In Little America I see dawn rise through a typical Yellowstone sky of clouds tinged pink and purple. I drive very slowly and enjoy every curve and hill, every rock and ridge.
There are not many folk about yet as I enter my beautiful Lamar for the last time this trip. No problem, there are elk and bison and pronghorn to share it with me.
Exclosure hill is empty but I see Rick scoping at the confluence. I stop just beyond him and look where he looks but it is still a bit early for my bad eyes. I move on to the Footbridge and swing around to face the den area. Just that quickly I see a black shape passing through the sage. Of course I think wolf but I canít really tell. Then I see an elk cow trotting swiftly to the west with her calf right behind her. Hmmm. A Druid returning to the den spooks a cow and calf?
I canít see anymore due to the angle of the hill so I head back west. I decide to try the exclosure hill since it was so good to me last night. When I arrive I see Chloe and Beckyís truck. Chloe is up on the hill already. Becky says ďGood morningĒ and then adds ď21 is out there!Ē
Thatís what I want to hear on my last day. I grab my stuff and bolt up the hill but when I get up there Chloe says 21 is heading east and no longer visible. I set up anyway and find a black wolf in the upper confluence and then two more blacks also going east. We hear over the radio that Limpy and some others crossed the road east of the Footbridge a little while ago. I bet that was a wolf I saw!
Chloe updates me with news about the pups: they belong to 251, not 42.
So I figure 21 must be the father, because the Druid alphas would hardly tolerate any wolves in this valley if they were not closely related.
After a little while we move to Hitching Post. No sooner do we arrive than we see three blacks, then four of them arriving near the riverbank. Then I see the old man himself, 21M! Whatís more, I see the four blacks greeting him, mobbing him, jumping all over and around him. He gives out a few nuzzles but mostly keeps trying to trot east. They are loving him so much they impede his progress but he seems his usual tolerant self.
This is my closest view of 21 on this trip and I notice his forehead looks whiter than I remember it. It gives him an endearingly bald appearance. 21 moves in his trademark dum-dee-dum way and pauses for a moment above the bank of the Soda Butte Creek. The black wolves gather around him with more playful body language. 21 stands on the bank a while, looking this way and that, at us, at the various clumps of humans and tripods watching him, as if wondering if there will ever come a day when he can walk straight home unimpeded and unopposed.
Then he surprises us. He drops down the eroded bank and is lost to our view. He is followed moments later by one black, then a second. The remaining two blacks wander around a bit, sniffing here and there and then a third goes down. The fourth wolf looks over the edge a while and then beds right where he is.
Chloe confides that 21 narrowly missed being hit by a car last night as he crossed the road. I donít get the whole story but the driver apparently was using little caution and suddenly zoomed out of one of the pullouts. What scares me is the thought of how easily this could happen, even with someone with good intentions, given the high degree of excitement that the sight of a wolf, or the chance to see a wolf, can engender in people. I think back on times that I have rushed too quickly from one spot to another, after hearing a tip of wolves on the move. I make a vow to be extra careful in the future.
We hear a coyote barking and scolding. The bedded black pricks up its ears and turns to look. The coyote appears in the sage a fair distance away. It keeps up the racket and inches closer, pushing his luck as coyotes will do.
The black stands and stares at the coyote as if he doesnít like what heís hearing. Then a second black wolf comes rushing back up the bank. These two greets each other joyously. Then in a flash they take off after the coyote. The chase looks fast and deadly for a few moments. But the coyote manages to evade them and soon the two blacks break into a lively play session. A little after this the other two blacks come up from the river and all four of them start playing quite delightfully. They play wolf-tag. One wolf is chased by the other three until he is caught. Then they tumble and tussle, then someone else is ďitĒ and he takes off with a new set of three in pursuit. This goes on a while and they get pretty far away from us.
Then 21 pops up again at the top of the bank. Well, look at that. Daddyís got a prize for the kiddies. Apparently 21 found an elk calf while he was down in the riverbed. In his mouth he carries a full hindquarter, including raw red meat and the entire leg down to the hoof. He stands looking at us for the longest time (and we love every second of it) and then starts off west. Chloe recognizes the route he takes as one of his favorites.
What follows next is one of the most satisfying sightings of my whole trip. Itís a good 15 minutes of The 21 Show as he moves steadily homeward with the calf-leg prize in his jaws. He crosses the sage and picks a spot down to the river again. He walks through a stand of willows and wades through a slow curve of the river. The water comes almost to his belly. He steps out and we lose him in thick brush. Soon he appears again in the bottom land, moving at a steady trot. The road is clear and we silently cheer him on. Then a car rounds the corner and it is inevitable that it will intercept him before he reaches the road. The truck slows as the driver has apparently seen the wolf in the flats (he would be hard to miss!). 21 does not slow down, he sticks to his pace. The truck stops in the no-stopping zone but 21 knows what heís doing. He puts on some speed and lopes up the rise at the edge of the road and crosses quickly behind the truck. He disappears like Iíve seen him do before. The truck moves on. A few seconds later we see 21 half-way up the hill walking slowly and evenly. He is heading home with his present, looking every bit like the good dad he is.
How sweet it is.
I am so content I almost forget there are still four black wolves in view. I take a long last look at them, still playful and happy-go-lucky, just the way wolves ought to be.
But the time has come so I bid farewell to Becky and Chloe, thanking them for sharing so much of their time with me and wishing them great sightings for the rest of their stay. I canít resist stopping once more at the picnic area to say farewell to the river and a herd of bison. I count 27 babies! The herd moves in a long line, two and three abreast, each calf close to its motherís flank.
I am just about ready to go when a friendly older man approaches my car and asks if I want to see some wolves. His gesture is so sweet and welcoming I want to find a way to emulate it. I set up my scope and soon have three black wolves in my sights near the western foothills. They may be three of the wolves I just left or they may be others, I canít tell. I look for pups but donít see any this time.
I tell the man he looks familiar. He introduces himself as Bill and suddenly I recognize him. Heís Bill, of Bill and Bobbie, the hosts of Tower campground, for whom the Lamar pullout B&B is named. I know he is a bear man, yet he went out of his way to help me see wolves. I re-introduce myself and mention John Uhler. We have a nice chat about the great sightings weíve had and what a marvelous place this is. I thank him again for his kindness and ask him to say hi to his wife for me. He says ďIíll do itĒ and waves.
Just before the Boulder Pond I see cars pulled over. I slow down, thinking badgers. I see a young couple sitting on the shoulder of the road, both looking through binocularsÖat a grizzly bear! I pull over and hop out. Itís the grizzly mom with her one brown cub, out in the open about 200 yards away. Mom is grazing and the cub is nibbling. Mom gets ahead and the cub hops three times to catch up, then starts grazing again. Then mom turns around and puts her nose to the cub. The cub tries to playfully cuff her but she moves her head in time. The cub runs ahead of her and she walks on, casually, unconcerned about anything,
Oh how I hate to leave them. But I must. I stop at Roosevelt and check out. I stop at the Blacktail road to pack. I always try to pack in a pretty spot where I can hear the birds singing and, in this case, the music of a little creek as well. Finally I head to Mammoth and zip upstairs at the hotel to drop off some goodies with Mark. Itís 9:30 and he confesses he was getting worried for me. He gets my last Loon hug and now Iím off.
Goodbye beautiful Park!
I drive down the winding road and out through the arch which makes me cry of course. My last animal sighting is a pair of sandhill cranes strutting in a meadow by the Yellowstone River.
The sadness of leaving is always mitigated by the rich memories that will stay with me always. I have been blessed again with a marvelous trip. Thank you, Yellowstone, for your beauty and your bounty.
Thanks to friends old and new. And to those who have never been to Yellowstone, and especially to those who havenít been there yet today, may you soon have joy of the sight.
Today I saw: Bison (including 27 calves), elk (including a running calf), pronghorn, 2 grizzly bears (including 1 cub) 1 coyote, 2 sandhill cranes, 7 Druid wolves (including 21M) and 4 Loons