I am out early today. It seems warmer to me, and sure enough, the temperature gauge reads 35.
Since it's my last day, I decide to stick close to Laurie. We end up at Mid point, just like yesterday, scanning the northern ridges and turning around to scan the rendezous as well. We find nothing in either area.
We are drawn further east to the Institute when we hear a report by Sian of faint howling, coming from the hills behind the buildings.
It's now about 7:30 and people are arriving by the carloads. Rick asks us to please move our scopes so more cars can fit in the pullout, which we do. There are easily a hundred cars, all over the Institute lot and lining both sides of the road. It's a gorgeous fall morning in Lamar Valley and everyone wants to see a wolf!
Bill Hamblin (the bear man) is here and finds a sow with two cubs of the year, on an open slope high on Specimen Ridge. It's a nice sighting and I note that the cubs are sizeably larger than the roly-poly balls of fuzz I last saw in the spring. They romp about, following mom, just like carefree bear cubs should do. The crowd is delighted but many still keep looking north to find the wolves.
Then we hear a lone howl, to the east - not too far away. Excitement builds and there is a tangible feeling in the crowd that we are going to see a wolf today.
People talk in whispers, adjusting their scopes and pulling on additional hats and scarves and gloves. More howling is heard, from the same direction. It still sounds like one voice to me.
A moment or two later, Bill Hamblin comes quickly towards me and Laurie, pointing to the eastern skyline. There! Further east than where I was focussed I see a black wolf, perfectly silhouetted on the ridge. It's 755. Rick has him, too.
Behind 755 a bulkier black wolf appears; 754, of course. The two blacks move down a game trail and pause, as if listening. Whatever they hear I cannot. Then they move north and I lose them behind a ridge.
Although it's a brief sighting, everyone is thrilled. Nothing like having black wolves right on skyline in morning light!
Some minutes pass and people turn their scopes to Specimen to find the bears again. Then we hear more howling. I keep looking up at the ridge where I saw the elk run yesterday. There are two rounded ridges, one behind another, and a row of aspen trees growing out of a gully between them. The tops of the aspen are golden, and seem to form a third ridge, a golden crown, between the two. Right above the golden crown the two black wolves appear, trotting at a jaunty clip to the northwest.
They disappear, then reappear briefly to the west. They are heading for the area behind Park Ranger mountain, right where Sian heard pup howling coming from.
Another howl is heard - but this one comes from the left - further west. I swing Layla over to the south-facing side of Park Ranger Mountain and just that quickly see a gray wolf traversing the sage. It looks like The 06 to me, although I don't really know her well enough to be certain. The wolf I see does not move like a pup. But it's hard to keep track of a gray wolf in sage and rocks and I lose her pretty quickly. Many people miss her entirely.
She was heading towards the north, toward where we think the pups are. After about a half hour of fruitless searching, Laurie and I drive back to Mid-point North to see if this angle might be better. Alas, it's not.
We chat a bit more and visit with Rick. Then, around 10AM I decide it's time to head out. I say my goodbyes and thanks and head west. I have heard that Dunraven Pass has opened, so I make a plan to take the long way back to Bozeman, affording me a chance to see other areas of the Park.
I head up the hill and through the gate. When I get to the straightaway, where I have so often seen bears or moose in Antelope Creek, I see the smoke.
I have never seen a wild forest fire before. Although there are no flames per se, there are numerous pockets of thick smoke rising from the ground - thick enough to indicate something is still burning. The far side of Antelope Creek canyon is entirely blackened. The most unusual thing to me is seeing so many green-needled conifers still standing, but below them, the undergrowth and all the former deadfall is blackened or gone completely.
The higher I go on the hill, the worse the damage becomes. At one point I see up close the hill that Jake and I saw from afar on Friday, and indeed, the ground is coated in flame retardant.
At the top I stop in one of the pullouts where I have watched Agate wolves on past trips. This is where I see the greatest change. All the ground is burnt and blackened; the marsh, the rendezvous, all of these areas look radically different.
Still, the majority of conifirs seem to have survived. I notice numerous hot spots smoldering in the area.
It's an eye-opening sight, to say the least.
I spend a bit longer with the riveting views, then head over the Pass and down the hill to Canyon, then on into Hayden Valley. Along the way I see a mousing coyote, many ducks and geese, some pelicans, of course bison, and 2 soaring bald eagles.
I am hoping to see the Canyon Pack, as there have been several reports of them lately. It is, however, nearly noon and the day is warm, so I know my chances are slim at best. I've been told they were seen vying with a grizzly on a carcass near the river yesterday, at a location well south of Grizzly Overlook. This tip proves true - at least about the carcass - as I find an enormous jam at the next set of high pullouts, north of Mud Volcano. This jam is bigger than anything I've ever seen in Lamar.
I find a spot to pull safely off the road and haul Layla over to the river- view side. Right away I find a grizzly on a carcass, in a gap between two low hills, on the far side of the Yellowstone River. Then I see a second bear, slightly larger than the first. And I also see a lone coyote, dauntlessly looking for an angle to exploit.
I also scan the area for any sign of the Canyon wolves, but find none. The smaller bear sits on the carcass, scraping grass and dirt over the top, just like I've seen other bears do, exerting his ownership rights. The larger bear walks to and fro, using an unusual gait, a sort of semi-slow motion, as if he is overly deliberating every movement. He seems conflicted between wanting to seize the food and wanting to avoid a beating. He sits down, lies down, gets up again, changes position, then moves away, all very slowly.
I bet there is a good deal of growling going on, and I wish I could hear it!
Then the larger bear makes a sudden lunge, as if one side of the argument he's been having with himself suddenly won. But he almost instantly backs off. The resident bear is not budging.
Now the larger bear moves off further and plops down, seemingly resigned to having to wait. I find a bald eagle perched in a snag above the riverbank. Hmm, looks like he's decided to wait, too.
The day has become as hot as yesterday - 76 - but there is a stiff breeze which helps a bit. This is a lovely sighting and I meet some very nice people but eventually I pack up and head back to Grizzly Overlook. I scan in vain for the Canyons but do find a coyote, moving carefully through a herd of bison.
I realize if I leave now, I might have time to visit Old Faithful, so off I go to the western side of the Park, over Blanding Hill and on through Gibbon Canyon. I drive the new road for the first time. It's quite impressive and smooth, but I fear it will only cause visitors to drive faster, which won't be good for the critters.
There is some delightful fall color through Gibbon Canyon, but when I get to Madison Junction it is even nicer. I have not seen the Firehole River for a good while and its beauty amazes me. It's a stunning royal blue, studded with flecks of whitewater ripples, glinting gloriously in the sun. It just takes my breath away!
I reach Old Faithful and, judging by the swarms of people walking away from the boardwalk, I have just missed an eruption. No matter, now I have time to visit the Inn and the brand-new VC. The Inn is just a gorgeous and unique as ever, but the VC - man, it is HUGE!
The exhibits are terrific, many of them are interactive, and there is a separate room just for kids. There is a nice gift shop, lots of space and enormous bathrooms.
Now I head to the geyser and find a perfect spot from which to view it, away from the crowds and in the shade of some lodgepoles. And once it starts to play, I am so glad I waited for it - It is a beautiful geyser.
Now I am ready for the last leg of my journey home to Bozeman.
At Black Sand basin I see a hawk taking off into the wind. Along the Madison I see several herds of elk, each with a lone bugling bull. Many of the cows stand in the river, trying to stay cool on this hot afternoon.
The fall color improves as I go. I leave the Park via the West Gate and as I pass the airport I remember taking this route in winter with Doug Dance after our Old Faithful sno-mobile trip in 2001. I remember Doug spotted a moose!
And I realize I have never taken this route in this direction except in winter, so I've never seen it except in snow. As I pass one beautiful meadow after another, the endless variety of color just amazes me.
My last wildlife sighting before Bozeman is a dozen mule deer in a golden field. And my wonderful day ends, appropriately, with a gorgeous sunset behind silhouetted mountains.
Today I saw: 5 grizzly bears (including 2 cubs), bison, 4 coyotes, ducks, mule deer, 3 bald eagles, elk, geese, a hawk, pelicans, pronghorn, a wildfire, 3 wolves (the adults of the Lamar Canyon Pack (the 06 female, 755M and 754M), and the spirit of Allison