Monday, May 27, 2013

No wolves, but bear-able

The setting for Cooke City and Silver Gate.
Cooke City, Montana, may be one of the most isolated villages in the lower 48. (And, by the way, why are they called the "lower 48?" Hawaii, after, all, is much "lower" than any of the 48.)

For all but roughly four or five months of the year, Cooke City is at a dead-end at the base of the Beartooth Highway, which was opened for the first time yesterday and then promptly closed again after an overnight snow. The only way to get to Cooke City most of the time is through Yellowstone National Park, which keeps the road between Gardiner and Cooke City open all winter.

The route to Cooke City goes through the Lamar Valley, one of Yellowstone's most spectacular regions and the home of a major wolf pack, known as the Druids. Our checklist on this two-day trip included bears and wolves. We achieved one of two, but since we saw both black bears and a grizzly, it's almost a wash.

The fox den gaggle.
Since we usually make Yellowstone a day trip, the leisure of this two-day, half-park jaunt was a real luxury. We spent three hours near Roosevelt waiting for a mama fox to return to her den to feed her two kits, and even though she didn't appear while we were there, fun was had by all. There was a gaggle of photographers on the scene (perhaps 30 or 40) with combined equipment value in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We drank wine, ate cheese and chatted with some Canadians, without even asking them about their health care system or the wacky Toronto mayor. I did get a clear look at the mama fox across the road from us at one point, but she disappeared into the brush and didn't make her expected appearance at the den.

I think he's up to something.
In the same area were a dozen or so bighorn sheep, the first I recall seeing in Yellowstone. In the northeastern corner of the park, where we spent most of the day, there must have been nearly a thousand bison spread through Lamar Valley and nearby. Oh, and at least two mountain goats.

What else would you do, really?
Upon our arrival in Silver Gate (a hamlet three miles from Cooke City), our lodging looked dicey. I always worry when the shower drain is covered with a piece of rubber with instructions to leave it there except when operating the shower. Actually, I can't recall ever seeing anything like that before. Clearly, the cabin was on a septic system that tended to burp up sewer gas. And, what should we make of the sign instructing us to utilize the plunger should we plug the toilet?

We were grateful, then, that the bed was comfortable and the water for the shower hot most of the time. I found a horseshoe pitch on the grounds and threw horseshoes for the first time in probably 40 years. Oh, and somebody in the area apparently makes flying pigs out of sheet metal. Remarkably, we didn't purchase one, though now I regret it (just as I regret not buying the Wyoming "bourbon" for sale at the Mammoth general store).

A grizzly and his unmistakable hump.
The highlight of this trip came on day two, when we spotted a mama black bear and two cubs lounging under a far-off tree. Ten minutes farther on and Kathleen spied a lone black meandering down a hillside. Twenty minutes later, a mama black with two cubs -- one cinnamon and one jet black -- were grazing in a meadow and we watched for 45 minutes or so. Then, the Yellowstone pinnacle -- a lone grizzly wandering through a sage meadow near Bunsen Peak Road above Mammoth. We got a good 10 minutes with him before he scampered off, though my photography is disappointing -- the auto setting had the shutter speed too slow. I should have known better, but I'm still learning the new camera.

So, two days and here's a partial list: sandhill cranes, black bears, grizzly bear, moose, bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, fox, elk, deer, and, so far as we can tell, no illnesses from our motel or restaurant.

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