I get up in the dark and cold. I don’t want to wake people doing my morning cooking, so I drive out and down to the temporarily deserted Tower store. I boil water on my stove and set out my new collapsible camp chair, and eat my noodle soup while awaiting first light.
It is gorgeous and quiet and I feel like I have Yellowstone all to myself!
Now I’m on my way to Lamar. I pass mule deer and bison in Little America and coming out of the canyon an osprey soars across the road toward the river. I pull in at Dorothy‘s and set up Layla. I find numerous bison and bison calves and then a group of elk cows and five calves with them! They are bunched right along the river bank. The mothers are very wary, each looking in a different direction. Two of the calves are bedded on the sandy bank and three are standing. The elk mothers might be contemplating a crossing of the river. I hope they don’t because the river looks mighty rough to me.
When I step back from the scope I notice a man at the eastern end of the pullout watching something very intently far up the valley so I swing Layla that direction and guess what? I see wolves! A whole pack of them moving this way! Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if finding wolves were always this easy! I see several blacks, a large gray and two smallish wolves of a very light gray color. I count 10 in all.
Given the numbers and the presence of the light grays, my hunch is that I am seeing the Unknown Pack. (I find out later that this is correct). The pack travels up the slope of Amethyst Bench in a fairly cohesive line.
Suddenly I see elk running. On the hills above Amethyst I suddenly see elk all over the place, running in several directions. One group has a single calf with it. The adults in this group begin to prance, heads way up. The wolves kick into a higher gear, then disappear (of course) behind a hill. A few individuals emerge on the other side and I see more elk running toward the trees. Then suddenly the action stops. Just visible behind a rise I see several wolf tails and wolf backs bunched together. Two more wolves that had run higher on the hill turn back and join the bunched group. Someone suggests they may have caught a calf.
I am still only seeing backs and tails but the group of wolves moves to the left behind some trees. Then I see one wolf leave the group and trot to the right, now in full view, with a stick (or a leg?) in its mouth. It quickly runs away from the others with its prize.
Small groups of elk have stopped a few levels above the wolves and stand looking back at them. I find the group with the lone calf higher up. Good! That calf got away. I like seeing the chase but I’m not sorry I’ve missed the take-down. The wolves remain localized in this spot a while and then someone spots a grizzly way up high. Two grizzlies! Possibly a courting pair although all I see them do is walk! Both bears seem similar in size to me. Hmm. They are not out long and soon go over the top.
Back to the wolf off by himself. He is now tossing the leg bone he won, leaping in the air, really having a ball! He tosses it and catches it, tosses it again, jumps all around and then drops down to gnaw on it. I’m betting he is a yearling!
Two more grizzlies are spotted on a different hill, far to the east. This time I watch one of them cross a snow patch. I always enjoy seeing this - it must be something about the contrast between the white snow and the dark bear, all at such a great height.
Back to the wolves again. The pack is on the move, an indication that it was indeed a calf they caught, otherwise they would not be finished eating so quickly. They move uphill, going in and out of sight. Again I am struck by just how unusually light the two grays are. Elk move nervously away from them in all directions but none of them begin to run. The wolves re-appear much higher on the hill for a few minutes and then I lose them in an aspen forest.
There are several spotters up on Cardiac Hill who report that they seem to have bedded for the day. This high aspen forest is a popular place for wolves, although unfortunately, it is not visible from the road or either high pullout.
I’m glad to have had a glimpse of these famous “Unknown” wolves, since I have been keeping tabs on their exploits ever since their surprising appearance in April, when they usurped the home area of the denned Sloughs. This unusual turn of events resulted in neither pack having any pups to raise, leaving both packs’ movements on an unpredictable course.
I get a nice surprise when Chief shows up in the pullout. I thought I’d missed him. It’s good to see him - he always makes me laugh. Chief is primarily a bear watcher and he‘s been having a great trip. He tries to pretend he was stalking me but I know his shtick.
We watch the bison and bison calves and hear some sand hills knocking. We scan until we find 3 of them, higher than expected, up on Jasper Bench. We also see a red tailed hawk sitting on a rock - and quickly dub it “The Hawk Rock“. We also see two bald eagles. I see Betsy and Laurie here, too and chat with them a while. Now, most wolfers head west to Slough, hoping the Unknowns will appear on the flip side of the hill. Chief and I remain in the pullout, goofing off and enjoying the morning.
I suggest that he join me on the Loon hike up Specimen Ridge but he scoffs at such strenuous exercise. He’s on vacation, he says! So I bid him adieu and aim for Roosevelt. The water in Lamar Canyon is rip-roaring white water, frothing and splashing over the tops of huge boulders.
There are pronghorn in Little America, quite close to the road and a meadowlark perches on the brown sign at the Roosevelt/Tower parking lot, trilling away. It is chilly and windy but the sun is trying very hard to come out. I change into hiking clothes and start to arrange my day pack.
Ken D pulls in and we have a Loon hug. He introduces his dad, Sam, who has become a Loon himself! Then I meet Loons Christi and her husband Art. For the last four years, Christi and I have missed each other in the Park, so it is particularly nice to finally meet her. She can’t come on the hike, though, but Art says he will join us.
Ballpark arrives, along with more and more Loons. I get hugs from Gulo Gulo (Phil) and meet his brother, Richard. Phil's lovely wife, Jackie, is in New York (seeing a play I got her tickets for!) and more hugs from Mark and Lynn (whom I met last fall) and I meet their niece Avery, a delightful young lady who adds a youthful dimension to our hike. Then I meet new (to me) Loons Mike the Weatherman and Long Suffering Mary, CT Car (Carolyn) and her husband Victor, Wyoanne and her husband Ray, the highly amusing Skeets (aka Bob) and of course, Roadie.
We assemble around Ballpark while he re-iterates the plan for the hike and reminds us of “the rules”. Then we carpool to the trailhead, leaving a few vehicles at the Yellowstone Picnic Area for those doing the long version. I feel good and hope to be able to complete the whole hike. It is overcast and cool as we set off, just how I like it!
Right off the bat we see a multitude of wildflowers: magenta shooting stars, blue and white forget-me-nots, white wild strawberries, dark blue larkspur and various others. We see plenty of bison and elk tracks and as always, I am amazed at the variety of country one can see just a few yards away from the road.
I find the trail to be “steep but doable“ and enjoy the Loon company and the increasingly spectacular views. I especially like to hike in an area where I have so often seen wolves and bears.
When we get about half way up the first slope, we hear halloo-ing from up above. I think it might be kids playing with echoes. But a little while later three women hikers appear from the west. They tell us they spooked a grizzly up there and did the hallooing to warn anyone on their way up. We all thank the ladies and they go on their way. I feel confident, though, that with a group as large as ours, the poor bears will hear us long before they see any of us!
The trail enters a woods and we take a short break. I still feel fine and I am proud that so far, I am not the last in line! I really enjoy getting to know these “new” Loons better and KenD and I have fun explaining certain things about the Loon Page to his dad.
Sam tells me the reason he is here is because of Doug’s book "Once Around the Sun - In Yellowstone" . I am very happy to hear it, and I know Doug will be pleased to know what an influence his book has had.
As we finish our break and get moving again, Victor announces he's had enough uphill and is going to stay here a while to rest. He and Carolyn talk a bit and various types of advice and encouragement are given. But in the end Victor decides to head down by himself and Carolyn will continue with the group. Roadie gives Victor a radio so he can stay in touch with us. Steep trails like this are not for everyone, and don't I know it! Plus, this is one of the things we agreed on: during the first half of this hike, each person can decide for himself whether to keep going or turn around. In the end, Victor did make it down safely.
Naturally, the higher we climb, the better our view becomes. I love seeing the wide, meandering curves of Slough Creek, full to the brim, and in places, overflowing. And there are also quite a few lakes in Little American which I never knew existed.
We leave the trees and ascend another slope and soon come upon the first of the petrified trees. It is a wide, low stump in which you can see distinct tree rings, yet they are made of rock instead of fiber. It’s truly fascinating and entirely worth the climb!
The leaders call back that there are sheep above us. I look up to see three juvenile bighorns at the top of the slope, peering down at us with mild curiosity. After a little while they turn and walk away with a seeming air of condescension. Noisy humans!
We continue up the slope and it gets rockier and rockier, while at the same time, windier and windier. I turn to the east and see Druid Peak from a brand new angle. If I were a Druid wolf, this might be a favorite spot.
We come upon another petrified tree stump, this one taller and thinner. The slope is now very rocky and the wind really kicks up. It’s an even more amazing view from up here and we all stop to take photos. The road is a pale, thin string stretching out through a wide, green land below us.
Roadie gets the whole group to pose on a rocky edge surrounding another solidified tree. Ballpark assures us that our lunch spot is not far off. The sun comes out in wonderful counter-balance to the chill wind.
Now I recognize the green slope which we begin to traverse. It’s the one with the trail straight up the middle, that you can see from the road. Many’s the time I have looked up from Long Pullout and seen wildlife of one type or another on this very hill.
We reach another woods and wind our way through it, then finally come out on another steep slope. The largest petrified tree we’ve seen so far is here. Just below the tree, the hill drops off to a cliff a bit too abrupt for me, so I don’t feel confident enough to explore this particular specimen. The others seem to have no trouble so I will enjoy their pictures! I find a secure rest spot next to a conifer and put my feet up for a while. We’ve reached our lunch spot where we will each decide whether to go on or turn back. I am tired but game to try. I think if we just go slowly enough, I will be able to make it.
We see a mountain bluebird, several ground squirrels and look DOWN on a pair of soaring hawks! The day has turned fine, with warm sun and a fresh breeze. We lunch and chat and rest for about a half hour.
Art and Sam have decided to turn around and I am tempted to join them. I ask Frank how much uphill we have before we start across the relatively level spine of the ridge. It appears that there is more than I thought. Frank is concerned that my need to go slow might keep the whole group exposed to dangerous afternoon weather longer than is prudent. So, I accept his opinion; he is our leader and knows my abilities and limitations.
As the majority of the group makes ready to continue, Art and Sam and I get ourselves ready to head downhill. We bid the other adieu and are chatting gaily when suddenly we see Ken D heading toward us from above. He has changed his mind and will now accompany us back to the cars. We are pleased to have his company and continue on our merry way.
We warm up a bit on the way down. But no sooner have I taken off my jacket and tied it around my waist than a storm blows up and dumps a bunch of hail on us! We think of our friends up at the top and hope they are not too battered!
Christine meets us at the parking lot and tells us of a grizzly that crossed the road in front of her earlier! She and Art head back west but KenD, Sam and I decide we are not finished with hiking for today. We want to visit Trout Lake to see if the trout are spawning yet.
First we stop at Dorothy’s so I can check in on “my” elk and calves. I find them all still safe on this side of the river. Good! A coyote trots by, close to the pullout, thrilling a carload of tourists from India and tickling us, too. I show them the elk calves through my scope and they like those, too!
Now we drive east. As I pass the confluence I wonder whether the river may have overtopped the road recently. I notice some “new” boulders on the river side of the road, as if trucked and dumped there to prevent the road from washing away. On the other side of the road a rather large pond has formed, flooding the willows and several aspen in it. The three of us hike up the hill toward Trout Lake and I laugh as I recall trying to get up here one winter, as I post-holed in snow up to my hips! Needless to say I find the trek far easier in springtime! If you have never hiked up to Trout Lake, I urge you to try it! It’s a beautiful spot. The hike is steep but very short.
We have this beautiful lake all to ourselves as we walk leisurely around its edge. We find we are still too early for the trout spawn, but that’s just as well as I wouldn’t want to run into any lunching grizzlies! We watch for otters and muskrats but see golden eye ducks and quite a few swallows swooping down on the insects above the water.
After our hike we drive back west and I spot Jim and Joellen’s camper pulled over on the left. I remember this very nice wolfer couple from last fall. Ever hopeful for a sight of the Druids, I stop and ask if they have seen any. Alas, no, but Druids is what they are looking for. We chat a while and I introduce Ken and Sam and suddenly we see a moose! The big bruiser has just emerged from a little tree-lined gully opposite the Trout Lake pullout. He seems to be headed for the road! He’s a bull moose, his antler knobs are just beginning.
We watch him cross the road and move up the hill out of sight. We think we are the only people to see him. It is amazing to me that such a large animal on the move is in sight of humans for merely 10 minutes.
Next we stop at the confluence. The beaver is out! We park at the pullout and walk back, as quietly and unobtrusively as we can. Although his lodge is quite obvious on the river side of the road, Mr. Beaver himself is in the overflow pond north of the road, hungrily nibbling on a willow branch. He chews a long while, then takes the three foot branch in his mouth and swims with it to the left. He disappears in a thicket and may have gone underwater.
While we are waiting for him to come back out we keep seeing magpies flying around a particular willow bush close to the road. I suddenly realize it is a magpie nest! And there are chicks in there! There’s another first for me. What a racket they make!
The weather has grown chilly with sporadic rain and snow. Mr Beaver has decided to remain hidden so we all go back to our cars. KenD and Sam head on to Tower, (where they are camped three sites away from me!) and I move on to scope at Dorothy’s. Chief shows up again and we have a fun evening. Although I know he is a champion bear spotter, he finds not a single one tonight.
I try to keep him entertained by showing him “my” elk and calves, still near the river bank. There are now six calves in the group, which makes me very happy.
Far to the right of this group is a lone elk cow with her small calf standing on a bare, sand-island in the river. It looks dreary and cold through the icy rain that is falling, and I see nothing there to shelter or feed them. But Chief believes the river offers some protection from predators, and the elk cow may know this.
He remembers a time when the river used to flow on both sides of the row of cottonwoods and aspen in front of us. He and other bear watchers called it “Maternity Island” due to its popularity with elk mothers as a birthing place. It used to be full of grass so it served as a relatively safe nursery, and the calves grew big and strong.
The cows are super vigilant and I see them chase away any pronghorns that wander too near. They are very aggressive and charge at the least provocation. One pronghorn reacts to the elk’s charge by adopting a stiff-legged gait, jumping in a funny boing-boing cartoon-like way over a driftwood log. It makes me laugh.
We hear coyotes howling and Chief finds one on the far side of the river. It seems to have spotted the lone cow and calf on the island, but it’s on the wrong side. The little dog seems interested in them for a moment, but then moves on.
I see Calvin and Lynnette so I go over to say hi. This is the couple who was so helpful to me at Christmas when we had a dangerous combination of ice and bison on the roads. They have been here for three days and have yet to see a single wolf!!!! This is absolutely unheard of! Calvin is a champion spotter. They’ve been spending their time up at Antelope Creek and when there were wolves in view down here, they’d arrive just minutes too late to see them.
The overcast skies rob us of the last half hour of light so I say goodnight to my friends and head west. When I get to Tower I walk over to visit with KenD and Sam who have a lovely campfire going. We toast to Allison, and then Ken gets some hot dogs to roast. I love watching a crackling fire and we have a nice time, rehashing the day and the hike and solving a few of the world’s problems.
Quiet hours start at 10PM in the campground so I bid them goodnight and head back to my own site. Tonight is much colder and I have trouble getting to sleep, until I rouse myself enough to pull on polartec socks and a wool cap. That does the trick and I finally drift off.
Today I saw: Antelope, 1 beaver, 4 grizzly bears, bison and calves, 1 mountain bluebird, 4 coyotes, 3 sand hill cranes, mule deer, ducks, 2 bald eagles, elk (including 7 calves), 3 red-tailed hawks, a moose, an osprey, several petrified trees, 3 juvenile bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, wildflowers, 10 wolves of the Unknown Pack, about 25 Loons and the spirit of Allison.