I pack up Honey for the day under a fingernail of a moon and lots of stars. The pre-dawn temperature feels quite warm.
At Wraith falls I see a great big elk on the right. And as I near the curve of the elk bowl, something runs across the road - probably a weasel. Then just after that a mule deer doe crosses the road and looks back sharply. Oh! Her fawn is still on the right side of the road. I keep driving, hoping that once I disappear from view she will get across alright.
I pull into Hellroaring, turn off the motor and listen to the world. Far off, an elk bugles. Other than that I hear the silence of the hills. The sliver of moon hangs above the blue silhouette of trees and there are oodles of stars all around.
As I come out of the Tower comfort station I see a whole caravan of cars passing by. Suddenly I feel like I’m on the West Side Highway! One by one each car makes the turn to Lamar. I hear another elk bugle behind me, somewhere back by the Roosevelt cabins. I climb back in the car and head to Lamar myself but soon I am stopped by a herd of bison that has just come across the Yellowstone Bridge. Suddenly I am engulfed by bison. They pass on all sides, grunting and snorting, hooves tapping rhythmically on the pavement. It’s still too dark for pictures but not for memories!
They are so close I avoid eye contact with them, not wanting to be misunderstood nor to provoke a response. Once the main group has passed, there are still stragglers on the bridge. I wait while the light grows in the eastern sky.
There are more bison in the road when I get to Little America. Two of these begin to fight. While I wait and watch the dawn grows to a light peach. The mountains retain their blue silhouette but the bottom of the clouds are developing some yellow. The fighting bison move on and so do I, but at Aspen I stop again for another herd. This group features two young calves walking side by side looking like best friends. Or possibly twins?
As I drive out of Lamar Canyon, Druid Peak is bathed in peach-colored clouds.
The radio crackles and I hear Jan’s voice. She has 8 Sloughs in sight from her perch on Cardiac Hill. I pull into a very crowded Dorothy’s and see Dylan and Paul. We three head up hill just like last night. There are people everywhere! It’s as crowded as a summer day. There are perhaps 30 people in the pullout and another 25 heading up the hill while 25 are already up there, surrounding Rick on his portable seat.
The center of all this attention is the Slough Creek Pack. Judging from the angle of all the scopes, they are in the same general spot where we left them last night. By the time I get set up, though, they have begun to move east. I hear reports of their movements while seeing nothing at all, then finally pick up the leader, a black wolf, near the top of Amethyst drainage. I follow this animal as it crosses the creek, and then suddenly I see the rest of the Sloughs, walking in a several haphazard lines, following more or less the same path. I count 8 and then 9. Now a gray takes the lead. The line tightens somewhat and now they have reached the end of Jasper Bench and are crossing a high meadow at the top of a fan.
There is a lone bison here and the wolves surround it; probing, prodding, and generally being annoying. The bison just looks at them as if they’re crazy. The wolves give up and head east across the top of another fan. They reach another lone bison and repeat their behavior. This bison isn’t fazed either. The wolves break off again and lope easily across the meadow.
The next meadow they reach contains many criss-crossing trails through high grass, trails elk have made moving in and out between the meadow and the tree-line. Their pace seems to quicken. Just then I notice two bull elk grazing on the far side of this meadow. Both elk lift up their heads and begin to move uphill away from the wolves. The wolves are running. Holy moly! Just this fast, I’m watching a chase!
One of the bulls disappears over the next hill but the wolves reach the other elk quite quickly and I believe one of them makes contact but just that fast the elk changes direction and heads downhill with most of the pack racing behind. The elk runs steadily down hill and the wolves begin to drop out. Only five of them can match the elk’s speed and even now those five are catching up. One lunges at the elk’s flank. The elk responds with its own burst of speed. Now only two wolves can match him, a black and a gray. Then suddenly the elk disappears - he has reached Chalcedony Creek. He plunges down the bank out of my sight. Via radio reports I hear he has moved quickly to deep water.
The black wolf remains on the bank, looking down at his escaped quarry, but the gray scrambles down the rocky cliff and disappears. From the quiet attitude of black wolf at the top, I assume the elk remains out of reach. Three more wolves arrive on the bank, peek over and wait with the black, as if not sure what to do next. Now other members of the pack begin to catch up, perhaps unaware that the elk has escaped. There is a distinct difference in the attitudes of several wolves. The black and the gray were and still are quite serious about this hunt, while the rest of them seem to be out on a lark.
They mill about, seemingly quite disinterested. The black sits on the bank looking down, and then the gray comes back up the hill and looks down as well. The rest of the pack goofs off and then they move away from the bank, heading east. Finally the black gives up, and trots off toward the rendezvous after the others. The gray stays a while longer, then trots off as well.
I feel like I‘ve woken from a trance! That was an amazing half hour of early morning action! And even more amazing is that it all happened in daylight, in full view of a group of wolf supporters who came out here, hoping to see this very thing. There are jokes about how Rick had secretly arranged the whole sequence with the Sloughs ahead of time.
It’s a bit too far from here to see the rendezvous area so with this lull in the action I pack up and head back down the hill. I drive to Trash Can where I find Anne. The Slough’s are still visible in the r-v area so we watch them from here as we chat and compare notes. Anne is waiting to see if the bull elk will come back out of the creek. And there are three stragglers to watch, all blacks, moving down off Jasper Bench, taking their sweet time along the trail that the other Sloughs’ took. As they approach the rendezvous, they walk into a friendly ambush. Such a commotion! There is more tail wagging and hind-leg hopping to watch as the happy family is reunited. My wolf count is now 12.
Rick stops on his way to the confluence and tells us that 490 (the black alpha male) and two gray pups are still up on Jasper. If I find them I will have seen the entire Slough Creek Pack. So we search for them but only see pronghorn and bison. The Netherlands Loons pull in for a moment to enthuse about the days’ events; they watched the full chase from Exclosure Hill. But they are on their way home and have stopped to say goodbye. We have many hugs. It was so much fun having such a cheery and interesting group of Loons to scope with. Safe travels! And now Dylan and Paul have to leave, too. Dylan and I exchange e-dresses and I promise to send him the link to my reports.
So now it’s just Anne and I. We watch the Sloughs milling around the rendezvous, eventually bedding in scattered groups. Then Anne sees the bull elk she’s been waiting for. He has emerged from Chalcedony Creek, far upstream of where he went in. We watch carefully as he wanders up a hill further west of the one he was chased down. We see him slightly favoring a back leg. We don’t know if we are seeing the result of the chase we witnessed or whether it is an old injury, perhaps the reason the wolves targeted him in the first place? He walks stoically all the way back up the fan until he disappears among the trees.
Doug Smith is giving a talk in Mammoth this afternoon. Anne is going and so are Jan and Bill. I suppose I could go if I want but I think I’d rather spend my time outside. I think I‘d like to spend some more time over Washburn. I bid Anne adieu and head west. I stop at Dorothy’s to take one last look for 490 and the pups but I don’t find them.
I drive on through Little America and turn south at Roosevelt. I stop at Calcite Overlook to see if I can find the nests Doug writes about in his book. Sure enough I do. However, at this time of year the nests are empty and I don’t know how to tell if they are made by peregrines or osprey but at least now I know where to look for them next time.
Up at the Tower Store parking lot I run into Jackson John and we chat a while, enjoying the day and the emptiness of the parking lot! Then I go up further until I notice a group of wildly rambunctious bull bison. They must be young bulls because they look sleek and fit and they are head-butting and bucking, very rowdy. Two of them in particular seem to be arguing over who is the bravest or boldest. These two race each other across the road and gallop furiously into a meadow. One of them zooms ahead and then wheels completely around lightning fast and lowers his head as if expecting the other to crash into him and he does! They push at each other and then one thunders away, bucking like mad. The other one rushes back up the hill, scattering his buddies. Then he proceeds to wallow, kicking dust everywhere. The other bulls start to wallow as well and there is much bellowing and grunting.
There are no cows in the group so I think they are just playing, or practicing, perhaps, but it is very entertaining to watch. The strength and surprising agility of these huge animals is amazing to watch.
I head up and over the pass, enjoying the views all the way. It has become more overcast and once I reach Hayden Valley I get some rain. No matter. I choose a pullout with a view of the river and take a much-needed nap. When I wake up I notice a small group of bison on the far side of the Yellowstone approaching the river. I think how cool it will be to watch them drink, but this group means to cross the river! The leader looks for a choice spot and enters the water. One by one they follow, cows and calves, and I am surprised at how shallow it is for much of the way. Then they reach a deep section and begin to swim. It’s so cool!
When they get to the shallows again most of them just stand there, letting the cool water flow across their ankles as they drip dry. The herd moves on and easily climbs out on this side, where it is more like a beach. Then one youngster gets rambunctious and starts to run up the hill. They all move up the hill and then assemble on the road itself. They stop here, taking up both lanes. A few cars are forced to wait (but are no doubt, delighted) until the leader decides it’s time to move again. They do, and enter the flats on the other side. Soon they are all grazing contentedly.
I know bison are common in the Park but I have come to appreciate them more over the years. They have interesting individual stories, too, just like wolves. I also see swans on the river at Alum Creek and lots of mallards. Then I notice the western portion of the sky is looking mighty fierce. I need to get back to Silver Gate to pick up a framed photo from Dan Hartman. So I head back east.
On the drive back I see one mule deer and also a coyote; the coyote is squatting on the road leaving a sample! It looks quite comical because the poor thing has one of those aerial-collars. Lamar seems quiet as I drive through, but just as gorgeous as ever.
As I near Silver Gate I enjoy seeing the sun play on the still-green leaves of the trees in this section. I pick up the photo from Dan and head back down. When I get to Round Prairie I see two cars here, and the folks in them are watching a large bull moose. He is walking away from the river back into the trees. He’s SO big. I enjoy seeing how his dark brown coat turns white where his long, long legs begin. He moves into a shady patch and stands still, disappearing completely. I wonder how many times I have passed this spot, unaware that a huge moose was back in there?
As I come back into Lamar Valley past Trout Lake, the late afternoon sun makes these gorgeous sage hills glow with the pulse of life. Ah me, the best-looking valley in the whole world. It’s just about time for the evening session so I pull over at Exclosure and climb the low part of that hillside.
I scope the rendezvous and I am perplexed when I find no wolves. I scan the tree-line, looking for ears, heads, tails, but find nothing other than bison and pronghorn. I am up on this hill by myself so I make a point of looking behind me several times, just in case! Then I see Jan and Bill pull in and start up the hill. She and Bill they tell me about Doug’s speech and also about Rick’s and how he brought everyone to tears with his comments about 21. They said he mentioned the recent film “Troy” saying no matter what you may have thought of the movie, he liked a quote from Odysseus, who proudly looks back on his life as having “lived in a time of giants, of Hector and Achilles“. Rick said that he feels like that - that he lived in a time of giants, too, and that his “giant” was 21M.
Bill says everybody got choked up and I can see why: it makes me cry just to write it here! And Bill also says (with obvious pride of his own) that in front of all the guest, Doug singled out Jan as the one who spotted the wolves this morning. He adds that Jan turned 900 shades of red!
We are chatting softly about these events when suddenly Bill says “I see black shapes”. I look into the trees where he is looking and realize I had seen those shapes earlier but figured they were bedded bison. But they are wolves! The Sloughs emerge - at first I only see 2 blacks but soon they all come out. I count 13 now, 8 backs and 5 grays, which means I’m still missing two grays.
The wolves move en masse to the eroded area and bed again. Then a lone black moves to the edge of the river bank, nosing around. There are several birds flitting about in this area and I realize this may be an old kill. The lone black is joined by a few others and we watch them chewing on something. One picks up a bone and sits down to gnaw it. While we’re watching this I meet two Lurker Loons up here on this hill, Brutus and his wife Tilly, who are staying in Cooke City. They have been spending time in Madison and have seen lots of elk and also otters! They tell me they went on Frank’s Fall Color hike last year and really enjoyed it. It’s great to meet new Loons!
The wolves move slightly east and then begin to howl! Oh, how lovely is that sound! I hear many voices and enjoy the different notes, weaving in and out of each other. I am especially pleased because this is my last evening in Lamar. Tomorrow’s hike is in the western end and I am not likely to finish in time for wolfing. I’ll be out in the morning but it’s nice to have such a close sighting like this tonight.
On the drive home I have the usual bison in the road and also two separate coyotes, all of which I easily avoid. When I get back I am happy to find John working. Well I mean I'm happy because I’m able to wish him a happy birthday...a day late. Happy Birthday John!
Today I saw: antelope, bison, 3 coyotes, mule deer, elk, mallards, 1 moose, swans, a weasel, 13 Slough Creek wolves, 8 Loons and the spirit of Allison.