The day of my departure has not yet dawned but I am up anyway, fumbling for a few last-minute items which I stuff into my bag. All my arrangements go as smoothly as silk and 11 hours later, I am adjusting the rear-view mirror in Lexi, my rented all-wheel drive Legacy and turning east from Gallatin Field.
Since Iíve never been here so early in the season, it's thrilling to see the subtle differences in the familiar views. By Montana standards itís been a mild winter and it shows in the relatively small snow-caps on the rugged Absarokas that beckon in the distance as I drive. I am struck by a new color to the willows that line the river. I suppose they are budding. Itís a vibrant yellow-green.
My first view of The Yellowstone River also strikes me as spring-like: it's swollen and cloudy and I see hundreds of caddis flies swarming the bank. Ah, that spring-smell! Greenup isn't here yet but it is definitely Spring. (see photo)
The first wild creature is a hawk perched on a row sign in the Hertz lot. My second is a ground squirrel dashing into the grass at the side of the road. (Yes! They count!) The drive is lovely as ever and I sing along to Allisonís tape as I go. As I near Yankee Jim Canyon, a pair of honking geese fly low right over the road and then I spot a largish herd of mulies grazing out in a field. As I near Gardiner a very fat orange-brown marmot stops to consider crossing the road. He changes his mind and dashes back to the safety of the tumbled rocks.
The weather is overcast but not dreary and I run in and out of sprinkles for the whole drive. Itís not as chilly as Iíd expected but I keep my fleece pullover handy, and my rain-wear. I decide to head straight for Lamar partly in hopes of catching Tim A who is here with his Alpine Club comrades, leading them on a wolf-watching tour.
I drive through the Arch and call to Allison. ďI'm here! I'm here!Ē Yes, of course I tear up, for a variety of reasons, all good. As soon as I pass the gate I see my first elk. She is very shaggy and, truth be told, not looking her best. That will come in a few weeks when the grass thickens and greens and this winter coat of hers is left on the bark of some obliging trees.
"Hello Allison!" I call when I reach the top, looking up towards her windy hillside. "I hope you bring me luck, girlfriend. Please help me see the Druids at least once on this trip!" I can feel her smile at me but she does not divulge any plans.
So this is what Mammoth looks like when the hotel is closed! Not a single car in the parking lot, only two or three vehicles at Albright. Hmmm. I think I'm gonna like being here this early! It is tempting to explore the area but I feel a stronger pull towards you know where...Lamar.
As I leave the buildings behind I hear meadowlarks! Oh I love that sound! HOORAY! I'm in Yellowstone again! I cruise across the high bridge and plunge into the cool forest and see...another marmot!
I pull over at Blacktail Ponds to better enjoy the sights, sounds and smells. The rain has stopped and I assemble Layla for her first work-out. I see a young bull elk in velvet munching in a draw across the road. I try out my new camera, Sonya, and find myself a little disappointed in her limited zoom capabilities. But she's amazingly light and easy to use so I shrug it off. A red-tail hawk flies by, swift and silent. Below me in the flats is a bison herd with some calves. They seem so tiny! I enjoy watching them dart and dash and twirl, trying out their long legs as if they can't believe these four things are really attached to them. Then my eye is caught by movement on the road. Another marmot! Now wait a minute! What's with all these marmots?
A car pulls in and a bearded gentleman man comes over for a friendly chat. His wife stays in the car. I tell him I can't believe how beautiful it is here and he says this is one of his favorite pullouts. He's a cool old-timer, as happy to be here as I am. We hear some loud knocking and we both know it's cranes, sand-hills. We scan the area but the cranes stay out of sight. He tells me of a nest on a lake east of here.
The man and his wife drive on. I look down on the pond and see a beautiful red duck which turns out to be a cinnamon teal. My first. Then suddenly I see snow flurries. I didnĎt think it was cold enough for snow! I put Layla away and head further east. The flurries continue all through the winding turns of Blacktail but never threaten to become worse.
I join the couple again at Floating Island Lake. The old-timer points to a spot in the middle of the water. And now I must confess. I have a ďDíOh!Ē Homer Simpson moment, although I keep it to myself. You see, every single spring trip I have heard people talk about "the sandhill crane nest at Floating Island Lake". Every single spring trip I have been ashamed that I could never seem to find it. All Iíve ever seen here is this gray rock poking above the surface of the lake, surrounded by thick matted weeds. But the weirdest thing is that IĎve always felt there was something odd about that rock. Silly Wendy.
So, finally, on THIS trip I recognize the odd grey "rock" for what it isÖa resting, nesting sandhill crane, her distinctive red-marked head tucked and hidden under her feathers, thanks to her long and flexible neck. The matted weeds are the mud-fastened nesting material she and her mate build up every spring for her to sit on and lay an egg in. The couple heads east while I stay to have a good laugh at myself. I suffer the ducks to squawk their ridicule at me, too.
I catch up with the couple at Elk Creek and as we approach the Petrified Tree Drive I see them brake and pull over. By now I trust their spotting skills so I pull over too to have a look at what theyíve seen.
Itís a moose!
I hop out with Sonya in hand. This time I do better with her zoom feature. Itís a young male moose sitting quietly in the willows, his velvety antlers just starting to sprout some definition. (see photo) The man and his wife watch the moose quietly from behind the Petrified Tree sign, taking photos and talking softly. I like this. These are people excited to see the animals of the Park but they know and practice good animal-watching etiquette. I find this to be the case for the majority of my trip and it becomes another "plus" for visiting at this time of year.
There are bison and pronghorn in the flats north of the Tower Ranger station. A few elk, too. I make the turn at Tower and notice a lush, emerald border to the little stream that follows the road downhill to the Bridge. At the Yellowstone Picnic Area a family of bighorn sheep nonchalantly crosses the road and wanders among the picnic tables.
The pull of Lamar is strong so I continue east. I see a band of pronghorn in what I call "the Dead Zone". All through Little America I see bison, pronghorn, and elk. Not big herds, but small groupings or scattered individuals. And finally, as I approach Slough Creek I see a sign "slow, congested area". Oh, boy, is it ever! The parking lot is full and there are cars off the road on both sides. There is still room for Lexi, though, so I pick a spot and pull in. I haul out Layla and take a look around.
I donít see Tim A or Betsy or their truck, but who knows what they may be driving. I do see a man in a broad-brimmed hat that I recognize as a wolfer. It's Steve, of Steve and Diane. He recognizes me and offers to help me find the den area. I am forever grateful, but I must warn you: this is not like watching the Druids at the Rendesvous. This is much more like that spring when #103 had her den a bit west of here. It takes me a good while to figure out what Iím looking at and then find it again if I look away,
But thenÖI see it! I see a black wolf moving near some downed timber. I also see a grey wolf, bedded, only because it moved its head. Then, I see the black wolf lower its head and notice dark moving dots at its feet. PUPS! I see pups! Either two or three, I am too excited to tell. I watch the adults again simply because it's easier. Wow! Iíve been in the Park less than two hours and I already have wolves!
Steve tells me Rick thinks there are 15 pups. I can't imagine how he can count such tiny things!
I stay about a half-hour here, but Iím way too excited to understand what Iím seeing, so I decide to keep moving and follow the call into Lamar. I have an odd feeling that I am being disloyal to the Druids!
In Lamar Canyon, the river is very cloudy and higher than usual but itís nothing like the chocolate brown torrent I remember from several years ago. And then I burst into tears again as I make the turn into the Most Beautiful Place on EarthÖThe Lamar Valleyís green-hilled arms open wide to welcome me back. A deep sense of contentment settles over me.
The white ribbon of road curves to the right, empty of cars - absolutely empty. I have Lamar all to myself! There are bison in the draws and scattered elk on the higher slopes. I hear meadowlarks again. Or might it be a sage-thrush? Doug Dance could tell me the difference.
I drive on, noting all my favorite pullouts and views, past the rendesvous and the Confluence. Every pullout is empty - all the people are at Slough! I pull in to the Footbridge for old times sake. "Hello Druids" I call softly. Some bison and a few pronghorn are moving about in the sage beyond the river. The Soda Butte looks low, but then I notice there is still a lot of snow on the high eastern mountains. Once that begins to melt, I bet this river will rise to a more spring-like appearance.
I head back west and stop at Trash Can to scan the r-v. Elk, pronghorn and bison all graze peacefully here, on both sides of the familiar foothills. The Druids are definitely not at home at the moment. Hopefully they are safe in their Cache Creek den, far from the reach of the Surging Sloughs.
I stop again at Dorothy's Knoll. With beginners' luck, Layla and I immediately find the bald eagle nest in the trees below Jasper Bench. And one of the adults is perched there. If there are eggs, I canít see them from here. I scan all over, the high slopes, the valleys, the drainages. I see many more elk than at first glance, and some fairly large bison herds with lots of little orange cuties. I really like seeing so many pronghorn, too.
I remember that U-Blackís group is supposed to have a den somewhere above the Amethyst drainage so I concentrate on that area. To my amazement I find an animal, but itís not a wolf - itís a grizzly! In the timber, where large patches of snow still cling, I see a dark bear roaming and digging.
The only other car in the whole valley is at the far end of this pullout. A man has a scope set up, I think heís focused on the eagle nest. I call to him that I might have a grizzly. He brings his scope over and looks through mine. "Yep. That's a griz". I am happy for the confirmation. We watch the bear walk around, then sit on its big fat butt in a snow patch. This move makes him look tired or still sleepy, even though he ought to have been out of his den for a month or more. Then the bear moves uphill and disappears in the trees.
I hear cranes knocking and I finally find them on the river bank. Then something else catches my eye. It's a tiny kestrel, hovering above the river. How cool! I haven't seen one of those since the very first Loonion in 2000.
The sun is westering behind Specimen Ridge and it looks like more rain may be coming. Lamar looks so amazingly beautiful. I could just sit here and look at it even if there were not a single animal in sight. The smell of earth and sage, the sound of cranes and meadowlarks, the piping of squirrels and the whistling of the wind, the glint of sunlight on the river - and the green-gold slopes crowned with snow and trimmed in conifers...ah me...itís just perfection.
I look for my grizzly again but he is hiding. So I head back through Lamar Canyon and pull into Slough. Steve and Diane seem to be gone so I set up just beyond the lot in the sage. I am surrounded by visitors and hear them say a lot of things that I canít resist commenting on. ďAre these the Druids?Ē (nope, these are the Sloughs, but some of them might be former Druids). ďDid the Sloughs kill the Druid Alphas?Ē (Nope, 21M died of natural causes; 42F was killed by other wolves, but not by the Sloughs. It was most likely the Mollies that killed her, or possibly the Agates.) ďAre the Druids gone?ď (Heavens no! They are still around, with new alphas, just smaller in number and not denning at their usual place.)
Throughout this exchange I am watching the Sloughs: two adults, both black, roaming about in the downed-tree area. Then I notice three or four other wolves bedded in the trees to the right. Once I see pups trailing behind a black adult. The highest pup-count I get is 4. They are hard to keep track of because they disappear in and out of the sage.
Then one of the adults begins to howl. Oh yeah! There is a two-second delay between the wolf raising its muzzle to the sky and the beautiful low notes now reaching my ears, making my spine tingle with electricity. More and more wolves appear seemingly out of nowhere until my adult-count is up to 8. I see tails wagging and the howling becomes more raucous than mournful. This is one happy and healthy group of wolves!
Then the howling session is over and I watch them head off to the east, perhaps to hunt? I lose sight of them almost immediately. I go back to the spots where I saw movement before and find a babysitter wolf playing with several pups. People keep pulling in so I lower my scope and help some kids see their first wild wolf. One little girl is ecstatic!
Around 7:30 a soft rain begins to fall. People start to leave. I cover Layla and pull up my hood but since the light is going and I have been up for 18 hours straight I decide Iíll let this be an early night.
I head west, seeing areas of the Park that I rarely see in this much light. Just beyond Junction Butte I see a whole lot of cars pulled over. I figure it's a bear jam, given the area. But it's a bighorn jam. The bighorn family I saw at Picnic is now wandering around the Wrecker Pullout. I smile and continue on.
Just beyond Blacktail Ponds I have to stop for some bison crossing the road. They keep popping out, one after another from behind a hillside, like circus clowns coming out of a tiny car. I get the giggles. Then two yearling bison start a fight in the road, butting heads and bucking. Man, they are rambunctious! Who knew bison could put on such a show?
As I sail through a deserted Mammoth I wave to Allison and thank her for such good luck on my first day.
I get back to Gardiner around 8:40 and head to the Best Western to see if I can find Tim's truck. Not there. Oh well. I pull in to the Inn and drag out my stuff. Scott at the front desk gives me a message that John and Carlene are back from Utah and that I should come on up to the house. I do and I get my first Loon hugs of the trip. Ahhhhh!
Itís so great to see them! I don't want to stay long because we are all tired from traveling so we just do a quick catch-up. (here's John) (here's Carlene) (here's Rachel) I learn that Carlene now works at the Mammoth Clinic and Rachel has a track meet coming up.
Then John gives me the stuff I left with them last trip and I set about organizing my room. How nice to have the day end with the Loons who started it all!
I manage to get my laptop up and running so I can post a first-day dispatch on the Loon Page. But the Page wonít refresh, nor will it re-load. Itís way too late to bother with it so I close down with a vague promise of trying again tomorrow.
And then IĎm out like a light.
Today I saw:
Antelope, a grizzly bear, bison (and babies), 3 sand-hill cranes (one on nest), mule deer, a bald eagle, elk, 2 geese, 2 hawks, a kestrel, 3 marmots, a moose, 6 bighorn sheep, a cinnamon teal, 12 wolves (8 Slough Creek adults and 4 pups), 3 Loons (John, Carlene and Rachel), and the spirit of Allison.