Trip Report ~ Walking with Critters ~ by Frank Smith
21 April 2012
~ April 2012 ~
Saturday - 21 April
So begins my trip report on a stellar hike I took on the Saturday of Opening Weekend, April 21, 2012.
Jane had planned on joining me, but was forced to stay home by an unexpected health issue. Thankfully, it was the 24 hour variety, and she recovered the next day. The original plan was a trek halfway between Mammoth and Tower, but given my sudden solo status, I opted for a safer itinerary that I had been trying to get accomplished for over a month. In the scores of times I have hiked on Mount Everts, I have only seen a bear a few times, and those were black bears. I only know of one grizzly sighting up there among all my acquaintances, and it was many moons ago.
For over a decade, I have been using the north end of Mount Everts for early season conditioning hikes. Those who frequent this page may remember a trip report or two from one year or another in March or April. One classic, when Roadie and I were wandering around up there in 2005 is still mounted on Deb and Lew's web site, the Home of the Yellowstone Wolf.
Those familiar with these trip reports will remember that in spring, we always encounter wildlife in the area. The low elevation terrain between Gardiner and Mammoth functions as a funnel or gateway through which migrating ungulate populations pass on their way into the park in spring. In autumn, they have a much greater diversity of routes available to them, but in spring, the remnant winter snow on the north facing hillsides can be quite daunting. Wildlife will meander up the valley traversed by the Rescue Creek trail. They will use the Gardner River corridor as well. A bit further into the migration, they start taking advantage of the hillsides below the Beaver Ponds and the meadowy ridges on the north end of Mount Everts. At this time of year, one can anticipate wildlife encounters in any of these areas, but I have found the north end of Mount Everts to consistently produce more wildlife sightings, greater overall numbers, and maximum species diversity.
It is no secret that I am seriously addicted to observing wildlife. I've been known to show up in all manner of places with binoculars or spotting scope, hoping to catch a glimpse of some exotic species. I found one of the greatest thrills in hiking the Na Pali coast of Kauai to be seeing whales in the distance. I've even used my scope to find javelinas in Saguaro National Park! Snorkeling in Hawaii led to a love affair with scuba, primarily so I could hang out with sea dwelling creatures in their natural habitat.
As excited as I am about experiencing the wilds of Alaska; the glaciers, mountains, rivers, and volcanoes; I am even more pumped about seeing brown bears, caribou, dall sheep, and musk oxen. I've already figured out that I have a much better chance of seeing a wolverine in the wild up there than down here.
My hope in authoring this report is to light a fire of anticipation in someone who will read this report, and decide to someday wander the north end of Mount Everts in March or April, and partake of the opportunity to be "just another critter in a sea of critters".
In this, my latest wander up there, I discovered something new. Even though I have walked these ridges solo on numerous occasions in the past, I have not experienced the combination of solo hiking with time spent and elevation gained. I learned that many creatures relate to you differently when you are not perceived to be part of a "human herd".
I hope you find the investment of your time in reading this report worthwhile.
Ironically, we start with a photo of what I suspect is a grave. This aggregation of rock, surrounded by a relatively rockless area, is just the right size and configuration to be someone's final resting place. Then there is the board, which easily could have borne the name of the deceased. I picked up the board and examined both sides closely. There is no ink or paint visible, but then, this board has been subjected to the elements for quite some time.
Now, this may or may not be a grave. I figure it is either a grave or a hoax perpetrated by someone with a warped sense of humor way back when. I know I'm not going to do any digging (which would be illegal) to confirm or deny my suspicion.
This lies out on the broad flat area you have to traverse as you head to where the west-facing spines of Mount Everts' north ridge lie. They make handy avenues to ascend the ridge.
Just prior to beginning my ascent, I photographed this herd of bison, with what I believe is the Yellowstone Association Institute's "Yellowstone Overlook Field Campus" on the bench above the Yellowstone River behind them.
I should mention that the weather forecast predicted partly sunny skies, with a high in the mid 60s, possibly higher. As it turned out, many record highs were set in the towns in Greater Yellowstone on this Opening Weekend.
I have hoofed it up this particular spine so many times, I could probably find my way blindfolded. There are certain conspicuous boulders that differentiate this route from the adjacent ones.
Here we see Bunsen Peak, still sporting quite a mantle of snow. To the right, you can see the "other white", i.e. the travertine terraces that rise above Mammoth. If you were to draw a relatively straight line in the direction of 3:30 on a clock face from the terraces, you would see the upper portion of the Old Gardiner Road. Yes, I think you can see the Mammoth Hotel at 8:00 o'clock from the terraces, but little else of the Mammoth complex. Blocking that view is the ridgeline that folks who make the trek over Mount Everts from south to north or vice-versa commonly use.
It was about this time that I started feeling quite warm. The thermometer on my car had read 57 when I arrived at the trailhead. It was hard to imagine it being much warmer than 60, particularly since I was gaining elevation. I started hoping the wind would start blowing. Convective warming usually spawns westerly or southwesterly winds in Yellowstone, and I was hoping this day would be no exception.
Thankfully, within minutes of wishing for wind, the timely zephyrs arrived. The velocity was ideal, not too vigorous, but more than enough to cool me down.
Looking toward Electric Peak, we can see cloud shadows on the lower flanks of Sepulcher Mountain. A bit below the cloud shadow, you can see portions of the Old Gardiner Road.
Here is the obligatory photo of Gardiner from the spiny ascent of the ridge, with the top portion of Devil's Slide visible in the background, partially shaded.
If you are familiar with Gardiner, you can pick out all sorts of landmarks, like the North Entrance station (where greywolf hangs out sometimes), the Heritage Research Center (HRC), the runway at the airport, and the bridge over the Yellowstone River.
It was about this time that I started hearing a lone wolf howling in the direction of Sepulcher Mountain I got excited, because the photographic community had been hanging around upper Chinese Gardens, conducting a carcass vigil. Apparently, some wolves had taken down an elk, just across the river. I found myself wondering if the Canyon wolves were still in the area. It was well past the normal denning time, but this pack, and their ancestors, the Hayden Pack, have a history of denning late. I thought, "if they are still in this area, is there a chance they are denning nearby?" I found myself intensely curious as to which side of the road the howling wolf was on. I recalled a day, maybe back in 2007 or 2008, when Frank W., Diane O., and I walked over a spiny ridgetop on the lower flanks of Sepulcher, and surprised the Hayden Pack's alpha pair. That was in late March.
Unfortunately, after several long mournful howls, punctuated by 5 or 10 seconds of silence, the wolf stopped howling, and did not resume while I was in the area.
Did you notice the critter in the photo? It's on the near side of the Yellowstone River. Look at the lower left side of the image.
This lone bighorn ram had to know I was there, but he never gave any evidence of being concerned. I was stopped for a bit, taking photos, but he never flinched or got up. I made the assumption that there were a number of other rams, just below him, further down the ridgeline. After all, in mid to late March, a group of us had watched a herd of 10 or 12 rams from an area at the base of the north ridge, where the Rescue Creek trail leaves the large flat and turns toward Rattlesnake Butte. That cool, rainy day, there were a number of younger rams jousting with each other. We observed threesomes and even one foursome, standing on their rear legs and butting each other. (Of course, due to the expectation of precipitation, I had left my camera in the car.)
The homes in the background are not part of the Institute's Yellowstone Field Campus, but private homes closer to Gardiner and the Jardine Road. You can tell that we have already gained significant elevation!
For anyone who embarks on this wander, be aware that there are several "false summits" between the valley floor and the actual destination ridgeline. The first couple times you do this hike, you can find yourself somewhat disappointed. Once you get the route down, it becomes just part of the overall experience, and the angst fades.
There is a game trail that I use to make the last ascent to the ridgeline. Gravity keeps moving cobbles and smaller rocks onto the trail. If I have time, I kick those stones off the trail. I take a sort of offbeat pride in thinking I am contributing to the maintenance of the trail, and somehow, that buys me the right of passage on a trail created by local critters. This day, it had been a good 10 or 11 months since I had trod the trail, and there was much work to be done. Since I was traveling solo, I opted to take the time to groom the route.
Upon reaching the ridgeline, where this trail slowly vanishes, I headed east, crossing what would be the fall line on a downhill ski trail, so I could acquire a view of the adjacent ridges that parallel the one I was on. The first ridge to the east had a herd of over 100 elk grazing peacefully on its flank. Having encountered these large herds before, both here and in other parts of the park, I fully anticipated they would spook and vacate the premises, even though they were at least a half mile distant, and there was only one of me. These are not the quasi-tame inhabitants of Mammoth, who give birth on Kentucky blue grass lawns and march around the complex like they own the place. These wild creatures are easily spooked. At least, this day, they didn't go into a mad, blind panic. They only spotted one slow human a ridge away, and gradually walked over the ridgeline to the east, almost single file. I was destined to see some of these elk two more times before I made the highest portion of the ridge!
This is the view to my right, as I faced the elk. We are looking uphill, and my intended route will take me to bald area on the horizon, a bit left of center.
Notice the limber pines at the right of the image. These wind-loving, long-lived trees have a perverse habit of populating ridgelines. We will see more of them in a few images to come.
Having gained the ridgeline, I started noticing a profusion of animal droppings. There was evidence of the passing of bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and pronghorn. I even found a few bison pies here and there.
Looking west, we have Sepulcher Mountain on the left, and Electric Peak just to the right of it. Obviously, this photo was taken in wide angle format, so I could fit both peaks and two limber pines into the image.
At this point, that fortuitous wind, which had cooled me during the steeper part of the ascent, was really cooking! It started to blow my hat off, and I found myself using the chin strap to thwart the wind's best efforts.
Leaving the limber pines out of the photo, and zooming in a bit, we have much better renditions of Sepulcher and Electric. We are high enough now that we can see the totality of Slide Lake, viewed in the lower left corner of the image. If you are REAL familiar with the Old Gardiner Road, you might be able to tell where the road passes above and above/right of Slide Lake.
This is about as "artsy" as I get, trying somehow to couple that limber pine with a view of Electric Peak. I took quite a few shots from different angles and with different focal lengths. The bulk of the hill behind me prevented me from getting the perspective I really wanted. (If I had a bulldozer, I might have been able to accomplish the task.)
This is as good a place as any to mention that all along the ridgeline I kept seeing tufts of critter fur. They tended to be a fairly uniform size, and not the chaotic mess you tend to find at carcasses. I reasoned that these tufts were the result of the local ungulates shedding their winter coats. These tufts were comprised of long guard hairs, hollow, so they provide maximum insulating value.
Here is the obligatory shot of Gardiner AND a limber pine. Notice you can see much more of the Devil's Slide down river.
I was starting to get hungry, and the thought of finding a good place to eat lunch occurred to me. I thought I remembered some fair-sized flat-topped boulders a bit further up the ridge, beyond an undulation or two in the topography. (I was confusing this area with an area on the adjacent ridge to my left.) I was disappointed to find no suitable boulders when I topped the last little rise, but I was thrilled to see a second herd of elk to the south, directly ahead of me. It is a virtual certainty that these were not the elk I had surprised to the east, earlier. This herd was smaller, and even that bunch could not have done a 90 degree arc to that area without my seeing them. (Besides, elk would not normally move like that.)
There are several elk laying down in this image. Most of the rest are facing south. It appears that they have not spotted me yet. As always, I am anticipating their panicking and leaving the area.
Zooming in, we can still see several cows laying down. Quite a few elk are looking to the left. A couple on the extreme right appear to have spotted me.
I was soon to find out what the elk were observing off to my left. I had seen four pronghorn cross from right to left in front of me a bit earlier. They had disappeared out of my sight, ahead and to the left.
A wee bit later, everyone is on their feet, and most are looking to my right. This actually made me a bit nervous, because my view was somewhat obscured by the terrain in that direction. Hardly anyone is looking at me now.
Shortly after this photo was taken, the latest source of elk anxiety came sauntering by, moving right to left, between the elk and I. It was a lone coyote, and a smallish one at that! I was so busy trying to get my camera out of my hands and my binoculars into my hands that I never did get a close-up view of the canid. I was frantically trying to determine whether it was a coyote or a wolf, because I had not gotten a good look at it. Finally, when it was close to 300 yards away, I got a brief look at it walking. I could see it was definitely a coyote. It was only when the small dog stopped, sat down, and watched me for a bit, that I was able to ascertain its relative size. (Had that been a wolf, I would have been incredibly excited. I've only encountered wolves in the wild, off-road and off-trail, four or five times. It is always a source of great joy.)
Eventually, the coyote continued on his or her way, apparently ignoring the pronghorn, and went over the ridge to the left.
In that same approximate timeframe, the elk decided it was getting way too busy in that area. They were not going to wait around for a male grizzly or Godzilla to show up and round out the show. They started for the trees.
I was now anxious to stop for lunch, but wanted to get a few shots of the pronghorn, so I moved off to my left.
Initially, the pronghorn acted curious, which is typical behavior for them. Satisfied that I did not represent a major threat, they went back to grazing. I was able to do the "human zoom" routine, and got to within maybe 75-100 yards, when they started acting skittish. I backed off, and they resumed eating.
Finally, I decided it was time to stop interacting with the wildlife and eat lunch.
As I turned to head back to where I had set my pack down, I noticed something at my feet.
I know. You're thinking it's just one big bathroom up there. Actually, it is, as far as the critters are concerned. You can see both elk mcnuggets and predator scat in this shot.
The predator scat was pretty old. Any protein or fat was long gone. It was just cylindrical gatherings of hair. It looked mostly like elk, but there could have been some sheep remains in there too. This looked too large to be coyote, so I'm guessing it was wolf (big dog) or bear.
Finally, after watching everyone else eat, I was going to get a chance to catch some lunch. I headed back west to grab my pack and find a comfortable spot with a view.
Does the term "Third Herd" resonate with anyone on this page? How about "3rd Herd"? I know one Loon, besides me, that served in that organization in the U.S. Army.
Alrighty, now back to our story. I found a passable sitting rock, and proceeded to consume a very tasty lunch. While seated, I found my gaze wandering over the opposing hills and ridges. At one point, I thought I might have spotted a bear in the bare hills below, and to northwest of the Beaver Ponds, but it didn't stand the binocular test.
Then I spotted what might be elk in the trees on the ridge between my ridge and the ridge that the Rim Trail ascends.
A quick look with the binoculars confirmed my suspicion. In fact, there was quite a herd over there. For once, I had the high ground, and was looking down on them. I didn't see any of them looking up at me. Besides, I was a long ways away, and there was a very deep valley between us. These elk seemed real content. Some were laying down. Others were grazing. They were still there, hours later, when I passed this area again, on my descent.
I marveled at the fact I had seen three different elk herds, one to the left, one to the right, and one dead ahead. I estimated I had seen somewhere between 200 and 300 of the critters.
I resumed my ascent to the ridgetop. As I walked, I could see a cluster of elk heads silhouetted against the distant horizon. As I drew closer, they disappeared, but that might have been more a product of terrain interference than the elk moving. When I got within 100-150 yards of the top, I could see 3 or 4 elk standing around just to the left of the ridgetop. They were long gone by the time I huffed and puffed my way to the top.
Upon reaching the top of the ridge, I started photographing new vistas. Off to the east, I could see the "red dirt hills" that rise to the north of the upper portion of the Rescue Creek trail. The ridge between the ridge I was standing on and the red dirt hills appeared to be the ridge that rises above the Rescue Creek trail, on its south and southwest side. Once upon a time, probably 11 or 12 years ago, five of us, including TimA., Betsy, and former park cultural anthropologist, Rosemary Sucec, detoured off the Rescue Creek trail to "see what was up there". We found an obsidian artifact on that ridge.
The view to the southwest was stunning! I know this photo might give some the impression I photoshopped the snowy mountains in, but, believe it or not, that is Quadrant Mountain, with the east edge of Bunsen Peak in the foreground. I had never seen Quadrant looking so snowy from this perspective.
Pointing the camera west, I realized my view of Slide Lake and the Beaver Pond area was hid by the upper part of Mount Everts. What I refer to as the "Middle Ridge" and the "Rim Trail Ridge" both ran higher than the "North Ridge". They also are covered with thick forest up high.
To the north, I could see right over Rattlesnake Butte and Turkey Pen Peak, over the Yellowstone River, and up into the Bear Creek and Eagle Creek drainages, north of the park. The Jardine Road is visible from the left edge of the photo to the approximate center of the image.
Once again, we have the obligatory perspective on Gardiner, the Yellowstone River Valley, and Devil's Slide. We can now see even more of Devil's Slide, owing to our increased elevation.
Cloud shadows lend a little contrast to the view.
Although this image and the one following it were taken up high on the ridge, they were not taken on the very top. Unfortunately, the bulk of the north ridge hides that area from view, until you begin your descent.
This isn't the most crystalline image possible of Gardiner from my vantage point. It was shot handheld, with a fair amount of zoom telephoto. Although it is nothing you would enlarge, frame, and hang in your living room, it still shows various landmarks fairly clearly.
The Roosevelt Arch stands out along the edge, left of center. There is a little piece of intermediate elevation ridge at the other edge, right of center.
There is no substitute for standing there, able to turn yourself 360 degrees, and taking in the sweeping vistas in all directions.
Shortly after beginning my descent, I decided to take a few photos of the Yellowstone Association Institute's Yellowstone Overlook Field Campus, and show off the power of my little Nikon Coolpix P90's optical zoom. You can barely make out the campus, lined horizontally along a ridgeline, at approximately 7:30 from the center, halfway to the lower left corner.
I should mention that I had something of an elk escort off to my right. I think they were remnants of the first herd I had seen, as well as the elk that were observing my walk to the top. I attribute their apparent lack of apprehension to the fact I was hiking solo.
Zoomed in a fair amount, we can see the campus easily, off to the left side of the image, with the Jardine Road heading from that vicinity toward the upper right corner.
Once again, it would improve the image if the camera were on a tripod, but given the conditions (wind, probably a 3 or 4 mile distance to the campus, and handheld), this turned out pretty decent.
It was somewhere in this area where the elk handed me off to the pronghorn, who escorted me for a short ways. They seemed almost standoffish, miffed at the elk for burdening them with a distraction to the all important task of eating.
I made good time getting down the ridgeline to the vicinity of the limber pines. Then I picked up the game trail, and took it down to the highest of the false summit areas. That's where I decided to take one final hydration break. I could tell I was thirsty, and the experts say if you wait until you feel the thirst, you have waited too long.
I was sitting on one of the most comfortable boulders in Yellowstone. It is large enough to accommodate 3 or 4 people laying on it, and conveniently tilted slightly downhill to insure a nice view. I was just sitting on the edge, surveying my surroundings, when I noticed the lone ram coming down the same trail I had just trod. If you stay on the trail, it takes you close to the boulder I was sitting on. The ram moved off the trail a ways, but kept giving me this look like I didn't belong on that rock; and he wanted to walk on HIS trail. I told him that I helped maintain that trail, and felt like I had the right to use it as well. "After all", I told him, "I've seen you sheep using our people trails".
The ram started slowly walking in my general direction, but on a path that would have taken him a bit below me. I wasn't quite ready to resume walking yet, so I contented myself with watching him while I slowly got my gear back together.
Before the ram got real close to me, he made a 90 degree turn to his left, and headed straight down the fall line. Eventually, he turned right, and resumed paralleling my course, but probably 50 or 60 yards below me. He was almost to the point where you go over an edge area to the next lowest false summit area.
Notice Slide Lake, actually a small portion of it, near the top of the image. We can no longer see the entire lake.
Eventually, the ram decided to strike an elegant pose. I think of it as the bighorn sheep equivalent of a fashion model giving the photogs that "money shot" at the end of the New York Ramp. Anyway, I liked it.
Shortly after this photo was taken, I continued my descent. Now I was following the ram, at a respectful distance. He tolerated my presence until he reached what we refer to as the "ledges" section. It is the slightly cliffy band of sandstone that separates the spiny ascent/descent ridges from the horizontal zones of false summit land. If you move to your right on the way down, you encounter progressively tougher terrain, until you get to where no sensible human should travel. Naturally, the ram just kept on going, disappearing off into the land that only cliff-adapted mammals and birds inhabit. Exhibiting a modicum of intelligence, I bid the ram a fond adieu, and followed my familiar route down through the ledges to the spiny ridge with the benchmark boulders.
I am pretty sure that the ridge behind the ram is the "middle ridge", where the third herd was observed, just much lower than where they were. Notice the network of game trails on that hillside. Elk and other critters have been laying in those trails since long before European Americans arrived in this country. Those of you who have walked the Rescue Creek trail down near Rattlesnake Butte, are well familiar with this game trail pattern.
One of the aspects of national parks I am so thrilled with is that, for the most part, what you see today is what you will see 10 years or 100 years from now. You don't have to worry that some developer will bring a battalion of bulldozers in and construct a shopping mall or 8 lane expressway. I can move away for a while, safe in the knowledge that when I return, I will likely find the north ridge of Mount Everts much the way I left it, save for some more erosion. My grandkids will be able to experience what I have experienced, and so will their grandkids. I think of that periodically, while wandering Yellowstone, and I am so grateful to those who helped preserve this amazing landscape and the creatures who inhabit it.
Lamar Valley Map - Yellowstone National Park
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by John William Uhler
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