My alarm goes off at 4AM and is followed immediately by a great clap of thunder and the sound of hail smacking and bouncing off the roof. My days don't usually start like this. I stay in bed listening to the storm. The hail turns to rain and then the bird chorus begins. I discover that in these mountains, birds will sing in rain or shine, and they begin at 4:30.
OK I'm up. I begin my morning ritual boiling water for tea and gathering the items I will need for the day. I'm off to Lamar at 5:25. Early, I think, but I soon learn that the Druids get up even earlier. There are deer in the woods right beyond the entrance gate. Two pretty bucks in velvet. There wasn't a morning or evening that I drove this road that I didn't see deer. I have my windows down because I want to smell and hear the world but this means I need to wear my hat and gloves. It's cold (to me) and I'm glad I listened to the Loons' advice about bringing warm clothes. Snow still clings in huge chunks to the cliffs in Ice Box Canyon and there are large snow patches in the shade between the trees. Several noisy snowmelt streams gush out along the road, and in the meadows the Soda Butte Creek overspills its banks.
As I approach the Footbridge pullout I see some cars here already. I get out to look and find it very quiet. Nice. No one seems to have anything in sight. We catch each others' eye and seem to say "nothing yet but still hopeful". The view from this pullout is simply my favorite of all. Here in wide-angle splendor, you get a river and its busy banks, flats, soft slopes, steep slopes, rocky cliffs, aspen groves, tall conifers, high snow-splotched meadows, distant dramatic mountain peaks and big, big sky. And if that's not enough, there's a wolf den behind you.
The prospect of spending a morning in Lamar seduces me. There is a Loonion to go to in Mammoth but I completely lose any sense of time. To hurry seems ridiculous. A lady with a scope announces "Grizzly" and we all turn. I THINK I see it through my binocs, way up high on one of the ski-slopes but by the time it is my turn at her scope, it's gone. I notice a very large herd of antelope. Schedule-schmedule. I drive west to get a better view. The sky begins to clear and the day gets bright. Just past the confluence some scattered bison graze near to the road. I want to get close-ups so I roll down my window. The look in one big fella's eye quickly intimidates me.
I move to the Lamar Picnic area. The dirt road is blocked half way as the whole picnic area is under flood. Luckily for me and countless others, the outhouse has escaped damage. The tables are drowned nearly up to their bench-tops. There are islands of dry earth encircling a few cottonwoods but the rest is shallow river. Several kinds of ducks nibble at grasses in the shadows of the trees. The large antelope herd on the far bank is now moving behind an even larger bison herd. I estimate maybe 100 animals, including calves. I naively think that wolves are bound to come after the calves any minute.
I spend a long time here as I also find numerous wildflowers. I hear some bison grunts and look up from a bunch of wild violets. I see two Bison engaged in…well…sex. Now THAT is a first for me. Just like a tourist, I raise my camera to record the incident for all time but the bison, having better manners, separate. I watch for a while hoping they will repeat this behavior but one has a headache I guess. They cross the road in search of greener grass. I move on, too. Now I see an animal that will consistently cross my path, and cause controversy whenever he appears.
The car ahead of me suddenly slows and stops. I see why. A long-legged dog moves out from the sage hills (the Druid Peak side) with the obvious intention of crossing the road. Omigod! A wolf! My heart is in my throat. I stop. I don't even breathe. No one else is around except the guy ahead of me. I grab my camera, stay right in my seat and take pictures out my window. The animal has a collar around its neck. It walks slowly and deliberately across the road. It continues through the field of grass and sage. His gaze is focused across the river on something. His coloring is burnt sienna and grey. He holds his bushy tail straight out. His muzzle is - oh! His muzzle is fox-like. As much as I want to see a wolf, I am full of doubt. Finally he is far enough away from the road that I feel it's OK to get out of my car. I do and take more photos. The man ahead of me is doing the same thing. Finally I say to him "It's not a wolf, is it?" There is a pause before he replies. "No, it's a coyote. A rugged Lamar coyote". He explains that the Park collars some coyotes as well as some bears and some wolves to aid in research. The man conveys to me that he has a great deal of respect for this particular animal. I feel it myself. It's not just my wanting him to be a wolf. His attitude is different. He's big and tough for a coyote. I name him The Ruffian.
I have a last glimpse of him before I go. He stands very still, intent on his own business, as heedless of me as he is of the wind that lifts and bends back his fur, watching the far bank of the Lamar, seeing something I can't.
My next stop is at Dorothy's Knoll. Several cars are here, and at least four spotting scopes trained in the same direction. I stop and look through my binocs, listening for clues to what they are seeing from the people with the scopes. Finally I hear one man giving sighting directions to his wife. I follow his lead and there it is! A large black bear moving in an out of a stand of aspens at the bottom of the slope. I see a small band of elk, somewhat nervous, below the trees. The bear seems to sit down with his back to one tree. The elk go back to grazing, but look up from time to time, keeping an eye on him. I think he went to sleep! We watch a while, encouraging the bear to get up and do something but he only rolls over on his side. What a life!
I pull off above Lamar Canyon to listen to the roar of the River and see a yellow marmot emerge from behind a rock to sit a moment in the sun. A car pulls in beside me. I look over to see a woman in the passenger seat waving and rolling down her window. We recognize each other immediately (thanks to Lew & Deb's Loon Page) You're Sandi! I say. "You're Wendy!" she replies. We both get out and gleefully shake hands. I also meet Rick and wave to niece Shelbi in the back seat. I tell them I've met John and ask why they're not at the Silver Gate Cabins as I expected. She tells me of their bad luck – when they arrived the owners were absent and they could not get into their cabin, forcing them to look elsewhere. They got the last remaining room in Cooke City but were understandably annoyed. They said they would make the movie screening but would have to miss the Loon lunch. They reported some good bear sightings and Shelbi was given credit for her spotting skills.
Off we go our separate ways. A little further down I see two cars pulled over and a scope trained on the hill above. I look where they look and through my binocs I see a large grizzly mom and two cubs! They are high up, just beneath the top. Mom crests the hill, one cub follows, then the other and they are gone. But that's three griz! I love this place!
In Little America I see a group of about eight antelope resting on a low sage hill. For once the "rocks" turned out to be antelope! Only when I am half way to Mammoth do I remember the importance of the Web Cam Loon Picture, which I am clearly going to miss by my lollygagging. I forgot it was to be part of our secret gift to John and was thinking only that I would have numerous chances to wave to the Web Cam. Silly Wendy! I plead Stupidity and Spacey-ness due to Seductive Scenery. Anyway, I arrive too late as everyone already knows.
I pull into a parking space and see several people in Loon T-shirts and hats walking towards The Mammoth Grille. It's John, Carlene, Joseph and Rachel. A nice-looking man comes up to me as I reach back into my car for my camera. "Hi Wendy" he says. I look at him but the Spacey-ness still has a hold on me. "Hi. Who are you?" I say…to Dan M! Oh how STOOPID I felt! I fumble a lame excuse that I expected him to be taller. He is forgiving. I think I hugged him in apology and we went over to the Grille.
There I greet and am greeted by Loon after Loon - the exuberant Geri & Oldtymr, warm and astute Lew & Deb, red-headed, funny Mark Roberts (HE's tall!) and his sweet parents, Ruth and Carl, cheerful Tim Williams and his thoughtful son Tim II, gentlemanly Jay, friendly Tim A, gracious Web Cam Tom, cool cats JT & Malinda, resident raconteur Ballpark Frank, lovely Cathy Montana, and sly jokester Jakeman. Every single Loon teases me about missing the photo.
As others have already told, we laughed and chatted like old friends. It seemed to me like a college re-union after many years - you know everybody well but aren't up on all the details of their current lives. I guess it's that we have indeed already shared the common experience of Yellowstone. We talk about how this all evolved; Geri is officially recognized for coining the "Loon" name, and Lew & Deb are thanked for creating the terrific and helpful Loon Home Page. John makes his opening speech and I think he figures that's about it but then come short speeches from Lew, Geri and Ballpark Frank. Web Cam Tom is introduced and presented with a gift and made an official Loon. Then, Mark R stands up, hugging a big brown box. One by one he hands wrapped presents to John who opens them slowly, mildly embarrassed, each time expecting this one to be the last. Carlene is made a Loon. I see John wipe tears a few times. Mark is so clever about his presentation, never tipping his hand. We are all on the edges of our seats with excitement until the great moment when the radio is revealed. We ALL are crying by now and poor John is speechless. We clap and cheer. Finally we are able to thank Mark OUT LOUD for his brilliant handling of the Great Secret Gift. I still marvel that we all pledged and actually sent checks to a person we'd never met, who claimed to be a college student in Florida with no credit card of his own. We also congratulate ourselves several times for not spilling the beans. And we thank Mark for not running off to Hawaii on a Loon-funded vacation.
Tim Williams offers a lovely inclusive prayer as we sit down to eat. We move the tables so we can all be together. We very casually take over half of the restaurant. We can hear people talking about us and of course we love it. We respond with info about the TYP, and give John credit at every chance. At some point in here Bob Landis makes his appearance. He is a celebrity to me and I get tongue-tied trying to make sure I don't ask him touristy questions. He looks just like what I think a wildlife film-maker should look like, grizzled and lean, none too comfortable around crowds. I feel it is a testament to Ballpark's considerable powers of persuasion that he came inside the Mammoth Grille at all.
The time has come for us to see his film so we clean up our mess and head out. We Loons nearly fill the screening room. We happily snuggle closer to each other to let more people in. Sandi, Rick and Shelbi arrive and join us. What can I possibly say about the beautiful film Bob made? Wolf chases, wolf kills, wolves howling, wolves in their thick winter coats reveling in the cold. And some unsettling surprises, too. His images made me weep. I know, I cry a lot, but I wasn't the only one this time. Make sure you see when it airs. PBS in September is the prediction.
I don't know if we could have thanked Bob and Ballpark enough, but we try to. After this experience I notice among the Loons a real reluctance to leave. Luckily, we are further entertained by Web Cam Tom, who shows us some fancy new tricks with his cameras. We stay on the Albright Center porch chatting until it begins to cloud over and sprinkle. Rachel and I wave at the web cam (in the drizzle) to make up for my missing it earlier. We say reluctant good-byes to Sandi Rick & Shelbi as they must head back to Iowa.
Finally we each begin our next journey. Some of us head toward Lamar, with the intention of stopping at Slough Creek for the service Tim Williams has offered to hold. I'm feeling mighty sleepy and wonder how I'll stay awake for a night of wolf-watching. The rain becomes a steady downpour. As I approach the bridge over the Yellowstone I see again a sizable bear jam. It's raining hard but people are out in it, taking pictures. I get into my rain gear and go out myself. Another black bear, possibly the same one from yesterday, is now on the other side of the road. He's safe at the bottom of the hill, moving around in a somewhat agitated manner.
I take pictures despite the lashing rain. Then I tuck the lens inside my coat. It's so cool to just watch him snuffing around. I make a promise to myself that I'll never make the picture- taking more important than the watching. Especially when they're close like this. The bear stands on his hind legs next to a tree. I think he's going to climb it. He hugs the tree for a moment. I DO get a picture of this. Then he drops back down and ambles into the timber. I take this as a sign to leave.
At Slough I find Geri & Bruce with Mark R. We have about a half-hour till the service but guess it will be canceled due to the pounding rain. They head west and I head east. Must- -have-nap my brain is saying. I begin to rationalize to myself that animals don't like rain so I'll be better off inside. This comfortable myth carries me all the way through Lamar without stopping until I get back to Silver Gate Cabins. I go inside and crash. Two hours later I wake up to clearing skies. It's 6:30 PM.
I'm now off to try to see Druids. I'm psyched from the film and I'm not sleepy anymore. At the Footbridge I hook up with Loons Lew, Deb, JT, Malinda, John, Carlene, Joe & Rachel. Now THIS is how I always want to go wolf-watching! Cathy W. and Mike pull in and I meet them. Cathy is wonderfully outgoing. I remind her how much I liked her "I'm a Westerner" manifesto. They are both tired from a full day of sightings including a wolf on Dunraven Pass. They don't stay long but promise to return tomorrow. We stand around and talk and joke. I find a kinship with Carlene and really take a shine to Rachel. Joe reveals himself to be a stand-up comic. John is positively glued to his new radio. It tells him things and then he tells us. Right now it tells him that all the Druids are at the den and also that two grizzlies are visible across from the Institute (The Buffalo Ranch). Loons begin another migration.
At the Institute we arrange ourselves on the slope and face Specimen Ridge. It's two adult griz, too far for my binoculars, so I wait for a turn at the scope. Tim W, Tim II and Jay arrive and I learn that the service, in fact, went off fine, that the clouds parted quite biblically. We have a great time chatting and joking as the night gets cooler and cooler. Rachel goes off around the corner to explore and Carlene follows with a mother's instinct. Rachel is wearing sandals and a cotton t-shirt while we Easterners are already in our Polartec jackets. John is very generous with his scope and even lowers it to "Wendy level" for me. I see both bears but I'm not good with scopes yet and lose them as they move out of range.
Carlene has brought Rachel back and John's radio begins crackling again. Rick is saying things about Wolf 147 (from the Chief Joseph Pack). This is hugely interesting to us cuz 147's collar was sponsored by Lew and Deb. Rick knows this and asks that they be told that telemetry has 147 in the Slough.Creek area. A ripple of excitement runs through the Loons. Just as we are deciding to go to Slough with Lew & Deb, John hears that "the griz with 4 cubs" is out near Slough, too. Well, Slough is clearly the place to be tonight! I was so delighted that John's radio had proven its value so quickly. I didn't have to ask him if he agreed.
It is quite a crowd we join at Slough. At least 25 people, half with scopes on tripods, are already in position up on Dave's Hill, all looking north to a high mountainside. We trek uphill too. Rick McIntyre is here and I get a chance to watch him in action. He, too, is generous with his scope and lets this one and that one use it. He speaks evenly and calmly and takes care to be very precise. I sense a great, dark humor underneath it all and I would NOT want to cross him. He is quite tall and very much in charge.
It takes a while but thanks to John, Joe and the scopes I see the griz. WOW! A great big mama and four BIG cubs. All this time I was thinking "four little babies" but what I see are four YEARLING cubs - this means she has kept all four of them fed and safe for a full year! This is a high point for me and again I marvel at the fact that this is only my first full day and only my second evening. The bears move from west to east across the slope, very high and you'd NEVER see them without a scope. Even animals this big really blend in. Carlene and Rachel come up and it takes a while but finally Carlene sees them, too. Now Dan M arrives. He says he's been fishin'. John's radio crackles again. I realize that I've lost track of Lew & Deb. I wonder if they've seen 147. I listen to the radio for news. A woman's voice tells Rick that a mama griz with two cubs is headed our way. I figure this may be the very same griz plus two that I saw before lunch. The hill we are on is connected to the hill where I saw them, so I think it's a fair assumption. I never find out, however, because Rick feels that this is a potentially dangerous situation. He tells us gently that it's time to clear out. Better move down. We do so. Some others (not Loons) are much more reluctant but Rick gets his way.
Back down at the cars I find Lew & Deb again. They are still hopeful but 147 has not yet been sighted although the telemetry still confirms he's out there. They give me a quick lesson in his history and we speculate that he may be looking for a mate among the Druid females. Someone confirms for me that the Rose Creek Pack has not been seen in this area for several weeks, but has been tracked in the Buffalo Creek drainage.
Now follows one of the most lovely evenings I've ever had in my recent life. We stand around the pullout, a bunch of Loons, joking, teasing, talking. The night begins to fall and the sky in the west grows a wispy rose color, gradually turning into a gorgeous sunset. Nearly all the other animal watchers have left and we Loons truly rule this night. I watch as each of my new friends does the very same thing, though not all at the same time. Each one, at some internal bidding, drifts a bit from the conversation and looks off into the deepening night, still eager to believe that just by looking over there, or maybe there, he or she will see movement, an animal, a wolf. Then each one turns back and joins the group again. I keep seeing us do this, and it makes me smile.
Again I sense our great reluctance to leave. It is already much too dark even for the best binoculars. Finally we start for our cars. Doors shut and engines rev. Lew & Deb, John & family and I are all taking the same road home. I don't care much for driving at night and am glad to have the company. We go rather slowly back through the valley. The River is a ribbon of light, pointing the way through the dark hills.
We pass the Footbridge and find it empty. A bit past Soda Butte, however, several cars are pulled off the road in a telltale sign of animal activity. The Druids? We stop and whisper to the people there. They tell us the Druids took an elk calf not more than a half-hour ago! Mama Elk is still around and was last seen charging them. It's very dark now, but these people are jazzed. We drive on. I see two women in shorts and sandals and a man in shorts all cross the road and take a few steps into the sage towards the area of the reported kill. I stop and call softly to them. "Excuse me. Please tell me you won't go too close" I plead. A woman turns back to me. "No" she assures. "We just need to get beyond the car headlights so our night-scope will work".
Sure enough, the three squat down and aim their night-vision camera at a patch of darkness. Satisfied of their intentions but incredibly jealous of their technology, I drive on.
Three-deer-by-the-road later I pull into my cabin driveway. Still thinking, what if I had left Slough a half-hour sooner? Might I have seen the Druids kill the calf myself? Perhaps. Perhaps. Yet I have no regrets. I had a great day and a great night. I'm still learning about wolves.
Today I saw: Antelope, Bison, 2 Black bears, 10 Grizzly bears (4 adults and 6 cubs),
a big coyote, Deer, Ducks, Elk, a Marmot…and 26 Loons