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Hustle and Bustle in Yellowstone on Memorial Day

Baby bison, tiny bear cubs, coyotes, elk in velvet, wolf dens—and a whole lot of people were all part of Memorial Day in Yellowstone.

Some friends and I got an early start out of Gardiner Monday morning. No particular plans in mind except hoping to see some wildlife and maybe get in a few short walks.

At 7 a.m., there was no line at the North Entrance and traffic was light. We motored “up the hill” to Mammoth. Sometimes we like to take a slow spin through the Mammoth Campground to check out the latest tents and RVs/campers. The RV lifestyle is starting to sound appealing, so it’s good to know what the options out there are. (Our current favorite: the Airstream “Bambi.”)

We headed out to the Northern Range, loosely defined as the part of the park between Mammoth and Cooke City. First stop: Wraith Falls, not too far east of Mammoth Hot Springs.

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Wraith Falls is marked by a small sign and small parking area/pullout. The walk is short, about a mile roundtrip, and except for a few stairs up to the viewing platform, relatively flat, but a little rocky underfoot in some places.

In the early morning sunlight, the dew on the grasses along the trail sparkled like a tiny, low-impact fireworks display. Early wildflowers were in bloom—many-flowered phlox, mouse ear chickweed, purple larkspur, pasque flower, shooting stars. We oohed and ahhed and bent down to examine.

Richardson’s ground squirrels were out and about, chirping their alerts that there were humans on their trail. I’m pretty sure I spied a pika—a small rodent with round ears that makes its living in rocky outcroppings. It got away before I could snap a photo. I would not have expected to see pikas in that area, but the creature I saw was too large to be a ground squirrel and too small and the wrong color to be a marmot, which were other likely candidates.

The 79-foot falls, which are more of a cascade down Lupine Creek, were running high Monday. We all remarked that we couldn’t remember seeing Wraith Falls ever running so high and fast. But we got a lot of snow this winter and spring, and waters are running high throughout the West.

A “wraith” is a ghost or a specter, writes historian Lee Whittlesey in his exhaustive Yellowstone Place Names. The falls were named by members of the Hague parties of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1885, but there’s no documentation of why the name was chosen, Whittlesey wrote. But with the falls running high and creating a white sheet of shimmering water, it’s easy to imagine a group stumbling upon the falls and making the comparison to a white-sheeted ghost.

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Our first “animal jam” was at the Slough Creek turnoff—lots of wolfwatchers were out with their spotting scopes trained on the Prospect pack’s den site, located on a rocky outcropping far from the road, but easily scoped. The day was already getting warm, and watchers said wolves had been visible earlier, but had retreated back into the den.

I love the spirit of sharing and excitement around a pack of wolfwatchers. Nearly everyone with a spotting scope is eager to share a peek, even adjusting the height of the tripod for kiddos, and taking time to describe the pack and recent activity they’ve seen.

We stopped at the Pebble Creek campground pullout for a break. I saw a young man take a box out of his car and start to assemble a drone. I went over and said, “Excuse me, do you know it’s illegal and you can get a big fine?” He was very nice and very apologetic and started packing it up. He waved with a “Thank you” when he drove away.

On our way back toward Tower Junction, we hit another massive traffic jam.
“Gotta be a bear,” we said, nearly simultaneously.

The activity seemed to centered on the Yellowstone River bridge immediately east of Tower. Remember that photo from last year of the tourists scrambling to get out of the way of a black bear? That photo was taken on this bridge.

We got across the bridge, saw that most of the human activity was centered just across on the west side.

When you come upon a bear jam and want to participate, make sure when you pull over that your car is completely out of the roadway. This might mean you have to park a ways away and walk back. If you do find yourself on foot along the road, be very, very, very aware of the moving vehicles near you. Assume the drivers are very distracted and not paying attention to you. Because, most assuredly, they are not.

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Safety lecture out of the way, we soon spied the bears: a black bear mama and two yearling cubs, not quite half her size. They were all grazing around in the grass down a steep embankment and across a small creek that paralleled the road. They were closer than 100 yards—the legal minimum distance for observing bears in Yellowstone—but the crowd was ably managed by Ranger John Kerr.

The crowd, confined between parked cars and a steep downward embankment, jostled politely for position. The bears, seemingly oblivious of the activity on the other side of the creek, were partially obscured by shade, brush and tree branches. Humans with cameras—ranging from cellphones to mega-telephoto monster lens—jostled politely for position whenever the view of the bears was unobstructed.

Kerr kept the crowd moving but contained, sharing interpretive information about bears that have been seen around the area this spring—two black bears, two grizzlies, including cubs—while gently keeping humans who momentarily strayed out of bounds under verbal command with a firm but respectful bark. Kerr’s tone, appropriate to the situation, could easily be compared to the “chuff” sound mama bears make to rambunctious cubs.

It was the best-managed bear jam I’ve ever seen—respectful of bears while considering the human passion for wildlife, especially the opportunity to see a real live Yellowstone bear out in the wild doing what wild bears do.

A tip of the flat-brimmed hat to you, Ranger Kerr.

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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