Driving to Yellowstone is a wonderful way to transition into the Fall season. The leaves of the aspen and cottonwood are just starting to take on their golden hues, the skies are brilliant azure canvases, and the crisp air hints at frosty mornings to come. Fall is my favorite season and it seems to encourage introspection and serenity. Things slow down and distill into concentrated bursts of experience.
We arrived in West Yellowstone on September 25th and took a walk through the town like revisited an old friend. I’ve heard people say they wish West Yellowstone had more amenities or was more developed... for the sake of my future sanity, I hope this never occurs. Rustic and seasonal - that’s just fine by me.
We made our way to Mammoth Hot Springs, which we were hoping would be the center of the fall elk activity. We arrived amid a throng of tourists and quickly scanned the lawns looking for the eagerly anticipated males strutting their stuff. As we approached the post office with nary a sighting we suddenly spotted the traffic cones. “Those have to be a good sign!” I exclaimed.
Following the ranger’s hand signals, we drove slowly past the small crowd huddled on the sidewalk next to the curb. Peering into the shadows of one of the building just off the roar we spotted them.
“Wow!” I sputtered. “Check out the size of that bull!”
Angie patiently explained something about being a bit preoccupied with not hitting the people wandering aimlessly in the roadway. I pleaded to find a parking spot which she remarked was what she was trying to accomplish despite my blathering. We parked and I quickly rummaged through my backpack -- calculating focal length, checking my camera settings, ISO 400 to help keep the shutter speed up in the shadows, “probably the 300mm to get in tight, don’t forget the tripod...” I was giddy with excitement.
I jumped out of the car and checked with the nearest ranger on where it would be safe to set up. “Well, there’s a big bull on the other side of the road that Number 6 here had to run off earlier today. We’re recommending folks avoid being in between them in case he decides to go after him again.”
This was a nice way of saying that unless you enjoy having 700 lbs of testosterone charge up your frontside on its way to settle a recurring feud that you should probably avoid standing in that general vicinity. I don’t envy the rangers in the national parks; they are assigned the almost impossible task of keeping otherwise intelligent, normal people from finding creative ways of getting themselves maimed or killed.
Okay, sorry for the aside, back to the story...
We spent the better part of 2 hours watching the elk and waiting for the evening festivities to commence. They bed down during the middle of the day and become increasingly active after around 5PM in the evening. It starts with a single cow getting a bit restless and then another. The bull gets irritated and rises to try to herd them back into the main harem. Suddenly there are a couple more on the move and before you know it, the bull looks like he’s trying to corral a bunch of cats.
It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for the the big guy. He has to be on his guard for 6 straight weeks against a relatively steady onslaught from younger males looking to start their own families. It seems that he bugles as much to announce his presence as he does to plea for a bit of serenity. He’s earned his place as the harem leader but it’s a temporary and tentative position. He’ll be king of the world for 3-4 years at most and then he’ll be relegated to unsuccessful challenger. He might enjoy the break after seeing just how exhausting the role can be.
The Park was quiet during our trip but was a wonderful reminder of the seasonal changes in nature. The mood changed from the Spring and the season of plenty to Fall and the season of competition, preparation, and exhaustion. Winter will be a time of slumber for the park and many of its inhabitants -- a well-deserved break from a busy fall.