Sunshine, blue skies brighten Yellowstone adventure

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WALLA WALLA - Withered by more than a week in unseasonably warm Denver, my wife Margaret and I decided to take the long way home through Montana's Northern Rockies in search of a slightly cooler climate.

After a stopover in Billings, we spent three nights in beautiful Bozeman where we shoehorned in a day trip to Yellowstone National Park by way of Livingston. As it turned out, Big Sky Country was also enjoying above average temperatures and bluebird skies, which, as it turned out, enhanced our trip to the park.

As we exited I-90 and headed south out of Livingston on U.S. Highway 89, winding our way along the Yellowstone River in the direction of Gardiner and the park's north entrance, I couldn't help but recall stories told to me by Don Davis, the Union-Bulletin's intrepid outdoors writer, who had made this same drive so many times back in the 1960s during his misspent youth.

Davis took his first teaching job in Livingston after graduating from Montana Northern in Havre in 1964. He taught there for three years, and during the summers he earned extra cash by driving a milk delivery truck that served numerous stores and restaurants inside the park.

Almost always running behind schedule, Davis readily admits that he ignored the park's 35- and 45-miles per hour speed limits. And sometimes that got exciting.

"Back then, there were always bear jams and elk jams," Davis recollected. "The bear jams were the worst because people just lined the roads.

"I'd come around a corner and there would be cars backed up for miles. So I'd have to slam on my brakes, and you could hear those milk cans tumbling around in the back. Most of the time they were empty, but once in a while you would tip over a full one and I'd have milk running out of the back of the truck."

Later on, after getting out of teaching and taking a position on the U-B sports staff, Davis made several return visits to Yellowstone and wrote of his adventures in his weekly outdoors column.

So I wondered what adventures awaited us as we paid our fees and headed into the park. And within a few short minutes, after negotiating our way through Mammoth Hot Springs, we were rewarded with our first.

As we rounded a corner in a semi-wooded area, several cars were pulled to the side of the road and people were foraging ahead, cameras in hand. Margaret saw the moose first, an adult female lollygagging along parallel to the road and some 50 yards away.

I was able to find a place to park, snag my camera and hustle up the road on foot until I reached a clearing, where I was able to snap a couple of pictures. Occasionally, the moose would stop and look over her shoulder in my direction, as if to pose.

When I returned to the car, Margaret was visiting with a women who said she visited the park often and that this was her first moose sighting in 10 years. According to the woman, the park's growing wolf population is taking a heavy toll on moose.

I was skeptical, but a sales person we spoke with later at the Old Faithful Lodge and a park ranger we encountered were equally impressed with our stroke of good luck.

Before arriving at Old Faithful, we experienced our first Buffalo jam. The herd - between 50 and 100 by my estimation - lulled on both sides of the road and occasionally on it, stopping traffic in both direction.

Cars were lined up on both sides of the road as the buffalo munched on tall grasses at the edge, some people almost within arm's reach as they snapped pictures of the animals. We didn't get quite that close, though I must admit that these fellows appeared to be as docile as dairy cows.

Just as we prepared to move on, a big bull planted himself squarely in the middle of the road. We circled to our left to get around him, and Margaret had camera in hand virtually inches away from his huge, woolly, horned head.

Talk about a mug shot.

I'll have to admit, though, that I was considering alternative strategies just in case the big bull didn't approve of Margaret's perfume selection or become unnerved by her blue-eyed countenance.

We spent a couple of hours at the Old Faithful Lodge. The first hour involved lunch, the second we spent waiting for Old Faithful to make an appearance.

It was largely anticlimactic as far as I was concerned. But when I considered that the geyser had been going off approximately every 90 minutes since our last visit to Yellowstone in the early 1970s - not to mention its 120-year recorded history - I figured it was a phenomena that was well worth the wait.

On our way out of the park, headed for the west entrance, we encountered a herd of 15-to-20 elk, most of them cows, lulling in the sun on the muddy banks of a small stream. We also spotted a lone bull buffalo rolling in a dusty gully and a magnificent bull elk resting in tall grass on the far side of another stream.

I couldn't resist one more opportunity to put the Nikon to work. And as I snapped off a few final pictures, I swear the elk raised his head and turned in my direction to fully display his mighty rack of antlers.

He might even have smiled.

I must admit that I did resist one wildlife photo opportunity.

We came upon several parked cars where the road divided large open expanses of grass and marshes. People were scurrying about with huge cameras fixed to tall tripods. Their subject matter turned out to be a lone coyote that trotted haphazardly ahead of them at the road's edge.

Considering that coyotes are about as common hereabouts as squirrels and rabbits, and having just visited Colorado where they sang outside our door eight nights in a row, we drove on.

Back in Bozeman, one final adventure awaited us. A visit to the impressive Museum of the Rockies, where I learned, among other things, that according to Jack Horner, the museum's curator of paleontology, the mighty T-Rex dinosaur was very likely a scavenger and not the ferocious killing machine I had been led to believe.

Jurassic Park will never be the same.

And since I was in Bobcat country, I felt obligated to spend Saturday night watching Montana State University's football game at Sacramento State. The folks in Bozeman are rightfully excited about this year's Bobcats, who defeated the Hornets 64-61 in a 100-degree overtime shootout to run their season record to 4-1.

That mark includes a one-point loss at Washington State and an impressive 30-7 Big Sky Conference victory over Eastern Washington. Bobcat fans can't wait for their Nov. 20 showdown against intra-state rival Montana in Missoula.

As we headed west on Sunday morning, we left the warm sunshine behind us. By the time we crested Fourth of July Summit and twisted our way into Coeur d'Alene, it was overcast. And by the time we gassed up in Spokane, there was a smattering of raindrops on the windshield.

The rain followed us all the way home, too, heavy at times. We arrived in Walla Walla late in the day, somewhat weary and happy to be home.

And grateful for another successful adventure.

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