I have written at some length about my wildlife quest in Yellowstone in August 2021. As a refresher, I was after six big mammals in particular: elk (spotted first at Grant Village the day before), bison (all over Hayden Valley), pronghorn, bear, wolf, and moose. This was the night to get them. Elizabeth, Pam and I were planning a visit to Lamar Valley that night. As every single piece of material on Lamar Valley on the Internet proclaims, this was The Serengeti of North America. A rolling valley in Yellowstone’s northeastern corner along the Lamar River, it’s a favored grazing spot for bison and elk. Naturally, it’s a favorite hunting spot for wolves, too. The wolf people comb Lamar Valley incessantly to try to find the famed grey wolf herds, but probably not tonight. If we knew about the bison carcass in Slough Creek, wouldn’t all of the professionals?
As it was, the rafting adventure through Wild West had finished up by mid-afternoon – already a full day, but still with time to spare. Elizabeth and I figured we might as well stick around in Gardiner until dinner time and eat at a food truck my parents had been raving about. Plus, there was ice cream. I’m always down for ice cream. Especially ice cream post-adrenaline-rush. Elizabeth and I had a scoop outside and enjoyed the orange afternoon skies before we went and did some classic gift shopping. I’ve often said that nobody gift shops better than Elizabeth, and the town that was built essentially to be Yellowstone’s main entrance town got the job done. The most interesting shop was this little building along the same storefront on the outfacing road as Wild West. Inside it was a photo gallery exclusively taken by the proprietor, a guy who google tells me is named Chris. Pam thought that Chris was the greatest things since sliced bread. Honestly, I’m with her on this one. His photos were awesome. Bear cubs in the winter, snow-blasted bison, action shots of the Yellowstone wolves… his gallery was legit, and he was very nice. An underrated highlight of the trip. We asked Chris if he was going to the same bison carcass as us that night, and he confirmed that he was closing shop up early to go do some photography.
Another underrated highlight of the trip: The Roosevelt Arch. It sits a couple hundred yards from Wild West Rafting, on the main entrance road into Yellowstone itself. The Roosevelt Arch was built by the U.S. Army back in times when this part of the country was still frontier. Theodore Roosevelt laid down the cornerstone in late 1903 on top of a time capsule from that time, which is pretty cool.
The arch is famously inscribed with a quote from the original Congressional act in 1872 that created the world’s first-ever national park.
And no picture of such an incredible landmark would be complete without Elizabeth:
As a history buff, I loved walking under the Arch and imagining how Teddy Roosevelt felt putting in the stone that commemorated the first act of its kind to ever save land the way this had been saved. He must have loved his role in following Grant’s footsteps, and I sort of felt like I was following Roosevelt’s in turn.
Maybe it was Chris providing positive energy to our part of Gardiner. Maybe it was Roosevelt’s energy, since he was known to love hunting big game out west such as this. But Elizabeth gasped and pointed from the storefront in town at one point out into the field beyond. When I looked (and squinted, since I was wearing contacts) I could see a distinctive white mammal butt that marked a pronghorn. I’ve been disappointed in the past to think that I’ve seen a pronghorn, only to get baited by a mule deer, but this time Elizabeth zoomed in an got a shot that I’m quite confident was my first-ever pronghorn sighting.
And not long after that, we saw some elk just wander through the streets of Gardiner like they were looking for souvenirs.
By this point, Elizabeth, Pam and myself were enjoying a dinner at some food trucks in a little vacant lot downtown. My parents had enjoyed their meal at them, and after the lunch debacle I kind of figured a safe meal was an okay option. There really weren’t many options, but there was at least a pretty good pizza truck and a beer truck. In the end, how much more do you really need?
I guess you could maybe use a second beer if you’re a klutz like me and spill yours all over your brand new fiancee. But other than that, what more could you need?
While sitting out at the picnic table, soaking up the late-afternoon filtered sun, the wind started to kick up. This was the first real harbinger of a big weather change that was coming. I have talked ad nauseam about the great wildfire outbreak, and the smoke plumes, and all of their impacts on our trip. What I haven’t mentioned since the Jenny Lake hike days before is that the smoke plume was hung in place by a massive heat wave across the northwest, one of many in the summer of 2021. Why didn’t I mention it? Because a heatwave at 7,000 feet in Yellowstone isn’t much to write home about after a standard summer in Oklahoma. Even the hottest days were still reasonably comfortable, although today was somewhat hotter yet. But the gusty winds, somewhat to my surprise, were being kicked up by an elevated storm updraft somewhere in the mountains hence.
The storms were forming along a cold front that really, really, really was going to change the tenor of the weather on our trip starting overnight (we’ll get to it).
But for now, we had some gusty, blustery outflow bombs that were all but impossible to see amid all the smoke. They provided an element of excitement to our evening of wildlife viewing.
Slough Creek Campground Road is just off of the northeastern end of the figure 8 of Yellowstone’s main loops. This puts it in the mouth of Lamar Valley itself. One of my great regrets of the trip was that this wildlife viewing session would end up preventing us from seeing the rest of Lamar Valley. As a connoisseur of landscapes, I think this was a pretty big loss. A lot of what I’ve seen of Lamar Valley makes it look like Hayden Valley on steroids. One day I’ll get back there.
For now, we drove back into Yellowstone through the north entrance and back up the Gardner Canyon into Wyoming. At the Mammoth Junction, we headed east through a road the featured all of Yellowstone’s landforms – mountains, valleys, rivers, waterfalls, gorges, trees, steppe. Our immediate issue was to get some gas. Elizabeth’s Subaru had done admirably since its last fill-up, but even a Subaru runs out of gas eventually. Fortunately, there was a gas station at the Tower Roosevelt Junction. All of the other utilities at Tower were closed, but the service station at least had gas pumps outside where we could get a ridiculously overpriced tank. From there, Elizabeth kept driving into Lamar Valley. Immediately, the bison jams began.
And, in a sign that maybe I’ve let this series drag a bit long past our actual visit to Yellowstone, I have some pictures on my camera of pronghorn that I did not remember the existence of until I saw them.
Pronghorn are super underrated big mammals, change my mind.
Slough Creek Campground Road is just inside of Lamar Valley. It’s a dirt road that leads to a campground with only 16 sites along the creek. In normal times, it’s about as quiet as you can get in tourist-infested Yellowstone without venturing deep into the backcountry. But a couple of days prior, mating season for the bison had gone awry in a fight between two males that had turned fatal. Apparently a camper had found the carcass of the loser right by the road and alerted the NPS, who dispatched rangers to move the carcass a couple hundred yards from the road. They dispatched it in the north side of a swale a couple hundred yards across and a few dozen yards wide and let nature do its thing. Of course the wolf people found out about it and in due course when a pack appeared, they got their wolfy shots. As much as the NPS tried to suppress the news of the carcass (thanks, ranger at Mammoth for lying to my face) word had leaked out over the intervening days (thanks, guy at Canyon). I figured we were being proactive by getting to the site an hour ahead of sunset to stake out a spot in position before the wolves arrived at dusk. I was incorrect. There were already a couple hundred cars parked along the side of the campground road when we got there, and a couple hundred more would arrive in the next hour.
But things could be worse. There was still just enough room to stake out three spots along the edge of the valley, a couple hundred yards from the carcass and right next to a couple of off-duty park rangers. Elizabeth chatted with them and learned more about her true dream job while I took in the scenery along the hillside.
In what would normally be the golden hour, it seemed like the smoke concentration was higher than ever. Storms had been passing by ever since we re-entered the park, and occasionally we could even hear rumbles of thunder. But the only way to tell that a storm really lurked somewhere was that the sky turned a little bit darker, and a howling outflow wind picked up from the dark patch of sky.
When I say howling, the wind was just pounding us. It was like the atmosphere was getting all of the sickly smoke out of it in one fell swoop.
The environment along the side of the road went from crowded and veered into insane. Someone backed over a rock parking stop in the campground lot and blew out a tire, prompting our off-duty ranger friends to sigh and go back on-duty to phone for help. A tow truck arrived in a shockingly low time later to pull the car away. More and more people showed up with their tripods, crowding the clear angle between me and the carcass. And the number of false alarms increased as the sun set. Someone claimed to see a bear running down from the opposite direction, putting us in its path. Others said a bear was on top of the hill waiting to come on down and munch on some slightly past-prime bison beef. But what didn’t happen? Any wolves or bears or showing up.
The sun had gone down and the wolf people, even, were getting antsy. I was disappointed. This was probably the best (and maybe only) chance to satisfy one of the remaining legs on my big mammal quest, but it looked like we were just a little too late. Someone had seen a bear just that morning, but it looked like we were too late. Elizabeth gave me the “I’m worried this is going to ruin your entire day” look.
And then, a gasp went through the crowd. People started pointing. Up on the hill, a big canine stared down into the valley, probably deciding whether it was worth it to have his breakfast if there were 500 weird people staring at them with binoculars. Evidently hunger won out, because he started to slink down the hillside toward the carcass cautiously. It was little more than a dot in the distance, but I mean, come on. This was a GREY WOLF.
The wolf people (except those seasoned enough to maintain a stoic mentality in the face of all the noobs in their territory) were aflutter. Maybe the entire pack was watching somewhere, and the alpha was just heading down first to ensure the coast was clear? Or maybe the alpha was going to eat his entire fill before allowing the rest of the pack to begin picking at the corpse. After all, even a bison starts to run out of meat after days of being picked over by wolves and bears. Whatever the case, he picked his way down the hill to the delicious bison-y treat and began doing the wolf thing alongside it.
In retrospect, my rig for taking shots of the wolf was suboptimal in several ways. First, I was only using a 55-200 mm lens, when the situation really called for a 600. Second, I don’t think I was using the trigger I had bought for the Perseids, even though now was the perfect time to use it. And that was because third, I have a poopy tripod. There are lessons to be learned in my quest for improved photography in the future. In the meantime, there were plenty of wolf people with better rigs than I, and some of them were even nice enough to let me see (or take a picture) through their setups.
As the wolf continued to eat its snack, a murmur rose through the assembled crowd, especially on the right. Like lightning, a rumor swept through the sightseers. Someone had spotted a bear on the hill! I was skeptical, but when Elizabeth and I combed the hillside, we realized that a big, black rock along it was slowly lumbering downhill. And in fact, it wasn’t a rock. It was a grizzly.
I watched with bated breath as the grizzly swaggered its way down into the swale. The wolf wasn’t going to be caught off guard and turned to face the grizzly. I wasn’t sure if they would actually fight, but grizzlies aren’t exactly small, so I wasn’t sure why the wolf was sticking around. Just to make its presence felt? It retreated as the bear approached, proving that wolves truly do have superior intellect. I happened to be hanging out with the gallery owner, Chris, at the time the bear came wandering into the swale. Chris had a much better camera than me, and impulsively I asked if I could take a picture of his screen. Even as Elizabeth admonished me for embarrassing myself, he said sure. Cool dude!
With daylight diminishing and the bear firmly established as the sole legal guardian of the bison remains, Elizabeth, Pam, and myself had to think about how to get back to Canyon Campground with the Tower-Canyon road closed for the season. Essentially that meant going three legs around a circle through Mammoth and Norris, a multi-hour drive. It goes without saying that Wednesday morning would be yet another early one. So we started walking back to the car and almost missed the best moment of the whole night. The wolf apparently hadn’t had his fill yet, and was patiently waiting on the hillside a few dozen yards away for the bear to eat. The bear didn’t take kindly to being watched, especially as the wolf started to drift a little closer and look for some sort of truce. Suddenly, the bear stood up from its meal and chased the wolf at full speed. Gasps abounded everywhere. Of course the wolf got away and chose to watch at a greater distance, but still. As Elizabeth would later say, this was “National Geographic Animals Gone Wild” moment. When I made up the big mammal hunt, I never genuinely thought I would see either a wolf or a bear. Those things aren’t easy to find. It was beyond my wildest dreams and still shocks and amazes me that I got to watch the two of them fight over dinner.
(Sidenote: this means that 5 of the 6 big mammals are in this post alone. We never found a moose, which are apparently pretty rare in Yellowstone.)
On the long, late drive back to the campsite, it became impossible to ignore the flashes of lightning in the distant western skies once night had fully fallen. I hoped that we wouldn’t have our sleep interrupted, but that hope was to be in vain. Fortunately, Canyon Village had just enough LTE for me to get RadarScope on my phone to see the little thunderstorms that were popping up and zipping northeastward across the national park. They didn’t appear to be producing much in the way of cloud-to-ground lightning, but when you’re camping it only takes one strike. Not long after getting back, we had to get in the car to wait out a storm that went directly overhead. I hoped that this would be the last of it, but was awoken an hour later by another distant rumble. Radar showed a cell heading toward us with a strike 6 miles away. I woke up Elizabeth and said that we should consider getting in the car. She agreed, then rolled over and went back to sleep. In the distance, another flash. This time, the thunder was considerably louder. Radar showed the strike 3 miles away. I again told Elizabeth we should get in the car. From the other tent, Pam agreed. Elizabeth said “one more minute” and rolled over and went back to sleep. So now I was just sitting there waiting for the next strike, up on top of a plateau at 8,300 feet.
A flash. I tensed inside my tent, but didn’t die. The rumble was loud enough to wake Elizabeth with a start, but it was to the northeast. We were clear.