Sunday, August 19, 2012

In search of the elusive elk

There are three things all but guaranteed on a day trip to Yellowstone: You will see water bubbling or spewing from the ground, you will see bison and you will see elk.

Since I almost always enter from the west gate, the elk objective is usually the first to be checked off. Elk herds frequent the meadows along the Madison River only minutes from the west entry. On my latest visit -- to take my daughter, Brittany, and her friends Erin and Nicole, on a whirlwind day visit -- one of Nicole's main desires was to see wildlife. In particular, she mentioned elk and bison. I was supremely confident.

We got to the Madison River around 10:30 a.m., long before the heat of the day sometimes drives the animals into hiding. But, no elk. None. Not even a scraggly cow wandering about. We were shut out. Not to worry -- our itinerary included Mammoth Hot Springs, home to the park's largest elk herd.

Orange Mound Spring above Mammoth Hot Springs.
So, we went about our business, wandering north toward Mammoth with a stop here and there. We checked bison off our list near Norris, and we spotted a coyote nearby, too. Earlier, we had a nice view of a golden eagle sitting in a snag keeping an eye out for food.

We lunched at the top of Mammoth and the ladies visited Canary Springs. A visit to Mammoth isn't what it used to be -- much of the spring has gone dry since I first started visiting the park in the eighties (not counting a trip through when I was 11 in 1970, much of which is a bit of a blur). Canary Springs is worth a stop, but the walk down from top to bottom, which used to reveal wonders around every turn, is much less spectacular.

We packed up and drove down to the base of the spring, where elk surely awaited. Alas, there was not a single elk to be found anywhere around Mammoth. I could feel the beginnings of anxiety.

Tower Fall.
We drove to Tower Fall then headed toward Mt. Washburn. I pulled off the road at one point to get a picture of a section of forest that was regrowing after a fire (it appeared this one happened after the '88 fires, but I could be wrong). As we got back into the car, we could see a woman approaching us apace on foot from up the road, with a man following behind. I could tell she wanted to talk to us, and my first thought was that she and her husband/boyfriend were having a fight and she wanted refuge.

Instead, she asked if we could give one of them a ride to their car, which was parked at the Mt. Washburn trail head. They had tried to make the Mt. Washburn hike a loop, walking back to the car along the park road, and had seriously underestimated the distance. The man spoke in an unusual accent. After discussing it with the girls, we agreed to take the man to their car while the woman waited next to the road -- we had room only for one.

Nicole immediately asked the man where he was from. "New York City," he said. That was not the answer we were looking for, so, a moment later, she asked, "Where are you from originally?" "Romania," he answered.

Well, there was a little gasp in the car, because Romania is where Nicole went on her Mormon mission. So, she and the man chatted in Romanian while we drove to his car. He thanked us and we left, a nice experience in the books.

Our visit to Canyon was, as it always is, a revelation. There were bison aplenty in Hayden Valley (and another coyote), and the stop at the Mud Volcano was worth the 20 minutes. Still, however, no elk.

We pulled into Old Faithful around 5 p.m., just in time to see it spout, then had dinner in the lounge (which is becoming a bit of a tradition on these trips). The girls wandered the inn and I went out and saw Old Faithful do her thing again.

We hit the road around 7 and stopped at Grand Prismatic Spring. The sun was nearly down, so the odds of seeing elk were quite literally dimming.

It was dusk as we turned west along the Madison River toward the west gate and home. Up ahead we could see some cars pulled over, which always means a wildlife sighting. At this point, we were all convinced it would be more bison.

Looking to our left, however, off in the distance near the river was -- could it be? -- a mighty lone bull elk, peacefully grazing in the meadow. Eureka! We pulled over, of course, and the girls proceeded to break every wildlife rule and walk down into the meadow directly toward the elk (which, for all we knew, was in the start of the annual rut and a little cantankerous). An old guy with a long lens at the end of a camera on a tripod yelled over at me that the girls were going to "ruin it for everyone" because they were walking between the elk and his location. I waved the girls to the right to get out if his way. Talk about cantankerous.

Anyway, they got their shots, we were fulfilled, and we saw another small bunch of female and young elk on down the road. Complete success.

The trip home was marred only by the complete playing of a Shania Twain song. I retaliated with a little Dream Theater, and then we settled into more generally acceptable fare.

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