I'm up at 7 and out the door by 8:45. Although people in Bozeman tend to get up early, I still find the streets nearly empty. Due to the relatively light snowpack and my loathing of I-90 I make the turn onto Trail Creek Road.
Blanca takes to the packed snow like a pro - the conditions are nearly the same as I've experienced in the Park, although the potential for deeper drifting is greater. As Frank warned, this would not be the route to choose during a heavy snowfall. But what I find is that the packed-snow smoothes out the rutting and usual bumpiness of this drive.
And then there's the beauty! It is up, down, all around me and I grin from ear to ear. I play Christmas carols on the CD player and although it is cold, the air is clear and crisp and the sun is doing its best to peek out. There is a biting wind, too, which sometimes creates drifts and small tornados of snow. In the safety and warmth of Blanca I find them very pretty.
In several of the willowy sections I notice deer tracks. The temperature is dropping instead of rising - at 10:15 it is now 28 degrees. As I reach Rte 89 along the Yellowstone I see what I think is an osprey rise from the Yellowstone, a wobbling fish in its talons!
At Yankee Jim Canyon, several mulies dash across the road. There is very little snow in this area and that lack continues as I come nearer to the Park. On the other side of the Canyon I have four bighorn sheep grazing near the road, one a ram with a full curl.
I arrive at the Yellowstone Village Inn a little while later, where I am given a second floor room. This makes it a bit more of a chore to haul my bags in but I find that the view from my window makes up for it. And the small refrigerator allows me a luxury I rarely savor on trips like these - milk in my morning coffee!
I get my room arranged and have a bite of lunch, then head into Parkadise.
Just inside the Arch I notice a light dusting of snow on the flats and the mogul hills below Sepulcher. Hallelujah - I'm back here again! I check the temperature and I'm surprised to see it register only 7 degrees. There had been a report of snow on its way but it is bright and sunny as I head up the curves of Gardiner Canyon.
As I reach the top I am quite surprised to see the size of the new Justice Center. It is not complete but I didn't expect it to be so large. Perhaps the architect wanted to be prepared in case it becomes necessary to accomodate the massive ego of P-Doo for some future infraction. 8~)
I stop at the Dining Room to make reservations for tomorrow night and find that the earliest I can get it 7:45. I also check at the Hotel to see if Mark R is around, and learn that he is not working at all this week. Ah well. Merry Christmas, Mark!
There is a lot more snow in Mammoth than in Gardiner. It looks very pretty and Christmasy. The tree in the window of the Map Room is not dressed up in mulitcolor lights this year but with tiny white lights and the windows are framed in them as well. It looks lovely.
I drive into a quiet corner below Kite Hill and have my traditional visit with the spirit of Allison. It always helps me get centered and calm before I head out into the wilds of Lamar.
And now I'm off. I see lots of elk and coyote tracks and spot my first bison at Blacktail Ponds west. I continue to see scattered elk and bison all the way out.
The roads are mostly clear with a few icy spots. As I reach Hellroaring the snow level rises and it seems to me that the land is more snow-covered than in the last few years. I stop here to scope and find bison, elk and rock-wolves. The view is serene and I have it all to myself. The wind has died down at the temperature has risen to 19 degrees. But I get chilly pretty fast and realize it's past time to put on my warmer clothes. Alas, in my first-day excitement I neglect to include a few insulating items and pay for it later.
I love seeing the flocking on the trees in the Hellroaring area. I suppose it is tied somehow to my earliest childhood experiences with the wonders of winter, but I really love seeing them dressed this way.
The Tower area looks especially snow-covered and gorgeous. I always enjoy seeing favorite spots again after an absence from the Park. I find Chloe and Becky in Little America just west of the Aspen pullout. They have been watching the Agates! Alas those wolves are not visible at the moment, but they were on a carcass most of today.
They tell me the Druids have been feeding on a bison carcass east of the Soda Butte Cone. I scope with my friends for a while trying to find where the Agates got to, but the call of Lamar is always extra strong if it includes a chance for Druid-watching so I beg leave and head east.
On the way there I have a coyote trotting in the road in Lamar Canyon. I catch my breath as I make the turn to Lamar Valley. It is exquisite. I don't think I have ever been unhappy with the view of Lamar that I get from this spot. Even when it is socked in full of fog, the fog is gorgeous, too.
No fog today. Quite a bit of snow, though. The ski slopes of Specimen Ridge look pure and clean and I see bison and elk here and there. At the confluence I stop to peek for otters and find ducks and dippers. Aside from the few spots these water-birds have found, the river is nearly completely frozen and beautifully covered in snow. But as I drive on I find more and more open water. And there is a bison out there, grazing in the willows.
Good lord it's beautiful here.
At the Soda Cone I see a bull bison lowering his shaggy head for a drink, so I stop and watch him a moment. And while I'm stopped, I hear a howl! Wolf! It's coming from the east.
I see a number of cars pulled over in the spot where we watched the coyote den last spring. It's about 3:45 and I pull out Layla for my first look at "the New Druids" or, as I call them on this trip, Druids 3.0. The carcass, or what's left of it, is relatively close to the road. You can see it unaided by big glass, but Layla makes viewing really great. There are currently several uncollared wolves in view and all of them are playful.
The former bison's rib cage is visible and the wolves actually stand inside the cavity, tugging at some spot or another. They also tug on each other, and two of them are playing on the hillside to the left, jumping on each other and carousing like kids in a playground.
In a little while a group howl begins! Oh, what a treat to hear in this vast, yet quiet valley. I look up on the nearby hillsides and see tails wagging and black and gray backs moving. The alphas appear, trotting over the hilltop to another spot, where the rally continues, even more boistrously than before.
I recognize 302 with his white chest bar and gorgeous, robust black body. The other large collared black is, of course, the boss, 480, and the lovely light-gray with slightly creamy sides is his lady, alpha 569. I love looking at her face and seeing the distinctive "Druid" look - the sort of raccoon-eye shading that was so pronounced on 42 and then on 255 as well. 569 is the last daughter of legendary wolf 21M (that we know of for sure) and she is every inch a worthy descendent and a fine alpha female. She gave birth to 7 pups in April and so far they have all survived. I have since learned that 569's mother was 286F, the last alpha paired with 21M.
All three collared wolves look the picture of health and it is very satisfying to see them with their happy, healthy family in their home valley. There is another collared gray female, 571. Last Christmas I saw her as a yearling, before she was collared. Her coat is a bit more brownish than 569's and I don't know her face as well, but I hope to get to know her as the days go on.
But most exciting for me is the presence of a non-Druid wolf in the area. A light gray male - who has been hanging around with this pack for the last month or so, clearly courting the various females about to come of age in the fast-approaching breeding season. Druid females seem to always attract persistent suitors. Five years ago it was 302 who came a-courting.
The Light Gray Suitor (LGS) appears on a hilltop a little to the east of the others. He poses there and I have a good chance to look at him. This gray has no black tip on his tail and he is missing some hair on his underside chest just behind his front legs. The bare area is most easily seen when he stands facing right.
Note: no one saw the Druids kill this bison and there is speculation that it may have died on its own, or that the Druids took down a dying animal. Since (I think) the Druids have never been confirmed bison killers, everyone is reluctant to assign this ability to a pack unless it is actually witnessed. Also, evidence at the site does not suggest a prolonged struggle, which would be normal if a wolf-pack took down a full-grown bison.
There is a second howl session which is so rich and full that I am sure all 16 Druids are in close proximity, just hidden from view by all the hills. The notes hang and reverberate in the clear, cold air, mixing and blending in marvelous dipping and soaring melodies.
The Light Gray Suitor moves away, up and over the hill to the east, as if in response to the message in the wolf-song. Sure enough, a single black wolf soon follows him - traveling the exact same route we saw him take out of sight. Perhaps they have a date?
As the sun sinks, a light snow begins. The flakes are huge but the squall lasts only a minute or two. Nevertheless, I become quite cold, but I am so distracted by the Druids and the socializing with my wolfer friends that I don't have enough sense to add my "heavy duty" clothes. In addition to Becky & Chloe, Marlene is here, as well as Kathy L, and Rick and Kara. It's nice to have the time to talk and catch up on their sightings while sharing this current one.
Now dusk descends and a nearly-full moon rises over the mountains. It is huge, shrouded by cold clouds, a giant, pale-yellow dinner-plate of a moon.
We finally admit it's time to go and begin to pack up. We have a three-car caravan for the long drive back to Gardiner. The road is mercifully bison-free this trip but do have elk at Floating Island Lake and then two coyotes in the road at Wraith Falls. But all in all, we have an easy time of it and then finish the evening with a stop at Outlaws for some yummy pizza.
What a wonderful start to my visit!
Today I saw: Bison, 6 coyotes, mule deer, elk, a hawk, 1 osprey, 4 bighorn sheep,
12 wolves including 11 Druids (four collared wolves plus 7) and the light gray
suitor, 2 Loons and the spirit of Allison.