I awake to find 4 inches of fresh snow atop the green. Not quite the predicted two feet but substantial, nonetheless. Itís a wet and heavy snow, and with the green-up poking through, it looks very pretty.
It becomes even more so when I glimpse a lone mule deer foraging in the woods right across the creek beside my cabin. She looks up as I step off the porch. Good morning, I whisper. She goes back to grazing and I see her scrape snow off the grass with a delicate front hoof.
As I load up the car I notice the blanket of white on all the high slopes. I run into Lew & Deb who are about to go for breakfast. I explain that I got up late so Iím eager to get going. Iíll see you out there, I say.
The swans look particularly nice in this setting, as big fat flakes fall in the water around them.
I smile all the way through Little America at the transformation of the landscape. The falling snow gives that hushed effect to the land that I love so much. As I approach Slough Creek I see three cars stopped. People are out of their cars with cameras in hand. I canít see what theyíre seeing though, so I roll down my window and whisper to a man with a hand-held video camera ďis it a bear?Ē He turns his excited face to me, shaking his head and pointing. ďCoyote! See it? Itís right there!Ē I say ďcoolĒ and pull over myself. I am privately delighted that I am not the only one in Yellowstone who finds coyotes fascinating. I join them and watch a lone coyote mousing next to the campground road. I am just in time to see him pounce and gobble his prize, too dark for a ground squirrel so I think probably vole. He has snow on his muzzle! With a satisfied smack he trots off, then stops to squat. Love those coyotes!
I go on up the canyon and into the Valley. The hills of Lamar have been transformed, too. The tops of Bison and Druid Peak are all white and an interesting dusting pattern has formed like a skirt on slopes below. I stop at Mid Point where I see Gerry. He says I missed a chase early this morning. It happened further east, he says, and Mark and Carol saw it, too. Two wolves went after a cow elk and soon both elk and wolves were running flat out. The animals were heading straight at them, coming closer and closer, but the river bars the way. The banks there are quite high so it looked like the elk was done for. But she leapt off the bank and landed in the river with a huge splash, and saved her own life. The wolves were left behind on the bank, panting and hungry while the elk swam to safety.
Wow. Donít I wish I had seen that! I congratulate him on such a terrific sighting. He says there are several black wolves out there across the river. They are feeding on two old kills, just east of the big logjam. Visibility is not great and the wind is pretty fierce. I eventually see four black wolves roaming the area, tugging at the carcass, and exploring here and there. Mark and Carol stop to say goodbye. I say ďwhat a great sighting to have on your last morning!Ē They agree and we go over the details again. I tell them I hope to see them again in winter. Then we hug and wave goodbye.
The snow comes in a bit thicker and I decide to take a drive east to enjoy the snowfall. It feels like picture-time to me.
I head out past the Soda Butte Cone. It is so beautiful here, wide and white with snow on the mountains. All is empty and quiet. The little creek coming down from Trout Lake is especially picturesque to me. Bright green shoots of grass stab upward through the cold white clumps, refusing to believe the snow will last. The grass is wise. Already the barely-risen sun has melted some of the snow into water-drops that cling to the thin green blades. The grass seems to say, ďYou see? Itís only rainĒ.
Doug drives by and sees me taking photos. He stops to say hi. He tells me John and Carlene and the kids were out again last night and that they saw the beaver! Iím sorry that I missed them but glad to hear about it. I ask Doug what he thought of the astonishing light last night. Pretty amazing, he says. This is his last morning and Doug says heís going to roam a while and will be back in time for the Loon lunch at Roosevelt. I wave goodbye and off he goes.
A little while later Lew & Deb stop by. I learn that they got to spend some time with John and family last night, too. They are now heading east to see how much snow has fallen in Silver Gate. I tell them Doug is ahead of them and wave so long. Then Iím alone again and it gets so quiet and you can hear the snow falling.
I see some elk roaming about the hills, utterly unfazed by the new weather.
On my way back I stop again at Mid-Point. The wolves are still here but have moved a little to the east. I set up my scope and watch them feeding on the other carcass. While I am watching I see a black wolf move away from the kill and wander west, closer to the river. He stops and sniffs the ground in a few places. Then I see him trot west with his head up and ears forward. Then he starts to lope. Then he stops. He is staring at something and I want to know what.
I pan slowly to the right, passing sage and bare spots and a few big bushes. Then I see it. An animal stands stock still, facing the black wolf about 200 yards away. Is that an elk calf? Itís big. It seems even slightly larger than the wolf. Yes, itís a calf. And it has just made a terrible mistake.
I ratchet back the power of my scope and I now have both animals in one view. The wolf has remained frozen in place but now I see it lower its head to classic stalking position. Oh no, I say. Oh no! The wolf is going to get that calf. I am looking at the last moments of its life.
The stand-off seems to last an eternity, then suddenly the calf runs. Like a shot the wolf is after it. I stay with the calf, subconsciously rooting for it, but it doesnít even seem to be running full out. The wolf catches up in no time. The calf runs with the wolf as its shadow for many strides. The wolf lunges. The calf shakes him off and keeps running. I lose the calf in the sage and I think itís over, then see the wolf still running further on. And thereís the calf, still a breath ahead of the wolf. Now I think the calf will escape, then the wolf lunges again. He grabs hold and stops the calf. They spin in place, round and round, two, three, four times. Predator and prey move as one, as one horribly conflicted animal with two opposite purposes, go down! rise up! go down! rise up! Finally, mercifully, they drop from my sight. Another wolf streaks in from the west that I didnít see coming at all. Thatís it. The calf has no chance with two of them. I step away from the scope.
Itís pretty shocking. Itís so fast. The chase lasted less than a minute.
Why did that baby stand up? Where was its mom? Maybe the mom has been killed herself? I donít know. But so often when a calf is killed the mom hangs around and either mourns or harasses the killers. I see no cow elk near here.
The mood among the wolf watchers is subdued. Many missed it because it happened so fast. Some think it wasnít a calf since it was bigger than the wolf. But thatís because it was an older calf, not a newborn.
The wolves have not moved from the spot where I saw the calf drop so I know the calf is dead. I can only see wolf backs and an ear now and then. Doug pulls up and I tell him what just happened. Usually when I see a wildlife event for the first time I feel celebratory. But not this time. I like to think that if a baby elk can survive long enough to grow that big, that it should be able to make it the rest of the way to adulthood. Obviously thatís not what always happens. If only he hadnít stood up.
I pack up and head to Roosevelt to meet the Loons for lunch. The drive gives me time to shake the gloom Iím in. I see some hopeful patches of brighter sky. And the swans are out on their pond, feeding head-down with their white-feathered butts in the air. When I arrive at Roosevelt it starts to rain again. Doug and Lew & Deb pull in next to me and we gather on the porch to greet the other Loons. I say hi to Video Mike, who I met in the winter. Heís having another great trip.
Mark R arrives and we talk about our hike. Itís not looking good but we arenít ready to call it quits yet. Gerry and Ray T join us and meet the other Loons. And then to my surprise and delight up the steps come Ballpark Frank and Cathy Montana. Itís so good to see them again, especially after the rough year they had. They get Loon hugs from all and we congratulate them on their triumphant return to Paradise.
We sit at one big table and have a great time. The food is good and the conversation is even better. We discuss the future of Yellowstone and Frank spices it up with his tales. The rain falls harder, then turns to snow again. Unfortunately the end of lunch means Doug has to leave. Iím sorry to see him go. We have a Loon hug goodbye and I wish him a safe trip. The next time I see Doug, heíll be on his marvelous year-long photographic quest. See you then, Doug!
Mark and I head out to consult about our hike. Most of the advice weíve gotten is ďdonít goĒ. This will be Markís first overnight in a backcountry camp and I think being soggy and cold is not the way for him to start. I sort through his equipment and find him well prepared. But still, as wet as weíre gonna get just hiking I canít imagine pitching the tents and sitting around in rain and snow will be anything close to the experience we intended to have. Itís one thing to be caught in bad weather unexpectedly, quite another to deliberately walk into it. We decide to wait until Tonya meets us at the Footbridge before making our final decision.
While I am getting something from Markís trunk I oh-so-cleverly lock his keys inside it. And I wonder why people tease me. But wait! There is a happy ending for which we have Carl to thank, since he insisted that Mark take a spare key. Carl probably knew Mark would need Wendy Insurance.
The sky has brightened a bit again (by which I mean it has stopped raining) so we head off toward Lamar. We stop at Fishermanís to see the osprey nest. We see one of the parents sitting stoically in the cold. We donít see the chick. We stop at Picnic and scope for the wolves but they are gone. We drive on to the confluence and look for the beaver. This time I canít even find the lodge! Could be because an icy rain has begun and visibility has dwindled to about 50 feet.
We stop at Hitching Post and the icy rain turns to sleety snow. Itís looking might bleak. Mark says OK letís not go. I say yeah, I think weíd just be miserable. We talk about re-scheduling it for July before the Thorofare hike. We park at the Footbridge and Mark hops in my car. I say letís take a drive and look at the scenery. As we pass Trout Lake Mark sees a bull moose! Of course before I can see him he disappears behind a hill. So I park and we get out and hike up the trail a little in hopes of seeing him. This short jaunt through the soggy grass tells Mark all he needs to know about the wisdom of our decision. His jeans and boots are soaked! We donít find the moose but we have fun trying.
Back at the Footbridge we sit in the car to wait for Tonya. It rains harder! Frank and Cathy pull in. We get out to talk with them and then Tonya comes up. She has her gear ready to go but is relieved to learn we have changed our minds. She says the snow is really thick and pretty up in Silver Gate. Mark decides to drive up there to see it. Frank and Cathy and Tonya and I decide to head off west and see what animals we can find.
We follow Tonya to Elk Creek. The rain is a mere drizzle now, so we get out our scopes. Cathy finds a black bear really fast. Itís dark-brown, just this side of some downed timber. We watch him for a few minutes in the green and then he disappears. Next, our excellent spotter Cathy finds some elk running on a hill in the distance and then a cow with a calf. I find a single wary elk in forest clearing. Frank tells tales of Junior-bear. Itís so much fun hanging out with these folk. We ignore the weather and have our usual fun. After about a half-hour we decide itís time to head back to Lamar.
As we approach Dorothyís Knoll we all see an eagle flying. We slow down and follow it as it soars above us and we are surprised to see it land on the hill north of the road. We park the cars and walk back to where we can see it. And there it is, perched atop an orange rock, itís white head and black body easy to see against the grey sky.
I tell Frank about the eagle nest and we get our scopes on it. We see the chicks. We figure the eagle on the orange rock is one parent, so where is the other one? In the meanwhile, Cathy is scoping the valley. She gets another elk mother and calf in her scope. This baby seems brand new and very wobbly. I tell them about the kill I saw earlier today, and that Iím glad Cathy keeps finding other baby elk. Then we see several bull elk near this cow mother. They seem to be unusually attentive and even protective of the calf. Weíve never seen bulls behave like this.
I suggest that maybe there is a new movement afoot in the elk world, that perhaps we are seeing members of the ďsensitive bull societyĒ who are trying to help other bulls acknowledge and accept their parental role. I theorize that once the bulls begin to fully integrate their new behavior, more calves will survive to adulthood and the ďsensitive bullĒ trait will be passed on to future generations. Itís yet another unexpected benefit of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. Cathy and Frank seem to get a kick out of this, and I wonder if I can con anyone into giving me a grant to study it: I would have to spend long hours in the pullouts to prove my theory. 8~)
In another spot we see a different group of bull elk romping and pronging for no apparent reason. These are NOT ďsensitive bullsĒ.
The sky lightens and threatens to clear up. We stop at the old picnic area and set up our scopes here. We chat and laugh. Mark hooks up with us again and Tonya talks with a Ranger friend. We see a pronghorn running and a red-tailed hawk in tree. It flies off and we watch it circle above the river.
We move down to Trash Can and I see Gerry up on the hill. Mark R and I take our scopes and hike up to join him. Gerry shows us two black wolves resting near the little foothills in the r-v. Lew and Deb arrive and set up near us. We have a nice time as the rain has actually stopped. We see three bull elk approach the r-v area and suddenly three more wolf heads - heretofore unseen - pop up out of the sage. Nothing comes of this, though, and the elk move past unmolested.
Bob Landis is in a pullout between here and the exclosure fence talking with Frank and Cathy. I notice his camera is set facing uphill, in the same general area where the Druids appeared behind us on Thursday night. I find this very interesting. It was about this time a few days ago that the Druids nearly snuck past us, so we are not as careless this time. Just then someone says ďelk runningĒ. Mark has his scope facing up and almost instantly he says ďwolf!Ē Heís right! Suddenly everyone is facing away from the r-v. I see them! Thereís 21! I see the alpha and three blacks and then a grey and then Limpy! OMG there are more than ever! I see three more greys! Wolves all over! They are walking then they stop. Oooh! That wolf looks like 42! She disappears too quickly so I canít be sure. As quickly as that the wolves move lower on the slope and then they all disappear. I keep watching and spot various wolves on three different hillsides, along the same route they took the other time. My highest count is nine. Then no one sees anything for a while. Gerry starts to pack up. He says ďtime to goĒ in a way that convinces me to follow him. Mark comes too.
We drive west. I follow Gerry but think we may be going too far, that we will overshoot them. We stop at Mid Point and set up next to Brian. After a minute Gerry picks up his scope again and says ďBuffalo RanchĒ to me. Heís always been a good spotter so I stick with him. This time Iím sure we are going WAY too far west. Weíre gonna miss them if they cross. Gerry pulls over across from the Institute. Mark and I do the same. I think no way they could have come this far this fast. 15 seconds later I hear ďElk runningĒ! I look where everyone else is looking. A girlís voice calls ďelk running with wolves on it!Ē I catch movement and there they are! I count seven; 3 blacks and 4 grays. I never see the elk. The running shapes disappear behind another hill. We stare at the hillside, trying to figure out where next they might come into view but no-one gets anything more from this spot.
Walker, the smart kid from yesterday, shows up. I tell him I wish I had wolves in my scope to show him. We comment on how far they have traveled in mere minutes. I introduce Mark and we all talk wolves. Itís nearly 9pm.
In all this excitement Iíve lost track of Frank and Cathy. Iím sorry I didnít get to say a proper goodnight, but I look forward to closing a pullout with them another time. Mark and Walker call it a night. Gerry and I drive to B&B, still hopeful for a final glimpse of the Druids. But they donít show. I look across the valley to the Specimen Ridge. The last light of day gives the high peaks an otherworldly glow, cool and white, which is reflected in the river below. Itís just gorgeous.
Back at Roosevelt I am surprised to see stars, but Yellowstone insists on giving me such treats. I enjoy the warm roar of the fire, the soft bed and the dry floor of my cabin, thankful Iím not in a soggy tent tonight. I write a little and soon drift off to dreamland.
Today I saw: Bison, elk (including 3 calves), pronghorn, 1 black bear, 1 coyote, 1 mule deer, 3 bald eagles (including 2 chicks), 1 red-tail hawk, 1 osprey, 2 swans, 18 Druid wolves including 21M & 253M (Limpy), and 13 Loons