Today begins somewhat cloudy and cold at 32 degrees.
I run late today but arrive at Hitching Post in time to see three Druid wolves in the flats south of 21's crossing. It's 480, collared gray 645F and a black yearling. They come down the gully, cross the road and lope out through the willow-covered river bottoms. I catch sight of them again just as they reach the river. I miss the crossing due to the topography but see big, burly 480 move up the far bank and into what we call the "middle flats".
They continue south on a route that will most likely take them parallel to the hiking trail that leads to Cache Creek. This is a regular hunting route for the Druids. I am thrilled to have my first glimpse of the well-respected old alpha (since Christmas). I watch the threesome move in a fairly determined manner, tails high, heading into the trees.
After a bit I pack up and head west as there is quite a bit of chatter on the radio and clearly more wolves to see.
I stop at Trash Can and join two other wolfers I have met on this trip, Jon W and Steve, who do coyote research back East. Out towards the river there are two black wolves, both young-looking, chewing on an old carcass across the river in the sage. Apparenly there isn't much here but they nose around and nibble on various tidbits that they find. We aren't sure if these are Druids or Mollies, but one of them has a distinct "right hook" to its tail. One of them starts off at a determined trot somewhat west and towards Specimen Ridge, heading roughly in the direction of Amethyst Creek.
The second wolf follows the trail of the first. It is the second of these two that has the hooked tail. I watch them for a while, checking their progress until I decide it might be wise to move further west. I stop again at Mid-point and pick up the second wolf right away. He/she has made it nearly to the river so I want to watch the crossing. The wolf begins to wade across and I am surprised at how shallow the water is, given the amount of snow-melt that must have occured in the last few days. The wolf sort of prances across the rest, splashing quite a lot.
I want a higher perspective, so I drive on to Dorothy's. As soon as I get out of the car I hear a sound I have learned to associate with the presence of a wolf - coyote scolding. Sure enough, I find the coyote first, then the wolf. The coyote is shadowing a black wolf as it makes its way toward the gentle slope at the eastern end of Jasper. From this angle I can't tell if it's the first wolf or the hook-tail wolf.
I also see geese and a golden eagle near the river. And there are sandhills in several places. Jan & Bill pull in and join the scoping, but first Bill points out a grouse in the middle of the pullout, walking around obliviously, as grouse are wont to do. Jan points her scope way up the valley towards the confluence and finds 480 and his two companions still trotting along the trail towards Cache. Wow, that is a long spot!
The hooked-tail wolf and his coyote shadow have nearly reached the slope when Jan spots an otter! I immediately turn my scope to the river but Jan laughs saying No! He's not near the river, he's near the trees!
I see it now, this otter is about 10 yards in front of the tree line at the base of the far eastern end of Jasper and he's gallumping toward the main river channel, which is probably 200 yards away! I am worried that the wolf or the coyote will spy the otter so far from his safety zone. What the heck is he doing all the way out there? But luckily for him, neither the wolf nor the coyote seems to be aware of him. To watch an otter try to cross this much snow-covered ground is nerve wracking. He seems to expend an awful lot of energy getting back to the river.
But he does finally make it and we breathe again. As I look back at the spot where he came from, I remember hiking out to Fairies Fall which is a pretty little spot where Amethyst creek comes down to the Lamar. As I remember it, there is a braid of the Lamar running right along the base of Jasper, connected to the main branch of the Lamar at certain seasons when the water table is high enough. So perhaps the otter was closer to water than it looked from this angle.
In any case he is now safe in the main channel. I look for the wolf again and see it has made its way up to the bench and has picked up a second coyote escort. The wolf reaches a stand of trees and the coyotes outside it. Then the wolf suddenly charges out of the trees and the coyotes bolt in separate directions. The wolf, satisfied, turns back and disappears into the forest.
We continue to hear reports of wolf sightings in Little America so we pack up and head there.
As I near the Lamar Bridge a herd of bison are coming up to the road from the Lamar river, trying to decide whether to stay in the sage or cross the road. They mill about on the pavement so I stop about half-way across the bridge, trying to give them space to make up their minds. A mean-looking old bull stares me down. There is no-one behind me so I back up a few car lengths to give him more space. Well, he decides to lead the group across the bridge towards me! He walks slowly and deliberately up the yellow line as if challenging me to back up even more!
Instead I inch towards him to see if he will step a little to the left so I can pass. He stops and stares. I imagine steam coming out his nostrils. His herd begins to move east across the bridge, mostly on the left. But the mean old bull will not concede. He moves into my lane, giving his herd access to the left lane. I've never felt so singled out by a bison bull before. I begin to wonder if Raja's deep, ruby red color might be the factor. Hmmm.
If I weren't on the bridge, I would simply procede slowly, easing over to the shoulder to signal my non-aggression and to give him respect. But there is no space for such courtesy on the bridge. I am about to back up the rest of the way when Jan & Bill come down the hill behind me. Hooray! The cavalry has arrived! I wave them ahead of me and they see the situation right away. Their car is blue and they are veterans, so as they expertly creep past the herd, I tuck in right behind them and our two cars move as one. The mean old bull finally takes two small steps toward the left, which is all we need. I hold my breath and avoid eye contact as I pass him. I can hear his breathing! Finally we reach the end of the bridge and I can breathe again!
We stop at Long Pullout from which the Agates are in view. It's about 9am and the day has warmed up to about 40. I enjoy seeing 472 and the Agates 3.0. The males are especially handsome and I like how attentive to her they are. But as glad as I am to see 472 and the rest of the pack for the second day in a row, on another level it makes us wonder...what about her pups?
We know she bred this season and she certainly had looked pregnant to observers. After the first week of April she was seen sporadically, looking no-longer pregnant. So it was assumed she had denned and had her pups. But where? And who is babysitting them now? A third Agate female, called the "06 female" is sometimes seen with this group, so perhaps she is back at the den, babysitting the pups. When we can see 472's belly we look for signs of lactation but don't see anything definitive.
One animal who is NOT at all happy with the presence of these Agate wolves is a ceaselessly yapping coyote. She stands defiantly on a hill and lets the wolves know just what she thinks of them. She goes on and on and spares no foul language. The wolves mostly ignore the coyote, although she seems to annoy them a bit as they are trying to sleep!
I hear a story from a visitor who saw a large collared black wolf cross the road earlier this morning near Elk Creek. She thinks the animal was 302. I wonder if this bodes well for my seeing him in another spot? I figure it might be a good idea to head west.
On my way Ralph reports the sighting of a black wolf from Wrecker Grade, and alerted elk, too. So I stop here and scope with him as best I can. I find the elk but do not see the wolf. I do see a lovely hawk perched on a rock, then an old, battered coyote trotting up the road, unamused and dismissive of everything. Rick tells us later that whoever the wolf was, it was not likely 302 as his signal is further away.
I continue west, seeing elk, bison and pronghorn. I arrive at Elk Creek just minutes too late to see one of the Blacktail wolves, 642F, who had been bedded in the area. Oh well. I say goodbye to Laurie & Dan as they are heading to San Diego today via Bozeman. Jan & Bill and I hang out a while at Elk Creek and Richard show us where he saw some black bears on a different day.
We run into Rick again at Lower Hellroaring where he shows us the "new" Cottonwood den is, which is in a very different spot than the old one. We don't see any wolves, though. It has warmed up considerably, though, and is now up to 55.
Jan & Bill talk about another hike and decide to go up the western end of Specimen Ridge from the Yellowstone Picnic area, basically a mirror image of what we did on Tuesday, following the Yellowstone up to the Tower Store but this time on the north side.
This is a great hike that I recommend to anyone. It's pretty steep at first, but once you gain the top of the ridge, the trail is mostly level. You do gain in elevation along the way, but it's so gradual you barely notice it. And the views are totally worth it, not just of Yellowstone canyon, but of Little America and the whole Roosevelt area.
We park the cars at the Yellowstone Picnic area where we find ample shade. I take both my poles because the first section is nothing but steep. Most of the regular trail is still full of snow, so we bushwack up the slope, taking any route that gives us traction. It takes me a lot longer than Jan but I make it.
I have been up here once before, way back in January 2002 when I climbed up with filmmaker Jeff Hogan in order to spy on the Druids which were across the road on at the top of Junction Butte. We witnessed the beginning of the breeding season for the Druids that day when 21 and 42 tied one day before my birthday.
It is very windy up here and the drop off to the canyon is quite precipitous. I stay well back from the edge, not particularly liking edges of this sort! The trail is mostly clear up top, being mostly in the sun and totally at the mercy of the wind! Luckily for me, the wind is blowing us AWAY from the edge, rather than toward it!
We head east along the ridge, finding ample evidence of all kinds of critters, lots of sheep scat and the occassional wolf or coyote turd. There are numerous blue-birds flitting around and we see hawks and ravens soaring. I find it fascinating to see the opposite side of the canyon from here, and the thermal areas look even more strange and unearthly from this high angle.
The trail is mostly open with a few wooded spots. The views of Junction Butte and Little America are simply stunning. We have an excellent day for the hike, with bright sunshine. First we hear and then we see the various ospreys soaring through the canyon. The strangely shaped pillars and tall columns of basalt are fascinating. The conversation is great, too, and I am delighted to be able to spend time with these unique individuals.
As we get close to the spot where you can see the Tower store, Jan stops and raises her hand. A herd of bighorn is ahead of us, just off the trail to the right. I see about 12 animals, ewes and yearlings and one ram. We don't want to startle them or to keep them from grazing, so we move off the trail to the left and approach slowly, so they see we mean them no harm.
We get lots of photos and then proceed past them, giving them plenty of space.
The next rise is very dry, partly because it faces south and partly because it is endlessly windswept. The spot offers an amazing view of the Yellowstone. It's a different angle of that great view you get on the road to the Tower store, where you can see the curve in the river and the tall, sloping yellow-white cliffs on both sides. Well the view from here is even better. There are two more curves in the river that can't be seen from that spot, and the banks are just wild. There is a long sandbar on which two bison bulls are resting.
I could sit on this hill and watch this spot on the river all day, there is so much to see!
We rest a bit and have a bite to eat then decide to head back by a different route, mainly the Specimen Ridge trail that begins just east of Junction Butte. This means we have to navigate some wide patches of melting snow and some slushy, boggy areas, but we take our time and enjoy the hike. There are large swaths of unmelted snow all over these hills, especially in the forested areas and we keep our eyes peeled for bears.
We see more blue birds and have to steer clear of a few bison we see ahead of us. Eventually we get to a spot where we see the road. From here the trail is mostly downhill and the trail gets muddy so we bushwhack a little.
When we near the road we decide to stay off the pavement and Jan leads us on an angle to the left, through the forested area. We've gone about half the distance when Jan stops and whispers "bear". I stop but I don't believe her at first. She points, grinning. Just about 50 feet away, a black bear is curled up asleep in the crook of a two-trunked tree.
We back up, slowly, and move quietly away from the bear towards the road. The bear's head moves, very slowly and seems to wake up. I am sorry we disturbed it but he doesn't look agitated, just like he awoke from a pleasant dream, perhaps a bit earlier than he had meant to. We think this is the same bear we saw last evening.
We get to the road and cross to the other side. When we turn around to look again we see the bear rouse himself, step down from the tree and begin to forage. Jan calls Ralph on her radio to let him know what we've got. Ralph is nearby and drives over to join us. We have our own private black bear viewing for a good half-hour.
That's the closest I've ever been to a black bear on foot, away from my car. I never felt in danger but I do feel bad that we spoiled his nap.
We walk the rest of the way to the cars on the road. I feel I'm in need of a bath! I pour water over my head and that helps a lot. I say goodbye to Jan & Bill for the time being and they head back east. It is a little after 4PM and 65 degrees.
I get out of my hiking boots and in to my Tevas. Aaahhhh! Then change into cooler pants and a short sleeved shirt, chug a bottle of water and now I'm ready for my next jaunt. It's off to Mammoth to check into the Absaroaka Lodge. I am hoping once I'm settled that I will still have time to try to find the Canyons around sunset.
On my way I can't resist stopping at Blacktail Ponds because I find them much thawed since my first glimpse on Sunday. The center is still frozen solid but various waterfowl are making good use of the many patches of open water. I see pronghorn, six sandhills, mallards, geese, and one black & white bird shore bird I couldn't identify. I also hear the wonderfully weird call of the yellow-headed blackbird, but never find the bird itself.
I head on to Mammoth. I have never seen it so empty! There are many elk here, including a large herd in a marshy bowl below the road just west of the high bridge. But the store is open so I stop for a while and pick up some gifts for the folks back in NYC.
As I come down from Mammoth towards the big U curve, a yearling elk is feeding right on the edge of the restraining wall to my right, looking almost like it's thinking of jumping onto my car. 8~)
In the flats beyond the entrance there are pronghorn, elk and bison and the few cars of tourists that I see are all stopped for the perfect photo op.
I check in at Absaroka and I'm glad to find a first floor room which makes loading in quite convenient. The room is very nice, clean and comfortable, and there is a door to a small balcony which overlooks the rushing Yellowstone river. This is a very nice added bonus, except for one thing: there is no privacy on the balconies, so it helps to have respectful, quiet neighbors. I don't. It's a young family with a screaming, stomping child.
So much for relaxing on the balcony!!! 8~)
I have some dinner, straighten and re-arrange the car and as much as I want to head out for more viewing, I succumb to the lure of a hot shower. At this point my neighbors are out at dinner so I have a wonderful quiet hour on the balcony with the river all to myself. Although I can't really see Kite Hill from here, I feel Allison's presence and have another "visit".
Before I know it, the light is fading and I never make it back out to try to find the Canyons. Ah well, I am on vacation, right?
Today I saw: bison, a black bear (close!), several Mountain blue birds, 4 coyotes, a golden eagle, elk, geese, 1 grouse, 1 red tailed hawk, mallards, 2 osprey, 1 otter, prongorn, many bighorn sheep, 9 wolves from either 2 or 3 packs: 3 Druids (including 480 & 645; 2 Unidentified (most likely Mollie); 4 Agates (including 472F, 716F, High Sides & Big Blaze), 7 wolfer buds and the spirit of Allison.