of the hike by tiny grains of hail. This weather - will it ever end and give us a break?
Around 6 p.m. the sun comes out ushering in a clear, sunny evening. The temperature shoots up to 50 degrees. We drive down to the Gardiner River where a pair of Canadian geese herds their eleven goslings. Eleven. They waddle about, pecking at the grass, then wade into the river for a drink. Another pair of geese hovers nearby when a goose from the first pair charges them. Interesting to see the goose version of aggressive behavior. They lower and stretch out their necks, herding their "enemy." The chastened goose takes her place away from the goslings and life is back to normal, for now.
As the sun sets over Mammoth's terraces, the light shines gold and orange and white over the thermal towers. Steam rises in puffy clouds. In a grassy corner just off the boardwalk a breeze bounces a small pink umbrella past a trio of grazing elk. Startled, the elk jump up, run down the green slope, reaching a quick halt. Hesitantly they graze away from the little umbrella, probably dropped by a child and blown into the thermal area. One curious cow eyes the pink stranger and gradually inches toward it. She taps it with a hoof, flipping the umbrella and jumps back. Cautiously approaching again, she sniffs it and grabs it with her mouth. She flings the umbrella back and forth through the air and throws it on the ground, stomping her enemy, transforming it to a folded pink rag lying on the grass. We think of elk as quiet and docile, but this cow proves there is more going on upstairs than we imagine.
Later we take a walk high above the Gardiner River, keeping watch for fox and cougar. The view is magnificent. The path is really a game trail through sage and phlox, larkspur, and tiny blue bells. Hairy clematis blooms among the sagebrush. Something happens at dusk; the Park settles into a shadowy dream. We drive through Swan Lake Flats one more time before returning to the cabin. Elk line the roads grazing gracefully and quietly. Quad Mom and her two cubs are still in the meadows, closer to the road now, mesmerizing a handful of watchers.
Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer
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