When I come out in the morning I see that yesterday’s snowstorm has left a coating of ice on all the cars except mine. Suzy’s windshield has been scraped clear by Chloe and Becky! Thanks, you two!
The roads have a thin layer of snow and are icy underneath but I just go slow and avoid problems. The wind picks up when I get up on Blacktail, and it blows the snow off trees all through Hellroaring. I listen to “Allison’s tape“ which Dan M made for me; a compilation of the rock n roll songs she included in her most famous trip report. It always cheers me up.
An hour later I am trudging up the snowy path on Dave’s Hill. The morning is crisp and fine with sunrise jus t beginning. The Sloughs are visible, but further away than usual. They are not at the densite but on three snowy knolls about half way between here and Junction Butte.
Several adult wolves are bedded on the top of the left knoll and three pups are running from the middle knoll towards the left knoll. On the right knoll a lone gray is bedded near a big rock, looking over at the others. This Slight Right, a gray male who often hangs out slightly apart from the rest of the pack.
We are treated to a long, lovely howling session from the whole pack, 11 all told. After the howling the black pups begin to play. One pup lowers his head and front paws and then jumps in the air at his young sibling. They romp around the side of the hill having a grand old time.
We see intermittent bird activity at the rear of the left knoll and pretty much assume the wolves have made a kill down there, out of sight. As the sun rises a pack of unseen coyotes puts on a defiant howl-fest. There are several groups of bison on the flats by the river and bull elk up on Specimen.
Fairly soon the wolves‘ activity ends and they curl up to bed for the day. But during the lull I learn something new: Chloe and Becky prove to me that you can see a tiny section of the road from here, as it comes down past Elk Creek. I never realized that before!
There is a young man named Shane up here, with a big camera and an NPS liaison. He is doing a PBS special on Winter in Yellowstone and has climbed up the hill to interview Rick. Now that the Sloughs have quieted down, Rick is ready. I find it fun and educational to hear what he has to say. He compares the wolf packs in Yellowstone to countries of the world, having territorial spats, wars and strategic alliances. Shane’s teen-aged daughter is a real pro: she holds the boom mike.
It’s a beautiful morning and even when there is no wolf activity to see, the view is gorgeous. And when I turn to scope the other way, I find a single coyote roaming around the rocks above the “secret passage”.
Shortly after the interview is over we hear that the Agates made a kill last night at Tower, right across from the ranger station. How did we miss that? The Agates are bedded out of sight at the moment, but we want to go anyway, in case some of them return for a second helping.
So down the hill we go.
We head to Tower and pull off the road and set up our scopes opposite the closed gas station. Out in the flats we see ravens and magpies. The carcass itself is visible in a patch of disturbed snow: a shapeless lump of light brown fur surrounded by pink-stained white.
In relative terms it is very close to the road, maybe 200 yards? There are three bald eagles (two adults and a juvenile) in a nearby tree. We scope the hills trying to spot where the Agates are bedded but they are too clever at hiding.
We watch a while, enjoying the eagles and also the interplay between various ravens and then two coyotes arrive on the scene. The smaller of the two wears an antenna-collar. This one stops on a little knob and sits on its haunches, watching as the larger one heads straight for the carcass.
He tugs at it and we recognize the leg of a dead elk. He moves to another angle and tugs again and we see the still-bloody ribcage. After the large coyote gets several good bites, the smaller one gets up his nerve and trots down the hill to dinner. But as soon as gets near the other, the bigger one wheels and lunges, open-mouthed, pinning the other briefly before it shakes free and dashes away. We can hear their snarls!
The large one goes back to eating and the small one thinks things over. Then in she comes again. Same thing happens. I’m a little shocked at how furious the contact is. Usually I’ve seen coyotes just posture menacingly at each other, avoiding contact. But these two are having a serious squabble. The brief but fierce bite-fest happens three times and one time includes an amazing leap in the air by the smaller one.
The large one always seem to win but the small one never seems the slightest bit injured or sore from losing. After the third bout the small one trots back toward the little hill, taking another leap (out of frustration?) at a raven. It stops half-way up the hill and sits again. The large one continues to eat and I notice it is very wary, spending a lot of time looking around, I guess for wolves.
Since we saw these two coyotes arrive together it is most likely that they are related. Perhaps we are watching a squabbling couple? Or a cranky mother and child?
After a while the small one tries again, and is again rebuffed. Their snarls and growls are really ferocious. But then, suddenly, the larger one drops his belligerence and lets the smaller one alone. They feed together on opposite sides of the carcass. Who knows what was said or what subtle gesture of supplication may have done the trick?
As we are trying to figure this out, Shane the PBS guy shows up and asks to interview us. We say yes, and sign release forms. He wants us to keep scoping while he asks us questions. That works for me! I keep watching the tree with the eagles in it. More have shown up and there are now five adults and two juveniles perched among the branches, while a sixth adult soars over head.
Shane asks why we come to the Park, how frequently, and what it is we like so much about wolves. He has a very gentle manner which makes it easy and comfortable for us to answer, although I suppose, the truth is we need little prodding! Then as the interview is winding down, a black wolf appears in my scope! Suddenly we change gears and get back to business. It’s a yearling, an Agate no doubt, coming in from who knows where to grab a second breakfast.
But he is nervous this close to the road and just stops where he is, still at least a hundred yards from the meat. He stares a while and then begins to roam around until he finds something tasty. He stops and starts chewing on something we can’t see. We figure once he heads back to the hills we will be able to see where he goes and may he will lead us to the other Agates. But when he turns and heads off, he simply disappears! There must be tunnels out there!
We talk to Shane and his daughter a little bit more and then decide to head up to Elk Creek to see if that angle will reveal any Agates. We set up there but do not find them. Instead we do find two wolfer friends, Calvin and Lynette. It’s great to see them again and we catch up and share wolf news. We scope from Elk Creek a while and find bison and elk and another bald eagle.
I also find that since this is the spot on the road that can be seen from Dave’s Hill, it also stands to reason that the road near Slough Creek can be seen from here. And in fact, I do see it. A section of the road heading up Lamar Canyon. Little by little I’m adding to my knowledge of the Park.
We decide to head the confluence to try our luck with the otters again. On our way up Lamar Canyon a car in front of me has stopped for a pair of coyotes in the road, so I stop, too. When the animals leave the car ahead of me has trouble getting traction on the icy grade. I watch it fishtail a bit before it gets steady again. Fishtailing in Lamar Canyon is not my favorite sport!
We go slow and proceed into Lamar without incident. I have to catch my breath when I see how gorgeous Lamar Valley has become. Yesterday’s snow storm has re-dressed it in pure white. It’s beauty, beauty and more beauty as far as the eye can see!
We park at the Confluence and get out to take a stroll above the river. But we see no otters nor even any otter tracks. We do see 11 bighorn sheep up on Jackson Grade, including two big rams. And in the river we find some golden eyes and some black and white ducks and plenty of dear little dipper birds. Calvin finds a coyote roaming the river bottoms, looking for a treat.
Everyone comments about how slick the roads in Lamar are today. In fact we hear that Rick is not coming out this evening so we know we’re on our own. We decide to head back towards Tower and trust in the Agates for our entertainment tonight. Calvin and Lynette and I stop at Slough to scope around there a while and Chloe and Becky drive further west to scope from Hellroaring Overlook. Chloe has always had a fondness for the Geode Pack and although they were scattered in the fall after they lost their alphas, there has also been talk of a new Hellroaring Group, probably made up of Leopolds that split from the main pack. I think Chloe hopes she might catch a glimpse of 106F former Druid wolf who became alpha female of the Geodes, and who has not been seen in over a year.
Calvin and Lynette and I eventually end up at Elk Creek. Bob Landis and Bison Bob are here as well and despite the cold we have a bit of a pullout party. We are all hoping for Agates but none have been seen. Then suddenly I spot two black wolves way, way out there. I can’t describe where I’m looking so Bob looks through my scope and pronounces them Sloughs. I think I may have been looking at the back-side of the knoll on which they were resting earlier today. Bob sees more wolves than I do. I eventually see three blacks and a gray but he saw more than that. They were VERY far away and of course they disappear quickly behind a hill.
The light begins to dim and we decide to make an early start for home given the questionable road conditions. And sure enough, someone apparently ran off the road in about the same spot that Lew & Deb did years ago, near Floating Island Lake. I see evidence of spun wheels!
We stop at Hellroaring and join Chloe & Becky who are scoping here. They tell us they saw lots of elk from here, but no wolves. Our three cars decide to caravan back to Gardiner. But we make one stop below the S curves to listen for Leopold howling. We pull over and turn off our motors and our lights and listen to the wind as darkness settles over the plateau. I find it so peaceful I nearly fall asleep.
It begins to snow lightly again. I remember passing the Big Boys at Lava Creek but from then on I concentrated only on driving. We are extremely cautious on our way down from Undine Falls as, despite the plowing and sanding, the steep, winding road is very icy. At the last curve before the high bridge I see Chloe’s brake lights brightly lit. She has stopped for bison. I am only going 20 mph but I have to tap the brakes about 20 times before I stop moving.
The bison were on the bridge but have decided to turn around. The bridge is solid ice and they are slipping with each step. While we sit and wait for them I keep dreading other cars behind us going too fast.
We decide to drive the bridge one at a time. Chloe is first, then me, then Calvin. I don’t go much over 10 mph and it is nerve-wracking. We stop at Mammoth and I dash into the Hotel desk to ask them to contact the Park Service about the dangerous conditions on the high bridge. But now I have a greater concern.
How am I going to get down Gardiner Canyon?
Welp, this whole time I didn’t know that Suzy had lower gears, because although I learned to drive on a stick shift, I’ve never seen low gears marked “positive” and “negative”. A passing Ranger figures this out for me and I head down that scary road with a bit more confidence. My caravan mates stay with me all the way and I will never forget it.
We celebrate our success at Outlaws. Thank you Chloe, Becky, Calvin and Lynette. True friends stick by you when you need them the most and that’s just what you all did.
Today I saw: bison, 6 coyotes, dippers, black and white ducks, golden eye ducks, 8 bald eagles, elk, 11 bighorn sheep, 12 wolves, including 11 Sloughs and one Agate yearling, 4 amazingly supportive Loons and the spirit of Allison.