I'm up at 4. Moving again - this time to a campsite not yet chosen. It is clear and warm; I barely need my jacket. The Elk are not in their usual place today but as I pass the next meadow I see a large dark animal through the trees - Moose! I stop and watch it move in an aspen grove. There is a marsh beyond. The moose starts to trot and I fantasize that a wolf is chasing it but I see nothing. Moments later it stops and begins to munch. It's too far for photos but fun to watch anyway.
I see some Elk and two mule deer just past Ice Box Canyon. As I pass Pebble I notice how empty and inviting it looks. It becomes a prime candidate to become my home the next two nights. At the Footbridge I find Joette is here already, looking at the wonderful view.
The resident coyotes are mousing in the meadow. We watch them as people begin to arrive for the morning viewing. Joette tells me she actually got some sleep last night! We watch an Elk doe and her calf run into the trees behind DPH. Gary and Mark arrive. I introduce Joette as an fellow Loon and my hiking partner. The Bear boys complain that the early warm weather has sent the griz way up in the hills. They say a black bear and cub have been spotted in the timbered area near Little America. I make a note to check that out.
I can't seem to round up any good Druid info except that they are rumored to be out in the Cache Creek drainage. I tell Joette that I want to check other pullouts for wolf activity. She say's she's going to head up to the Beartooth Highway. I apologize to her for Lamar coming up short in animals. She says I'm being silly. We part, hoping to see each other again before she has to leave.
I drive the length of Lamar all the way to Slough and find nothing. It's as if everyone is somewhere else. Now, of course, the valley is not really empty. There are bison and elk and antelope and other animals I'm sure I'd see if I'd only stop. I've become a bit spoiled by this time and I want a wolf sighting, so foolishly I am looking for them the lazy way - by looking for cars. I forget my own advice that it's when you're NOT looking that you see the most. Anyway, this was perhaps the only time I drove the Lamar with anything close to disappointment. I wasn't looking at the green or the water or the hills. I was looking for cars. Bad move all around.
Anyway the time allows me enough reflection to decide that I will camp at Pebble. So back I go to scout a spot. It just opened yesterday. I guess the warm weather finally dried it out from the annual spring floods. When I drive in I see the feeder streams still raging full. The banks are still lined with sand bags, most of them wet! I take my time to search for a spot on high enough ground to insure I don't float away, should a sudden storm burst the dike. I pick my site and deposit my money. To prove my claim I leave a rain proof, wind proof and non- edible plastic tarp lashed to the picnic table with a bungee cord. Now I head back to Lamar to see if the Druids have come out.
Nothing at Footbridge. Here I go again. At the Hitching Post I finally spy some regulars. Miranda and Chris have their scopes set up. Tricia and Gary are on the far hill and a few other hearties mill about. I pull in and get out with my binocs and camera. I see some people looking up toward Cache Creek I start that way - suddenly someone says "wolf!" Yahoo! Someone else says "it's 21"! I still don't see movement but it's clear that Chris has him. I move over to the knob where he and Miranda stand, scopes pointing southwest. Still don't see anything. Then on the road I notice a red car stopped. I pan from the road down the slope into the meadow and there! A fast moving four-legged shadow lopes up the slope and behind the red car. Black wolf! I lose him behind the car and wait for him to re-appear on the other side - I giddily expect a nice long sighting as he will head uphill back to the den. But I never see him again.
Now wait a minute. Where in the world could he have gone? I look at the people in the car for clues but they don't seem to see him either. I watch Miranda and Chris. Nobody has him. We all know where the den is, we all expected him to head uphill or a little to the right in that general direction. But 21 eludes us all. I wonder out loud whether wolves are capable of digging secret tunnels.
Miranda and Chris and I compare notes to make sure we each saw the same wolf. Definitely 21 they say. Telemetry said he was coming in. I confess that I only saw him for a few seconds. A grey shadow moving up the slope and behind the red car I say. Miranda surprises me by playing back her video of the whole event! She had him a long time! I watch a wonderfully clear image of 21 coming down between the two rivers. I see him running in long graceful strides across the flats, heading for the road. Wow. She was able to follow him all the way except at one point when the screen is full of an unidentified man's back as he steps right in front of her camera! But then she picks him up again and finally the tape gets to the part where I came in. It's wild, watching a 2 inch square monitor and seeing a replay of what I just witnessed live through my binoculars. And sure enough, there is the disappearing act again! 21 crosses behind the stopped red car and vanishes.
Miranda says she was sure he was heading in front of the car and she was worried that the car wouldn't stop in time. But wily 21 clearly knows a few tricks. As much as I am disappointed I am also full of admiration for the daring Druid dad. For the time being we comfort ourselves with the sight of a big golden eagle perched in a dead tree. I am starting to learn the differences between goldens and immature balds. I also learn that all the Druids are back at the den now except for 105 who is "still out". Her signal is weak so no one expects to see her for a while. I am getting a rather strong signal of my own that I'm hungry and I suddenly remember the Soda Butte Lodge where I had breakfast last week. Now why didn't I think of that while Joette was still here?
I head north to Cooke City. Unfortunately, breakfast is over by the time I arrive so I content myself with lunch. I console myself with a piece of home-made cherry pie. Yum! The day is bright and warm. I decide to try the Beartooth Highway myself. After a quick nap in the shade of sweet-scented pines I'm off. Some of the human settlement of Cooke City seems downright ugly compared to the beauty of the Park. I pass clearcuts and run-down businesses that seem a disservice to the hardy folk who live here. I try to imagine what it must be like to live in a town from which there is only one way out from October to May. Yet what a location! A few more miles and I am back in National Forest land, with thick pine groves, gorgeous vistas and roaring rivers. The Road curves around a steep talus slope. I see a car stopped and two kids eagerly climbing up the gigantic rock pile. I remember the story of a hiker who died when just such a rock slipped and pinned his legs.
I am surprised to recognize some of the names of Campgrounds in this National Forest from trip reports I've read. For a while, though, I can't figure why this Highway deserves such a name. I pull over at a "scenic view" area and find the answer. Behind me, unseen until now, rises a steep, jagged "tooth" of a mountain Peak (Pilot peak I believe) that earns the name instantly. The temperature has dropped considerably and there are now whole fields of snow on the slopes under the trees. There are also whole fields of green, polka-dotted with yellow dandelions, much more beautiful than the prettiest suburban lawn.
I am the only one on the road. It is so hard to believe that there is this much beauty in the world and so few people seeing it. A river rushes down on my left, crosses under the road and continues downhill to my right. I stop to inspect it further. The volume of water and the roaring symphony of water music is like cymbals and timpani and brass all at once. It is solid white water exploding down the hillside full of whole trees and big boulders. If I were hiking here I can't imagine getting across such a stream.
I pass the intersection of the Chief Joseph Highway and remember what I was told about the Sunlight Basin. I also remember that famous Wolf # 9 now lives in that area so I decide I want to see it. Maybe I'll drive all the way to Cody. I turn around and head down the Chief Joseph and soon see a very large river that turns out to be the Clark's Fork. As in Capt. William Clark, folks. Man! I remember this river from the Journals of Lewis & Clark. I am excited to see such a famous river still very much in a 'wild" state. Despite the few roads and ranches here and there, it is easy to imagine when it was hunting country for the Shoshone and the Crow.
As much as I enjoy this drive I begin to get a sense that my trip is coming to an end. The further I get from the Park the more I feel the urge to return. I admit this is irrational but it feels almost like I'm being PULLED back to the Park. An inner voice tells me to go back, to spend as much time in Lamar as I can. I give in. I turn around and head back. And this is where it happens. I am heading up a rise when a strange animal comes down the rocky hillside to my right. I am not going fast and slow down instantly. The animal crosses the road, turns its head and looks right at me. I stare back with wide eyes. What IS that?
The animal is dark brown, richly furred, with a lighter, almost blonde patch on its neck and again on its tail. Its tail is very long and very thick, like a scared cat's. Overall this animal is somewhat cat-like but longer. It's low to the ground, its gait is a bit ungainly; its back is arched or humped as it moves. I see claws on its feet, small ears and a short snout. It has big eyes and in its partly-open mouth I see sharp pointy teeth.
It reaches the other side of the road and scampers down hill into the brush. I stop the car a few feet beyond where it crossed and get out to see if it's still there. I am talking to myself saying "what the heck was that? What in the world are you, little creature?" I have definitely never seen an animal like this ever before in my life. The only thing I'm sure of is that it must be a predator.
I find no tracks in the pebbly soil at the side of the road and the brush is thick. I wait but don't see it again. I am thrilled but mystified as to what this was. My best estimate of its size is a two foot body with another foot and a half of tail. Height is maybe double a housecat. The area where he crossed is densely forested on both sides and fairly high altitude maybe 8-9 thousand feet, with mountain peaks reaching 10 or 11. My first guesses include a small wolverine, otter or fisher cat. I discount fisher because they are said to be very elusive and rare. I discount small wolverine as the coloration is really not right and a wolverine's muzzle is longer and more pointed. I also rule out otter as I saw no evidence of webbing on his paws and the tail was not at all otter-like. I add Pine Marten and maybe some unknown species of large weasel to the possibilities list.
When I got back to NY I checked my various animal books but still came to no definite conclusions. By sheer luck, on a weekend trip in early August, I discovered positively what it was but I'm not telling. I want you to guess.
I am jazzed by this sighting as it proves once again the frequency of the unexpected in this area of the world. I also feel that I was "meant" to turn around when I did just so I could see this animal. I enjoy the drive back with the "bear-teeth" in front of me and I see the sky begin to cloud over for the first time in days. Good, I say. We need it to get cooler so the animals will come back down where we can see them! I stop for a nap at the Thunderer trailhead. So peaceful! Such a nice breeze through my windows. I collect some downed wood and leave it at my campsite in Pebble in case I want a fire tonight. As luck would have it Joette pulls in, just back from her Beartooth adventure. She went much further than I and saw lots of snow all over. We wish we had time for another hike. As we hug goodbye I have a strong feeling that our paths will cross again. It's our destiny!
Now I head out for my evening wolf-watching. I'm early so I drive on past the Footbridge and Hitching Post and on through the valley, enjoying the light as I go. Right about Trash Can I see the Ruffian cross the road to do some nonchalant mousing. Some other cars stop to watch. One man with a video camera gets out of his car and walks toward mine. He asks me if it's a wolf. Reluctantly I say "no it's a coyote. I thought wolf too, the first time I saw him". I tell the man to stick around, that there are wolves in this valley and they may be visible later. He says he and his family are on their way to Red Lodge.
I move on through the most beautiful valley in the world. At the timbered edge of Little America I run into a bear jam and see Bear man Gary. I stop. The black bear and cub that have been frequenting this area are here again. They are asleep in the timber but this time I see them. There is a young Ranger here directing traffic. A man in a truck videotapes out his window leaving his truck idling in that loud diesel way. The ranger tries to get him to shut it off but instead the man revs it and then drives off.
Gary and I roll our eyes. I kid him about watching such an "easy" target. He says it's been another slow day. I tell him about my mysterious mammal sighting. He guesses correctly but I didn't know that then. We watch a while but the bears stay asleep. We see them roll over and change position once and the cub looks out at the crowd but then its head disappears again behind its mama.
When I get back to the Footbridge it is quite full. I chat with Ruth and Vrod, an older couple from Boston who are volunteer wolf researchers. They say that 105 is "still out". A group hikes out towards Dead Puppy Hill, probably hoping for a peek back towards the den. Ruth says that one of them is carrying a radio. I don't see a lot of animal activity tonight except some amorous mallards. A male is making advances on a female who seems indifferent to his incessant quacking. She swims out a little into the current and the male tries to follow but the current pulls him downstream. He quacks as he drifts further and further away then finally takes to the air, flying back up river. He lands in the water about even with the female but gets quickly pulled downstream again. She still isn't paying him any attention. He finally gives up and flies off in the opposite direction!
The light ins beginning to fade. I notice a lady standing on the big rock looking toward the den site with interest. She sees me and waves me over. She says "do me a favor, look where over there and see if you see something". I look where she looks. "Start at the orange rock move left to a tree. Do you see a man standing there?" Wow! I do! I see a man in a white t-shirt and black pants leaning against a tree, staring into the den area. We both know he has no business being there. The lady is very concerned. She and her husband say they think he snuck into the area and is communicating with the people on DPH. She says that may be why we are not seeing any wolves tonight. I am distressed about the man being where he shouldn't. I go in search of Tom to tell him. I don't find him at Hitching Post so I come back. I get up on the rock and look again. Yep! There he is! Still in the same spot. Hasn't moved a muscle. Wait a minute. He is in EXACTLY the same position.
Exactly. Uh oh. I begin to suspect I've fallen victim to the power of suggestion. There is less light now than before, but as I train my binocs on the spot I can see it's not a man at all, it's a broken branch. A tree with a large broken branch, leaning against it, nearly upright, the general size and shape of a man. A tee-shirt sized patch of scraped or peeled bark at the top and black-pants bark below. MAN oh MAN! It's a man-branch!
I find the lady and her husband. I tell her what I think. I ask her if the "man" has moved at all since she first saw him. She admits "he" has not. I say does it make sense that a human could remain that still for over a half hour? They both look again with cooler heads and we have a good laugh.
Just then I notice some people moving their scopes near Tom at the east end of the pullout. Someone points toward Soda Butte Cone. We go over, too. How about that! It's nearly dark and we have a wolf in the meadow! It's 105. I can see her, just a black speck on a slope above the riverbank. She moves in a circle and lies down. Now I can see only the tops of her ears. A few more cars pull up and people get out and ask excitedly what's happening. Tom tells them in his calm, friendly-professor way. One man from this group has a level of excitement above all others. With some awkwardness the Excited Man gets directions from Tom, then has his kids all come out to look. 105 is not doing a lot, just sleeping. But we are happy as it's the end of the night. Then suddenly the Excited Man calls out "there's another wolf! No, two!" The crowd comes alive. Where? Where? We all look. There is one old timer here with a Leica scope like Geri & Bruce's. I stick close to him expecting that he'll be the best source of information. The Excited Man continues "There! There! On the far bank! Oh there are three of them now! They're chasing elk! Wow! They're all running along the bank after the elk!"
I can't believe I'm missing this! I check with my neighbors, but no one sees this yet. After more loud exclamations from the Excited Man, the old timer volunteers "I see 6 elk on the bank walking. Is that what you see?" The Excited man is in a frenzy. "Omigod!" He says. "They're chasing the elk! They're chasing the elk up that slope!" How can he be the ONLY one seeing all this? How many wolves asks someone. "Three wolves!" How many elk says someone else. "Three elk!" Which way are they running? "From left to right!" Now, finally I see some movement on the low slope. I see six elk: three on the low slope and three on the high slope. They move at a steady walk up toward the tees. No one is running. I see no wolves. I look back at the Excited Man. There is silence. The old timer says dryly "them's Elk". The Excited Man lowers his binoculars, then raises them again, slowly coming back to earth. It's pretty dark but I can imagine the color of his face. He becomes the Embarrassed Man. Most of the people are very annoyed at him. One is rude. The Embarrassed Man gathers his kids and gets back in his car. Tom puts an end to it by confirming six elk, now in the timber, and he reconfirms 105 who has calmly remained bedded down in the same place the whole time. Those of us who are left have a good chuckle. Tom says wearily "it happens all the time".
The "man-branch" couple and I share a look of relief that our brand of foolishness remained our secret! I giggle all the way to Pebble. I forego a fire in exchange for an extra hour of sleep. l leave the windows down as the night is so pleasant. The stream gurgles so loudly it literally drowns out all other sound. With such beautiful music to soothe me I drift off.
Today I saw: Antelope, Bison, 2 Black bear (1 adult, 1 cub), 4 Coyotes, Deer, Elk, a Fisher,
a Golden Eagle, 2 Mallards, 1 Moose, 1 Loon and 2 Druid wolves, 21 and 105