It's minus 2 this morning! I step outside to another astonishing sky; black as black can be. Above my head the Milky Way is a wide gauzy sash of glittering crystal stars, and the air is cold and crackling dry.
Every glass surface of my car is frosted with stardust. I can make no headway with my scraper and have to rely on the heater to do the job. I really enjoy being out this early when all is quiet and the world is mine. There is no overnight snow to contend with but the road is icier than ever.
The drive out this morning becomes the most memorable of the whole trip because someone told the animals today is my birthday. As I get to the spot where I nearly was butted by the young bull elk, I see a coyote trotting in the road ahead. I see its bushy tail and notice it has a lovely black tip. I slow down and stop. As I do, the coyote turns its head to look back at me. Omigod! That's a wolf!
A grey wolf, uncollared. Am I sure it's a wolf? I move forward. The animal looks back again, willingly offering proof. That is a wolf face. Look at those legs! Look at those paws! I am astonished. I have never seen a wolf this close and I am shaking with excitement. It's still dark, I'm all alone and I have only my headlights to see him by. He trots ahead and out of sight and I sit a minute, trying to calm down. Could this be a Leopold wolf? I'm in an open area with snowy flats on both sides. It's just me and this wild wolf. Why is he near the road? I thought wolves were shy of the road?
I move forward again and see the wolf stopped in the middle of the road. Then it hops over the snowbank to the left and walks through the snowfield. I creep forward until I am nearly parallel with him, roll down my window and snap a photo (no, it didn't come out). The wolf stops and stares at me. Oh those eyes! His breath comes out in puffs. I say hello. I tell him he's pretty. He trots away but then changes course and hops right back into the road.
It is absolutely thrilling to see him. But then I realize I've done a stupid thing. I should have driven on instead of stopping. He moved off to let me pass and I didn't accept his gesture. Oh shoot. The last thing in the world I want to do is to drive behind him in a slow chase. I pull over and watch him as he reaches the end of my high beams. I click them off and wait. I start driving again but see him again, further on, loping now. I reach a pullout and tuck myself in here.
I see him sniff the edge of the road. It looks to me like he's just checking things out, looking for scraps, road kill, whatever. He moves on at a trot again. I decide to stay put. He remains in the road a long time and then oh so casually leaps the bank on the right side and vanishes into the darkness.
Happy Birthday to me I say out loud.
I enjoy my close encounter for what it was. But as I drive on, the more troubling aspects remain in my head. Is this a winter or nighttime behavior, or an example of habituation? I worry for the future safety of the wolves and hope that perhaps the heavier traffic of the tourist season will be enough to keep them out of harm's way.
I wind through the woodsy turns before Floating Island Lake and get another surprise. Another wolf lopes out of the trees into the road from the left. There is a smidgen more light in the sky by now and I know right away that this is a wolf. It's a grey and it wears a collar. Its tail has no black tip but is very pretty nonetheless. I pull over to the right and scribble notes as I watch it. The animal looks back at me and then bounds easily over the snowbank and downhill into timber.
Happy Birthday to me, I say again.
Just past Floating Island Lake I see a car approaching. I flash my lights and the driver stops. It's an NPS truck. I tell the driver I just saw a wolf on the road back there and ask him to please go slow. He smiles and says "Thanks, I always do".
My next stop is Tower. I am eager to see if I can find the kill from last night. First light arrives early due to the clear sky. When I get out of the car I see movement to the right. It's a coyote. No! A pack of them! Four coyotes, a mere 30 feet away, running in the lane towards the Roosevelt gate. They stop and nuzzle each other in a happy, excited state. Then they sit on on their haunches. Two look right and two look left. Two of them seem bigger than the others. They sit four together, bright eyes in their smart faces looking all around, tongues dangling, expelling little clouds of breath.
Then they get up and trot back down the lane to the road, then across the road into the flats. I suddenly realize they are leading me right to the Druid's kill! Another birthday gift and the sun isn't even up yet!
The kill is in a pocket below and to the right of the bluff down which the elk had paraded last evening. I had been looking in the right direction but couldn't have seen wolves on it since my view was blocked by all the elk! The coyotes tug at hide and bone. There doesn't look to be that much left. I see ravens and magpies and I find a golden eagle perched in a tree. The coyotes don't stay very long. Once they move off I go back west to Elk Creek.
I look into the burnt timber where Jeff found wolves two days ago. Bob pulls in a short while later. When he finishes his radio conversation I walk over and report my two wolf sightings. He says there have been several reports lately of sightings near the road in that area. I ask him to please pass this on to Rick and he says sure.
Shortly after this Jeff arrives. I check in with him, give him my news and catch up with his. He says the Druid are somewhere in the neighborhood but no one has seen them yet. We hear a lone wolf howl. It's hard to tell direction but I would say it came from the burnt tree hills to the south of us. A beautiful sunrise begins, the first one of this trip to have any color to speak of. It's nice to watch, especially while a lone wolf is wailing.
We hear the howl again a little later. Then we see a lone coyote out on the flat. At first we think it's acting nervous, like it's being chased, but then it assumes a more relaxed posture and moves along into the timber.
A guy in a white pickup truck pulls in whom Jeff recognizes. He tapes stuff for ESPN and has been in the Park a few days. (I'm sorry I don't remember his name). He is doing roadside interviews for a program called Outdoor Adventures and asks if he can interview me. What, you thought I'd say no? He asks why I come to the park, how long have I been doing this, what do I like about wolves, you know, the kind of things I HATE talking about! (LOL). I shamelessly plug the Total Yellowstone Page. At the end he asks how I want to be identified. I say call me Wendy, Yellowstone Loon.
I decide to hike up to Trout Lake today. So I wave goodbye to the guys and head east. The sun comes out full and it feels good. A lone raven squawks from atop a boulder in Little America. On into Lamar I go, enjoying its loveliness as usual. At the confluence I notice how the sun has affected the river. On top of the ice there now moves a thin layer of free water. Even as I watch, the forward edges of the ice are melting and an ever-deepening cleft is forming in the center. The water is nearly all ripples and each one glistens brilliantly in the sunlight. I watch this awhile, mesmerized by the subtle differences in texture and color, in shape and in motion. This process will go on all day until the temperature drops again tonight. Every corner of this Park is full of beauty.
A bit further on, I see the unmistakable tracks of an otter. I stop and watch the water hopefully and scan the path of the tracks into the willows but see no accompanying animal. Strung along the river's edge is a necklace of coyote tracks. And there are numerous ouzel as usual.
I park at Trout Lake and prepare myself for my hike. I bring my camera, binocs, water and a snack. I decide my turn-around time is 1PM. I look out at the hillside in front of me. Heavy snow and lots of elk prints. Lots of smushed down spots where elk have bedded. The hillside is a wash of white; snow, snow and more snow. The branches of the evergreens are so heavily laden that they are nearly all white, too. Something is missing though, I think to myself. Ah yes. The trail. There is absolutely no sign of a trail.
Well, over there is the top of the post that warns "no fishing, etc". Does the trail go left or right from there? And what then? I laugh out loud. Well, I say, I know one thing for sure. I have to go UP.
The sun is bright and confidence is high. I wish for a hiking stick, but think maybe I'll find one once I get in among the trees. The snowplow has built up a wall of snow along the edge, roughly three feet high and who-knows-how thick. Getting over it is not quite as easy as it looks. I pick a crusty looking spot to climb over. My first step finds support and I rise. My second step lands me in snow up to my elbows. I pitch forward but catch myself just in time. Now both my legs are invisible beneath me. I feel like a hobbit on the flanks of Caradhras. I have no choice but to wade through the snow, shoving it aside as I go. It is slow and strenuous and I am bright red in the face just getting across the first 10 feet of flat!
When I do finally reach the first tiny little knob I look back at how "far" I've come and laugh. I remember Jeff's advice to rent snowshoes. I'm bad at listening to advice. It gets a tiny bit easier on the hill as I have an elk path to follow but there are dozens of places where my boots sink deep past the crust. It is amazing how much snow is on the ground! I force my way uphill. I make such slow progress I try heading for the trees in the hopes that the snow will be thinner. It isn't. It's softer. I head uphill again looking for the trail. I'm usually very good at remembering places I've been before. I've been here twice but both times in spring. At present, nothing looks familiar and it saps my enthusiasm.
I sink to mid-thigh about every fourth step. The sinking is fine, getting back out is the hard part. I consider turning back or trying some other hike but then the thought of Mark and Carl doing this two weeks ago in running shoes spurs me on. (Did you guys have this much snow?) I struggle on and finally I see a place I remember; the spot where we met the big old moose. It has taken me a half-hour to get this far, which is probably five minutes from the road in Springtime.
Just above this spot the trail finally appears. I would not call it a trail at any other season. It is merely a spot where the snow is more compact, a slightly lower space between two fluctuating borders of snow, traced by a single line of dainty hoof prints down the center. So dainty I think it may be a deer, or perhaps a yearling elk (don't the deer move to lower elevations in winter?).
I am nonetheless grateful for this small winter miracle. I find a stick and it helps a little. I am now surrounded by snow-forest and it is exquisite. Every step or two a clump of snow will drop from a branch so there are lovely whispery-whoosh sounds. These do not scare me at first. They scare me later. I turn around to see The Thunderer rising across the way, its dark sharp cliffs outlined in hundreds of intersecting lines of white. I notice other tracks. A weasel's journey is etched in gentle loveliness atop the snow for a good 20 feet alongside the trail. I see many impressions of squirrel feet, especially under trees. Here and there are a bird's dainty marks. The presence of elk is the most common story told by the tracks and I like to see their concave resting spots.
I come to a steep section and start to flounder again. The wind has blown the snow into drifts. Then finally I make it to the spot where the trail runs close to the edge of the gorge made by the outlet stream. Here I worry a bit, not liking edges, especially since it is impossible to tell what is solid underfoot until you've committed your weight to it. I stop and catch my breath. I use my stick to test the snow depth then start again, just putting one foot in front of the other. And before I know it I am looking at Trout Lake. Trout Lake in winter.
A very different sight indeed. It is totally frozen over and fully covered with snow. You would never know it was a lake at all. Far across is a stand of aspen and three bull elk are grazing. They look up as I arrive but soon go back to grazing. I guess where the lake edge is and see where the trail should be alongside it but I choose to not push my luck. I see the dam and the footbridge over the outlet stream. There are prints over the footbridge. I would love to know what made them but it's too steep for me to approach.
I weigh my options and consider trying to find a way to the inlet stream in the hopes of finally seeing an otter. I head that direction, staying well back from the edge. But after four steps I am thwarted by heavy snow. Hmmm. I try another direction and get stuck again. Hmm. Then I look up and see, to my utter delight, Marks Falls, Frozen Version. I smile again. Off comes my pack and out comes my camera. It is beautiful, so beautiful. It's perfectly framed between snow-covered evergreens. The quiet serenity of this place is well worth sinking up to my elbows to see.
I give up on hiking to the inlet stream and just enjoy where I am, in the snow forest. I see some of the bright green moss that I remember from the spring. It's stiff instead of soft. And I find some patches of red bark that offer more contrast against the predominant white. It's now after 1PM so I start back down. It is far easier to get down (as you might expect) except when I get back to the flats.
Despite the volume of snow I shoved aside on my way in, it is still a struggle to get across the flats. I sink up to my elbows one last time, a mere five feet from the road, when a tour bus comes by. It stops and the lady driver opens the door. This is embarrassing. She asks. "How was it?" I am nearly too out of breath to answer. "Worth it" I expel. Then I add "snowshoes would probably have been a good idea". She smiles and nods. The door closes and off she goes. I sit in my Wendy-shaped snow-pit for a few seconds, then drag myself the last few feet. Snow clings in hard marble-sized chunks to my trousers. I have snow inside the pockets of my jacket.
But it was worth it.
I head up to Cooke City for gas and naturally I stop at the Lodge to buy myself a piece of birthday pie: Joan's Cherry Pie, that is. Mmmm! Now it's time to head west for more wolf sightings.
Tonight's action is at Tower. I join the guys across from the Ranger station; Jeff, Mike and the ESPN guy. Mike reports that he caught the chase and the kill last night on video. He's a lucky guy! We watch a collared black wolf on the carcass. It turns out that this is 105. I am glad to see her. We silently cheer for her to get enough food from this kill to fill her belly. She tugs and chomps and seems to find plenty to chew on. After a while she moves off. She crosses the flat and heads into the timber. Once she is out of sight, most folks head west to Elk Creek. I decide to go the opposite way and make the turn towards Lamar.
I stop in the road about halfway to the little wooden bridge. I roll down my window and scan the flats through my binocs. I see 105 right away, coming down out of the trees. Then just as quickly I lose her behind a hill. I wait a while, figuring she'll come out somewhere to the right. But she doesn't. I sit and wait and scan some more but get no more sight of her. Hmmm. I decide to turn around and head for Elk Creek.
I am in the process of turning around when I suddenly feel my car sink to the right. The passenger side is suddenly slanted. I can't believe it. I've run off the road.
Ah, but I have 4 wheel drive! I switch to low and put the car in reverse. I touch the gas. The result is that my right front wheel is now a foot deeper in the ditch. Hmmm. I put it in park. I get out. Oy. How did I do this? The tilt is so steep that the left rear tire is no longer touching the ground. The axle is embedded in snow. I see how crooked the wheels are and think maybe if I straighten them I can drive forward. I get back in and straighten the wheels. I try first gear. I move one inch forward and three more inches down into the ditch. OK. I can't believe I did this. First Mark and Carl, then Lew and Deb. A new Loon tradition indeed!
I get out again and an NPS tow truck drives up. Could I be this lucky? The driver asks if I'm OK. I say yeah but I don't know how it happened. The driver smiles and says it happens all day long in winter. I say can you pull me out? He says no, he can only pull out NPS vehicles. But he will call it in to the Ranger and they will get me a tow. I say you mean THAT Ranger? I point to the station across the flat. He smiles and nods. I try to convince the driver to ignore the rules and pull me out anyway but he has heard such pleas before. He comforts me by saying it doesn't look too bad to him. I figure he's seen his share. He asks if I have it in park and if the engine is off. I say yeah. I wave him on and he goes.
I go to get my wallet for the walk to the Ranger station. I also grab my binocs. Another car pulls up. A man says to me "Do you see the wolf?" Wolf? What wolf? I whirl to see where he's pointing. Way across the flats I see a black wolf running in my direction. It's 105. Forget the wallet. I yank out Layla. As I'm setting up Bob Landis drives by. He notices my car. I roll my eyes in embarrassment and he continues down the road beyond the wooden bridge to set up his camera.
I now have 105 in my scope. Boy she is really running. Why is she running? I swing the scope to the left and see…two more running wolves! It's 21 and 42! The alphas are chasing her! Oh no! They are running her off again. They must know she was mooching their leftovers. Run 105! Run! 42 looks fierce and 21 looks excited. The thought of them catching her worries me but she is fleet. I give up on the scope and watch her through binocs then finally just watch her with my own two eyes. She speeds across the road and into the flats beyond. Now she slows and looks back over her shoulder. She stops. I swing back to the alphas and see they have stopped. They stand a moment, looking towards her. I swing back to 105 and see she is running again. She reaches the trees and I lose her. I go back to the alphas again and watch them turn around and amble back the way they came.
Mission accomplished, I suppose. The alphas turn and head toward the kill.
I skim over to the kill and see other wolves there. Wow, that was a close call for 105. She could have had the whole pack after her. I see a whole slew of wolf watchers near the Ranger sStation. Ah yes. I need to go there myself. The guy who said "do you see the wolf" backs up to me, and asks me what I'm going to do about the car. I tell him I'm walking over to talk to the Ranger about a tow. He offers me a lift. But he's not headed that direction so I say thanks I'm just gonna walk. I recognize him as someone I've seen in Lamar but I don't think I've met him before. I tell him I'm Wendy and ask his name. Dan. I thank him for tipping me off about the running wolf! I know I would have missed it otherwise.
Dan drives on and I put Layla back and lock up the car. After I've gone two steps another car pulls over going the right direction. I recognize the couple inside. I hop in and they drive me to the Ranger station. I fill them in on the wolf action and encourage them to stop and watch awhile with the group up ahead, someone will let them look through a scope. I didn't get these nice folks' names but thanks again!
But now I find myself even closer to wolf action. So instead of going across the road to talk to the Ranger I join the guys watching wolves on the kill. Even more people are here, now, Jeff and Cliff and Mike and Furry Hat Steve and the ESPN guy. There are also two older wolf-watchers with high-powered scopes named Bill and Art. These two offer to pull my car out with their Jeep and tow-rope. Jeff says he has a tow-rope too, as does the guy from ESPN. I say thanks but I'd rather watch wolves while I still can. We still have a good hour of light left. I tell Jeff how the guy named Dan pointed out 105 and how I saw her getting chased. He tells me that's Dan Hartman, the photographer who runs the Wildlife Gallery up in Silver Gate. He says he's got great photos and I should check them out.
The wolves are close enough to see yet far enough away for us not to bother them. In addition to the alphas, I see four other pack members, the limping black, a grey and two more blacks. They are so close I can hear them crunching. I hear 21 growl at the subordinates and snarl. I see the hackles raised on their shoulders. 21 snaps at the limping black and runs him/her off a few yards. It is hard to watch the limping wolf run from him but I guess that is life in a wolf pack.
After a while 21 and 42 move off and do their sweet nuzzling thing. The others stay focused on the carcass and seem to find an awful lot of it edible. Then I notice the Ranger's truck coming out of the driveway. I hurry over. She's a lady Ranger. I tell her of my mishap. She says she's on her way over there now, to make sure I'm not creating a traffic hazard. She hasn't called a tow yet. I say good because some of the people here say they're willing to try to pull me out. Bill and Art have packed up their scope. They make room for me in their Jeep and off we go.
As we head back to my tilted car I see an astonishing thing. Two men with shovels are digging snow from under my car. Who are these angels? Well, Bob Landis is one and Dan Hartman is the other. It nearly makes me cry to see this. Bill and Art say looks like you may not need a tow after all! I hop out and express my thanks. I try to help, scraping snow from under the front bumper with my boot. After a few more minutes Bob says try it. He and Dan get ready to push. I step lightly on the gas. Progress is made but not quite enough. They yell stop. Bob's car is behind mine so he goes to back it up a bit, giving me more room.
The second time is the charm. All four wheels are now on solid ground. I squeal with delight. Just that fast I am out of trouble. No tow rope necessary - just good old-fashioned muscle of two generous men. Now I have two new heroes. I give each of them a hug of thanks, Bob, Dan, Bill Art, even the lady Ranger. I'm sure I embarrassed them all with my exuberance.
I give Bill and Art the address of the Total Yellowstone Page and suggest they check it out a few weeks from now for my report (I should have said a few months! Thanks again Bill and Art!) I look over at the mess I made in the snow. I hope more white stuff will fall soon to cover it up. I promise Dan I will visit his gallery soon. I promise the Ranger I have learned my lesson.
I head back to the others and haul out my scope again. The alphas have moved into the trees but the others are still gnawing away. Two more Druids have shown up so I have six on the kill with the alphas bedded. I watch them for another half-hour. Some women pull up who are staying at the Institute. I share my scope and tell them of my day's adventures. They like seeing the wolves this close. Then one by one we begin to call it a day. Everyone teases me mercilessly. It feels just like being among the Loons.
On my way back, just past Hellroaring I see Mike's truck stopped at the Elk Bowl. He says a grey wolf just cut across the road and headed up the slope. He is going to wait and see if it comes down to get the elk grazing here. There is little room to pull over so I wave and continue on.
Mike and I get to the Mammoth Dining Room at the same time so we share a table. He says he waited a while for the grey but it never re-appeared. We talk about wolves and all the cool stuff we've seen. I tell him about the bull elk charging me last night and he says the same thing happened to him, in the very same spot! I figure I'd better watch out for that elk.
It's been a most unusual birthday, and thanks to Yellowstone, one of the nicest.
Today I saw: 11 wolves including two unknown greys, 105F, 21M, 42F, Limpy and five other Druid members; bison, coyotes, elk, a golden eagle, magpies, ouzels and ravens.