I get a late start due to an emergency back at work. Once I get it settled, I leave the Yellowstone Village Inn at the scandalously late hour of at 9:45. Looking at the bright side, for once I get to see this area in daylight. My car is a dark blue Subaru Legacy, aka Suzy. The air feels very warm, and Suzy’s thermometer confirms it at 42 degrees, and the sky is big enough to hold both clouds and sun.
Ah me, the Park looks so lovely. I have heard there has been ample snow this year, yet it doesn’t look as heavy as I expected. Electric Peak is crowned in white but it almost always is. As I head through the Arch I see “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People“. Yep! That‘s what I‘ve come all this way to see. The tears come unbidden and I say happily “Hello Allison! I’m here!”
Right inside the Arch I see a nice herd of elk on the mogul-hill slopes below Sepulcher. Scattered bison are here, also. I show my pass at the gate and chat a bit with the Ranger. She says wolves were heard howling last night in Mammoth and that they are being seen regularly in Lamar.
Woo hoo! I’m stoked.
I drive along and glance to the left at the hills where Frank led the Loons on a hike in October. They are bare and brown now, except for a few snowy patches. The Gardner River looks appropriately low and seeing it makes me smile. As I wind up the road I encounter very little traffic. Although the pavement is dry, I see remnants of ice, snow and sand (dumped for traction) on the curves. I glance over at Mt. Everts. I never used to think of it as beautiful but now I see the dainty sprinkling of whiteness that clings to the rows of eroded slopes beneath its snowy top, reminding me of the Grand Canyon. The sun comes out and makes it sparkle!
There are bison between the road and Mammoth campground. And more up in Mammoth itself. I stop at the bottom of the trail up to Kite hill and pay a visit to Allison. I confide to her my happy news about the condo. While I am doing this I hear an elk bugle! How do you like that? There are a number of elk grazing the area near the Mammoth employee housing. I promise Allison that I will hike up the hill in Spring to have a proper visit with her.
And now I head east towards Lamar. Just past Wraith Falls I see two of the Big Boys grazing close to the road on the left, tempting photographers to get closer than they should. I see two people doing just that. I watch a while, hoping the couple will remain at a proper distance. The lady does, but the man keeps going. He is cautious but I notice that each step he takes causes the bull elk to take one of his own further away.
I park at the next pullout, set up Layla and scan the hills for whatever is out there. Have I told you how gorgeous it is? I see lots of elk in among the trees and on the slopes of far hills. I like this spot and just sit on Suzy’s bumper and enjoy the day.
After a while I get going again and see more elk on the south side of the S curves, resting. I start to sing “It’s all too beautiful”. I am now driving on packed snow. There may be ice underneath but I find it easy to drive on. When I get to Hellroaring I see numerous conifers gorgeously dusted with snow like Courier & Ives pictures. There are more elk at Phantom Lake, all over the hillsides, including a lot of yearling calves. In the fall I would wonder where the elk were, but in the winter they suddenly re-appear, looking fat and sleek. As I make the turn at the Elk Bowl a Clark’s Nutcracker flies overhead.
The road is mostly dry but there are tricky patches in the sheltered places. In addition to all the elk, I see bison absolutely everywhere. I meet one old bull at the end of a sharp curve near Hell Roaring that puts my anti-lock brakes to the test! I find it scary to pass a bull bison in this little tiny car.
Two coyotes cross the road at the Petrified Tree. At first I assume they are beggars but actually they make no attempt to approach me when I stop to watch. The larger one has a collar and his coat is a beautiful golden color. They duck down into the creek bed and I drive on.
I see more bison at Yancey‘s Hole and again below Junction Butte. The snow level here looks similar to years past although I am hardly the best judge of that! I see a youngish couple heading out on cross country skis. I‘ve really got to try that sometime!
In the flats of Little America I see areas of disturbed snow, probably from bison. I head into Lamar and find it marvelously empty and wonderfully inviting, in all its rugged glory. The river is frozen over and topped with a mantle of snow. I don’t remember seeing it so full of snow. I remember that just last week the temperatures in the Park were below zero. But, true to my history of good weather luck, things warmed up just prior to my arrival!
I stop at B&B (Coyote Overlook) and give Layla a workout. I find a coyote wandering along the near side of the river. Oh! Poor thing! He keeps slipping through the snow-crust. Wow, that must be hard to deal with but he keeps walking anyway. I see him mouse once and then watch him hop over frozen Rose Creek. I find a large bison herd opposite the Institute.
My next stop is at Mid Point. I see something out there, and of course, think it’s a wolf. I get out my binoculars and see that it’s not a wolf but a coyote. My imagination is working too hard! The animal is just sitting there, on its haunches, looking intently to the east. I scan that way to see what has his attention…and I find three more coyotes! They move in a line, pretending to be wolves for my benefit, I‘m sure.
As the three new coyotes approach the sitting one, one of them begins to wag his tail and then rushes ahead of the others, romping as if in happy anticipation of meeting the other. This also seems “wolfish” to me and I really wonder if these coyotes are teasing me!!! I am eager to see how the sitting dog reacts. But just then I knock my scope and it tips downward. By the time I get it righted, all four animals are together milling around so I missed the actual “greeting”. The four of them are obviously a family. I watch them move off toward the river and then they all disappear.
I get an idea to have lunch at the Thunderer pullout so I drive on, enjoying the stunning views as I go. But when I arrive I find the pullout under a thick blanket of un-plowed snow! Oops! This is the first sign to me of the “more than usual” amount of snow. I chuckle to myself and keep driving, looking for a place to turn around. This area is amazingly beautiful and I notice a whole lot of tracks in every open spot.
I head back down into the valley, going slowly, enjoying the overwhelming solitude. This is what I came for. To feel small again. I stop at Hitching Post and spend an hour post-holing through the snow out to the riverbank, roaming around. I watch dippers and ducks and find lots of otter tracks but no otters. I just stand here and enjoy being all alone, looking up at the surrounding cliffs and peaks. It’s quiet enough to hear the sound of ice cracking.
Eventually I head back to Suzy and drive on to the confluence where again, I look for otter tracks. I find some but they don’t look fresh. But then I notice quite a few elk out in the river bottoms so I set up Layla to watch them more closely. This group is an actual herd, the largest I’ve seen today. Many are bedded, chewing cud and many others are standing, seeking out nourishment that the river has to offer.
A bit further out, on the first bench above the river corridor I see some rambunctious bison. They run across the flats and then down the slope of the ancient riverbank, tails high with agitation or excitement. I wonder if they are enjoying the warm sun? I also see more elk in small groups of two or three grazing in the flats to the south and west of the confluence, and several bull elk just at the edge of the trees.
Then a familiar car pulls in. Rick. We chat a bit and to my delight he offers me a radio. I accept it gladly. He says he plans to go around the bend to Exclosure; that he thinks the Slough wolves are still out in the Chalcedony fan area. I thank him for that and tell him I will stay here and look for them. He seems pleased by that. Rick likes to have eyes and ears in several places.
I continue to watch the elk herd but periodically I scan the fan for a glimpse of wolves. Then I watch this cool thing happen. As the day wanes and the shadows lengthen, more and more elk begin to emerge along the tree-line, walking cautiously into the meadow. Most are cows and calves but I see a few spikes too. I realize they are crossing the meadow in order to join the confluence herd. I suppose this affords them safety in the night from you know who! I stop counting when I reach 100 and I think there were twice as many, all told.
Then I hear howling! Woo hoo! I follow the sound of the howls and find the Sloughs! Right at the very edge of my furthest right sight line I see two black wolves romping through the forest. Then my eye catches a smaller canid running quickly in the opposite direction, out in the flats. Coyote? No, a fox! Cool! It runs a long time, then turns to look back. It turns and runs some more, still in the flats, long tail outstretched. It turns once more and I am amazed at how far it has run in just a few seconds.
The howling is still going on. I scope the fan and see more wolves milling about in front of the trees. It looks as though the Sloughs are gathering for a hunt. Sure enough, off they go, forming a line. I see 9 in all, mostly blacks except fo r one big gray. The big black one in front (490 or 489) looks like he‘s limping but then I realize he’s stumbling in deep snow pockets, or perhaps breaking through the crust every couple of steps. While this is happening, a gorgeous sunset begins behind me, bathing Abiathar and the Thunderer in warm shades of pink and gold. This magic-hour light falls on the aspen where the wolves are, and it is a beautiful thing to watch them move against a glowing snow background as they pass between the trunks.
The Sloughs are, no doubt, aware of the elk herd in the confluence. If the light will only linger long enough I’ll have a ringside seat to a chase. I watch the Sloughs make their long procession through the forest and then see them come out and begin to cross the upper flats. Rick arrives, and with him are two wolfer friends with whom I had Christmas dinner last year, Kara and Rick. But I am too dumb or distracted to realize who they are at this moment. Sorry Rick and Kara!
The light fails more quickly than I expected it to and but soon I can’t make out the wolf shapes in the flats at all. How I wish I had younger eyes! But I console myself that the Sloughs will likely be here tomorrow morning, so with that thought in mind I hop into Suzy and head back west.
I see several elk dangerously near the roadside and I have a coyote cross the road at Floating Island Lake. I listen to Christmas music all the way. At the Mammoth stop sign I have to wait for a gathering of bison in the road, seemingly unsure of which direction to take. As I wait for them to decide I admire the multicolored lights on the Christmas tree twinkling prettily through the bay window of the map room. Well, Allison, I say, this day turned out just fine, late start or not!
I get back to my room and enjoy some hot soup before turning in for a good night‘s sleep.
Today I saw: bison, 7 coyotes, dippers, ducks, elk, a fox, 9 Slough Creek wolves, one Loon and the spirit of Allison.