My last day begins with scraping a layer of ice off the car.
It's clear and cold and a thin fingernail of a moon hangs over Abiathar. As I drive down to the valley the air is so clear that the snow-clad mountains seem to glow from within.
I just KNOW that grizzly is going to be on the carcass at Dorothy's. I almost hope there is nothing going on in Druidville and there isn't so I keep driving west. And yes, when I arrive the bear IS here still feeding. The wolves are still here, too - scattered in various bedding spots.
At about 6:30 the wolves decide it's their turn again. They gather around the grizzly and together they force him off. The bear moves away from them, at first toward the river, then turns and walks slowly toward Lamar Canyon.
I hear more Slough wolves howling from north of the road and eventually I can see them high on the hill, just below skyline. The wolves in the flats are 629M, 630F and 631F, the uncollared gray and three more blacks.
As we watch this drama unfold, a gorgeous curled-edge fog rolls in, obscuring everything in the valley. But it only lasts a few minutes. The sun is so strong today it just eats up the fog. Soon we can make out shapes again and I watch 630F go over to a big boulder and rub her left side against it, back and forth. Then she begins to dig at the base of the boulder. She is quite the digger! Then she tires of that and beds.
A black wolf walks over to a snow-field and begins to bounce on the snow, as if hunting for something beneath it. Then two more blacks sddenly appear from the left - apparenly they were bedded up on that hill and I didn't see them. They come down and greet the others, so now we have 9 Slough wolves total.
There are also ravens and magpies galore, some sandhills knocking above the river bank further to the left, and one lone coyote sitting on his hauches way out in the flats, looking longingly at the carcass as it disappears, bite by bite.
Ah me, this is a great start to my last day. But it's time to think of the road back so I leave this sighting and head to Slough. It's quiet here and I enjoy having it to myself for a last look. I decide to head west with the intention of stopping at Hellroaring. I'd like to try to find those wolf pups that Wayne saw yesterday. If I go now, I'll have a nice long time to try to find them.
I drive on slowly, enjoying every little thing as I go.
But as I near Junction Butte I see a long line of cars pulled over to the right and lots of people lined up ahead, looking into the shallow bowl below the Butte, the spot that used to be a pond. I know what they are looking at because I heard it over the radio. I park and head to the group with Layla in tow. The wildlife watchers are totally silent. Some faces turn toward me with broad smiles of recognition and then turn back to the animals in view.
I know this spot. Bison often graze here, and I have seen pronghorn, elk and mule deer, too. But today the space is occupied by a pair of gorgeous, glistening, silvery tipped grizzlies, who seem to be spending the cold, sunny morning in an on-going wrestling match.
One is ever so slightly larger and slightly more agressive than the other. They wrestle and box, rolling around, falling over, twisting, turning, grabbing and biting. For the next hour an a half I watch these two charming performers, who rarely take a break from their delightful play-fighting. They are really too close for scopes. It's a perfect distance for cameras and even better for just plain watching and enjoying. Neither bear seems interested in or bothered by the road or any of us. The crowd grows to about a hundred. It is April, of course, and still early morning, so everyone here is a regular. We are all silent, except for an occasional gasp of delight.
The bears grapple like there is no tomorrow. I can see their leathery feet since one to four of their legs is frequently in the air. I can see their eyeballs and ears and teeth and the slobber from their constantly open jaws. I can see the streaks of discoloration on their E N O R M O U S claws. They chomp on each other constantly, yet never seem to hurt each other. I want to say they "nip" each other, but with teeth that size, "nip" is just NOT the right word!
At one point they separate and take an exploratory break. They come several yards closer to the road and the crowd tenses up, getting ready to grab scopes and duck behind the cars - but then they get distracted. The "agressive" sibling finds a blue skier's cap - the kind with a traditional design - well, it's lying out there on the ground - probably dropped accidentally by someone and perhaps hidden by snow for months. Well, the bear first sniffs it, spins it around a bit with his nose, then carries it in his teeth for a few steps. This makes a great photo all by itself and the cameras click like crazy. Then the bear stops walking and begins investigating the hat more closely. He holds the tassle-top of the hat in his front teeth, lifts a front paw and oh-so-delicately extends one enormous claw and catches the hem of the hat, pinning it to the ground. Now he pulls it with his teeth. R i p.
He repeats this manuever several times, carelessly shredding it to pieces!
At the same time, his brother (or sister) has discovered a black glove in the same general area. The glove looks to be made of some man-made material, stuffed with down or some other insulation, and I'm sure it's label touts its ability to withstand ice and cold. But not bears. The grizzly gets to work on the glove in the same manner as the other. In no time, tiny puffs of white burst from the fingers and begin to float around like fall seedlings.
Then the more aggressive one ambles over to his sibling and leans on him/her, pressing until his weight forces the other to give way. He presses so hard that the other goes all the way down on his back and the one sits on the other and begins to chew a paw or an ear or whatever is close. Other times the smaller one will push back and the wrestling will look equal. One bear stretches a front paw reach to the other's face and I am sure one of them is going to lose an eye, but I never hear a yelp or see the kind of sharp reaction you would expect if one has actually hurt the other. These two have been wrestling each other for a LONG TIME so they know how to do it!
They rise on their hind legs and box like Disney stars, only to topple on the their sides or backs, one rolling on the other. Once they amble over to a Volkswagon-sized boulder and after sniffing a bit they climb it and stand atop it like the bear version of Rin Tin Tin.
The strangest thing is that all this roughhousing and wrestling seems to be done in absolute silence. I never hear a grunt or growl or huff. It may be that he wind is at our backs and whatever soft sounds they were making were being blown away from us. Emmy winning filmmaker Bob Landis arrives relatively late, having been in Druidville when the call first came in. After about a half hour of delicious filming, he tells me he feels he is having a religious experience.
After a very full hour and a half, the bears move a little further away toward the hill. I begin to think about the Hellroaring pups and check the time. I bid adieu to these wonderful bears and whisper goodbye to my wolfer friends and thank them for all their help and comraderie.
When I get to Hellroaring I am struck by how gorgeous the day has become. This is the first really nice day since I got here last Sunday!
And the scenery here is spectacular even on a dreary day. I scope the den area but see no movement. There are just a handful of other wildlife watchers here - R and W and M and a visitor with binoculars cleverly set on a monopod. This fellow almost instantly finds wolves down below in the sage! I see four, all grays, walking past some alert, semi-bunched elk. We lose them almost as quickly as we find them, then W calls out that he sees an adult wolf at the den. It's about two miles away but once I get Layla trained on that spot I see it, too.
It's a gray adult wolf standing at what I believe is the opening of the den. The wolf sticks its head inside. Every once in a while I see a black shadow move along the porch of the den and I think it is the shadow of a raven or a hawk flying by. The gray adult stands very still and in a position that looks a little odd. I keep seeing these shadows and then I suddenly realize that the gray's posture shows she's nursing! And she has just finished and now she moves to the right and several tiny little things follow her. PUPPIES! I see two black shadows, then one more, and one lighter shadow.
Now I see two more adults at the den. It is a thrilling sighting, even though it is VERY far away! The sun is shining full on the den opening and the day is so clear I have Layla cranked all the way up to 60 power.
Once the adults move back into the shadows I can't see the little ones anymore. They may have gone back inside or they may have moved into the trees with the adults. I realize that THIS is the very best way for me to end my trip, so I say my goodbyes and thanks and set off.
What an extraordinary trip. Then again, all trips to Yellowstone make me feel this way.
So long Yellowstone; hello Bozeman.
Today I saw: antelope, 3 grizzly bears, bison (and bison calves), 4 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, ducks, elk, geese, ravens, 20 wolves (9 Sloughs, 7 Oxbow adults and 4 Oxbow puppies!), seven wolfers and the spirit of Allison.