Today I leave Suzy alone in the parking lot as I have accepted an invitation from Becky and Chloe to ride with them. This is the last day in the Park for all three of us and since our agenda is so similar it makes all kinds of sense.
It’s a real treat to spend more chat time with my girlfriends and I really enjoy the ride. The high bridge is dry and we have no bison on the road on the way out, although the Big Boys of Lava Creek are visible.
We arrive at Tower at first light thinking we may be early enough to see Agates on their kill. Calvin and Lynette are already here and so are people in two other cars. We are very quiet as we scan the kill area. I can just make out the movement of birds but I don’t see any four-legged critters. As the light grows it confirms the absence of canines. But we see eagles, ravens and magpies.
Rick is on the radio wondering if anyone plans to scope from Dave‘s Hill. Calvin and Lynette volunteer for that duty and I speak out of turn and say I will, too, but Chloe and Becky are not so sure. If I had this moment to do over again, I’d have kept my mouth shut. Remember, Wendy, always listen to Chloe! Because we find ourselves in a “Juss Mistum” day, the kind where something happens just after we leave a pullout, and just as we arrive at a new pullout, someone says “You just missed ‘em!“
I’m sure we’ve all had days like this!
Anyway we do go to Slough and climb Dave‘s Hill. The additional inches of new snow make climbing up here a whole new adventure. I lose the trail and find myself sinking in powder up to my knees! But the area is so beautiful I soon forget my struggles.
We scope around and see elk and bison but the wolves are not in sight. We do see a coyote; in fact, he is sitting up here on the hill with us, about 50 feet away. He is probably the same nonchalant individual that crossed Becky’s path the other day. He sits on his haunches, looking out, thinking his coyote thoughts, utterly bored with us.
We scope for a good half hour all over the den area, all over the three knobs where we saw them yesterday and all points in between. Nothing. So down we go again, leaving Calvin and Lynette to hold the fort. No sooner do the three of us hit the pavement when Calvin calls out. Wolves! He is focused all the way across the valley to Elk Creek and sees five running wolves. Turns out they are not Sloughs; they are Agates! By the time we climb back up, they are likely to be out of sight. We head west.
Calvin’s spot gets everyone jazzed. It’s nearly 8 AM and these are the first wolves anyone has seen. But, we are in the grips of “juss mistum” so as we approach Tower, we hear the Agates are being seen on Little Garnet. The minute we arrive we are told “just missed ’em“. Then we hear the Sloughs are visible from Elk Creek so we head there. And yes, just as we pull in, we hear we “just missed ’em”.
Eventually we find ourselves in the big pullout east of the Petrified Tree. Of course, no sooner do we arrive here than we hear a report that the five Agates have just been spotted from Elk Creek (where we just left) on the skyline, no less. Say it with me: “Juss Mistum”!!!!
Our solution is to stay in one place until our luck changes. And actually, that works. Sort of. There are three straggler Agates below us, somewhere unseen, howling on and off. At least it is kind of fun trying to locate them from their howls. And then someone spots some Slough Creek wolves from a VERY long distance away, through some particularly problematic tree branches.
Due to a great deal of gracious assistance from other wolfers, I finally see these four Slough wolves, all blacks. If they had not been black wolves running against a snowy background I’d never have been able to pick them out. They are SO far away, near a grove of aspen somewhere north of Junction Butte. I count myself lucky to have this wonky sighting and hope our Juss Mistum is done for the day!
When Chloe gets a look at the area she feels that we may get a closer view from Wrecker Pullout so we head there. But before we get there, we see Rick has them in sight on the west side of the Yellowstone River Bridge. We set up here with a few other folk and YES! we finally get a break.
The whole Slough pack is taking a siesta in a very pretty area with lots of aspen and little conifers. We have a great, unhurried, view of them for nearly an hour. They aren’t close, but it’s totally unobstructed. Several adults are bedded on a hill below a stand of aspen and three blacks are romping down a hillside to the left of that group. Their rambunctious manner suggests they are likely pups.
One gets rolled by the other two and comes up with lots of snow on his back. They are having a blast, running and jumping on each other while the adults watch approvingly. The pups explore an area with some large boulders, play a version of wolf hide and seek and then disappear for a while on the back side of the hill.
I go back to watching the adults and see a black wolf (380 I think) get up and walk over to a boulder. The wolf stands with its front legs on the boulder, hero style. Then a few others start to get up and stretch and yawn and then way their tails, grouping closer together. They begin to howl! Oh yes! How cool. The wind is blowing east so the sound only comes to us as brief bits and odd echoes. But it is lovely to hear.
I notice several stances as they continue to howl. Most of them raise their muzzles to the sky but some howl with it straight out and some pointed down. I notice a whole lot of them looking in the same directions and then see the rambunctious threesome returning to the pack, galloping up the hill as if summoned by the howling. And then I see a large gray wolf arriving from the left to join the group. Where he had been bedded, I don’t know. Once they are all together, another howl session begins and at the end of it, a black and a gray lead the way west. The rest follow in a line and it looks like playtime is over.
The wolves begin to march west in a classic single line. This feature of wolf behavior makes it momentarily easy to count them and I get 14; 5 grays and 9 blacks. Chloe and Becky each get 15. I try to recognize individuals but just haven’t seen the members of the Slough Pack close up on enough occasions. The only one I think I recognize is 377, the large gray male.
They move at a brisk walk and several wolves change position in the line. Two grays bring up the rear. We share this terrific sighting with several visitors who have stopped to watch with us. They have never before seen a wild wolf and are so utterly excited that it brings tears to my eyes. They tell me they had no expectation of seeing such animals. We tell them they are lucky because this is a particularly good sighting.
All too soon, the wolves move out of sight. We show the visitors a few elk on the hillsides around us and answer their questions about where they might see other animals and where to eat in Cooke. Then we reluctantly pack up. But before we head out, Rick comes by and does a little presentation for us involving penguins. That’s all I’m going to say, rather than spoil the joke. I thoroughly enjoy seeing this usually serious man goofing off.
Now we head back. We stop at Tower to take a last look at the kill and see 5 eagles on it. We say goodbye to Calvin and Lynette at the big lot near Petrified Tree. They are still hearing the three Agates howling on and off. We tell them to be on the lookout for the Sloughs because they are headed this way.
Our final scoping stop is Hellroaring Overlook. The pullout is barely plowed and I stay well back from the edge but I can‘t help admiring what is probably the most stunning view in the whole northern range. We scope the high snowy hills and find bison and elk and then Becky finds two running coyotes on a high white slope. It is a sweet last sighting.
And then it begins to snow.
We head west into a darkening sky. We get a close up view of one of the Big Boys at Lava Creek. His hind-quarters are high on the bank while his front legs and heavy headgear are at road level as he searches for tasty grasses. He’s a beauty.
Being free of the responsibilities of driving allows me to see parts of the Park that I usually never see. And the conversation is great. We talk about wolf packs and pack dynamics and why its important to be accurate. It snows all through Blacktail Plateau but by the time we hit Mammoth it has turned to rain.
We see mule deer in a meadow as we come down from Undine. And then, given what seems to be the theme of this trip, it is only fitting that we meet is a shaggy old bison just before the high bridge. He stands just to the right of the road leaving enough room for us to pass on the left. As we do so he dips his head as if nodding goodbye. As I turn to look back I see him walk forward until both his front hooves are squarely on the center line. “Bison own the road“ he seems to say.
We stop just around the corner from Albright so Becky can take photos of the stone bears decorated with Christmas wreaths. I look up at Kite Hill to say goodbye to Allison. A raven is circling up there and as I watch he lands right on the hill, hops a few steps and then stands still, looking down at me! How about that? Allison has company!
We drive out through the Arch and arrive back at the Yellowstone Village Inn where we go about the dreary but necessary business of packing up. I have many hugs goodbye with Becky and Chloe and we wish each other safe driving.
Then I’m off to Bozeman. I have a bit more condo business to take care of and I plan to take some time getting to know my new neighborhood. As I pass the thermal at Yankee Jim Canyon, I see 10 bighorns ewes and lambs on the left and then a bunch of mule deer in the next field.
Ah me. If all goes as planned, by the time I take my next trip to the Park, I‘ll be a Bozeman home-owner!
Goodbye Yellowstone! See you in the Spring!
Today I saw: bison, 3 coyotes, mule deer, 5 bald eagles, elk, magpies, ravens, 10 bighorn sheep, 14 Slough Creek wolves, 4 Loons and the spirit of Allison.