It's another crystal-clear morning with bright moon. As I am scraping the ice off my windshield I grin as I remember the sudden ring of my room phone last evening. For a minute or two I didn't know where I was. Then through a fog I heard John Uhler's voice, reminding me that Carlene had not yet had a chance to host a Loon dinner. I promised that Charles and I would come to visit them tonight.
And now I'm on the road, starting my last full day in Wonderland. I stop at a pullout on the Blacktail Plateau and turn off the engine. Such serenity is here. I am rewarded with a lone distant howl, coming from the south. Such loveliness in all this wide-open, moon-silvered landscape just pierces my heart.
I wonder where the Druids will be today. I worry that the stress of the darting yesterday may drive them far from the roads and out of sight. I imagine they will seek the safest spot they know and that suggests to me that they could head for home. They have spent five full days in the westernmost part of their territory. It's time they came back to Lamar.
I arrive at Tower still in darkness. I hear faint howling. It's so nice to hear this all by myself in this lovely woodsy spot in the dark. I look around but it's not possible to see anything yet so I go on into Little America. I pass Jeff and Bob and Rick having a chat in one of the pullouts. I head on to Lamar. As I climb up into the Canyon I see the air above the river is full of fog. The fog, in turn, coats the bare aspen branches with frost. As first light grows the frost sparkles. One aspen on the right is particularly gorgeous, its thicket of branches glitter like a Fairy Tree. I make the turn into the fabled valley and find it wrapped in a filmy white blanket, disguising the shapes I know so well. If the Druids are here, I won't see them today until the fog lifts.
I see a band of elk beyond from Fishermen's pullout so I stop to watch them. In no time at all the fog makes ghosts of them and then it creeps up and surrounds me, too! This fog is made of ice and I hear little whispery crackles as tiny crystals hit and melt on my windshield. Spooky!
I head back to Elk Creek and find my buds Charles, Mark and Carol. We have another good laugh about the carcass-wolf. I get an update on the results of the darting yesterday. 21's old collar was replaced with a new one and three other Druids got collars, including the limping wolf. A grey and a black from the "burnt tree" group were also darted and fitted. The will be a second attempt to collar some Leopolds today.
Charles has been watching the area near the Druid kill at Junction Lake. He gets a black wolf on it and tells the rest of us. Thanks, Charles! I watch this wolf a while as we speculate on which one it might be and to which pack it might belong. Carol gets a report that Bob has 11 Druid wolves, including the alphas, bedded on a hill across the road from Slough Creek. Since it's my last day I want to see the alphas more than anything else so I tell my friends I am going to Slough.
But at Tower I hear howling. I get Layla out and scan the flats. I find four wolves out here. I see the Big Grey, a darker grey and two blacks. One has a collar and I recognize 103. The other is the Dominant Black that I watched yesterday. They move north across the flats. Of course just as Rick arrives they disappear. Jeff says if I wanna see the Druids I'd better get going as he's heard they are up and moving. So off I go. But I do not rush. I have learned that lesson!
As I near Slough Creek I see one of the white Institute vans. It's Nathan and about a dozen guests. His scope is still standing but everyone else is packing up! I am too late! I pull in anyway and Nathan helpfully points out the spot on the slope where the wolves were last seen. I try to get my bearings on the spot in the hopes that I will recognize it on the flip side.
I head east into Lamar. I am disappointed to have missed them, but I am secretly delighted because it looks like the Druids are heading home.
The spooky fog has lifted and the valley looks like its old self. The elk herd by Fishermen's pullout has spread out into the lower valley. I stop at Dorothy's Knoll and set up my scope. I study the ridges and wonder which high white slope will be the route the wolves will take. I try to think like a wolf. A blue van pulls in and a couple named Lou and Linda set up their scopes. They have a radio! I introduce myself and tell them this is my last day and how much I would like to spot the Druids coming back to their home valley. Lou nods in agreement. He knows the Druids well. He says the Crystal Creek drainage is one of their favorite routes; he says he has seen them use that frequently. He points straight across to a snaking line of trees. He suggests I watch the elk in the area, reminding me that often the other animals will tip you off where to look.
I look out at all the places wolves could hide and remember the stress they endured yesterday. I begin to believe they will remain in cover. I also consider the possibility that they may not be heading for Lamar at all and may stay on the south side of Specimen Ridge.
Just then Lou says "coyote running". With his helpful directions I find it. A little coyote lopes across a wide expanse of bright snow. The spot is a clearing below the joining of two ski-slope hills. The animal runs a while, then stops and turns to look behind. I scan the ridge tops and the tree line in his line of sight. Lou does the same. We see nothing. I find some scattered bull elk on the hills to the left but they seem undisturbed, their heads remain down and grazing. I return to the coyote again and again. He progresses along the open slope sometimes walking, sometimes running, moving steadily eastwards. Only one other time do I see him look back with any urgency.
Whatever disturbed him remains a mystery.
Shortly after this, the elk below us suddenly spook and run. We see nothing behind them. Linda thinks it could have been the diesel truck that passed a moment ago. We guess that some elk were very close to the road when the truck came by, and when they bolted the rest panicked. The elk eventually settle down again.
A half-hour passes and my toes begin to feel cold. Linda is smarter than me; she scopes from inside her van. Lou and I have followed the coyote along the Jasper Bench to a point above Fairies Fall. Then Lou says, "you know, I think that's a fox". I am tickled. Another fox! I mentally compare it to the two I saw yesterday and see the same characteristics. Lou says it's a mountain fox. I note that each of the three foxes I have now seen in Lamar have been on open snow slopes above the main valley. I wonder if I have mistaken other foxes for coyotes?
I while after this we both notice a change in the elk. Three bulls look up very wary all of a sudden. My heart starts to race and I fight to stay calm and methodically scan back and forth along their line of sight. Then... Oh! There! Two dark shapes! I SEE THEM! There between the boulders! I see a tail like a banner and the back of a wolf in front of it. Lou calmly asks "where do you see them?" but I am too excited to give good directions. I finally just offer my scope. He gets the spot but the wolves are hidden again. Oh, how my heart is beating. I know I didn't make it up. I know I saw them but I understand Lou's skepticism. He doesn't know me.
What's fascinating is that the spot is exactly where Lou predicted they would come out and exactly where the fox was looking earlier. I keep watching the elk. Linda is out of the van and she is scoping now, too. What feels like forever passes but it is really only a few minutes. Suddenly I have them again! Two wolves. OMIGOD! It's 21! That banner of a tail. They are several yards east of where I saw them first. There is a wolf in front of him. 42, of course! Sweet darling 42! Her nose is low; she seems to be sniffing her way. Hooray! This time I give better directions. Lou and Linda both have them! Lou picks up his radio and calls it in. The Druids are home! I do my happiest and wildest Druid Dance yet.
I pan to the right from 42 and 21 and find the whole pack. There they all are, trotting in a casual line along the highest part of the Jasper Bench. They seem to be following a well-worn trail. I start counting. I get 7 wolves after the alphas. Lou gets 9. The next time they come out into the open I count again. I get 9 this time; five blacks and four greys plus 42 and 21. I see Limpy's brand new collar.
A short while later other cars pull in. I greet a beaming Charles, Carol and Mark, and we all have joy of this sighting. The Druids are heading home and we seem to be in for a nice long sighting.
We watch 11 wolves move across a stunning landscape of white layered hills and dark green trees. When they become tiny dots we pack up our scopes and head down to the Institute to continue watching from there. The wolves have come steadily lower as they have progressed east. They stick pretty much to the tree line and for several miles are very hard to see as they weave in and out of the trunks. 42 sets a brisk pace and it amazes me what endurance these animals have. They have already come so many miles over Specimen Ridge from Slough. I am further amazed at the depth of the snow in the forest. It is clearly not a packed-down path they follow. We see powder kicked up and we also see them flounder here and there. 21 sinks more frequently than the others, which is not surprising given his greater size and weight.
There is such deliberation in 42's body language. She seems so clearly on a mission. I overhear Carol and Mark talking of other wolves. I suddenly remember the mystery wolves that we were sent to look for yesterday, which we never found, the ones reported to be in the Cache Creek area. There is speculation that 42 is following their scent trail. What will happen if she finds them?
The Druids soon outpace us so we pack up and set off in our cars again. This time we travel far ahead of them to the old Lamar Picnic area. Carol and Mark's idea is to hike up the hillside north of the road to get a better view. Charles and I are all for it although it takes us a bit longer to negotiate the hill than our younger friends. I'm simply out of shape but Charles' knees give him an excuse. Yet he is a trouper. Apparently he loves the Druids more than he minds the pain.
We set up and quickly find them again. They are about to come upon a dozen bull elk. The pups seem interested in a chase but the elk are wary and look strong. The Druids retreat into the woods and it's hard to make out what's going on. There is a bit of a standoff it seems, with the elk holding their ground in the open, staring at the wolves in the timber. Then one bull heads right into the trees. Either this animal has a death wish or he knows something we don't. Is he crazy? There are 11 wolves in there! But the elk are left alone and the Druids continue their march east.
42 leads them out of the trees into bright sun and deep powder snow. This slows them down a little. Finally 21 stops. 42 pads on a bit, but senses 21 is not behind her anymore. A few wolves come up to 21 and pay him homage. He mostly ignores them. One by one the pack members bed down, a few change position and I notice that Limpy is no longer last in line. I watch a grey wolf nuzzle 21 and I check to see if 42 is watching. She is not perturbed. Soon she curls up, too, and we have 11 lumps in the snow. If you didn't know they were there you'd never see them.
Some visitors pull over and call up to us asking what we're watching. We encourage them to come up. One of the women is wearing summer tennis shoes. Nevertheless she makes it up the hillside and we let her look in our scopes. She squeals with delight. She says she has always wanted to see a wolf. Well, she's now seen 11 of them. She watches for a while and gets to see a a few Druids get up and stretch and then settle back down.
Carol and Mark have a knack for picking the most perfect spot. The pack has bedded directly across from us and we have an unobstructed view of the whole area all the way to the cottonwoods at the beginning of the confluence area. Unless the wolves choose to walk along the frozen river itself, we will see them for a good while as soon as they decide to move again.
We take advantage of the break and eat. I finish off the last of my ham and cheese slices and can't help thinking of dessert. I had planned to go up to Cooke City to get gas and I might as well get some pie while I'm there. I take orders from them all and promise to return as soon as I can. I slog down the snowy slope and in a few minutes I am heading east.
Every day I have traveled the same roads yet every day brings new delights. This last drive up to the Northeast Entrance offers still more. There is even more snow to be seen and it takes on a softness that leaves me awestruck all over again. Two days of sunshine has again changed the contours of the river. I notice additional melted spots and new open channels. I am ever watchful for otters but I never do see a one on this trip.
In stinky, noisy Snowmobile City I fill up the tank and head to Soda Butte Lodge. I am so blinded by the amazing variety of pie selections that I completely forget the diet coke Carol asked for. On the way back I stop in at Dan Hartman's studio. I am in luck as both Dan and Cindy are here. I thank him again for rescuing my car The Gallery is just as impressive as Jeff said and with great difficulty I choose a print to buy. It features a howling 42 and several current Druids members on a bank above the Lamar. I also get a poster of the original Dreadful Druids signed by both Dan and Cindy. I highly recommend the Wildlife of the Rockies Gallery to all Yellowstone visitors. They have a great selection of beautiful shots and the prices are very reasonable.
On the way back I stop to look at Warm Creek. The snow blanket here is breathtaking; absolutely pure and untouched. The bright black water of Warm Creek trickles out of the snow-filled forest in gentle zig-zags; drooping over its banks are the layered edges of a fluffy white snow-quilt, slashed here and there by golden grasses.
Due to the slant of the sun, every snow bank on my right twinkles with multicolor crystals. I see the three bighorns roaming high on the hill and find the bald eagle in a cottonwood branch above the Lamar. I arrive back at the old Picnic Area, happy to see my three stalwart friends still at their post. The Druids must still be out there.
As I haul my scope back up the hill I hear the howling begin. I stop half-way up and look through my binocs. What a ruckus! 11 Druid voices letting loose with joyous abandon. I see a big dense pile of wagging black and grey tails. I huff and puff hurriedly to the top and set up Layla. Charles says I got back just in time; that the wolves have done nothing but sleep the whole time I was gone! The only action they had was a lone bison that wandered by in search of better grazing, a bit too close for comfort. Then he tells me the real news. Just before I drove up they heard a lone howl from the east. That howl is what woke up the Druids. That is what made them start howling!
The Druids waste little time. 42 is already on the move, way out ahead, nose to the ground, skinny tail straight out behind. Next is 21 with his larger body and distinctive two-tone sides. His flag of a tail is held out high and the tip curls up and slightly back towards his head. Next is a black wolf I choose to believe is the speedster. Fourth in line is a collared grey, 217F; Carol and Mark have learned to recognize her since they sponsor the collar she wears.
After that the only wolf I recognize is Limpy, who impresses us by being third-last rather than dead last. Mark comments that the injured hind leg seems to have atrophied. Yet Limpy manages to keep up with this pack, even at the relentless pace set by the formidable 42.
We watch them travel though very deep snow, amazed at their pace. Some of the pups stop to play and romp which is delightful to see. They skirt the edge of the rendesvous area in what looks like a fairly straight line. 42 and 21 stop in a few spots where they both do scent-marking. I see back-scratching by 21. As 42 nears the first stand of cottonwoods she takes a moment to choose her course and but then quickly drops down out of sight along the river. We watch each wolf progress to this point and it's interesting to see how each one seems to chose a particular route down.
Carol and Mark have been steadily reporting all our sightings to Rick and we learn that Lou and Linda are up on a hill above the confluence. To our great excitement we learn that they have the Interloper wolves in sight, moving east toward Dead Puppy Hill. We hurry down to our cars and I let Mark and Carol lead the way. I figure we will stop at the Hitching Post but they continue to the Footbridge. We hop out here and get set up. The air crackles with excitement. Who are these wolves and why are they here? What will happen if they meet the Druids?
We are ahead of the Druid's arrival and thanks to Lou and Linda's great instructions, the Interlopers enter our sights just below the westernmost slope of DPH. I see four wolves; a big grey, a black that carries its tail high, a collared grey and another black that carries its tail low. They trot across the snow with purpose but no apparent knowledge nor any fear of what is behind them. The only wolf that has been identified is the collared grey, 113 of the Chief Joseph pack.
I take a moment to appreciate where I am. I'm standing at the Footbridge pullout, site of so many Yellowstone firsts for me. In this spectacular winter setting I am watching four wolves trot through Druid territory, across ground my own two feet have hiked upon.
And it gets better. No sooner do these four wolves pass by and move into timber than Carol calls out that she has the Druids. I whip my scope to the right and instantly find them myself. Oh boy! I find them fast because it is so easy! I can see them with my naked eye. They are so close! Not only close to me but close to the oblivious four. I estimate a mere quarter-mile between the last-in-line Low-tail Black and the dangerous determination of Druid Alpha Female 42. I see her clearly and her mate 21 on the same slope of DHP where only moments ago I saw the Interlopers, although she and 21 are a bit higher up. 217F is now third in line, very close behind 21. I now have the distinct pleasure of watching the most famous wolf-pair in recent history move together across the Footbridge flats, in clear pursuit of the other four.
This is incredible! I've never had wolves this close, nor so clear a view. Rick is here now and we are breathless with anticipation as to how this will play out. It is my most thrilling sighting yet, topping the sheer joy of this morning when I spotted the Druids coming home! Charles and I are clicking our cameras for all they're worth. If there was ever a chance for a truly memorable shot, this is it!
The Druids are absolutely eating up the ground between them and the Interlopers. We watch them play Catch the Intruders for the whole length of the pullout. Then I skip ahead to catch up to the Interlopers. When I get them I see they finally get a sense of what's behind them. They begin to run and head up the slope. They look back frequently and continue to lope instead of trot.
It's time to move again. We drive about a mile east of Soda Butte and set up again. The four of us are able to keep both groups of wolves in view, by frequent swapping and constant relaying of information. Lucky for us, the Interlopers continue east in a fairly steady and predictable line, coming out of the trees into view again between each drainage.
Finally the Low-tail black seems to accept that escape is impossible. This wolf turns and runs towards the road across the flats. Half-way out it stops and looks back. The Alphas and the majority of the Druids pass the spot where the Low-tail black left the trail. Then the Low-tail black reverses course and heads back to the passing line of Druids, getting closer and closer until it slips right into the line between the last two. I find this astonishing and wholly unexpected. Does this Low-tail black actually think the Druids won't notice?
Well, the last in line Druid DOES notice and begins to chase the Low-tail black. The Low-tail black takes off running and outpaces the one behind. They both disappear into the forest. Moments after this we hear a solo howl, sharp and loud. Rick re-joins us and we tell him what we just saw. We ask him what he makes of the Low-tail black's behavior. His answer is totally unexpected yet makes perfect sense. He says he thinks the Low-tail black is, in fact, a former Druid wolf.
Aha! But of course, that begs the question, who are the other two wolves? I have yet to learn the answer.
I skip ahead to find the alphas and once I do I start counting heads. I now count 12 Druids from 42 to the end. The Low-tail black seems to have gotten away with re-joining the pack. Then all the wolves are out of sight for a little while as they move into another drainage.
I pan ahead to check on the Interlopers again. I pick up the three of them at the next drainage. They are much closer to each other now and they run in spurts, slow to a trot, then run again. I open the scope, trying to anticipate where 42 and 21 will reappear and just as I find 42 I see her make a sudden stop. She turns and sniffs the ground. Something has her excited. Then she bolts down the slope. An instant later we see a black wolf running for its life down the slope ahead of her, across the frozen river and out again across the flats. 42 runs at full speed after the black. I will never forget this sight. It is very scary. Several other wolves that we presume are Druids charge through the snow behind 42. The black wolf is in trouble for sure. In a patch of aspen 42 catches the black and rolls it. We hear nasty growling and a plaintive yelp. I am taken aback by how quickly this happened.
The trees prevent us from seeing what I think I don't want to see anyway. I say to Charles "are we watching a wolf mortality?" Two other Druids, one of them 217F, reach the hapless black. Yet in another second, the black wolf shoots out of the trees, dashing again with tail hard-tucked. Again 42 races behind it, attended by four or five other wolves. This time the black is caught in the open! It somersaults in the snow and then disappears behind a fold. We can't see what's happening except for five tails high and furiously wagging.
My heart is in my throat. Carol says if the black is another Druid wolf maybe they are greeting it. I say 42 was not greeting that black wolf! I remind them of the scene in Bob's movie of the Druids killing a poor coyote, how their tails wagged in excitement. Is this what I'm watching? But my dire prediction proves false. Again we see the black wolf shoot out from the pile, running west, a bit more slowly this time, again with its tail tucked but this time looking back as though to say "OK, OK, guys. I've had enough! I'm going! Leave me be!" The wolf is not pursued any further.
We watch it carefully, looking for signs of blood or injury. It does not limp although once I see it stop and reach around to lick its flank. Charles and I exchange a relieved look. We both had feared the worst. We comment on 42. Perhaps her lethal-looking rush was not meant to be murder but a severe reprimand for choosing the wrong company?
After this disciplining incident, the Druids seem distracted from their mission. The sun sinks behind Druid Peak and a deep chill spreads over us. Rick moves further east, nearly to Trout Lake, where Lou and Linda have been set up for a while. Cliff joins us. We continue to have sightings of one wolf or another. We watch the reprimanded wolf eventually make its way back to the slope where the pack is. We see it heading uphill just to the right of them.
The Druids mill around on the first slope above the river. Further east, we watch the big grey cross the road and move north, followed shortly thereafter by the High-tail black. The collared grey remains somewhere in the flats, about a mile east of the Druids. We see 42 move back west and slightly uphill into trees. Between the trunks we can see what looks like bedding down behavior. The temperature drops considerably.
Then we hear a howl. A single voice, deep and throaty, almost scratchy. A very distinctive sound I have never heard before, almost hound-like. Charles says it sounds like a nervous wolf to him. It is quite haunting, especially because the valley is so still and cold and white and quiet. In this whole huge expansive valley there are 8 people and 15 wolves. The voice of this one wolf reverberates once, twice, three times against the forested hills. Oh, how it makes me smile.
Then the Druids reply. Their many voices churn and warble, they shriek and cheer and laugh and yell, they trumpet their ownership of this beautiful wild valley. It goes on and on until we can't tell if we are hearing echoes or actual continuous howling. When they finally stop, trailing off almost unwillingly, the silence is just as powerful. Then the lone, hoarse voice begins again. The echoes and reverberations play like a marvelous symphony, bouncing from mountain-side to mountain-side, over and over and over. This wolf has a lot to say but he finally says it all and slowly trails off and stops.
We look at each other and shake our heads, loving every minute of this day, now turning to cold evening. Charles and I start to think about the long road home. We are going beyond Gardiner to John's tonight for dinner. We start to pack up and then Rick calls us on the radio. He suggests we look his way. We do. The big grey and the black are sitting on a bluff north of him barely 25 feet away. Rick calls Jeff to come with his camera. We watch nearly breathless. As much as we would like to be that close, we don't want to spoil it. We wait for Jeff to arrive from Tower. We see the Druids move higher on the slope and in turn a small band of elk moves nervously away.
The road is long from Tower but Jeff finally arrives and the wolves above Rick stay put. Then Rick invites the four of us and Cliff to come up. We drive very slowly without headlights and move as quietly as possible. Shortly after though, both wolves move east and re-cross the road, joining the collared grey in the flats.
Dusk comes and Charles and I say our good-byes. I present Rick with a slice of blueberry pie, which he accepts with a grin. I give a slice of peach to Jeff. He eats it on the spot. I thank him for all his help and we have a Loon hug goodbye.
Charles and I drive west through the deepening dark and wonder aloud what will be in store for the Druids in their valley tomorrow? As if the day had not already been full to the brim, the capper is a delicious dinner courtesy of Carlene; yummy and tender roast beef, taters, carrots and tasty gravy. She also has applesauce which I spread on a slice of fresh bread, like my Dad used to do. The company can't be beat and we have a great time recounting our adventures to a most appreciative audience. Of course I wish I had more time to spend with them. Oh I forgot: Carlene also made me hot chocolate! They send us off with many hugs. I can't wait to see you guys again in spring. Thanks for everything!
Charles is very helpful on the harrowing drive back up the canyon, pointing out elk in the road just in time for me to miss them. Back at the Hotel we stop by Mark and Carol's room so I can say goodbye and thanks. I am so glad I had the chance to spend such quality time with these nice people. I hug Charles goodbye and wish them all wonderful wolf sightings for the rest of their stay.
Loons just hate to say goodbye.
Today I saw: 20 wolves including 21, 42, 103, 217, Limpy and 113; 3 bighorns, bison, 2 coyotes, elk, 1 bald eagle, and 1 mountain fox.