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       Day 3 October 9th, 2015

Friday, Oct 9, 2015
Mammoth Hot Springs, Montana

   I am a lucky person. After driving fifteen minutes to Blacktail Plateau this morning, I realize I've left my binoculars in the cabin. So we turn around, rushing back to retrieve the binoculars and are back at Children's Nature Trail just in time to see two pups from the Prospect Pack wander through the grass and sage about a hundred miles away. I am lucky because everyone else is in Lamar Valley, or Little America, wolfless.
   And that is our wolf sighting for the day. There are no signals - anywhere. A group huddles at the Nature Trail watching the two Prospect pups for a short while before they disappear into a gully edged by pine trees.
   The Prospect Pack has 9 adults and 5 pups this year. 965M, a Prospect wolf, frequently hangs out with the Lamar Canyon Pack and pups, going back and forth between the two packs. Laurie tells me the Lamar Canyon pups are suffering badly from mange which hurts to even think about. I ask if it has something to do with their natal den and she says no. 926F had mange and so did her mother, 06. It's just a matter of how an individual's body chemistry reacts to the mite.
   The sighting is brief, but it's something, and the morning is beautiful on this hill. Blue sky, cold, crisp air, the sun coming up over the mountains, lighting the hills covered by golden grass.
   Howling is reported west of Swan Lake and since Tim and I plan to hike near there, we head west. Swan Lake Flats is quiet - a small harem of elk on the hillside above the lake, a few ducks in the water, a fisherman on the lake shore. Construction stops us at Sheepeaters so we turn in to the parking area. This isolated spot is a little gem of a place. Indian Creek bubbles through bordered by tall grasses and willows displaying all the colors of fall ranging from yellow to gold to red to green to blue.
   Our hike today takes us to Cache Lake, a little blue lake at the base of Electric Peak. The trail begins at Glen Creek and winds through the tall grass meadows of Swan Lake Flats, climbing gradually and steadily above the creek until it's beside Sepulcher Mountain. Parts of the trail break through thick stands of pine trees into meadows filled with waist high yellow grass. The colors here are beautiful, too, especially the willows which are every shade of pink to lavender to red.
   I worry about bears on this hike, and wish for wolves. In the end we see neither, though there is plenty of wolf scat around and some bear scat. But the birds and squirrels entertain us. Nuthatches, grey jays, a stellar's jay, mountain chickadee, junkos, and a female sage grouse in the middle of the trail that appears out of nowhere. I've read the females do not fear humans, and this one is reluctant to leave the trail. Maybe she likes our company? We startle a mule deer doe and two fawns on the way back. The fawns bounce away, while their mother just stares at us and continue browsing.
   This 9.2 mile hike (roundtrip) feels a lot longer, probably due to the gradual ascent. Needless to say, it's much easier on the return. Cache Lake, bordered by tall yellow grass, shines blue beneath Electric Peak's rocky terrain. A path stamped down to the water indicates someone has been here and a built a campfire. I expected to walk into the clearing and find a beautiful fresh water lake with bears and wolves and moose drinking at its shores. But it's two in the afternoon - maybe at seven in the morning or evening there would be more wildlife.
   On the way back from Swan Lake Flats we stop at the Upper Terraces, usually crowded with people up and down the boardwalks. At this hour there are few visitors, giving us a chance to experience this mysterious place with all its unusual formations. As darkness falls, a star studded sky and a slender crescent moon slowly reveal themselves, only becoming brighter as night drops its black curtain. Something worth getting up for in the middle of the night.

Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer

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