I step outside in Gardiner and find it MUCH warmer. Blue Sue tells me it's 43 at 5:45.
A bright moon sails overhead, a bit short of full, which only leaves more room for the stars. I have bison on the road in the lower curves of Gardiner Canyon. And in Mammoth I have many elk, including one big boy bugling already.
As I drive through Lava Creek I see the glowing eyes of two of the resident giants. One is very close to the road - his antlers gleam in my headlights.
I stop at Boulder to scope for Hellroaring wolves. I find the hill we were watching yesterday but see no movement up there. I hear elk bugling from all sides. The sunrise is lovely, perhaps more so because we have been without it for three days! I find two bull elk sparring on a distant hill as the first golden fingers of light touch the high meadows. I also hear coyotes howling and some large waterbird honking. I think probably geese but then I see a lone swan flying from west ot east. Could that be a trumpeter?
The radio squawks that the Sloughs have been spotted so I head east. I join Jan, Bill and Laurie at the second pullout along the campground road and find that the two groups of Slough wolves have been reunited. All eight are bedded on the far side of the river at the base of a stand of aspen. This area is called "the lion meadow" because a mountain lion was seen here in the early days of restoration. There is talk of bird activity nearby and Rick climbs up Dave's Hill to make sure.
Yes, there is a carcass near the river. From the behavior we are seeing, most likely the Sloughs joined forces in the dark and went elk hunting. Their fat bellies and lethargic behavior are sure indicators of their success. We see Sharp Right move slowly away from the group and bed separately. Then one of the Sloughs starts to howl and soon the valley is full of that marvelous morning sound. Sharp Right gets up and, with wagging tail, lopes back to join her pack mates. They have a love fest, with excited tail-wagging and lots of muzzle-licking.
They remain active for a little while, then eventually re-bed in the same place. Some of us begin to scope elsewhere, as it is an uncommonly beautiful morning, although it is still quite cold. I spot a grizzly high up on Specimen. For the second time in two days, a wolfer friend mistrusts my spot! "Bison" says Jan but I insist it's a bear. And it is - a gorgeous big grizzly with a classic silver vest. Then Bill calls out that there is a second grizzly up there. Sure enough, his grizzly is following my grizzly, nearly step for step. Jan thinks this second one is smaller than the first. It could be a mom and grown cub or a mated pair, but given the time of year, I'm going with Mom and cub. They could be siblings, too.
Meanwhile, the Sloughs are up again and trudging uphill, into the rocks, seemingly headed for the diagonal forest, a favorite bedding spot of theirs. And over in the carcass area, a beautiful bull elk walks into the flats, amid a scattered herd of bison. The day proves to be clear indeed and soon we are shedding our down coats and our heavy gloves.
The Sloughs remain in view a pretty long time. For a while they seem to bask in the sun on the rocks that border the forest. The pair of grizzlies come into view again, in a sun-patch as well. I have a fun time switching back and forth between the bears and the wolves. Then just as the wolves are drifting off to sleep, two bull bison emerge from the forest and seem to deliberately displace the dogs from their sunning spots.
The wolves take it in stride and do not challenge the huge animals. They give way, and once the bison move through, they select their beds all over again. One by one the wolves sink out of sight or move into cover of the trees.
This is Calvin's last day in the Park, so we gather down at the lower pullout, near a bend in the river, to give him a proper send-off. He comes rumbling up the gravel road in his pick-up + trailer and stops when he sees all of us. Everybody gets a hug and we all make sure he will convey our best to Lynette. We'll miss you, Calvin.
Anne and I take a little stroll down to the river, looking for beaver and otter. We find neither but it's a nice walk anyway. It's hard to remember that three days ago the park was covered in snow! We decide to head to the confluence to see if we can find the beavers there. One the way I get some answers to some of the DNA questions I have regarding the Druids: namely, that Druid 103F is Druid 41F's daughter, and that Druid 105F is Druid 42F's daughter.
We look for the beaver but do not find them. The temperature has indeed risen. It is now 42 degrees. We continue on to Hitching Post, where the wind kicks up and we feel cold again! There is a herd of bison on the south facing slope. One of the big cows is using a rock to scratch her belly. She really gives it a workout, adjusting her position so that every section of her torso gets a thorough rubbing. Anne tells me there is a wonderful new book out, all about bison and that it has all sorts of helpful tips about how to tell their age and general health. Hey Doug Dance, have you heard about this book? Sounds like something you'd like!
Then Anne heads east for the day and I head back west. The wolves have obliged and now I am free to do what I want - have lunch with Ballpark Frank at the soon-to-close-for-the-season Sawtooth Deli. First I stop at Slough and call my office. Luckily there are no emergencies and I even get some good news. Slough is one of the few places in the Park where you can get good cell phone reception (two other spots are Tower and Lava Creek, as well as Mammoth and Swan Lake Flats).
I thoroughly enjoy the drive through Blacktail in the late morning with a warm sun: this is the first time on his trip that I've gotten a look at the scenery in this area and it does NOT disappoint! There are still some clouds but here and there I see patches of that awesome Yellowstone blue!
In Mammoth I see three big bull elk and many, many photographers, as well as numerous cows and calves. I also see a lone spike, who is wisely staying well away from the crazy bulls, although he still looks a bit uncomfortable. On my way down the Gardiner Canyon road my temp gauge reads 50 degrees! Nice!
As I exit the Main gate, I see a herd of mule deer to my right, moving briskly along the old riverbank. Behind the herd is a photographer with a video camera. It looks as though the guy is pushing the animals. But it's in view of the entrance gate so I'd hope somebody would do something!!!
I meet Frank and have a yummy lunch. We head over to the HRC, where Roadie volunteers. It's a cool new building and they have some very interesting displays. We notice two mule deer inside the fence around the high-school track and field area, which is apparently not high enough to keep them out!
Then we head to Swan Lake Flats to go on a field trip in search of Yellowstone History. Roadie tells us there once was a place called the Wiley Camp, a temporary settlement of thirty building, including a barn with horses, right in the middle of Swan Lake flats. Many of the buildings burned and the rest were either dismantled or raised. (Roadie will no doubt correct me if I'm wrong). Our mission today is to hike around the area, on both sides of the road, to see if we can discover where the camp was situated.
Two things that complicate our search are that the loop road is not necessarily in the same place then as it now is, and, there is a whole lot of new forest growth in this area, and new forest, with its close-growing trees, makes for difficult searching.
But it's such a perfect day we have a blast anyway. The temps get all the way up to 61 so that's perfect in my opinion. We find all kinds of neat things on our meanderings, remnants of old water systems, broken pieces of chamber pots and lids, broken china and cups, broken vases and water pitchers, a biscuit-cutter and some sort of antique darts. We find horse-shoes and other pieces of twisted, rusting metal. And we find sawn trunks, cut very close to the ground, which mean a lot to Ballpark and Roadie but remain a riddle to me. And all the while we are exploring, we have bugling elk and grunting bison to serenade us.
Roadie has some photos from the era and will no doubt return to the area with copies of them to aid her search. From the things we find and the lay of the land, my bet is that the camp was on the current east side of the road, not the west. Frank also tells me that the low hillside to the west is part of Little Panther Creek volcano, a geologic feature that predates the Yellowstone caldera. He says he wants to make it a Loon activity as it is a fairly easy hike and affords more of a view than you'd think.
We hike and roam for at least three hours and I love every minute. Of course we leave everything just as we find it. I wouldn't mind another visit, Roadie, if you're reading this! I wish I could have stayed longer and had a nice dinner with them but I had already accepted Laurie's offer to stay at her place again and I don't want to arrive so late that I wake her up.
I wind my way down to Mammoth while a gorgeous sunset begins. There are elk all over the lawns and a few in the road, temporarily blocking my way. I also see mule deer feeding near the road on the east side of the high bridge, two does and a fawn. I make good time all the way to Tower but then I have elk crossing the road right before the Tower bridge. That spooks me a bit. And when as I emerge into Little America, just past Junction Butte I am suddenly stopped by a very large herd of bison cows and calves. They are not crossing the road, they are standing ON the road, and look like they intend to stay there a while. I am the only one going my way, but thank goodness there are two cars stopped by the bison heading in my direction.
I know bison don't like brights so I shut mine off but then I can barely see them. I don't know why I still get so freaked out by bison in the road. I know I have to learn how to deal with this. The drivers in the oncoming cars are very patient so I try to learn from them how to do it. Eventually there is enough movement in the herd for one car to snake its way through. Its a young couple in a white car. I roll down my window and ask them to please wait until I am through and they are kind enough to agree. Then the second car actually backs up to give me the option of driving in the left lane so I can get past them. I go very slowly and avoid eye contact with the biggest of the beasts. I feel SO relieved once I'm through but I do stop and ask the driver of the remaining car, a pick-up, whether he wants me to wait until he gets past. The man smiles and waves me on.
Thank you, couple in the white car, whoever you are! After I calm down a bit, I calculate that I still may run into more cow-calf herds on the road between here and Trout Lake. It is quite nerve-wracking as I drive through my beloved Lamar, hyper wary of looming bison. When I finally reach Round Prairie I am fairly euphoric so I pull over to congratulate myself. I actually turn off the engine and the lights and step out of the car. As soon as I do so, I am suddenly aware of the night sky. It is so utterly amazing I don't know how to tell you about it. It's darker than dark and yet bright with star-candles. The night is so utterly quiet and devoid of human noise, that I hear only the wind in the trees and the rush and gurgle of water in the creek. It is exhilarating and I want to stay right here and enjoy it. But it is scary, too, because I am so totally alone, in the woods. Good-scary I mean! Thrilling scary. Not fearful scary.
Again I thank my lucky stars - the ones glinting and winking right above me - that I am alive to even see it. I think of the thousands and maybe millions of people who never EVER see this amazingly gorgeous sight, and I feel so grateful. If being scared out of my skin over bison in the road is the price I must pay to see a night sky like this, then I say it's worth it.
Eventually I convince myself to get back in the car and head on to Laurie's, so that I won't wake her up.
I get to Silver Gate at a quarter to 9 and luckily for me, Laurie is still up. She's had to call a local contractor about an annoying plumbing problem. She is gracious and listens to my tale of bison drama. She shares some of her own solutions to bison on the road and I make a vow to learn to calm down and deal with it rationally. I'll be back here at Christmas and I'm sure there will be no shortage of them then, like there were last year.
Laurie makes me some tea and we get out Anne's peach cobbler, left over from the dinner on Monday. It's very nice to have a chat on the couch with a girlfriend at the end of a day in Yellowstone. Laurie makes sure that I hear the Slough news - they were seen leaving the diagonal forest, heading to the northwest at the end of the evening, perhaps following a scent trail of the Hellroaring pack.
We bid each other goodnight and I pitter-pat downstairs to my luxurious accomodations, remembering that the original plan for tonight was to sleep in the car. Well, I sure got that beat! I know I will sleep well tonight, but please don't let me dream of bison!
Today I saw: two grizzly bears, bison, mule deer, ducks, elk, a swan, 8 wolves (all from the Slough Creek pack), 15 wolfers, 2 Loons, a zillion stars and the spirit of Allison