Just as I thought, I am up at 4:45 with no trouble at all. I pull up behind Doug's Jeep at 5:45. He kids me for being so anxious.
Off we go in the dark. Well, it would be dark except for the moon! It pops out from behind the shoulders of mountains when you least expect it and tosses such brightness I have to shield my eyes!
When we get to Lamar I see Doug slow down and pull into Fisherman's. I stop and whisper to him that I'm going on to Dorothy's.
Doug has loaned me his radio and I enjoy listening to the hushed reports coming in. "Correction, Rick." says someone. "We've got TWO bears on the carcass now". That sends some adrenalin coursing through me! I pull into Dorothy's and open the car doors as quietly as I can as I get set up. I've beaten Carol and Mark!
When I'm all set up I focus on the carcass but there is not yet enough light to see it. The soft chatter on the radio includes at least three people who are seeing bears and I begin to wonder if they are all wearing night vision goggles! But it feels just wonderful to be out here.
I try my binoculars and finally see a dark shape moving. That is one bear. Now where's the other one? Carol, Mark, Charles and Barbara pull in and I see they've been listening to the reports. By the time they get set up I finally I see an animal I can truly identify. A grizzly, yes a large grizzly, tugging on the low mound that used to be a bison. I see him move off and cross the flat behind the carcass. And now he wanders up the hillside, just like the wolves did yesterday. I wonder where the wolves are now, and whether they will interact with this bear or avoid him?
I hear talk of the second bear still being visible but I never find him. Perhaps yuo have to be at Fishermens to see him. We hear coyotes howling. Then very soon the wolves appear and start to come down from wherever they were sleeping. There is now enough light for good viewing and I relish it.
We see the grey first, following a faint trail down the hill. She goes straight to the carcass and rips away. 302 comes next and then the two blacks. I think again of poor rejected Black Beauty and wonder if she will ever fall in love again?
The four wolves busy themselves with feeding. They seem to get along well, feeding together. I see no altercations or fighting over turns. The birds keep their distance for a while and then a few magpies begin to take chances. One black wolf makes a rush and nearly grabs a raven who happened to fly in at just the wrong time.
I hear someone say the grizzly is out again so I take a break from the wolves and watch the big guy amble across the back of Jasper Bench, well fed and not a care in the world. He's probably looking for a nice spot to sleep off breakfast, away from the canines. For a while I am concerned that he seems headed right for the forest where I saw the bear trap but a little later he turns downwards so I'm pretty sure he avoided that trouble. I lose him in some trees and then go back to the wolves.
I watch the four of them feed some more, tugging and chomping and I notice the birds are getting bolder. Finally the wolves have had enough and they move a dozen or so feet away and bed down. The carcass now belongs to the birds. The wolves don't stay bedded here for long. Pretty soon the grey gets up and travels back up the same faint path she came down and the others follow. This time we see double-scent-marking by the grey and 302 and when Rick is told, we can hear in his voice he is pleased.
The wolves choose a sunny patch of hillside to bed down, then move behinds some trees. After a little while we see coyotes sneak in to claim their time at the trough. Then Doug drives up, absolutely beaming at the shots he was able to get. I can't wait to see those!
We chat and scope and look for other creatures. I watch some bison for a while down at the old picnic area. The morning light is really pretty and the day is warming. Then, to our surprise, the wolves get up again and head back down to the carcass. These wolves have quite an appetite!
After another bout of feeding we watch the grey cross the river and walk out among the pebbles in the dry part of the river bed. She seems to be heading for the other side when suddenly she stops, looking straight ahead. Then she turns around and heads back to the carcass. There is chatter on the radio about a person in that area, someone who may have walked out to the edge of the flats, perhaps trying to get a photo. None of us knows who it is. From my angle it does look as though the grey would have continued up the hill had she not seen what or who was there.
Does that constitute harassment? I don't think so. And there is nothing illegal about walking out in the sage beyond a pullout. But I do wonder if the person is aware of the effect of his/her presence on the wolf's behavior? And I wonder if the person would do it again? I hear over the radio that a Ranger is on the way to talk to the person.
The grey rejoins 302 at the carcass and they grab several more mouthfuls. Then the group heads uphill once more. The grey leads them higher than before and I lose her in the trees. One by one the others follow and one by one they disappear.
Just as they move out of sight a school-bus full of kids pulls in. As they hop off Charles and I wave them over to our scopes. We tell them the wolves have just gone out of sight and show them the carcass through the scope. Then we get lucky and the wolves re-appear in a sunny spot. Then they really put on a show, romping and playing, visible between the trees. We re-focus the scopes and everybody gets a turn. Each child sees at least one wolf, with the predictable but always welcome "ooooh! cool!" remarks. This group is part of a wildlife class and I am delighted to learn that the majority are from local families. If the wolves' future in this Park is to be assured, it will be because their worth is appreciated by those who live here.
No sooner do the wolves bed down again when up comes Ballpark Frank. Well, shoot. We can't show him wolves but we give him the news. We chat for a while and discuss the goals of today's hike. Today we are going to explore a bit of Druid history.
Our group consists of Mark and Carol, Charles and Barbara, Gary and Trish (veteran wolf watchers from San Francisco) plus Frank and me. Doug begs off as his poor toe is sore again. So we say goodbye to him and drive to the Institute. We park the cars up above the cabins and get our packs ready. Our main goal today is the Rose Creek Acclimation Pen but we are taking a side trip first - we are going to try to find an abandoned den that the Druids used in 2002.
Frank again offers me the use of one of his ski poles, which I gladly take. Mark and Carol provide a pair to Charles whose bad knees would otherwise keep him from going at all. I am glad Trish and Gary can join us today. I haven't seen them since my last Spring trip and they have always been very helpful to me. It's nice to have a chance to share an outing like this and to get to know them better.
But I think it's Barbara with whom I have the most fun today. I enjoy having a woman along who is close to my age, who I can huff and puff with unashamed! We set out together with Charles and Frank flanking us. We are the slowest as we make our way up the first daunting hill. I can't possibly describe how to get to this densite since I wasn't paying any attention to the route. I was enjoying the company, and the brand new view of Lamar Valley, the flip side, so to speak, of my Jasper Bench hike.
We climb lots of very steep hills, some very slippery, covered in loose pine cones and looser bits of rock. It's pretty hot, too. We just seem to go up and up and up and suddenly Mark calls out "we're here!". I don't know if he and Carol had visited the spot before or had gotten directions from Rick but here it is. It looks easy to miss.
This is a den that 42 dug in March or April of 2002. She gave birth to pups here and for a while the Druids brought her food. Then, sometime in April it was abandoned and the pups were carried or lead to the traditional den on Druid Peak. No one knows for sure why it was abandoned but Rick thinks one reason may have been that there was not a close enough water source.
I am looking at that den right now. It is at the base of a tree. I see a dark hole where half the trunk should be and there is bare ground before it and to either side. The area around it is pretty steep but there are flat-ish spaces to the right and left and I can imagine 42 lying there, nursing her little ones.
We get down on our bellies and peek inside. Without a bright flashlight it is impossible to see how far it goes but judging from the cool air inside I guess it goes back quite a ways. It is smaller and more narrow than I would have thought. It's hard to imagine 42 squeezing into this hole but I guess it would be easier to defend.
There is something inside the den, wedged between two roots. One of us is able to dislodge it and draw it out into the sunlight. It's an elk foreleg bone, with a still-bendable knee joint. The hoof is still intact and there is a patch of brown elk-hair on the ankle. I think to myself, now THAT is just the kind of item 21 would bring back for the kiddies. It makes me smile.
I start to imagine 21 and 253 and the other Druids bringing food here for 42. There is a sheltered quality to this spot, yet when I turn to look west, wow! What a view! I hunch down low to what I presume would be the eye-level of curious pups, peeking out of the den for the first time. Yep, that view is magnificent! There is the winding Lamar River and Jasper Bench and Amethyst Creek and Specimen Ridge all there waiting to be explored! If this is the view that a Druid pup gets when he first looks on the world, no wonder the Druids are such a confident bunch!
There are many bones lying in an area below the den, all from elk. Gary makes an interesting find: the foreleg bones of a calf - still jointed at the knee with its tiny hoof still attached, delicate and pointed. It is a miniature version of the adult foreleg. Again, I can't help but envision 21 trotting up this hill, grinning with this prize between his teeth.
This is a most amazing site to visit, especially for a group of die-hard wolf lovers, like us, all Druid fans especially. My special thanks to Frank and Mark and Carol for this wonderful experience.
But now it's time to start for our next location, the Rose Creek Pen. As we re-pack our cameras, Frank, Carol and Mark discuss the best route to take. The hardest part of this hike comes first.
We begin by crossing a very scary, steep hill. If I had it to do again I think I would have chosen to scramble all the way to the summit and down the other side rather than face this hill again, but in the end, we made it. Barbara and I help each other across. I have always found that simple words of encouragement can help me get past difficult spots like this. She seems to respond the same way so we talk each other across. The hillside is extremely steep, extremely dry and extremely covered with loose, powdery soil. It is also extremely littered with thin, shale-like rocks that look solid but are NOT. I have to crouch for part of the way, using my hands and my butt as much as my feet.
Barbara and I keep telling each other - "don't look down, look ahead". "Keep going, one step at a time, you can do it", that sort of thing. When we finally DO make it across we are both filled with confidence. Which is a good thing because the worst is not over yet.
The next hill we have to cross is also steep but this one is covered in short sage. This is tricky too as there are holes beneath the sage plants that you only discover once you've stepped in one. Sage-wood is scratchy and tough just when you think it ought to bend under your boot, and sage seems to grow in a way that prevents paths from developing. We struggle across this slope, wondering how many miles of this will there be?
Then, Frank, bless him, finds a bison trail.
Frank has sung the praises of bison before but now I really know what he means. Those animals do all the hard work for you by cutting a path through the infernal sage. I agree with him and we hail the mighty bison. So for a few yards, our knees are relieved. Of course, bison didn't make this path for us nor did they make it to get to the Rose Creek Pen so we can only use a portion of it. But it does help us get to a patch of forest where I find the footing much more to my liking.
This hike takes us across many landscapes, all of them interesting and all beautiful in their way. It is delightful to find such a vast amount of land back here, away from the road, where all the animals can roam. We cross meadow after meadow, climb up and down hills, in and out of forests. We find shed antlers all over the place, most of them gnawed on, and many other bones. We find what we think is wolf scat and many interesting rocks. Frank gives us several mini-lectures on the way which are fascinating and informative.
At one point we come upon a thickly forested drainage with a creek at the bottom that cuts across our route. The sides are very steep but we see that bison have kindly provided a road, in fact, a choice of roads. We pick the one on the far side of a little wash. It leads steeply down into cool dark forest, another lovely spot. After so much walking in the open it feels as though we have entered a cathedral, cool and serene. Instead of stone pillars there are trees towering straight and tall above us and instead of high domes we see arching branches. For stained glass windows we have sunlight filtered through orange and yellow aspen leaves and the deep green of the firs. And the creek makes a gurgling font of holy water.
We wander in the forest-church a while, enjoying the cool quiet.
We cross the creek hopping from stone to stone and emerge from the trees into another meadow. That leads to a hill and more climbing. Trish alerts us to a bison up there on the right so we alter our course to avoid it. This bison barely looks up as we pass. A little further on we hook up with another path and this one seems different than the bison trails. I think this was made by men. Up, up, up we go and I suddenly see a gorgeous view of Druid Peak on the right. Just then I catch movement. We have spooked three antelope. I call and point to alert the others. We watch them bolt with amazing speed for a few moments and then they stop and turn to look back. "Only humans" I almost hear them snort.
A little while after this the path takes a sharp left, skirting another forest drainage. And then we see it. A chain link fence between some trees. We've arrived at the Rose Creek Pen.
Now to all of us, wolf-watching geeks that we are, this is sacred ground. This is where two sets of wolves were temporarily kept after they had been transported here from Canada. Famous # 9 was released from this pen, then later brought back with her litter of pups when her mate was illegally shot. They were finally released in late summer. And the next year, our beloved 42, and her sister 40 spent time here until their release.
We drop our packs under some big trees and step inside the enclosure. I don't know why it has not been taken down but I suppose it may be considered historical. Perhaps it is even thought to be of some future use? It would need some repair and tidying up in that case!
We roam around inside, separately and together, imagining what it must have been like for them. I note the wolf-worn path all around the edge, several large wooden "dog houses" with various animal skulls placed on top and lots of dugout spots. There is a "room" off to the side that may have been the nursery for #9 and her pups. There are two "dog houses" in this section and inside one is a metal bowl which may have held water. Charles shows me teeth marks where it has been chewed and one spot where a tooth went right through the metal!
There are many trees inside the enclosure and we see what we think are the remnants of the two that fell in during a windstorm and facilitated several pups's temporary escape. I see one dugout area close to the fence and you can see that the chain link continued several feet underground to prevent just such an escape. I see places where the fence was repaired and we guess at the site where it was deliberately cut away when the time came for release.
"One's out!" I say out loud and my Loon friends know just what I'm quoting. The magic moment, preserved in Bob's film, when that first wolf leapt into freedom and into history. Silly Wendy, she just made herself cry. I think everybody was moved by being here.
I look around at the scattered bones and some curiously worn spots. This enclosure is quite large, yet tiny compared to the land I have hiked across to get here. It makes me happy for the wolves of this Park, that they have the freedom to roam the meadows and woods of this marvelous place and to lap cool water from its streams.
I stand by the fence facing Druid Peak and I wonder about dear 42, what she might have thought when she saw that great dark mountain rising in the distance. Did she know it would become her home? My over-active imagination takes flight. If I were 42 then, I think I might sit on my haunches and plan what I would do if only I could get away from this metal. If I were 42 then, I think I would promise the gods that I will be a good wolf and make many children if only I could be set free. And I imagine that if I were 42 now, wandering along the ridge above, catching a glimpse of this pen, I might stop and look down at it, remembering my days of confinement. And then I would shake my free fur from nose to tail and howl loudly and happily, and continue on my way.
I'm sure 42 has none of these thoughts herself. She is too busy being a wolf to have silly human emotions.
It is quite warm by now and we move out of the pen and back to the shade to have some lunch. Some red squirrels complain loudly of our presence to anyone who will listen and a few pine cones drop down on us from time to time. I elevate my feet against a tree and Barbara takes a nap. Frank munches carrots and teriayki jerky. The wind rustles through the branches of a gold-leafed aspen. What a lovely day.
Eventually we pack up again and begin our return journey. We no longer need much guidance. We can tell where we need to go. But we stick together anyway. Down, down, down, past fields of wispy blonde grasses, past stubby sage, and thorny berry bushes. Down, down, down through patches of pine and aspen, following an easy trail. And then the trail widens so we can walk abreast and we start to sing as we go.
All too soon we are back at the cars and the dusty human areas. Frank presents us with cold drinks and we begin to say our goodbyes. Charles and Barbara must leave Lamar this evening as they have an early flight tomorrow. We bid adieu to Gary and Trish and hope to see them tomorrow, too. Oh, I just hate Loon goodbyes.
I have a hankering to soak my feet in Rose Creek and Frank says he'll accompany me. I find a good spot and sit on a rock to remove my boots and socks. I plunge my feet into the cold water. Ahhhhhhh! It feels so unimaginably good! I also soak my head and rinse the dust from my face. That feels good, too. Frank and I joke and gab, and talk about what we might do next.
Frank suggests going up to Antelope to scope for Agates. He reasons that we ought to make the most of that area while we still have access to it. It is due to be closed in another week or two. I agree to that, as long as we stop for a moment to check on the bison carcass at Dorothy's.
When we finally get there we run into Doug and Bob Landis. The boys gab for a while and I get a snack. I perch on F'Ugly's tailgate and set my scope at eye level, scoping in a very lazy way. Frank reads stories in the clouds overhead and Doug is interested in the dust devils that erupt from time to time in the riverbed in front of us. He explains how, when the light is just right, you can see the shadows of trees in the dust. Only a photographer would see something beautiful in wind-blown dust!
We see no wolves tonight but we are entertained by a rotating set of coyotes and birds which attend the carcass. We have a blast anyway. My visit to the former haunts of the Druids has got my mind racing. I begin to form story after story in my head, but instead of earnest tales for children, tonight my mind makes adult satires and R-rated melodramas. I succeed in amusing myself as well as Doug and Frank but I'm afraid those who don't know us so well probably thought us daft.
Charles and Barbara pull in to say their final goodbyes and I tell Charles I am sorry the wolves aren't here to bid them farewell. Doug spots a beautiful bull elk which we watch a while. And there are several antelope moving around on flats. At one point I see something moving from west to east just above the riverbank that I think is a wolf but I never get a clear bead on it. Most likely it was a coyote.
Then Doug calls it a night and heads home. Frank and I linger a bit and then he reminds me that we have not yet eaten at the Park Street Grill. Neither of us is confident that it is open but I say let's give it a shot. So once again I follow the Camry's tail-lights through the familiar twists and turns.
Our animal encounter tally for this evening includes a bull bison on the road at Slough, mulies on the Blacktail plateau, and an elk below Undine falls. I am again astonished at the brightness of the moon which pops out over my shoulder in unexpected spots the whole way back. I literally have to hold my hand over my side mirror to block its light!
The Grill IS open so we have a great dinner. The pasta dish I order is so huge (and so good) that I carry 2/3 of it back to my room for snacking on tomorrow. Frank chats with some colleagues, one of whom writes the "Yellowstone Today" leaflet which is given out to all visitors at the Entrance Gates. Frank has applied for a job with the Park Service at Mammoth and I sure hope someone there is smart enough to hire him. What an asset they would be getting!
We gab and joke and recall other visits. I thank Frank for leading such great hikes. Then the evening ends with Frank heading off for his dark drive back to Bozeman and me rolling easily into the Best Western. As I lock the car and head to my room I smell rain in the air.
And during the night it begins to fall.
Today I saw: antelope, 1 grizzly bear, bison, coyotes, mule deer, elk, squirrels, 4 wolves (including 302), and 8 Loons