I set off this morning at my normal time, 6AM, and find a lovely dusting of snow on the ground. I begin to sing a Yellowstone version of ďSilent NightĒ. The sky is clouded over, obscuring the stars but I do not complain. What a wonderful place to be on Christmas Eve!
The snow is dry and powdery, and actually looks like those potato flakes they use to simulate snow in movies. At Mammoth I see a bunch of bison asleep on the lawn by the employee housing, snow flecking their furry heads and backs.
I park near the Hotel to use the facilities but nearly kill myself walking across the asphalt. It has become a sheet of ice! I slip 3 times, despite the tread on my boots. After the third time I take baby steps the rest of the way. Whew! Luckily Suzy does not have as much trouble as I do.
As I head down to the high bridge I see the snow plow ahead of me but the left lane has not yet been touched. Talk about your White Christmas! Soon I drive into the snow storm. I am in a snow cloud for most of the drive which has a spooky fog-effect. I canít see the horizon; only what my headlights reveal. I am happy to stop at Tower and enjoy the quiet and the beauty. At 7AM it is 26 degrees.
The snow plow turns around at Slough Creek and heads back towards me. So Suzy and I ďbreak trailĒ up Lamar Canyon. We have no trouble at all, although I do have to stop once, for elk crossing. One straggler chickens out and even though I wait for her, she is too worried and turns around to hide among the giant sage.
Itís first light by the time I reach Lamar - and itís also a white out. I see tracks along the roadside so I stop at Fishermanís to check them out. Wolf tracks! Yahoo! They lead downhill towards the river but I canít see much more than that. I drive on through the valley, enjoying the white out even though I realize it will likely make viewing difficult today. Itís just too gorgeous here to be worried.
I pull in at the Footbridge and see Kara and Rick heading up the hill on the north side, scopes over their shoulders. I hear a lone howl coming from the south side of the road. It sounds great! I pack up Layla and follow them. At first itís hard to climb up the hill through the deep snow but once I get about 10 feet up, the snow is thinner, having been blown off by the wind. I set up with Rick and Kara and apologize for not recognizing them last night. It is windy and cold up here. As the light improves we see a lone black wolf with snow on its back walking across the flats on the south side of the river, below the tree line.
He pretty quickly wanders up into the forest and we have only intermittent sightings of him after that. We see scattered bull elk in the forest, too. Above us, on our own hill, we watch a small group of bison moving out of the old Druid den area. They begin to run down the hillside like they are crazy or something. They run all the way down the hill and eventually cross the road. They seemed to be doing it for fun, not because they were bothered by anything. It makes me smile.
The wind shifts and now weíre getting snow in our faces. It gathers in a thin crescent at the bottom of my scope so I turn away for a bit. Where are the Sloughs? I had thought they would have caught one of the elk in the confluence herd last night and that this morning weíd find them easily, feeding on a carcass.
We hear over the radio about a carcass spotted by Bison Bob. Itís apparently hard to see, only partially visible from Dorothyís or Fishermanís. But the visibility here is near zero so I am ready to try a different angle. I head downhill and try to step in the same deep holes I made going up. My tripod becomes a hiking pole and I clomp back down onto the road.
While I am putting my gear away, a few other cars come up and I see Marlene and Pat (whom I met last Christmas) and sure enough, my good friends Chloe and Becky. We have a merry meeting. Bob Landis pulls in, too, long enough to tell us a wolf has been sighted on that carcass. So we head there, too, and soon are re-assembled at the far eastern edge of Fishermanís, straining to see through the falling snow.
Everyone has the wolf in view except me, but I finally get him, a lone gray with a black-tipped tail, scavenging a carcass between a rock and a tree. I wonder if this is the wolf that left the footprints I saw this morning? I only see him a few moments; tug, tug, tugging at the leftovers, before he wanders off into the Canyon. Although I lose sight of him pretty quickly I can still ďinferĒ his location by watching a small band of alerted elk on a slope to the left. I follow the direction their noses which no doubt point to where the wolf is. When the elk relax I figure the wolf has either bedded or moved further on out of their sight.
The snow has not stopped. It covers everything quite nicely.
Once the wolf is gone a bunch of birds and two coyotes come into the carcass area. We move up to B & BĎs (Coyote Overlook) to see if the higher angle might show us anything, but the wolf is not spotted again. We scope in other directions and I find a dozen black wolves on a hill which turn out to be bedded elk! Boy, am I out of practice! LOL!
Chloe finds an old carcass opposite the Institute with five coyotes and a lot of birds on it. We watch that a while, but the visibility makes it hard to see much else. So we decide to head up to Cooke City for some food.
My favorite spot on the way east is just past Ice Box canyon, were the river comes through a tunnel of trees close to the road. The trees lean over the water, nearly touching several large boulders in the stream. Itís pretty at all times of the year, but especially under a freshly fallen mantle of snow. The water is black crystal and the boulders and banks are covered in glistening white. Something about the snow on the trees reminds me of an old-fashioned Christmas card.
Elk tracks wind through snowy meadows, taking their un-told stories into the forest with them.
And then the sun comes out and makes the snow sparkle! I canít tell you how gorgeous it is. Every time I think Iíve seen the most beautiful sight, another sight tops it.
Past Silver Gate, at the last little bridge before Cooke City, Kara and Rick stop. When I creep to a stop behind them, I see they have spotted two moose; a cow and her female yearling calf. They are deep among the conifers, in a creek bed, up to their knees in snow, munching away on low-hanging branches. What a treat!
We have a nice lunch at Beds & Buns and I try the barbecue which is usually their main feature. It was delicious and I plan to order it more often! We talk about wolves, of course, and express our concern for the Druids. We hope they will have a chance to rebound this spring.
Kara and Rick head back down but Chloe and Becky and I stop at Baronette to try to find goats. Despite all our efforts we come up empty. I wonder where the goats go in the winter? I have heard they stay here, but have not discovered how to find them in winter. Note: since Iíve been back, I have now gotten a tip from Ballpark Frank which I will put to use next winter. We do find an abundance of frozen waterfalls, though and I note that they vary in color: some white, some bluish and some yellowish. Not sure what combination of factors might contribute to that phenomenon. Chloe (who often likes to scope in the opposite direction as everyone else) finds a cool-looking natural arch in the rock high above the south side of the road.
We stop again at Round Prairie and watch a mousing coyote and a raven pecking at an old carcass. And I enjoy watching some dippers working the creek. We head further west in search of otter and stop at various spots, enjoying each gorgeous view. Finally, while we are driving slowly past the confluence we find the movement we seek.
A car is stopped in the road and a photographer with very big glass is standing in the road, focused on three active subjects. They are so cute! I watch one pop out of the water and rest on an ice shelf. She rubs her whiskers as if her muzzle itches. Then she snaps her jaws and dives back in. We watch variations of this routine for several minutes. Occasionally the otters look up at their admirers and then dive back in the frigid water with such liquid grace they seem to be made of water, too.
And we notice a bald eagle, maintaining an aloof presence in a branch of a tree lining the river.
But then a ranger comes by and shames us out of the roadway. This time of year, when there is such little traffic, I do things Iíd never consider doing in a more popular season. We all comply quickly, though, and head further west.
We stop at Trash Can and scope the rendezvous. We find some bison using their heavy heads as snow-shovels, scraping away the newest layer to get to the grass beneath. Then Kara and Rick alert us to some gorgeous bighorn behind us, silhouetted on Druid Peak. Then we find some additional rams on the next snow-covered slope to the west. And I see a coyote trotting by us on the next hill.
Since the Sloughs are still unaccounted for, we decide to head to Elk Creek to try to find Agates. They are ChloeĎs favorite wolves at the moment. While driving through Little America the sun begins to set and casts a particularly gorgeous glow on a group of bison in the flats at Aspen.
We stop again at the higher of the two Elk Creek pullouts, set up our scopes and chat, looking out on the gorgeous wintry landscape. We see no wolves here but it is a gorgeous evening and the fresh snow on the mountains looks serene. A herd of bison parades out of the draw below us and moves slowly up the hill to the west. We figure they will cross the road somewhere around Floating Island Lake. What we donít know is just how large this herd is.
We have tentative plans for Christmas Eve dinner at Mammoth, but Kara and Rick have decided to pay attention to the weather and leave for home tonight. So they head off. But we catch up to them at Floating Island Lake, stuck behind a very large group of bison who have commandeered the road. Itís the same herd we watched come up out of the draw. I tuck my car behind their truck and follow them slowly through this herd. It gives me the willies to be so close to these huge critters.
When I am finally through I breath a sigh of relief. Silly Wendy. This is only the beginning. All through Hellroaring, from Floating Island Lake all the way to Phantom Lake we have one group or another of 30-40 bison in front of us. The road is narrow here with steep cliffs on both sides. The bison know this and clearly intend to stay on the road rather than deal with the steeper terrain.
In addition, the road is slightly icy from the new snow. Some bison start to run when I move past them and when they run, they often slip a little, so I worry that my trying to pass will lead to an injury. I donít need to get home so quickly that Iím willing to injure a bison over it.
On two occasions the herd eases over to one side of the road which gives us a chance to get past them safely without spooking them. But while I am attempting to pass the third group, I get stuck. My car is small and bison so close really scare me.
While I am passing the third group, several big animals start to run, so I slow down and suddenly I am surrounded. Then several bison start head-butting each other and one lunges in front of me, slips and nearly goes down. I stop. I keep having visions of a bison horn slicing into my fender or worse, an animal breaking its leg.
Once I stop, the animals Iíve already passed overtake me. I am extremely grateful that my human herd does not abandon me but it makes me feel guilty because I know Rick and Kara are trying to get home. Eventually I am able to tuck in behind them again and stay right on their bumper in an attempt to get past this group again. But when I get stuck a second time I realize my inexperience is the problem. So when Becky offers to drive my car the rest of the way, I gratefully agree. And thanks to Becky, we finally get past this group.
Then we meet a fourth group! But now I am a passenger so we manage to get by that one too. And it turns out to be the last one. Boy, am I glad when we get to Mammoth! Thank you, Chloe and Becky and thank you Rick and Kara!
We wave goodbye to Rick and Kara and drive the rest of the way to the Yellowstone Village Inn where the three of us finish the evening with a memorable make-shift Christmas Eve dinner in the lobby around the cozy fireplace. I bring tangerines, cheese whiz and crackers and Becky brings all sorts of decorative Christmas cookies given to her by her students and a home-made traditional cheese ball. We crack ourselves up.
Today I saw: bison (way too many!), 9 coyotes, dippers, 1 bald eagle, elk, 2 moose, 3 otters, ravens, 5 bighorn sheep, 2 wolves, two Loons and the spirit of Allison