It's pouring down rain as I leave Bozeman for the solo portion of my trip to Yellowstone. Yesterday I drove my two sisters to the airport for a teary farewell. It was a great visit and I can't wait for them to come back, whether together or separately.
It's 6:30AM and about 60 degrees. I am forced to take the highway route rather than risk the mud and probable washouts of Trail Creek Road. But traffic is light over the Pass and I reach Livingston in record time.
The sun peeks out but there is more rain behind me.
The Yellowstone is in full flood, gleefully over-running its banks. The cottonwoods sport a fresh spring green and a pelican soars overhead.
I see mulies on the left and horses with foals on the right. Three cow elk walk cautiously across a field.
I reach Parkadise and find I've brought the wrong Park Pass with me by accident. Oh well, I don't mind handing over another $25 to my favorite place in the world.
There are numerous elk on the hillsides of Gardiner Canyon, and plentiful geese along the riverbank. But the talk of the Park over the last few days has been a grizzly mom with four cubs of the year, so I decide to head out to Swan Lake Flats to try to see her.
But first I have my visit with Allison. The rain taps a soothing pit-puh-dit- pit as I sit with my spirit-friend.
Now off I go, up the winding hill and through the Golden Gate. Up ahead I see a pullout full of parked cars and scopes. As I drive in I recognize Dr. Halfpenny among the group. I can tell the popular bruin is not in sight at the moment, but I set up anyway and listen to the chatter. I am told she was glimpsed about an hour earlier on the east side of the road in an area of regrowth on the lower slopes of Bunsen. But fog and thick cover has concealed her since then.
Two birds fly overhead and then perch in a tree across the Lake: allowing me to ID them as juvenile bald eagles.
I drive down the road to see if I can locate the bear from a different angle. Instead I see several cow elk with calves so I watch them a while. They are very alert and the calves stay close to mama's side.
I keep going, past "302's last stand" and all the way to the Sheepeater cliffs. I pause here a moment and wait out the rain. Through the drizzle I see a yellow-bellied marmot gathering grasses and seeds.
After a while I decide to head back. The rain creates a beautiful fog and it wafts here and there. A red-squirrel dashes safely across the pavement.
The bear is still hidden and the day does not look at all promising, so I decide to head to the Northern Range where I am always more comfortable. I wind through Mammoth and across the high bridge and stop again at Blacktail Ponds. Despite the rain I can still hear many bird voices, including two of my favorites: the meadowlark and the yellow-headed blackbird. I also see a family of geese with seven tiny gosslings, waddling in line behind their proud parents.
I move on and pass a group of tourists mounting up for a guided horse-pack trip on Blacktail Plateau. I feel bad for them. I imagine they were not expecting rain like this when they paid their money and made their plans!
I scope at the S curves, hoping for wolves. Instead I find elk, bison and two courting hawks. Then at Hellroaring I see Rick's car so I pull in and get the news of the day.
He tells me the Lamar Canyon Pack was seen at Slough this morning, both adults and pups, but the rain made for hard viewing. He says that other wolves have been seen on and off from this pullout in the last weeks. Wolves that might be some of the remaining members of the former Cottonwood Pack, who lost four members to hunters last fall when they strayed out of the Park. Two of those wolves were collared and one was the long-time alpha female, 527, a wolf who had never gotten into cattle or caused any trouble for humans.
But, alas, the rain and fog obstructs the view from here, so scoping from here is futile. Rick goes further west to check on the Blacktail Pack, but he does not find them either.
My next stop is Floating Island Lake. I sit here a while, enjoying the natural sounds and the view and notice a lovely blue bird perched on a branch. Soon afterwards, there is a momentary let-up in the rain, enough for me to hop out and set up Layla. I quickly find the sandhill adults and, to my delight, their two fuzzy orange chicks!
When the rain returns I drive on, this time all the way to Slough, where I arrive along with another brief let up in the downpour. There are numerous people here, loyal wolf watchers all, and I get the latest from them, which is, no activity at the moment. I look anyway, and find various birds and ducks, bison and calves. And I do appreciate how beautiful this spot is!
It's now around 1PM so I head on up to Tower Campground to get myself a spot for the next two nights. Given the weather and the fact that it's Monday, I am shocked to find I have gotten the very last available site! I am not picky about sites, as all I need is a place to park my car, but that's pretty much all this site affords!
A chimpunk tries to explain that this site IS occupied by HIM, but I convince him there is enough room for us to share. I affix my "Occupied" notice and deposit my fee, then head out for more fun.
I head uphill, aiming for the singular turn-around pullout on the creek side of the road. It's one of my favorite spots to nap. Traffic is light and there is only one other person here when I pull in. I park on the opposite side from her and recline the back of my seat.
I can pretty much sleep anywhere when I've been driving a while, but this spot is so nice I am out in a blink. After about an hour I awake to...sunshine!
Well, at least a rain-break! I make coffee and have some lunch and then back down the hill I go. As I near the Junction, I see many stopped cars and people with cameras in the road, so I figure a bear is out. I pull over opposite the gas station.
But it's not a bear. It's a fox. Old Reynard trots across the road from the gas station lot to the north (behind me). Then he quickly reappears and trots down the center line right past me, towards the Ranger Station. He stops to look back, not at the people, but beyond them. He seems oblivious to our presence, and a bit disdainful of us.
He is very light-colored, except for his golden-red face. He is still shedding some large clumps of winter pelt on his back. He calmly moves into the meadow between the two man-changed areas and finds a thick clump of sage in which to hide. I now get out of my car and lean against it, watching him through my binoculars. I can just make out his head behind the sage. He pants in the mid-day warmth.
Various people gather at the edge of the road, probably not quite 25 yards away. A couple near me with a large lens say he has been all over the road for the last 15 minutes. Then one visitor can't leave well enough alone and begins to creep into the meadow with her point & shoot. Three of us call out "No, please stay by the road!" The person stops and backs up but the damage is done. In another minute the fox is up. He moves further away and begins to mouse. We ooh and ahh at his graceful leaps. He gives us all a good show.
Then he moves toward the filling station. A car full of women pulls into the station to use the bathroom. The car stops and the back door opens and a woman begins to get out. But she pulls her legs back inside quickly because the fox trots right past their car, hardly even three feet away.
Once the fox has passed, all four women get out, too astonished to get their cameras. The fox is totally nonchallant. He moves behind the building, then doubles back, crossing the gravel roadway between the entrance to the station and the first row of pumps. The People in the area move away to let the animal through.
He has just gone out of my view when suddenly I see him tear back through the pump area and zip up the hill behind the building. I think for a split second that someone has thrown something at him then I catch a glimpse of another canine on the same hill further to the left. The two animals parallel each other but the fox is further ahead. He runs with amazing speed, making several soaring leaps. The other canine stops. A coyote!
Apparently, just as the fox had reached the far side of the filling station, a coyote came ambling out of the sage near the out-house lot. The fox wheeled and bolted and the coyote gave chase.
But the coyote knows the fox is now long gone, well beyond the almost-ready-to-open Roosevelt cabin area and probably into the forest behind. The coyote seems to shrug its shoulders and heads off straight west, disappearing into the trees that border the Ranger Station.
Looks like the excitement is over. So I turn and head to Slough. Once I'm in place in the lower lot, I scan the whole den area, straining for a glimpse of those elusive puppies. Nothing. But then my luck changes when Carl shows up with his clients. Two minutes after he is set up, he motions to me, saying "the pups are out". Woo hoo!
Either they JUST came out, or he just has superior eyes. Probably both!I see three of the four pups, two light gray and one darker gray. They look smaller than I expected them to be. In fact, they are the smallest wolf pups I have ever seen in the wild. Yet, they are quite bold and venture pretty far from the den. I don't see any adult nearby, although chances are mighty good that one is there, anyway.
The pups wander toward the standing aspen and climb up and over the fallen trunks lying below. Even with Layla's great eye, I can only see them when they move. They do not move very steadily, but seem to wobble a bit. I can't tell if that is because of their age or maybe it's just a trick of distance or uneven ground.
After this little journey, three sweet puppies bound back up the slope and quickly disappear behind the den-knoll. I think they are rough-housing behind the knoll because I catch glimpses of heads and backs and tiny tails.
I look in vain for the adults, none appear. After a while I stop seeing the tails and heads so I figure they have gone back inside the den.
Carl and his clients leave and I stay here another half hour, hoping for a second glimpse, but nope. I try looking behind me and get a consolation prize. Way up there on Specimen ridge, I see a grizzly walking across the remnant line of snow. It's just below the crest of the ridge and easy to see at the moment, dark against the white. Once he tops the ridge I look back at the densite. Still no wolves. And then I notice the sky. Hmmm, more rain coming!
So I decide to go on to Lamar.
I stop to scope at Dorothy's and hear lots of chatter from people who come and go. Some say wolves were seen earlier on the north side of the road. Others tell about a bison that was hit by a car and hauled away rather gruesomely in the basket of a front-loader. I expect the wolf sighting might be connected to the dead bison, but never do get a complete story.
Other folk show me pictures of "wolves" that are, in fact, coyotes. Then the rain arrives and gives the valley a good soaking, leaving a double rainbow over Druid Peak.
I pull into Mid Point to take a photo of the rainbow and end up staying a while. A man pulls in and points to a grizzly in the saddle of Divide Ridge. Hey thanks! We watch him a while. Then I see elk bunching on the western shoulder of Norris and see a grizzly crossing the hillside below them. I expect a chase, but it does not develop. The bear moves on and the elk relax.
The evening light is stunning. I also watch pronghorn, bison and calves, as well as a bald eagle and some playful ravens.
Yet another gale blows in, this one with strong wind and driving rain so I pack up and drive slowly toward the confluence as the wind tosses several sage clumps across the road, like imitation tumble-weed. At the flooded confluence, waves rise on the swollen river, making it look like a mini-ocean.
I stop here to let the gale pass, enjoying the play of wind on the water.
Then I begin my slow drive back.
At Rainy Lake there is just enough light left to see a lone black bear on the opposite hill. I join the many cars stopped here, in the calmest, quietest bear jam ever. Blackie grazes dilligently, then slips into the forest shadows.
Today I saw: 1 black bear, 3 grizzly bears, a blue bird, 3 yellow-headed blackbirds, bison (with calves), a chipmunk, a coyote, 5 sandhill cranes (with 2 colts), mule deer, 2 juvenile bald eagles, elk (with calves), a fox, geese (with goslings), two hawks, a marmot, pelicans, pronghorn, a red squirrel, 3 wolves (all Lamar Canyon Pack puppies) and the spirit of Allison.