This morning I walk out to find a layer of frost on Honey. As I’m scraping it off I notice that the air doesn’t feel cold to me, just sweet-smelling. Bright in the sky above me I see the constellation Orion (or Menelvagor to you LORT fans).
At Mammoth, I see one a big bull herding his harem across the road. I wait for them and spend a few anxious moments while the bull eyes me with seeming hostility. But he finally relents and moves onto the parade grounds. I head east with no further interruptions until Lava Creek, where two mule deer cross the road.
As I enter Little America I realize I have seen no-one else on the road yet, coming or going. I wonder if this is typical for a Monday? In Lamar Canyon I see two mule deer on the side of the road looking right at me, or rather, past me, very intently. I wonder if they see other mule deer or if they are eyeing a predator? I am always hopeful for a cougar sighting in Lamar Canyon and I wonder if this may be my lucky day. I pull over at the next turnout and look back where the deer were looking. It is just first light, a perfect time for prowling kitties. But I see no movement and when the deer head calmly down into the canyon I figure whatever they saw is gone.
I wait a little while longer, scanning the slopes with binoculars but eventually give up. I drive on into Lamar and eventually stop at Trash Can. No sooner am I out of the car but I hear howling! It’s coming from the rendezvous area so I decide to move down to Jackson Grade for a closer look. I head up the slope with Layla and when I stop to catch my breath I lift my binoculars. I see four wolves! Three black and one gray. I bet they are Sloughs! There are two bull elk in roughly the same area, sparring with each other. I decide to stop right here and set up Layla. The wolves have finished howling and spend the next half-hour lounging about in the mud spot, nuzzling each other, scratching an itch, yawning. Way behind them at the edge of the trees a bold coyote trots past, moving east.
Two visitors come up and stop below me, scanning the area with binoculars. I ask “do you see the wolves?” They turn in surprise and say “no, we came up to see the elk“. I help them find the wolves and offer my scope but they find them easily in their binoculars. They are very excited and say they can’t believe their luck. They say they knew wolves were in the Park but never thought they’d see one. They now watch both the elk and the wolves and it makes us all happy.
Cliff is a little higher up the trail on this section of Jackson Grade and so are Anne and Laurie. But Dan said he might drive out to Lamar this morning so I want to remain visible in case he shows. I see bison scattered on the flats beyond the wolves and now we begin to see bird activity. Aha. A carcass? I notice one of the Sloughs standing on all fours looking off east very intently. Soon I see the reason: three more wolves are approaching from the east; a large black, a smaller black and a large gray, all with raised tails. Suddenly the whole area erupts in wolves. Wolves that had been bedded out of sight suddenly arise from the eroded area and now I am watching so many I can’t count them! I bet these three new wolves are the alphas, (490M and 380F) as well as probably 377, returning to the pack. They might have been feeding on a carcass. Then I notice two more wolves behind the alphas coming from the east, one gray, one black, running to join the assembled dog pile. My count soars to 12 wolves.
After the happy tail-wagging greeting I watch them wander around and mill about. Then they move en-masse back to the eroded area and begin to bed in groups of two or three. All except one black wolf, which leaves the group and wanders over toward the “western” foothills.
After a bit of exploring and sniffing, this black wolf moves back toward the group and, after renewing acquaintances, also beds down. While things are quiet I scan the area east towards the confluence, where the alphas came from, and see a lot more bird activity. Even more telling, I see a coyote approach the area from the east. It all adds up to strong circumstantial evidence of a kill in the riverbed.
I scan the slopes of Amethyst Mountain and find a lone bighorn ram. Then I hear radios crackling and eventually notice two humans wading across the Lamar. I learn that they are coyote researchers, headed out to check their traps. Hmmm. I wonder if they know there are all those Slough wolves bedded out there? Just then we see the researchers stop and talk on their radio. Shortly thereafter they change their direction of travel and head straight west toward Specimen Ridge.
I have not see any sign of Dan and I‘m getting hungry, so when I see Anne walking back down the hill I ask if she’d like to join me for breakfast up in Silver Gate or Cooke. She says yes. She has recently bought a cabin in Silver Gate and is headed there anyway. So I pack up Layla and head back to Honey.
Soon I am driving through the eastern end of Lamar Valley, glimpsing the crystal blue of Soda Butte Creek winding its way through the sage flats and then I see beautiful Round Prairie, looking golden with yellow and green aspen on its edges. On the north side of Round Prairie are willows that turn a particularly pretty shade of purple this time of year. Behind them grow a stand of white-trunked aspen. It’s one of those spots that photographers love, and rightly so. The color is also particularly pretty at Warm Creek, due to the same combination of fall hues. Between the Northeast Entrance and Silver Gate we see two mule deer cross the road.
Anne’s log-cabin chalet is darling. One wall is nearly all window, and she can look out on a gorgeous view of Abiathar Peak. But there are no breakfast or lunch places open in Silver Gate this time of year so we head on up to Cooke City. The town looks good, a lot cleaner than I‘ve ever seen it. No sooner do I think this than a huge truck comes roaring down, blowing dust all over! LOL!
We have a nice breakfast and some great conversation. Anne has been coming to the Park a long time (from Colorado) and is a major wolf supporter. Her favorite wolf at the moment is 302M. She tells me tales of him and I let her know that his story will be preserved in Doug’s book. Anne feels that 302’s “carefree personality” seemed to undergo a change after having been caught in a coyote trap. He got free of it, but injured his foot doing so, and she feels he kinda lost his spirit after that.
Anne and I talk about recent wolf events, including the strange encounter between a lone female Slough wolf and several Leopold wolves. The female was caught in the flats of Little America away from the pack. One of the Leopolds grabbed her by the throat and shook her very roughly. The few who saw it assumed she would die, but the Leopolds let her go and the female ran off and survived. Why she was allowed to live has led to much head-scratching and speculation. One possible explanation for the males’ non-lethal behavior would be the possibility of close kinship. Anne tells me it has always been assumed that the Sloughs originated from a Druid female and a Mollie’s Pack male. Since that first alpha male was un-collared, no one really knows what pack he came from. He was a very big wolf, though, and at the time, the only wolves known to be that big were members of Mollie’s Pack. As the Slough Creek Pack prospered and grew, it consistently had very large males among its members. But now there is speculation that perhaps the first Slough Creek alpha male was an unusually large Leopold wolf. The Leopolds are a very successful pack but its individual members have been elusive and rarely observed, and it may be that one or more of its members was mistaken for a Mollie’s wolf.
It makes me all the more eager for the results of the DNA study that has been ongoing for quite a while.
The weather has turned quite warm and I am eager to shed my fleece jacket. The sky is a bright Yellowstone blue. The only thing to mar this perfect day is that I seem to have missed Dan M. Perhaps the call of the fishies was too strong for him? It sure would be a perfect day for him to spend with his fly rod. (I learned later that Dan DID come into the valley but had gotten a late start due to his making pancakes. Tsk tsk, Dan! No pancakes until AFTER you’ve seen wolves! LOL!) Seriously, though, I’m sorry we missed each other. 8~(
Anne heads back to her cabin for a nap so I bid her adieu and drive back into the Park. I stop at Barronette and see two goats, a nanny and a kid. There is no snow on Barronette, nor any waterfalls but there are several lovely green areas. I meet some friendly people in the pullout who are also looking at goats and we chat up a storm in this beautiful place under the warm sun.
I drive west and run into Jan and Bill going east. We rendezvous at the Thunderer Picnic area and have a hugfest. They look very tan from wolfing every day of September. Today they have been in Hayden Valley trying to spot the elusive Hayden Pack. They missed the wolves but did spot Bob Landis there. They said he is filming bison while the rut lasts. They are now headed back to their room in Cooke for a nap. With a promise to hook up later, we head our separate ways.
I stop at a pullout east of Soda Butte to watch bison on the road. The herd is split with groups in the grass on both sides and quite a few members on the pavement. As those few finally move off, one calf remains nibbling grass at the road’s edge. Traffic is light but as a slow series of cars nears the calf, a nearby adult returns to the pavement to “stand guard” for the pre-occupied calf. Yet, instead of honking or rushing by the animal, everyone who passes does it “right“; they slow down and ease past the animal, neither bothering it nor spooking it. The adult seems to sense the drivers’ respect and eventually returns to the flats to graze. The calf remains for nearly a half hour, providing a dozen or so respectful tourists with a great close-up to take home with them.
It has become downright hot, so I change into shorts and a T-shirt. I continue to watch the bison herd. I see a calf butting heads with its mom. This might be a game or the calf testing its strength, but then I wonder if perhaps the calf is trying to nurse and mom has had enough. After a while the calf gives up and both animals bed down. Then I see a familiar old bull. One winter, Frank, Doug and I saw a bull bison in this area with an unusual amount of unruly hair between its horns. It stuck up and out in a crown of sorts, reminding us of a late 60’s-style Afro. I chuckle to myself as I watch this huge fellow wallowing, with his dainty feet stuck up in the air. When he stands up he shakes his head vigorously and his Afro wobbles comically from side to side. Yep. That’s him!
I drive over to Trash Can with the intention of finding the Sloughs. But it is so warm I get drowsy. So I recline my seat and drift off to the pleasant autumn hum of snap-hoppers. When I awake it is nearly 4PM and I am sweating! I look around and see heat waves between here and the r-v. The cottonwoods lining the riverbank are particularly beautiful at this moment, a rich yellow-gold.
I climb the small hill opposite Trash Can and scan the eroded area for Slough wolves. But all I see are bison, pronghorn and heat waves. I watch a pronghorn ambling down the hill behind me and then I notice a number of people gathered on the lower flanks of Exclosure Hill. Hmmm? I head back and park at Jackson Grade. I set up Layla with Rick, Jan & Bill, and Pauline and John (from the Netherlands).
The view from up here is quite lovely. The water in the river reflects the westering sun in bright silver glints. There are a number of fishermen working the river and I wonder if one of them might be Dan M? I notice some kind of hatch going on above the water, and lots of small birds flitting about, feasting on the tiny things, whatever they are.
The Sloughs have probably escaped the heat of the day by bedding in the forest, and have just come out of it for an evening romp. I see four grays bedded in “the scrape” and three more blacks headed their way. Then another black in the scrape stirs, stands and stretches. He is very large. Aha! He is 490, the alpha male. He wanders from the eroded area into a grassy spot and lies down there, disappearing from view. Then another black walks toward the group. Then I notice three blacks playing in a delightful romping way. Jan says one of the three is 380, the alpha female. These three are joined by a gray. I am delighted to see the gray rear up on its hind legs and toss something in the air with its mouth. Now two of the blacks (pups) leave 380 and run off with the gray, continuing the game.
Another black appears and the pups pause long enough to engage in a greeting ceremony. Then off the four of them go, galloping and romping and chasing each other. While the pups keep playing, the adult wolves rouse themselves and I am able to get a firm count. 14 wolves, 8 blacks and 6 grays. While I’m here near Rick I learn that he got signals of 302 and 480 (the remaining Druids) yesterday afternoon in the confluence area, but, I have to say, with the Sloughs out here in force, we all hope the Druids have already made themselves scarce for their own sake. I speculate that perhaps whatever the Sloughs were feeding on in the riverbed this morning was something the Druids had taken down yesterday and the Sloughs had stolen. Given all the Druid fans on this hill, this idea goes over very well. LOL!
Rick has a radio conversation with a Ranger who is concerned that the fishermen be told of the likelihood of a carcass in the riverbed, as a safety measure. Grizzlies are still active in the Park and would naturally be drawn to a carcass. Rick aids the Ranger as to the probable location of the carcass and the Ranger heads out across the river with a couple of signs to be posted on nearby trees. As I watch the Ranger walk into the area alone, I remember the day in May when there were three grizzlies, two wolves and a black bear in that very spot!
We stay up here watching Sloughs as long as we can but as the light fades we begin to make our way downhill back to our cars. Rick asks me to meet him at his car so he can give me a radio. Just as I am about to pull in, a teeny little mouse dashes across the road into cover at the base of the hill.
Rick gives me a radio and makes me unit 21. That makes me smile! As I am coming down from Lamar Canyon I notice a light in the sky, so bright that I first assume it’s a plane. But no, this is “Earendil, the elves most beloved star“ (oh, alright, it’s Venus). It’s one of those crystal clear nights with a quadrillion stars. I have to stop glancing at them, though, because bison are all over the roads again tonight. I have them all throughout Little America.
When I get to Roosevelt I have to stop for elk crossing the road. It‘s still warm enough to have my windows down so I also hear elk bugling at various times. Just past the Children’s Fire Trail the stars are so incredible I simply have to stop driving. I pull over at the S-curves and get out. I hear wonderful night noises: a low hoot of an owl, and far away elk bugles. But the stars are astonishing. I keep reaching up my hands as if I could pluck them one by one. High above me arches the Milky Way, a wide highway spanning the firmament from northwest to southeast. And outside that concentration are more stars, a zillion-bajillion all the way to the very edge of sight. Can you understand why I want to live here?
It’s hard to tear myself away but I finally do, and the rest of the trip is uneventful, save for one elk in the dark of the forest below Undine. It bugles right in my ear and I jump in my seat. I never saw the animal, just heard him out my window. I laugh all the way across the high bridge.
Today I saw: antelope, bison, 2 coyotes, 6 mule deer, elk, 2 mountain goats, magpies, a mouse, ravens, 1 bighorn sheep, 14 Slough wolves including 490M, 380F and 377M, no Loons (except Allison) and a zillion-bajillion stars.