The Roosevelt Arch adjacent to Gardiner, Montana; at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park
I woke early, taking into account the beginning of daylight savings time. What had been four in the morning was now five, so I would lose an hour of drive time keeping to the old schedule. I kept the alarm set at four. The Trav-O-Tel Motel in Craig, Colorado, had served me well, and as I stumbled around early in the morning – packing, brewing coffee – I again admired the compact but neat room. Nice tile work in the bathroom, exposed wood beams, attractive western themed artwork hung throughout… I had wanted to car camp, but felt lucky to find this place nonetheless. In the morning darkness I made the car ready and closely examined the pavement below the engine so as to detect any drips from the coolant system. Hitting the deer the previous evening had nearly put an end to this trip, and I was ready to turn back home should I find any sign, no matter how slight, of a defect in the cooling system.
I considered turning back, regardless. As I explained in my previous post, I had never learned to trust people thus hindering my emotional growth. Self doubt created in me a hesitancy even now. After I realized that the only path forward would be to reckon with my emotional state, I devised the plans for this trip. Exploring northwestern Colorado and searching for the nascent wolf pack there had been challenging and rewarding in its own way, but it had also been fairly easy for me emotionally. Most of my explorations are similar in feel. That is, I’m generally alone, or most likely with my two German shepherds. I was motivated to see wolves in the wild, however, and from my previous experience as a biological technician on the Wolf Project in Yellowstone National Park I knew where I could do that. Wolves are easy. For me, its the humans that cause me trepidation, though through no fault of the people themselves. Yes, I wanted to see wolves. Did I really want to confront my emotional state? Yes… and no. Thus me examining my feelings as I drove west on U.S. 40 a few blocks before turning north on Colorado 13 towards Wyoming. Southbound would lead me home, to safety, really.
It occurred to me that I had not seen Craig at all during the daylight hours. I also thought of how I had contributed about two hundred and fifty dollars to the local economy. That’s not much in the overall outlook, but still….Moffat County is generally opposed to Initiative 107, the proposal to reintroduce wolves to Colorado. This new pack that I had attempted to find, that I have begun calling the Centennial Pack, is often cited by those opposed to the initiative as a cause celebre that suggests that since wolves are already here then there is no reason for further reintroduction. Of course, no mention is made of whether or not this pack actually reproduces. Or whether it will wander across the state line and into Wyoming or Utah. Or that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has a minimum criteria that needs to be met to define a population. I’m not sure off-hand what that is but I’m sure it’s more than one pack that hasn’t even shown definitive reproductive success. I’m for reintroduction and plan to vote for Initiative 107 this Fall.
I took it easy north of Craig as I was somewhat wary after the previous evening’s collision. There were many fewer deer this way and those that I did see seemed a bit more calm. Traffic was light, consisting of a few passenger vehicles, work trucks and the occasional semi. A flurry of signage indicated the state line and the highway was now denominated Wyoming 789. I stopped north of the state line and bought a tank of gas in Baggs. All else was quiet but the pumps murmur. Darkness prevailed and I could only see what the headlights lit up. From the few times I have seen this country in daylight I could barely discern what lay beyond the car’s illumination. Reaching Interstate 80 the situation changed suddenly. The clouds, rain and snow combined to delay the onset of dawn and thus the long line of illuminated superhighway I could see for miles at a time. Considering the time of day I thought that traffic was fairly heavy. Headlights shining clear, red tail lights, and amber clearance lights on the larger vehicles, huge fueling depots combined with large convenience marts, eighty miles an hour speed limit….Suddenly I found myself in the mainstream of American commerce. Nothing to do but go along with the flow and count down the mileage until I could exit at Rawlins and head north. “Windshield wipers slapping time…” Yeah, it was drizzling, too.
I was happy to exit the interstate and begin the route north again. I’ve driven this stretch of U.S. 287/Wyoming 789 numerous times over the years, and in the darkness I missed seeing the familiar landmarks along the way. I entered the Great Divide Basin and then when exiting noted that daylight had made discernible the various nearby hills. I love the topography of this area but it is also more or less horribly chewed up by extractive industry. The interruption of biological diversity and wanton disregard for life hinder my want to explore the basin itself although the mountains nearby are often protected. It isn’t lost on me that driving my car consumes the very product I now deride, thus one of many contradictions to be found in our modern life. Petroleum products gave us a good start but it seems time to move away from polluting energy into something greener. If in the process we can’t exactly heal the wounds we create, then perhaps we could at least bandage them. In the end, disrupt the function of the ecosystem, a function that provides us with clean water and air among a host of benefits, as minimally as possible.
Traffic had thinned considerably once on the two-lane road north of Rawlins. As dawn approached I relaxed considerably, now able to see the roadside more visibly. The precipitation had also ceased by the time I made it to Muddy Gap Junction, where I turned left towards the west, although still northbound on U.S. 287 /Wyoming 789. There yanked on my mind the thought that I should turn back. Try as I might I couldn’t shake the mental reproach that I had imposed on myself. Yet the open road soothes, and as the miles fly by some of my angst is shed in the rearview to be replaced by a clarity of purpose. With a tinge of red on the horizon I decided to pull over at the Split Rock Interpretive Site. Split Rock was a major way point on the Oregon and associated Trails. I also find inspiration from the Granite Mountains themselves and the Sweetwater River. Wide open, vast, replete with scattered outcroppings of weathered granite… this area exudes that which I love about the Western landscape. Windy, too. I abandoned my plans to cook a quick breakfast and drove on, content to snack and fill up on convenience store coffee. I pulled over at the Ice Slough, so named because of the preponderance of ice found here even in July. The ice doesn’t form any more due to environmental degradation, but it is an interesting story.
At Sweetwater Station I turned north on Wyoming 135 and drove up to the summit of the Beaver Divide, which parts water between the Missouri and Platte River systems. I pulled over and took in the immensity of the Big Horn Basin. I used this pullout numerous times in the past, as I enjoy the long view of the Wind River Range especially. There was too much snow to drive out, so I parked and walked a bit to get the view I so enjoy. Continuing onward I drove down into Riverton where I rejoined Wyoming 789, now co-signed with U.S. 26 and then U.S. 20, and followed that through the Wind River Canyon. Near the Wedding of the Waters, I pulled over and cooked breakfast but became a bit sloppy about documenting what I was seeing. I drove through Thermopolis, site of many fond memories, and turned onto Wyoming 120. I sailed along without stopping as I had explored much of this landscape. There are some fascinating archaeological sites in the vicinity, but I wanted to see wildlife so…onward.
North of Cody I finally stopped at a Clark’s Fork fishing access. I didn’t walk around but just admired the wildness of the view. The sagebrush steppe, the river flowing through it, the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains shrouded in low clouds… a sublime scene. As much as I wanted to stop and explore, the drive was eating up more time than I had anticipated. So, I rolled on into Montana and drove up to Bear Creek and over to Red Lodge. From there I cut across on Montana 78 to Columbus and Interstate 90. The rolling foothills surrounding the two-lane highway where covered in new snowfall, about three or four inches deep. But by the time I stopped at Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus the snow had melted. I stopped here to stretch my legs and walk the banks of the mighty Yellowstone River. The moist air smelled good, filled with the fragrance of the organic compounds shed by the nearby vegetation.
Rested and desiring to make time, I flew along at eighty on Interstate 90 as it paralleled the Yellowstone. I scarcely had time to think of Lewis and Clark, not to mention the diverse natural history of the area. I had eaten at a Subway in Red Lodge after filling up, so once exited in Livingston I stopped only as long as traffic dictated. Some miles south on U.S. 89 brought me to the northern end of Paradise Valley. I could see the Yellowstone River wind its way through the long, broad expanse, the Gallatin Range rising on the west and the Absoraka Range on the east. The closer I got to Gardiner the more wildlife I began to see. I saw numerous bands of elk grazing in meadows along the highway. Cloudy and windy, the mountains clad in snow, it was a Winter sight that I had not witnessed first hand in nineteen years.
South of Gardiner I pulled over at an overlook that directs the visitor’s attention to The Devil’s Slide. A mass of upturned sedimentary strata, the cutaway view does resemble a large slide. I admired the river and gazed up at dark, forested Sepulcher Mountain, knowing that I was looking at Yellowstone National Park itself. Only ten minutes or so from the hotel I was happy to stretch my legs a bit after the long drive. The stop allowed me to gather my wits as well. I finished the drive and pulled into the Absoraka Lodge, checked in without a hitch and began to unload the car of superfluous luggage.
At that point I realized that there were still two or three hours of daylight left, and I could make a foray into the park. So, I dressed appropriately, putting on my field gear, and brought along the essentials. I drove up to Roosevelt Arch, just to remind myself where I was and how special the world’s first national park is to me and so many others. From there I drove up the familiar road to Mammoth Hot Springs and then on out to Blacktail Ponds. There a mass of vehicles had pulled over, and I did the same. A buffalo had ended up in the pond, turning itself into a carcass. People were interested in seeing what scavengers might show up to feast on the provident meal. A long coyote guarded the hulk, but due to the location of the carcass couldn’t really get out onto it. Some ravens flew in and fruitlessly pecked away at the hide. Two more coyotes came trotting along, and all three engaged in some interesting social conduct. Coyotes talk to each other in a most engaging way, and it was wonderful to see them interact. The two late-comers left and as the Sun set the initial coyote curled back up into a ball and slept.
I had seen an old friend there, and we talked about the current status of wolves and wildlife in general and how it had changed since the old days. I would have quite a bit of catching up to do if I were to understand the current landscape. I drove a short distance east, up to the South Butte parking lot. From here I could gaze over the vast country that makes up the Blacktail Deer Plateau. During my stint working in the park I had watched the Leopold Pack during Den Study and Winter Study. There were more bison now relative to elk than then, but the landscape was how I remembered it. I felt the wind blow in my face as I stood over the landscape, admiring the park not just in landscape but in spirit… that this place is protected. No cattle, no barbed-wire, no mining, no logging… one of the few places where nature is left to its own device, and where the human spirit can interact with that wildness. I was happy to have made it, that my journey hadn’t ended out in the steppe of northwestern Colorado.
I returned to the motel and unpacked for the night. I made myself ready for the next day as much as I could… laying out clothing, setting up food, readying the coffee maker, setting the alarm for five in the morning and otherwise organizing for my first day seeking the wolves of Yellowstone. Weary after a long day, I finally crawled into bed after sending out a few texts letting people know that I had arrived in town safely. While making up the texts I had stepped out onto the balcony that overlooks the Yellowstone River. It was night but the bright moon illuminated the landscape such that I could make out Mount Everts and Sepulcher Mountain. I thought of the past and how it shaped the present, and wondered what the future held. Dawn would tell.
Sunset over Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone National Park; Bunsen Peak on the left, the south slope of Mount Everts on the right
Sunrise over Wyoming
Granite Mountains at Split Rock, sunrise
The Ice Slough on the Sweetwater River
Windswept sagebrush steppe near the Ice Slough in Wyoming
The southern end of the Wind River Range as seen from Beaver Divide
The northern Wind River Range as seen from the Beaver Divide
The Wind River Range in its entirety
Clark’s Fork River Public Access Area, north of Cody, Wyoming
The Clark’s Fork River, the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains beyond the steppe
Looking downstream on the Yellowstone River at Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus, Montana
Upstream on the Yellowstone River from Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus, Montana
Inviting Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus, Montana
Looking upstream on the Yellowstone River fromthe Devil’s Slide Overlook; Sepulcher Mountain beyond
Across the Yellowstone River, The Devil’s Slide
Looking from Blacktail Deer Ponds, towards Hellroaring Mountain in Yellowstone National Park
Ravens at the carcass in Blacktail Deer Ponds
The two coyotes at Blacktail Deer Ponds, the first is curled up in a ball about 9:30 from the pair
Sunset over Blacktail Deer Plateau
Looking north from the South Butte parking lot in Yellowstone National Park
A view of South Butte, an old observation post of mine and many others
The Washburn Range seen above Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone National Park, towards the end of Winter
The Roosevelt Arch adjacent to Gardiner, Montana; at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park