This morning as I head up the steep hill to Mammoth, a truck comes cautiously down in the opposite lane, towing an enormous speed boat that takes up part of my lane. The driver seems to know just what heís doing but I do not envy him the rest of his journey down this crazy winding road.
As I head toward the high bridge I spook a cottontail which hops in the road a while before dashing off to the right. The drive out is beautiful as the first light spreads across the starry sky. Two elk cross the road as I approach the Tower Ranger station and as I head towards Lamar sunrise begins, as blue gives way to peach.
In Little America I hear the noisy snap-hoppers and my radio crackles to life. I hear that someone at Trash Can has four wolves in view. I decide to head to my lucky spot on Jackson Grade. Just after 7AM I am set up and soon Iím watching four Slough wolves, two blacks and two grays in the eroded spot. At 7:26 they begin a howling session that goes on for five minutes straight! What heaven! There are answering howls from both east and west.
I am distracted for a moment by the report of a bull moose heading up 21ís Crossing. Apparently it just crossed the road in front of a startled driver. I finally locate this large animal just in time to see it disappear!
When I refocus on the wolves I notice a gray walking in from the west, acting extremely submissive, with tail tucked tightly and head very low. As the other wolves approach, the gray rolls over onto its back. The greeting is friendly but I canít help but wonder why some wolves go to this extreme. I suppose it may indicate the presence of an alpha in the main group. Howling begins again and continues for about a minute. Then these five wolves, and a third black who appears from nowhere head off east in the general direction of the carcass. The weather is overcast and pleasantly chilly. I head further uphill and join the group of wolfers already in place.
Someone notices two people above the Lamar River bench in the general vicinity of the Cache Creek trail looking down from that spot into the riverbed. They share a scope. They seem to be well within their rights to be there, but we canít help but worry that their presence might prevent the wolves from coming in to the carcass. We begin to hear more howling and see many wolf shapes moving in the general area where the carcass is.
Then the wolves begin to lope. They cross the river and head up the western flank of Dead Puppy Hill. We continue to hear howling from what seems like a lone voice. I finally spot a black wolf there, and Rick says Iím seeing 380. For the next half hour, 380 howls and paces back and forth in the flats beneath the Chalcedony fan. Sometimes we heard howls coming from the forest at the top of the fan and other times from further east on Dead Puppy Hill.
It seems to me that there is a certain uneasiness in 380 but I never figure out what was prompting it. She heads up the fan into the trees but then comes back out. She howls some more and then eventually heads east along the route the others have taken. Just as she starts that direction we notice that 377 has left the other group and heads back west. For a while it looks as if he and 380 are going to rendezvous near the carcass area.
While we are watching this, Jan relates a story from this past spring, when she and Bill witnessed a charming moment between 377 and 380, before 380 was alpha female. She is one of the mothers of the pups born this past spring, and had been on guard duty near the den. 377 came back from a hunt with an elk fetus which he dropped at 380ís feet, a gesture, perhaps, of some significance in the world of wolves.
Actually, this is probably only a romantic human notion but we choose to believe it is an indication of a special bond between these two wolves. While I am pondering these thoughts, 377 and 380 simply pass each other a good 50 yards apart without the slightest acknowledgement of the other, and we all have a good laugh. 377 ends up at the spot where 380 had been and 380 heads up the flank of Dead Puppy Hill, following the route taken by 490 and the other four wolves. We also see a coyote up on this same hill.
377 travels all the way back to the area where we first saw the wolves this morning. He howls and I notice how much lower his voice is than 380ís. There are answering howls from the trees at the top of the fan and suddenly the behavior falls into place. 377 has come back to baby-sit the remaining wolves, probably the pups. He is a distinctive-looking gray wolf. He has a very white throat and also a sort of black ďnecklaceď below it. In addition, there is a kink in his tail and the black tip sort of dangles lifelessly at times.
I try to see if I can locate 490 and the others. We know from radio messages, that they have traveled all the way past the Footbridge pullout and are now approaching the hills behind Soda Butte Cone. I take a last look over at 377 and see him moving toward the trees. Then out from the forest come romping two black wolves and a gray. After a greeting they all move to the scrape and bed down.
I pack up and head to the Footbridge. I hear more howling coming from the east but focus Layla west, just in time to see another black wolf come romping out of the trees toward the eroded area. IĎm able to share this lucky sighting with a number of happy folk in this pullout.
A light rain begins to fall and the hillsides become obscured with drifting fog. Yet howling is heard on and off, coming from the eastern flanks of Mt. Norris. I head to a pullout further east and over the radio I hear that John & Pauline have spotted the alpha group moving through the trees behind Soda Butte Cone. I donít see them, but the howling is marvelous, echoing out of the fog!
The fog continues so I decide itís a good time to head for Hayden Valley, so I pack up and head west. Still, I canít resist stopping when I see Anneís car at Trash Can. She has 377 and the pups in view. One black wolf has left the group to go mousing on its own. While we watch this animal I meet a whip-smart 12 year old named Dylan who is here in the Park with his dad. He loves watching wildlife and knows an awful lot about wolves.
We see a second animal moving about in the area but finally decide itís a coyote. Things seem to have settled down for the moment so I resume my journey to Hayden Valley. Shortly after passing the corrals I see a band of mule deer and as I come out of a turn at Rainy Lake I spot a group of animals grazing at the base of the basalt cliff. Bighorn sheep!
There are 11 animals in all, ewes and several yearling lambs. A few are resting but most are up and grazing, moving among the purplish rocks, nibbling at the remaining greenery sprouting between them.
After a pleasant stop I continue up the hill. The fall color is exceptional along the way and several times I stop to take photos of especially pretty spots.
I stop at a few of my favorite pullouts up here and see two raptors I think are northern harriers diving for rodents in the meadows. And at the top, just past the dirt road to the Washburn summit, I reach the brand new road which has just been completed. There is a spanking new comfort station in a new RV-sized pullout on this side of Dunraven Pass with a terrific view. The road is a dream to drive on, although I am surprised that I donít see much evidence of an attempt to control erosion. Since the construction job has stripped the vegetation for several yards right and left, I expect that could be a problem during snowmelt.
At the top of the Pass several bull bison block the road. Luckily traffic is so light that all I have to do to avoid them is to turn into the newly expanded parking area at the trailhead to Mt. Washburn.
On the other side I find another new comfort station with a similarly-sized RV parking lot. I stop here a while to enjoy the new perspective. Looking back up the mountain, I see what looks like a road and on that ďroadĒ is a thundering bison herd, running two or three abreast, kicking up a cloud of dust, despite the rain. I think it is not a road but a bison trail -a heavily used one at that! The bison herd turns into a troop. More and more bison appear behind the leaders. I stop counting at 53. I wonder why they are running? Perhaps only because it is downhill and they can, perhaps because itís fun?
Then I begin to wonder where this bison road leads. I follow the line and realize it must lead to the pass, a natural crossroads from one area to another. I figure I can get there before they do and I drive back and pull into the empty parking lot, facing the spot where the bison trail comes down the hill to the asphalt. Very soon the leaders appear, walking now instead of running. There is a slick-rock area above the asphalt and it is apparent from the pocked and eroded earth that bison use a variety of routes to come down the remaining 10 feet to the human road. When the herd arrives there is a great unruly jam. About 40 animals are now bunched at this steep-hill junction, waiting for a sign from the leaders that it is safe to cross. Even now, those in the intrepid advance guard are seeking the best route and soon one brave cow plunges straight downhill to the road. Another starts, slips, and scrambles back up. There is much jostling of the group but not what Iíd call chaos.
Finally several paths are chosen and three, six, 10 bison are now standing on the road, waiting for those behind them to commit to the crossing. Cars on the road are forced to wait. I have a perfect view! There are many, many calves in this group and I find it marvelous to watch how their mothers urge them and protect them as they negotiate this hill. Now the leaders walk calmly along the road until they get to the spot where the bulls had blocked me earlier. A number of big cows now guard the crossing, effectively blocking traffic, while the leaders choose a path off the road downhill and out of sight. This process takes about 20 minutes and I especially enjoy watching how the bison set their own pace and do not let the few impatient drivers impede their plan.
Finally the herd has completed its task and a huge old bull arrives, bringing up the rear. His pace is slowest of all and he moves regally, impervious to anything but his own wishes. The road is littered with (ahem) evidence of the bisonís passing but, in another 5 minutes, not a single animal can be seen.
I resume my journey down the smooth new road. As much as I enjoy traveling over this well-graded and pot-hole-free surface, I worry that its ease will only entice drivers to go faster, increasing the peril for the areaís wildlife.
The rain continues all the way into Hayden Valley but it is wonderful to see it, nonetheless. I find many bird and waterfowl species and a bald eagle in a snag above the Yellowstone River. When I look further a field I am surprised to find two sand hill cranes! I thought they would have departed the area by now.
Hayden Valley is nearly empty of cars and while I donít mind this at all, it limits my chances of obtaining information of recent sightings. The rain restricts some of my planned long-distance viewing as well. But the area is beautiful and Iím glad to see it. I turn around at the Mud Volcano and head back.
Since I still have time before the evening viewing session in Lamar, I decide to do something I confess I have never ever done: drive the Chittenden Road. My partial fear of heights has kept me from eagerly tackling a road like this but I am glad I finally did it. The views are spectacular and since I was the only one on it from start to finish, I could stay in the lane furthest from the edge which helped a lot.
As I round one of the snaking curves I see a flock of birds swarming low above an open slope, snapping up insects. I stop to watch them rise and fall, turn and turn again, as if one creature instead of many. The sun peeks out and for a brief moment, the already stunning views become amazingly awesome.
I have a tougher time coming down, but finally find a low gear which greatly helps allay my fears. Then, just below Calcite Springs I run into a bear jam! A HUGE bear jam; with abandoned cars, trucks with doors wide open, people all over the place and three rangers working it, and all for one fat little black bear, possibly a yearling cub, recently set free by his mama, which takes full advantage of his situation and walks smack down the middle of the road.
I am able to back up to a pullout and walk down to one of the rangers trying hard to keep the traffic flowing. He is none other than Jackson John who seems genuinely glad to see me. We chat a bit as he works the crowd and I give him info on my wolf sightings. Itís great to see him AND the little black bear but I soon leave him to his work.
I get back in Honey and creep slowly past the jam. By the time I see him again, the bear has crossed to the hillside and is still in view, delighting visitors. I keep going and wonder if the bighorns are still out at Rainy Lake? Instead I find four mule deer in the area: two adults and two darling fawns. The sun comes out and suddenly itís warm again!
I head into Little America and see several pronghorn roaming in the flats below the Aspen pullout, delighting a group of big-glass photographers. On my way through Lamar Canyon I believe I spot an osprey. The lone aspen at the top of the Canyon is still quite green but as I make the turn at the gateway to Lamar everything becomes golden. Bison are scattered on the northern hillsides and the westering sun makes everything astonishingly beautiful. The cottonwoods look glorious and I say to myself for the hundredth time that I love this valley more than any other place on earth.
I find wolfers set up on Jackson Grade again and I soon have Slough wolves in my scope. I also see various bison, some elk and a lone coyote. The wolves are in the scrape which is considered part of the Druidsí old rendezvous area. I hear Rick tell someone that he thinks the Sloughs may prefer this spot to their own Slough Creek r-v area because of their on-again, off-again trouble with the Agates.
I watch a black wolf leave the bedded group and move to the left. Then I see a gray get up while 3 more grays are still bedded. Eventually I see 8 total (Rick saw 10) but the alphas are not in this group. I recognize 377 who seems to be babysitting this group while perhaps the others are off hunting. Then the roaming black wolf begins to mouse, an activity I am always delighted to see. After a while it finds a stick or a bone, which it tosses in the air, winning the cute trick award for the evening. When this same wolf starts back to the group, though, its cuteness is not so appreciated its family. 377 serves up some quick discipline, snapping sharply at the romping black, who immediately becomes submissive. Perhaps if heíd approached 377 submissively to begin with, he might have spared himself the embarrassment?
Shortly after this we see a bison approach the wolves, tail raised, as if intending to displace them. This tactic works, and all the wolves get up. They stretch and move around as if theyíd intended to do so on their own. They watch the bison warily and some of them gaze off to the west. Then someone calls out ďbull elkĒ and now I see what the wolves are seeing. A lone bull elk has emerged from the trees at the western edge of the fan, head held very high. Immediately five of the wolves drop into stalk posture and move in the elkís direction.
Between the stalking wolves and the wary elk is a small group of bison and as the wolves get closer, one bison charges them very aggressively. The wolves dodge him easily, avoiding harm. The bull elk walks further away and the five wolves follow but the light is dimming and now the rain returns. I hear a report over the radio that John and Pauline were scoping from Antelope Creek this evening and watched their favorite pack, the Agates, interacting with a grizzly! Wow. That would have been nice to see!
But I am having trouble seeing the road in front of me, much less the tree line so I pack up and walk down the hill. My drive home is full of rain. I pass some bison walking in the road at Blacktail and then a beautiful mule deer buck on the side of the road. Just after that a coyote crosses the road. I enjoy seeing puddles throughout Blacktail because the Park has endured a dry spell for so long.
When I finally reach Mammoth, the sky is clear again and the stars peek out, one by one.
Today I saw: antelope, 1 black bear, bison, 2 sand hill cranes, 4 coyotes, mule deer, 1 bald eagle, elk, geese, 2 northern harriers, mallards, 1 moose, 1 mouse, 1 osprey, 1 rabbit, 11 bighorn sheep, 13 Slough Creek wolves including 490M, 380F, and 377M, 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison.