I look out my balcony window in Bozeman. Hmm, darkness but no stars. It looks like the predictions of snow will hold. I spend the next two hours packing and cleaning up and finally it's Yellowstone, here I come!
I've named my gray-green Subaru Outback rental "Greta". Her temperature gauge reads 40 but soon drops to 36. A light snow begins to fall as I head south. There is snow along the tops of the mountains and some lovely fall color lingering along winding Trail Creek.
I feel pretty good, considering that I have been fighting a lingering cold for the past three weeks. In fact my doctor thinks I probably had H1N1 - to which I have some immunity as do so many in my generation. I have convinced myself that being in YNP will banish the bug once and for all.
I see some mulies feeding just at the tree line and later, a herd of white-tails grazing in a field. They look up when I stop, so I keep going.
On Highway 89 I see cars parked up ahead, on both sides of the road, then notice a bull elk with a harem of elk cows trying to cross from west to east. The people are taking photos but, just like in the Park, their presence is enough to prevent the nervous animals from crossing.
The herd is very tightly bunched and I don't want to add to their stress so I keep driving. About a half mile away there is a second group, much larger than the first. They, too, are tightly bunched and seem determined to cross the road. Poor things. Looks like Rt 89 could do with a few wildlife crossing bridges.
The Yellowstone River is low which is normal for this time of year. But I am delighted to see a pair of swans on it, just beyond Emigrant. The day remains cloudy but warms to 41.
At 11:45 I drive through arch. The Park looks dry and golden and very empty of people. I do not see any bighorn on the way up, nor any antelope. No doubt the antelope have already migrated out.
I stop for my visit with Allison. I tell her how happy I am to be here, how I hope she is tending to the poor wolf spirits who passed recently, Druid alpha 569F, Cottonwood alpha 527F and her daughter, the Dark Female 716F, and one-of-a-kind 302M. Sad as it is to think of the missing wolves, especially the two lost to bullets, it is good to visit with my friend, the former Queen of the Loons, as her spirit always sets my heart on a good path.
I see elk all over Mammoth but the bulls seem to be past their "dangerous" phase. The temps have dropped, though, so I stop at the Albright restroom to change into my warmer clothes. Mammoth Hotel is closed, the Dining Room and the Grille are closed and the big, new restroom is closed. This is one reason why the Park is so empty of traffic.
Doug Dance and his mom are in the Park this week and I want to hook up with them, so I stop to give him a call, forgetting that he doesn't use his cell in the Park. Hmmm, I guess I will have to figure out another way to connect with him.
I head east. As I pass Blacktail Ponds I note they still contain open water, but barely any avian life for which they are otherwise known. I breathe deeply and say out loud again and again, how nice it is to be here! I stop at the S-Curves and scope for the Blacktails in the place I last saw 302. It makes me sad but I know he left his pack healthy and in good hands, er, paws (!)
The roads are dry except for a few minor patches of packed snow in the forested sections. Phantom Lake is mostly a marsh now, but still retains a bit of standing water in its most eastern corner.
I stop at Elk Creek and look out toward Junction Lake, where I have seen wolves at one time or another in past years. This year I find elk instead. There are several herds and I hear lots of bugling. I notice one elk cow walking by herself, all by her lonesome - where is she going and why? Then I see the reason - she is heading towards a handsome bull. Then I notice a second bull following her. Each time she pauses, the second bull hurries toward her. Perhaps she is tired of him and wants to see what the other one has to offer?
It's nice to hear the bugles echoing in this area.
I notice another group of elk bedded on the slope full of dead trees below the big "ski lot" pullout to the east. I smile, thinking that if I were in that lot, I might not have any idea those animals were so close. I find more elk in the eastern part of Yancy's hole. The sky is doing its typical, wonderful thing - showing both cloudy & sunny sections, and a brisk wind is blowing. It's absolutely beautiful and I am SO HAPPY!
As I make the turn toward Lamar I notice there is only the barest trickle of water in the little "gateway" stream (the one that runs under the horse bridge). As I pass the Yellowstone Picnic area I notice that most of the glacial erratic stones in the forest have snowy tops.
There is still water in Junction Butte pond and in Boulder pond. I notice something that becomes a visual theme to this trip, probably peculiar to this time of year: the various trails (game and human) are painted white with snow. Perhaps the bare ground is just a tad colder than the surrounding vegetation so the snow does not melt? I'm not sure why, but I like the tracing effect. The trails stand out clearly.
Anyway, I take to calling them white-trails and smile each place I see them, which means I am smiling a LOT!
I love every single sight as I travel through Little America and up Lamar Canyon. There are a lot of bison in the sage south of Slough and the water level in Lamar Canyon is so low I cannot even see it until I pull over and get out for a peek. I have NEVER see the rocks so fully exposed before! I think about hiking down to the river to look for tracks but chicken out at the steep terrain. I decide to wait for a partner.
Now I round the bend and behold my beloved Lamar Valley. Right away I see three separate and substantial bison herds, all on the north slopes. Beautiful Druid peak rises over all, wearing a thick snow cape. One bison bull comes down the north slope up ahead and crosses, doing a bit of pronging - that stiff-legged, all-four-feet- at-once hopping gait. It looks quite funny for such a large and sober animal to do.
Then two bison begin to spar. Aha, the pronging was a prelude to the sparring I guess. But they tire of it quickly and walk over to join the herd.
The Lamar River looks great, weaving through the golden meadows and hills. Many aspen still have leaves, golden and orange. The mix of these leaves with the gray-green sage is so lovely.
I stop at Exclosure and traipse about a third of the way up the hill with just my binocs to look in the rendezvous for Durids. I do notice two dark spots, but they do not move, so I come back to Greta and drive on. The confluence is gorgeous as always, and the fall color of the willows - orange, russet, scarlet and purple are just stunning.
There is an overflow pool on the north side of the road which seems to have frozen.
The jagged peaks of the surrounding mountains are quite full of snow. I keep driving, loving everything I see. The Trout Lake stream gurgles nicely down the hill, greening both sides of its route.
Round Prairie is hushed and beautiful and I stare across the meadow, remembering the day when I saw 302 and 569 leading the Druid alphas on their way back from a kill, carrying a hunk of meat to his new family. That was 2006, the spring in which the Druids came back from the brink.
As I drive on I notice movement to my left so I stop. A spike bull with uneven antlers is splashing across Pebble Creek, heading toward a herd of cows on the opposite side in a grove of trees. A beautiful big 6X6 bull is tending them, while keeping a wary eye on the spike. The cows are bunched and they watch the spike, too.
Once the spike enters the grove of trees, the bull begins to move his cows away from hism, toward the road. They are going to cross into Round Prairie. There is no traffic on the road except for me so I just wait and watch.
The cows move across the pavement and into the meadow, some trotting, some walking briskly, a few loping. The bull brings up the rear. Oh, he is so gorgeous, in the prime of life. He stops in the road and looks back at the spike. The spike keeps his distance but seems to want to maintain a connection to this herd and I wonder if he actually has any designs on the cows?
The bull finishes his crossing and the cows begin to spread out to graze. The spike crosses at a trot, then turns to the right as if to outflank the bull. He begins to run and in doing so, sparks some of the cows to run, too. It's a pretty autumn picture and I am the only one who sees it.
After a while I head on, reaching Silver Gate around 3:30. I deliver Laurie's groceries and we have a nice visit. It's so great to see her and I am so grateful that I can share her lovely home while I'm here. The power is out when I arrive - a fairly frequent occurence in Silver Gate. She has been told that a tree fell over on the power lines somewhere northeast of Cooke but they expect to have things fixed before long.
Laurie has a lamp and a flashlight for me just in case. She says not to worry, she has a back-up generator for such emergencies as this.
While we are talking, Laurie suddenly motions me to the front window. A lovely red fox trots past her house, about 10 feet from the road. She says she is a regular visitor - coming and going several times a day. Neat!
Laurie gives me the current situation, which is that the Druids have been feeding on a carcass above Amethyst Bench and have been periodically returning to the r-v. So when I head back out I decide to stop at Trash Can PUllout and climb the little hill on the north side of the lot. From here I can scope both the rendezvous and the Amethyst area. I pitch Layla and get to work.
Rendesvous first. I see several spots that COULD be wolves, if only they would move. I mark them in my head to check again later. I find a bull elk roaming and grazing and watch him a while, thinking, well, if that elk is there, the wolves are probably NOT there. I pan to the right and notice a black bird landing. Hmmm. In my experience, birds often hang around wolves, because wolves tend to cache food and then dig it up later. And when they do, the bird can snag a free meal.
I mark the bird spot in my head and begin to pan back to the elk. Suddenly see a wolf! A gray wolf, standing broadside, facing Specimen Ridge. Woo hoo! It's a collared gray, with very skinny tail. Must be a Druid. The wolf stands very still, watching something intently, then moves to the spot where the bird landed.
I dance down the hill to Greta to get a pair of gloves and my hat, because now I know I will likely be standing on Trash Can Hill for a while. A car slows down, a large SUV with 5 or 6 women inside. I tell them I have a wolf in view if they would like to join me. They pull into the lot. Two of them get out and introduce themselves as the Ladies from Missouri. They tell me they just saw some black wolves and a grizzly and they point to the west.
My face lights up. Where? When? About an hour ago, they say, back by the Institute. This makes me very happy because there is a good chance I could see those animals from here. So I thank them and head back up to Layla. I find out later that Doug Dance and his mom saw the same wolves and the same grizzly that these ladies saw. He was watching them while I was visiting Laurie. Ah well, so close and yet so far!!!!
Once I am back on TCH, I check on my gray and show her to the two ladies who hike up with me. They are especially pleased to see her, because they did not know exactly where the rendezvous area is. I try my best to show them its landmarks. Then I turn Layla toward Amethyst Bench and almost instantly find more wolves.
First I see just one black and watch it walk up the snowy hill toward a diagonal line of trees. It occurs to me that the gray might have been looking at this wolf. He/she walks somewhat hesitantly up the hill, then turns left. I am pretty sure it has a collar. When it turns, another black wolf pops up a distance away, and then another one, bedded near it. The second bedded wolf rises to its haunches and the walking wolf looks at them both but resumes walking up the hill. From this I surmise they all know each other. The two wolves bed again.
The walking wolf disappears into the slanted line of trees, and I suspect it is returning to the carcass for another meal.
The ladies tell me they first saw the bear near that slanted line of trees, that it came out in the open with a wolf behind it, and they wondered why the two animals would be in such close proximity. I tell them I have been told there is a carcass in the area, and that both animals have probably been taking turns feeding on it throughout the day. I tell them my guess is that the wolf was perhaps making sure the bear was finished.
At some point, I discover that the gray in the r-v has disappeared, but there are three more bull elk (for a total of four) and one cow in the neighborhood. That's not many, but I'm gad to know there are ANY elk in Lamar! 8~)
The next time I look over at the black wolves I see the two that had been bedded are now moving down from that spot. As they descend, a fourth black wolf appears out of the sage below them. It had probably been bedded there the whole time, unseen. So I am now up to four blacks plus the gray in the r-v. Yay!
These three bed in a slight depression, leaving me with only two sets of ears in view. The Missouri ladies bid me adieu, needing to be considerate of their friends waiting in the car. I thank them for their help and say I'm sure we will meet again!
The light is fading, and although I continue to watch the slope in hopes that the grizzly will re-appear, I see no sign of him. So I mark this spot in my head so I can find it tomorrow and finally head down to Greta at 6:15.
On the way back I stop at Hitching Post and hear a high-pitched call. I find a golden eagle perched on a rock on the north hill, silhouetted against the higher snow slopes of Druid Peak. The big bird screes loudly several times.
Now I'm off again towards Silver Gate. I see a warm light in the window as I arrive so I know the power is back on. Laurie and I have a great dinner and Rick comes by for a visit. We all have a nice chat before I head to dreamland!
TODAY I SAW: bison, 2 mule deer, 10 white-tail deer, ducks, a golden eagle, elk, a red fox, a raven, 2 swans, 5 Druid wolves (four blacks and one gray) and the spirit of Allison.