Realizing that the light would not hit as early here as yesterday, I sleep in – 5:15 a.m. I get up, get the gear together, then make breakfast while waiting for the sun to come up. I look around and realize that the three groups of bison I saw yesterday have now seemed to form one large herd. They are just on the other side of a large mound about a quarter of a mile from my location. Although not on the way I need to go, I decide I will take a small detour to that hill and try to photograph them closer. But, then the sun comes up and I go to work. The formations on the far side of the wilderness area to the south are first to get the light, with my small formation to the north the last. Again, it is a clear morning with nary a sign of clouds.
By 7:05, I have struck camp and am back on the trail, heading toward the Sage Creek Campground. I do not detour to photograph the bison because they have moved on, and rather quickly at that. I saw them start to move, then to pick up the pace, and it took me a while to understand why. A couple of rather gutsy if not suicidal coyotes decided that they would try to get some action. Or, maybe this is how young coyotes entertain themselves out in small pack Badlands. Certainly a lot more exciting than tipping cows. I stop a couple of times along the way to set up the tripod and photograph the Middle Fork of Sage Creek, which I will be following mostly on my way into the campground. There is one particular bend with some rich pink and gold hues, much like the colors in the Yellow Mounds area.
Following the bearing I have chosen on my compass, and some mule deer and bison trails, I am within about two miles of the campground when a couple of unexpected things happen. One happens as I am looking to my left at some bison with spring calves on a nearby hill. I am making sure they are aware of me and are not interested in me, and I look back to the trail ahead of me to see two coyotes peering right at me. They are probably about 150 feet away. As I pull out my camera from my HoldSLR, they both take off, doing an about face and disappearing completely. When I get to the point where they were standing, there is no sight of them. The other thing happens about a hundred yards later when, as I am on the north side of the Middle Fork, I find what looks like the remains of an early twentieth century automobile, back when they were calling them horseless carriages. The undercarriage looks odd, as well as the fenders. One of the fenders has a symbol that I photograph. But the key clue that this is something really old comes in the form of the seat for the contraption, which looks a lot like a modern bicycle seat, but solid metal.
Within a mile from the campground, I stop for a snack and to take a drink. I notice after I have selected the spot that I am looking down on a rather large prairie dog town. I don’t notice it at first visually – I actually thought it was probably a high volume area for bison since there was hardly any plants growing at all. No, what clues me in is the various chattering going back and forth among the mounds. After my snack, I pass through the town and notice that one of the prairie dogs must have picked a bad time to come out of his hole – a set of bones is scattered all around an opening. I take some photos, and am then on my way to a small grassy hill, where I spook several groups of grouse. Talk about a well-camouflaged bird; I could not see them at all until they flushed and headed out to the southwest. But finally, I am on my final approach. There is a hill I have been hiking toward for the last few miles, a hill I had decided was the last rise before the campground. I am about to find out how accurate my navigational skills are. I tell myself that when I get to the top of the hill, I should be able to see the campground off to the left, about a quarter of a mile away. One of my key navigational aids I have been using is the aptly-named White Butte (funny, you cannot see the white part of it from the road, only from out in the wilderness area).
So, I get to the top of the hill and look down and to the left …. and see the campground right where it should be. And, right in the middle of my path to the campground are two large bulls, hanging out in the open field. Now, if I were a bison, with a thick, dark fur, I would sit under a nice juniper on a hot, sunny day. But that’s just me. I take a large arc around them, keeping an eye on them as one of them keeps an eye on me, then cross the creek – using the game trail that just so happens to cross in the shallow, gravel bar area. I notice that someone is camping here, one tent, but no one is home – they must be on a day hike. It is now 11:30, a full two and a half hours before my arranged pick up by one of the rangers. I settle in at one of the sheltered picnic tables and give the ranger a call on the radio I have been carrying; he has actually just started his patrol and will be along shortly to pick me up. The campers come back from their day hike, so I go over and make contact. Having gone on a couple of backcountry ranger patrols in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, first as an artist-in-residence then as a volunteer, I am accustomed to making contact with visitors to learn how their trip is going. It is a man about my age and his son (I would guess his age at around 12). They have been there for the weekend and are staying another night. They seem to be enjoying the quiet that this part of the park has to offer.
My ranger, Greg, arrives and I hop in to come back and download. Along the way he tells me about a call they received from a visitor about a sick bison. Apparently, the bison was sitting on the ground and panting, said the visitor. The call reminded me of a chapter in the book I am reading, and how people are sometimes clueless about wildlife. It did not occur to the visitor that 2,000-pound animals with thick dark fur need to sit down and pant to cool off. Along the way back to my Jeep, and all the way back to my apartment, there is simply an explosion of visitors, the most I have seen at the park yet. The summer is on its way, but unfortunately, this residency is winding down. Well, unfortunate from the artistic standpoint. Not unfortunate in that soon I get to be back home with my wife, Michelle, whom I have missed incredibly on this trip.