Wing and a Prayer

Searching for memories in Yellowstone. 

It was a low hum, intermittent and close by. Trying not to rustle my sleeping bag, I lifted my head, turning in the direction of the sound next to the tent.

A twig snapped. Then, a footfall, or was it just snow falling from the big pine under which we’d pitched our tent? Another muffled thud, another hum, further away now.

It was the second night of a five-day trek from the Lamar to the Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park, and in typical Wild West fashion, we’d experienced three seasons of weather in two days. Hot, smoky air from forest fires in the northern tier of the Park burned our lungs on day one. Day two dawned with a cool drizzle, which gradually became a slushy rain-snow mix. By the afternoon of that second day, the drizzle had morphed into a full-on early-fall snowstorm.

Yellowstone Park, Lamar Valley
                                    The calm before the storm on a fall trek in Yellowstone

We’d eaten dinner, dried wet gear around the fire, and turned in for the night. I’d just drifted off when the humming woke me. With a long hike looming the next day, and with the hummer now silent, I curled into a ball and drifted back to sleep to the sound of melting snow dripping from the tent seams onto my sleeping bag.

The next morning, through seven inches of slushy snow, we followed the tracks of a moose that had munched its way through our campsite. Who knew hungry moose hum? Yellowstone’s backcountry is oozing with surprises; I’ve learned a bunch over the years, but mostly, I’ve had some hard lessons in humility.

The Gardiner’s Hole trek taught me that just because someone else makes a creek-crossing look easy, it won't necessarily be so for everyone. There’s a big difference in the spryness of a 30-year-old man and a 60-year-old woman when it comes to slippery rocks and steep creek banks. My humiliation was almost matched by my appreciation for spandex-nylon pants that dry within an hour of being completely soaked in an icy stream.

On a trek through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, I learned to pay attention before leaning against a tree while eating lunch. Also, that tree sap remains in that spandex-nylon material for a LONG time.

The HooDoo trek lesson was that even after 25+ years of marriage, my husband can still surprise me. My 60th birthday fell in the middle of that six-day journey, and after dinner on that big day, he surprised me by pulling from his pack a bag of relatively un-squashed brownies, along with a birthday candle. The next day, more surprises from the top of Parker Peak, as a pair of peregrine falcons careened endlessly toward us at breathtaking speeds, playing on air. Then there was the herd of “moose” we glassed in a copse of aspen far below us who, upon closer inspection, revealed themselves to be Angus cows. Grass-poaching cows making an illegal living on NPS land, right in the middle of grizzly and wolf country—surprise, surprise.

Yellowstone Park, HoodDoo
                                      After years of exploring, Yellowstone continues to surprise

Then there was the Bechler: a lesson in grace. Waterfalls, views of the Tetons, my first marsh hawk. There were even great campsites with privies. But the piece de resistance for most of us on that trek was Mr. Bubbles, the natural hot spring: an oasis in the midst of the wilderness, perfect for tired, sore hikers.

More backcountry wonders: grizzly tracks the size of a child’s snowshoe; a wolf howl; bugling elk; great-horned owls hooting us to sleep; moose crashing out of the woods in front of us; 2,000-pound “hermit” bison claiming our path, requiring a detour up a steep hillside just as we’re within sight of camp; a black bear turning and running down the trail, swimming the river in his haste to put distance between himself and us.

On the last day of our Lamar to Pelican trek, I was played out. This smoky, rainy, snowy, muddy, sloshy-boot trek had challenged everyone, leaving us cranky and shivering under snow-soaked gear more than once. I was looking forward to dinner and drinks with my weary hiking buddies, eager to toast the completion of one more section of Yellowstone’s backcountry. But this wild place held yet another surprise.

After years of trekking through the Park, one creature had always eluded me. Friends tease me with their pictures of great gray owls. Every year, I scan the treeline as I hike. I listen for the telltale deep, booming hoot. This trek was no different, but still no great gray.

As we reached the van waiting for us at the trailhead, I slid out of my pack and stood, stretching with relief. My eyes settled on a snag maybe 20 yards away and suddenly every mile of sweat, soggy gloves, heavy, muddy boots, cold hands, and sore back were forgotten. Staring solemnly at me was a great gray owl.

For a second or two, all I could do was stare back. Then I grabbed my camera. A couple of clicks, then the gorgeous bird swooped down and was gone.

For some reason known only to the wilderness gods, my pictures of that great gray owl turned out blurry and over-exposed. All I have is the memory—I guess I’ll have to make more.