I sip tea in my room to help myself wake up. With only half a clear head I try to choose what I’ll need for the cold morning journey and leave the rest to haul out later. I meet Doug in the lobby and we set out around 6:45. The light is SO different from last night. The moon is still up but there is far less clarity - clouds must have rolled in from somewhere.
I can see only two big bulls in the spot where last night I saw five. But there are just as many coyotes. My count is six. First light begins in Little America, and the boulders emerge into textured shapes. We round the curve at the top of Lamar Canyon at roughly 7:30. We pass the magical spot where we were surrounded by squealing elk last night. Looking ahead I can see three cars at the high pullout called Dorothy’s Knoll and as we pull in I see Bob Landis and Rick McIntyre. Looks like we’ve come to the right place.
The view is of the high bench below Specimen Ridge and above the Lamar flood plain. All over the plain I see a huge elk herd that simply HAS to be the same one we were amongst last night. Lovely colors are beginning to emerge in the sky. But my attention is directed to a slight dip in the bench, near a particular dead tree, because all the scopes are pointed there. It’s too far for my binocs but in mere seconds Doug says quietly. “I’ve got ‘em”. He motions me over and there in the scope I see three wolves! Two black and one grey. They are Druids wolves, of course, and they are wonderfully, amazingly, Druid pups. Three of the 20 most famous pups in my world, the ones that have made history so far simply by surviving since the drama of May 2000. Three now-grown-up boys or girls who in May remained tantalizingly out of view, fed by their pack at the hidden den site.
I came to see wolves and here they are! It strikes me as almost too easy, but I know how lucky I am. In the weeks before my trip the Druids were reportedly outside the Park and in the days right before my arrival they had been tracked by telemetry in the Little America and Slough Creek areas - fine territory for a wolf but difficult for humans to observe them in. Yet here they are, back on their home turf, just in time for me to see them on my first try.
How Doug spotted these particular wolves I can’t possibly explain because they are asleep, “bedded down”, and they do NOT look like animals when they are in this position, they look like rocks. But Doug has been spotting wolves a very long time and I guess he knows to look for an ear or a nose or a tail. We watch the dip in the ridge a while as the light grows and Doug chats with Rick and Bob. The word Doug gets is that they had a kill last night and will likely sleep a good deal of the day. The word is also that the “whole pack” is bedded down up there on that bench but most are not visible as they are behind a slope. As I am watching one gets up. “One up” I say. Then the other two get up too and start moving around in a bouncy rambunctious way, looking just like, well, like dogs. At one point I see three of them together nose to nose and three tails wagging furiously. I am watching Druid pups play on a snowy hill - the same hill on which I saw a black bear last Spring. After a few minutes of concentrated action, these three move off to the left and bed back down. I step away from the scope and onto the road. I do the Druid Dance in the road for myself and for Tim Williams and for all Loons and wolf watchers everywhere.
There is a lull in the action and we humans start to chat. I get my chance to thank Bob Landis for his great film and to tell him how popular it was with my friends. He is very gracious. A happy little while later, Rick is in his car and about to head off when he motions Doug over. I hear Rick ask how long he plans to be in the Park. I go back to watching for Druid action but find none. Rick drives off and Doug walks over to me at the scope. Doug looks very happy. My eyes go wide because in his hand, Doug is holding a radio. One of “the” radios! Doug has been asked to become a spotting and reporting “unit” for the duration of his trip. What do you think he said? I do another Druid Dance in the road. We will be carrying a radio! I told you I was a lucky girl.
Despite our mutual love of wolves, Doug and I are both anxious to see more of the Lamar Valley so we head east. Right about the Picnic Area I see a large dark shape up on the hill to my left. It is a moose. A Moose in the Lamar Valley - the first I have ever seen. It is a young male with nice antlers walking determinedly down the slope heading right for the road ahead of us. We are the only ones on the road so Doug just stops the car and we watch him come down. He is a beauty, if a moose can be beautiful, very sleek and strong looking. He lifts his legs high with each step and I don’t realize how deep the snow is until he emerges onto the road. Suddenly revealed is twice as much leg as we could see on the snow-slope. On the slope he really looked more like a horse with antlers. On the road he is all moose, or I should say all leg. He wastes no time on the road though, he steps easily over the pile of plowed snow and heads for a willow-lined draw. Despite his height he disappears within it. I am having a lot of moose luck on this trip but this sighting was my favorite of all.
We drive on through the Valley of my dreams, and I note how each familiar spot looks in its new attire. I see the layered hills on which I saw my first two Druid wolves way back on a chilly night in May. I note the lack of outhouse at the Picnic Area and, yes, PD, the lack of Picnic Area itself. It is now just a lovely bend in the River. I note the place where the River runs close to the road and how muffled the water is under its thick white comforter. I note the many dippers along its icy edges and the abundance of tracks, both old and new. I note the new outhouse at the Hitching Post pullout and teasingly christen it “The Steve Torreylet” in his honor. And finally we stop at the spot most familiar of all, the Footbridge Pullout, and I am at last able to drink in my favorite view.
Ahh Lamar. How transformed you are. How beautiful and bright you look, yet with your usual abundance of serenity. The long, low western flank of DPH is dotted with elk and in the flats graze some old bull bison that I swear are the same ones I saw in Spring. Two coyotes trot by along the far bank of the Soda Butte Creek. They look up once but quickly dismiss a lone stopped car as nothing at all. I look back towards the Druid den forest and wonder if I will be again concentrating my gaze this way come Spring.
We go on a bit further, enjoying the easy morning. At Round Prairie the snow seems far deeper; the white expanses are less disturbed by tracks and the firs are still bent with the weight of snow. It is absolutely quiet here and there is no wind. Everything looks soft and elegant, like an old- fashioned Christmas card. I almost expect to hear sleigh bells.
We eventually must head back in order to check out of the Hotel. We move to “Above The Rest” today - our headquarters for the rest of the trip. We take our time going back and enjoy the gorgeous, ever-changing landscapes. We see our normal number of coyotes (6) but have a brief scare as One-eye trots right in front of the car! One-Eye is (can you guess) a one-eyed coyote that frequents the Tower/Petrified Tree area and has an extremely dangerous habit of staying in the road as cars approach. Doug stops in time but we are annoyed that he doesn’t seem to show any fear. We are sure he begs food and we are sure he is successful, at least often enough to continue endangering himself. I’m sure that his one squinty socket gets him sympathy. On the other hand he looks healthy overall and I’ll bet he doesn’t take much grief from other coyotes.
We get back to Mammoth a little late but the manager is understanding and doesn’t penalize us. Then we head up toward the Upper Terrace because I have decided to take Doug’s advice to rent boots from the snowmobile place. My hiking boots are not quite the thing for standing around in the cold and they fit too snugly to accommodate a second pair of socks. The ones I get have an inner sole that insulates very well, they come up to my calf and they are completely waterproof. I mention to the snowmobile people that I saw Druid wolves this morning. The man doesn’t seem to care but the lady asks questions. She seems glad to hear they are back in their home territory. Now we head down to Gardiner for groceries. We buy way too much stuff but we also we run into our favorite filmmaker there. We talk about the upcoming visit on Saturday of Bruce Babbit, to mark the fifth anniversary of the wolf recovery project.
We head up the Jardine Road. On one of the hairpin turns Doug points out some magpies flitting above a picked-over carcass. We never found out what got killed or how but I hope this gives you an idea of how uninhabited this area is. We also see a bald eagle flying overhead. Soon Doug is negotiating the steep, curvy and rather icy driveway. I am glad I don’t have to drive this myself, but what a great place it leads to! The “cabin” is spacious and fully modern - more like a large suburban apartment. Great big windows take advantage of the great views and you can go outside on the deck to savor them all the more. It has two bedrooms, a living room with comfy chairs, individual room thermostats, a good strong shower, and a fully equipped kitchen. I give it my highest recommendation - no matter what season.
I take a nap while Doug heads out in search of bighorn and antelope. When he gets back we make sandwiches and then set off for our evening session.
The afternoon begins normally enough. I see the big bulls, which we now call “The Big Boys” in their usual spot but on the wrong side of the road for optimal photographs. They are resting and chewing their cud and not nearly as interesting as big strapping bulls can be in, say, October. We forgive them and have faith in a better photo opportunity some other day. The light, however, is stunning. Just the right brightness and just the right slant that will set off the sheen of an animal’s coat. And that’s how we see one of our usual coyotes, in Little America. It is a smallish one, possibly a female, that has a bit more grey speckling on her back or maybe it’s the light, and a hint of delicate-ness that is a little unusual. But what makes the sighting so special is that as she rushes up a hill away from our approach, she stops at the crest and turns back to look at us in a perfect pose, with the light behind her, outlining her in gold. Neither Doug nor I catch this on film but we both see it and catch our breath at the instant loveliness of it, there for only a second or two and now gone.
I would be happy for the many simple moments like this that Yellowstone constantly offers. But tonight there is something special planned.
We arrive at the top of the Valley around 4PM. Doug says “Welcome to Druidville, population 27!” Since we had gotten no radio messages on the way out, I am glad to see both Rick and Bob at Dorothy’s Knoll. There is a truck here too, with a guy named Rob (I think) and a girl (I didn’t record their names so I apologize. I think they are both involved in wildlife research). The large Elk herd is still beneath us on the flats, more spread out than they were this morning, grazing peacefully. I didn’t actually count them but I’d say there were at least two hundred. Bob has some kind of time-lapse camera set up that we hear clicking every once in a while.
Doug sets up his scope and Rob helpfully points out a pair of Druid wolves still up high on the bench, close to where we had seen them this morning. Doug also sets up his camera and I add on my various layers as it promises to be a cold night. In a short while I am delighted to see none other than Mr. 21 himself appear. I can’t believe I can recognize him but I can! As 21 approaches, the two wolves I am watching are suddenly wiggling with excitement, and I watch them greet their daddy with what seems to be great joy. I see endless tail wagging and some submissive behavior from the two towards 21. Then my heart comes to my throat as suddenly the whole hillside comes alive with wolves. A dozen lumps I had barely noticed turn out to be sleeping wolves that suddenly get up, shake off or stretch and join one group or other in greetings, tail waggings, bouncing and jostling and climbing on each other. There was no way to tell how many wolves I was seeing but lord there were lots! At one moment I recognize the sweet grey face of 42 and I yell out “there’s 42”! In another moment, I see 21 stand still all by himself then he turns to the left and trots away in a deliberate manner away from the group. After a second or two, several wolves begin to follow him and it becomes a line of following wolves and it is obvious something’s up.
I attempt a count and get 13. Then I lose them all in a forest. The pack is heading east, inexplicably (to me) away from the herd below them. I swing my binocs back to some wolves still on the bench that haven’t yet joined the troupe. Two very playful black wolves (I’m guessing pups by their Tigger-like bounces) are not paying attention. They are tussling over something. Then I see that one has something in its mouth which hangs down and looks like the wolf is carrying a teddy bear. He avoids a lunge by the other black pup and trots proudly left, carrying his prize. He sits and seems to chew on it. The other black pup comes near, climbs up a boulder and stands on top in a movie-dog pose, for just a second. The one with the teddy bear lays down as if to sleep. The one on the boulder jumps down and disappears behind the boulder. I look again for 21 and his line of wolves and pick them up as they cross a ridge between some trees. This time I count 15. Again they disappear behind a ridge.
Rick gets in his car and drives east to stay on them as they move. Doug and I figure we’ll stay here. We’re up high and will likely see them again when they emerge further east. The light is dimming though, and we will soon be unable to see anything at all. I check on the two wayward black pups but I don’t see the one with the teddy bear anymore. I guess he followed after all. Our group in the pullout has grown in the last half hour to about 6 cars but most of them now follow Rick, including Bob. It’s only Doug and I, Rob and the research girl. Then, just as Doug has predicted, we see the wolves emerge again, this time a very nice view of them on the crest of a hill, WAY up the valley. I can’t get over how far wolves can travel in such a short time. Several of them pause there, sitting on their haunches on the crest of the hill, still and silent as china figures in my grandma’s cabinet, as if waiting for the others to catch up. It is easy to identify 21 still in the lead moving confidently down the white slope heading for a thick stand of pines. Then as the pack starts down the slope they are separated just enough to allow me to count. This time I get 17! The light is really going now but I strain at the scope. I hear Rick’s voice on our radio say that 21 is out. A little bit after this I see 21 emerge from the stand of pines. The pack is strung out in the straightest line yet, marching dutifully behind its leader. Twice I count 20! Down to the last slope above the river they come. I am laughing at myself for trying to see anything in this light but anytime the wolves move I just cannot stop watching. I lose them again, then hear Rick report some pups are chasing a bull elk up the hill. I know we’re crazy but now we’ve become so addicted we can’t leave. Doug and I pack up quickly and head east toward Rick’s position. I think we travel at least two miles before we stop. We set up the scope but hear on the radio that the chase is over. We don’t find wolves and it’s barely possible to see anyway.
Then, suddenly, in the most wonderfully unexpected move of the evening, 21 is suddenly spotted along the riverbank, heading due WEST. I hear Rick’s voice suggest in his calm way “I think they may be going for the herd”. A woman’s voice responds, presumably the research girl “well, the elk don’t know it”. I raise my binocs and see the wolves running west along the line of the river. It’s enough confirmation for me that she and Rick are absolutely right! Doug and I jump in the car and we hurry back to Dorothy’s Knoll. I don’t know how to describe to you how little light was left but we don’t care! Out come the scopes and in no time I pick up the ghostly moving wolf shapes strung out in a long ominous line right along the river, or maybe they are even ON the river, the frozen sides of it. They run easily, almost casually but they do make progress. I swing my binocs back to the herd and each time I do I see heads down, heads down, all are grazing. Back and forth I switch as the wolves continue their stealthy run and STILL the elk graze until a singular electric moment when I have both running wolves and grazing elk in my sights.
At this point the elk herd is loosely scattered over the wide flats. What I can see are grey-brown, four-legged, head-down elk dots all over the white, while the wolves are smaller black dots in a long string, appearing and disappearing against the broken line of the river, but the string of dots is always advancing always moving from left to right, getting closer and closer and closer. They proceed past the center of the herd and I think for a split second that we are all wrong, that the wolves are actually heading on toward Slough when…. they stop.
There is a breathless second of tenseness, of suspended animation as the stage is set for the inevitable last act, a confrontation as old as life. An instant later I see a rush of movement as the wolves explode from their position on the river but then my eye is instantly drawn to the herd. The herd suddenly collapses in on itself, condenses, thickens, the dots contract, shrink, congeal into a tight fat darkness on the snow. No legs no heads, just one dark mass. And then, like a giant cell dividing, it splits in two. And again! It splits in four. The wolves are everywhere! Suddenly I’m watching four long masses of running elk, two dashing east and two dashing west. They cross each other like a precision drill team at half-time. We hear bleating and mewing and hooves clacking and thudding on the ground. I strain to see individual wolves but can only infer their presence by the moving masses of elk. It is total confusion. There is so much movement I don’t know where to look. I don’t know what means what. The sound the elk make is both heart-wrenching and morbidly exciting. I don’t know how the wolves avoid being trampled. I pick one of the four elk masses to follow but the one I pick suddenly stops. I pick up another running mass but it, too, stops. Finally a sweep of the field reveals all four masses have stopped. I now see several small clumps of elk and a few pronging individuals. There is still a lot of bleating and mewing but no more clacking hooves. It is so intense and yet it is over already. One of the two people to my right (when did they get here?) say “I think they got one”. Rob says “yeah I think they got one”. I don’t see it and don’t even know what direction to look because if I thought it was dark before, it is REALLY dark now. There is no moon to help tonight as the clouds have returned. Oh, man, if there had been a moon…!!!!!!
Everyone is utterly amazed. Doug says he has never seen anything like this. I say I don’t know what I saw but I loved it! It is 6:30, fully one hour after I thought we had lost the light, when the wolves first headed east. I estimate the time that passed from the moment the herd bunched up to the moment they stopped running as three minutes at most. It was the buildup that took time. Someday I will measure the distance the Druids traveled tonight. Those elk were right below them at the start of the evening. They were grazing so peacefully. And now one is dead, its life a sacrifice to the life of the Druid pack. It is brutal and hard but it is also quick.
We drive back through the dark land without a moon. We talk about the chase the whole way back, how it sounded, how the herd moved like one animal, like a school of fish, like nothing either of us had seen before. Doug says “remember the wind?” The wind was in the wolves’ favor, blowing elk smell to them and none of their smell to the elk. Did 21 know this? He must have. I remark on the simple but deadly effective strategy of surprise, so ably used. They make it look easy, these Druids. All those elk with their sharp hooves. Yet what can you do against 27 wolves?
A final surprise greets us as we crest the last hill. Among the rocks and hills of our “back yard” are three bull elk, resting comfortably. Doug drives by them slowly and pulls into the regular parking spot. I get out quietly and hope they don’t mind my staring. One is a spike, the other two are 10 points. They are all VERY big. If this were the rut I would be scared as they are so close. But it’s a winter night and the moon has come out again, and the three elk are bathed in softest silver. They were here first, I think to myself, so I decide to retreat inside and let them rest. I find it very comforting that they chose this little corner of the world to come to.
Today I saw: a moose, over two hundred elk, bison, magpies, a bald eagle, dippers, 6 coyotes and 20 Druid wolves.