I still hear rain falling when I wake up but it seems to be extra heavy. I have a suspicion that it's sleet. I peek out my window and find that to be true. Aha, I think. Sleet in Gardiner may mean snow in the Park.
Out I go into the wet, cold dark. Under one of F'Ugly's wipers I find a present from Doug - an extra battery to his radio. It makes me smile. It's not yet 6 AM so my guess is that he left extra early to make it to Canyon in hopes of photographing the Falls under the first snowfall of the season.
But I have my own journey to Lamar. When I reach Boiling Springs I notice that the stuff hitting my windshield has suddenly flattened and softened from sleet into snow drops. By the time I reach the top they have dried and lightened into snowflakes. How beautiful Mammoth looks under snow! There are several inches on the ground already and it is coming down thick. The elk are bedded and all have white blankets on their backs. I love this turn of events. Winter is my favorite season here and I feel lucky to be getting this taste of it.
I have no trouble driving at all, although I slow down and give up on the idea of making it to Lamar before first light. It hardly matters since the snow brings so many other delights. I see one set of tire-tracks ahead of me and I fancy they belong to Bob Landis. But what really thrills me, is seeing the elk tracks. The road is literally striped with elk tracks, crossing from the right, crossing from the left, crossing uphill, crossing downhill.
I was beginning to believe there were very few elk in the Park but now I see how wrong that perception is. There are elk all over the place!
The snow transforms the Park. It lies heavy on the drooping branches of conifers and covers many boulders in soft white icing. I stop at the entrance to the Blacktail road for a few minutes just to listen to the quiet and the soft hissing sounds as it falls. At the Petrified Tree I stop for four mule deer in the road. They look at me and then bound easily through the snow into the trees.
First light arrives late this morning, right about as I get to Slough Creek. The parking lot here holds at least three inches, if my boots are any measure.
As I head up the canyon the snow begins to fall more heavily than ever and I realize that even though dawn is minutes away I won't be seeing much. I pull in at Fisherman's but can't even make out the carcass from here. Bob's car is here as well as two pick-ups, but no one is outside. My radio is silent so I try to figure out how to replace the battery. I have no trouble getting the old one out but I can't manage to get the new one in. I decide to see what things look like from Dorothy's.
I find Gary and Trish here as well as Mark and Carol. We are all in good spirits because of the snow despite that fact that no-one can see a thing! Carol tells me there are apparently three bears (!) on the carcass, but she hasn't seen them yet. And she says there have been no signals of 302 yet. As the day gradually brightens the snow falls more thickly than before.
I tell her that as long we can't see anything I think I'll take a drive to the east and enjoy the sight of the rest of the valley under snow. As I head out I am the only car moving on the whole road. I stop at mid point, enjoying the beauty of the valley. Suddenly my radio crackles to life. I guess I did manage to put the battery in right! I drive on to the confluence and start to hear some chatter. I hear Rick say he has strong signals from the Agate Pack up above Antelope Creek. So I turn around and head back.
So instead of seeing snow on the woods of Soda Butte Creek I am treated to the sight of snow on the woods of Antelope Creek. It's a better-than-even trade because I have NEVER seen the Tower area under snow. And it is simply gorgeous. I keep stopping at view after view.
I eventually join the others at a high pullout in what I call the Amphitheater area, the wide bowl beneath Mt Washburn, looking east. As soon as I set up I have wolves in my scope! I see two greys; one is a bit larger than the other. This larger grey carries something in its mouth. It's a piece of hide. He and the other grey play tug with the hide and I smile to see how these animals seem to relish playing in snow.
Then the larger grey beds and I watch the falling snow settle on his fur. The other grey roams around a bit, then hops over some deadfall into a thicket and disappears. A little way to the left of these two are three more wolves, two greys and a black, also bedded in the snow. I am told that the black is the alpha female of this pack, sometimes called the "blue-black". I never see the blue-black on her feet; for the length of my sighting this morning she stays bedded and I see only her ears, her head and once, her tail.
The other two do get up a time or two, but only to stretch and lie back down again. But even this slight movement is enough to reward me. When the larger grey stands I see his collar. And I recognize this very handsome wolf from a previous sighting in the winter of 2002. I am looking at #113M, the "big Don Juan" as he is referred to in the latest Bob Landis film, the alpha male of the Agate Creek Pack. There are actually several more members of his pack but this morning I only see these five.
I have so far been skunked on Druid sightings but it pleases me to see these other packs, so easily from the road. I take it as clear evidence of the health of the wolf population in the Park. And I consider it good news that a variety of wolf packs are visible from the roads in areas where few were seen before. I think Lamar will likely remain the prime spot because the road through that valley offers such ideal viewing conditions, but I find it encouraging that wolves are being spotted so frequently in Slough, in Swan Lake, in Gibbon Canyon and in the wide flats of the geyser basins.
The two grey pups get up for a while and nose around. Then they bed again and the snow comes in more thickly. The greys become invisible unless they move. I watch six bison grazing about a quarter-mile away against a wide background of snowy mountains. Rick tells us he has 302's signal but it is weak. He speculates that he may be on Specimen Ridge heading away from us. I ask again about Druid signals but he has gotten none yet today.
My schedule today includes meeting Doug at Norris at 1PM and then heading to Old Faithful. I decide to leave these sleeping dogs and begin that journey so that I have plenty of time for photos along the way. The Tower area is just so beautiful under snow that I use up two rolls of film!
There are aspen here that still have their leaves and the combination of snow atop those orange or yellow shapes is too gorgeous to pass up. I also enjoy seeing stands of conifers coated in white. The snow makes lovely patterns on the bare rock cliffs around Tower Falls and that sweeping view of the Yellowstone from the Osprey nest pullout is a revelation, too! I guess it's something about how the snow sticks to the dark basalt and the yellowed cliffs above the River, but I enjoy it all.
And there are gorgeous sights all through Blacktail; bare-limbed aspen trees lined with snow against a deep grey sky, white on white in endless variety. And familiar vistas newly revealed, vast and magnificent.
I stop at Swan Lake and see a hawk in flight and follow it with my scope from one end of the flats over the lake and into the trees. I watch the geese and the ducks and see bison and elk. I hear only one bugling voice this morning and wonder if the snow has ended the rut?
I stop at Indian Creek and find a barrier preventing further access so I get out with my camera and walk. Indian Creek looks especially lovely under the snow and I want to preserve it in a photo. On my way back to F'Ugly I see a familiar form striding towards me. It's Doug. He did go to Canyon as I guessed, but he found no snow there. For some reason the southern half of the Park is snow-free. We laugh because during the winter Canyon often records the highest snowfall of the whole Park.
We stand in the beautiful cold morning and enjoy what it's done to "our" end of the Park. I tell him about my wolf sightings and all the elk tracks I saw. We talk about our plans for the day and the waterfall that Doug wants to shoot this evening. I assure him I'm still up for it.
Then off we go, heading for Norris. We stop to see the brand new steam vent that opened recently beside Nymph Lake. It is amazing! It is pounding out steam and you can see how a whole hillside of mature trees has been reddened and blackened by it. This is the area of the Park that is changing most rapidly and it is wonderful to see such forces at work. I wouldn't be surprised if in the years to come this spot becomes a large pullout with its own interpretive sign.
We go on into Gibbon Canyon and the snowfall lessens considerably. Here is another area I have not seen for over a year. And not only that, when last I saw it, the road was under construction. It is now finished at each end, smoothly re-paved, but the middle is still a mess. The new bridge over the Gibbon is not yet built, but the way has been prepared. I'm not sure what will become of the unsightly flat area that was used by the construction crews for the last two years but I think it might do well as a picnic area.
I chuckle and shake my head at the section near Beryl Spring, though. Here is a brand new smooth-as-silk road yet already Beryl has made two gaping holes in it right at the edge of the bridge. By the end of winter, I suspect, those holes will have widened to the point that the road will have to be re-paved. The poem "Ozymandias" comes to mind: "Look upon my works, O ye mighty, and despair" so says the inscription on the fallen, broken ruin.
Doug pulls into a spot at the south end of Gibbon Meadow. I join him and we walk across the road to a tall jumble of rocks. We bring our cameras and our warm jackets and hats. We sit on a rock and wait. We are hunting Pika.
It is cold but not too windy and I trust in Doug's luck. After maybe 10 or 15 minutes Doug sees him. "Meeeee" he squeeks, just like Doug said he would. Now I see him, too, a plump little furball with sweet little teddy bear ears and pretty blonde sides below his grey-brown coat. His face has some blonde coloring, too, on his chin and jowls. He sits at the edge of his lichen-splotched rock and chews rapidly. Or he may be sniffing. Or he may be a she. But he is not in view very long. He darts across a rock and disappears.
We wait some more and he comes out a second time, a bit closer but in a spot harder for me to see. As if he heard my complaint he then moves up and perches right at the edge. "Meeeeee" he chirps again. He stays out longer this time but doesn't do much more that peek and wiggle his nose. I think, though, that he is very pretty. He's about the size of a guinea pig or a chinchilla without its tail.
Then I think I see another one. Quite a bit to the left. It's there for a second and slips behind a rock. I am just beginning to describe it to Doug when it appears again and dashes vertically up a huge boulder, then bounds, monkey-like to another boulder and zips straight up that one to the top where it disappears for good. That was NOT a pika. What it was I have no idea. Doug says he saw a long tail. I saw it only out of the corner of my eye so I really never got a good look. It could have been a pack-rat or maybe a large, thin-tailed squirrel? I really don't know. It moved lightning fast. The only color I saw was grey-brown. Size wise I'd say a bit bigger than the pika.
We watch a gray jay in a tree and wait a while longer for the pika but he does not return. Maybe the mystery animal spooked him. Now the damp cold is getting to us so we head back to the cars and drive on.
I love the views in Gibbon Canyon. The new growth in the former burn areas looks like a luscious green carpet, boding good health and a bright future.
At Madison Junction we turn right and then into a pullout to watch some elk. The only snow in this area is a faint dusting on the mountain tops. The meadows are dry and golden and the elk are quiet. We continue up to Riverside Drive and back. We see more elk here and the lonely swan. Then on the way back we see a heartbreaking sight. A mule deer has just been hit by a car and is struggling to stand at the edge of the road. A Ranger is here. I wish I had turned my head sooner, as the image of the poor animal is haunting. Doug assures me the Ranger will certainly put it out of its misery.
It takes a while to get that sight out of my head.
We go on to Old Faithful and the closer we get the more I am reminded of why I no longer spend a whole lot of time here. No offense to the geysers and the Firehole River but I simply prefer the scenery of the northern section of the Park. And of course, I also like the fact that it is less crowded, less built up, less a tourist destination. It may be prejudice on my part but the impulse to "get close" to the animals is different to me than observing and admiring them from a distance.
Hardly any snow has fallen here either but the cold has arrived, and has a wonderful effect on the geysers by making the steam more visible. And I do love staying at the Old Faithful Inn. With the wintry temperatures outside, the crackling fire in the great hearth is most inviting and the polished wood around and above us seems to reflect not just its light but its warmth, too.
Doug and I dump some things in our rooms and then meet up for dinner.
When we arrive at the Snow Lodge we see Matthew The Funkygeyserman standing there, talking on his cell phone. He looks like our greeting committee but of course he had no idea I was in the Park. After hugs he explains that he is talking to his fiancee, Julia, and is on his way to dinner.
Doug and I go into the bar and get a table. Matthew stops by a few minutes later and we have a funny chat and a quick catch up. The Bar has a new menu of fancy appetizers and we are a bit concerned at what seem to be New York prices. We order the baked brie and the roast beef on toast. But when we see the huge portions we realize that the price is right after all. Either of these items could serve as a whole meal.
We tell Matthew about our mision this evening. Doug wants to photograph a waterfall - Moose Falls - after sunset, using a long exposure. He wants to capture the water, the trees and the star-filled sky. Such a thing seems a downright impossiblity to me so I agree to go along to see how it's done.
We head south around 6:30 just as prime animal-watching light is beginning. We find a bit more snow up on Craig Pass but not as much as I thought we might find. The Lewis River looks extremely beautiful and I tell Doug I wish this area were closer. I would like to get to know it better. We have a loopy conversation about whether or not wild animals have a natural fear of man; if so, where did they get it and if not, is that good or bad?
We reach Moose Falls after dark and my skepticism returns. But I intend to be a good sport. I bundle up against the cold and bring my flashlight. Doug loads up his camera and tripod, an extra battery and his flashlight, then offers me a hiking stick. We have only a short walk from the road to the falls but it is not a familiar area to me. And the path leads down a series of curving, unevenly-spaced rock-steps which are wet and slick from the snow. Yet I am pleased to find that there is actually enough light left in the sky to see by and I turn off my flashlight.
I can hear the falls right away and as we get closer I can feel the moisture in the air. It is a very pretty waterfall, surrounded by stately evergreens and I understand immediately why it has caught Doug's fancy. I try to stay out of his way while he sets up. It's one of those spots that I would surely pass up at the height of tourist season, turning up my nose at the ease of access and comparing it's height unfavorably with, say, Fairy Falls. But tonight in the dark and the cold I feel amazingly comfortable here. I try to figure out why.
Hiking in the dark is something I used to do a lot way back when. In fact, hiking under moonlight without the aid of a flashlight was once one of my favorite things. I guess because it was a little bit spooky, a little bit dangerous, and overall it made me feel more connected to the animal way of life.
All these ideas come into my head as I stand looking at the stream below Moose Falls. Doug calls out that he is ready and starts to click off a shot. He has to fiddle with a few things, a recalcitrant battery and then he experiments with longer and longer shutter speeds. I am able to help by ticking off the minutes on my watch.
And each time Doug shows me the result I am amazed to see not only the water visible but also the sky and the stars. Just as he said it would be. As it turns out, Doug doesn't get the shot he wants tonight but he says he now knows what he needs to do to get it. So he makes a plan to return another day.
I warn Doug that the moon is rising. I see its light grow behind the dark trees. Soon it will clear them and rain its light down on the white water. I ask Doug if he wouldn't like to capture that? Well, sure he does. However it requires a different angle and a bunch of other adjustments. This is really getting interesting! The mist rising from the waterfall becomes quite visible in the moonlight. I see wide moonbeams and the shadows of the trees on top of them. I feel like I've come to a holy place but of course it is really just the usual Yellowstone beauty, so abundant, so varied, so available. All you have to do is stop. Stop and look.
We climb back up the slick uneven stone stairs easily in the moonlight. We stop again at the top and look back at new shapes made by the tree-shadows on the moonlit mist. Higher and higher it rises and I read a new expression of winking mischief in the moon-man's face.
We walk the rest of the way back to the Jeep and load up for the return journey. Other than the comically tall snow-poles in one section of the road we have an incident-free drive back. We decide to celebrate with a drink in the Bear Pit. I tell Doug I am NOT setting an alarm tomorrow. I have nothing scheduled until 10AM when we meet Ballpark and some other Loons at the Visitor Center, so I am going to sleep in!
Our discussion topic tonight is how to market Bob Landis's film. We both consider it a beautiful, humorous and informative work which has been unforgiveably ignored by National Geographic and MSNBC. Too bad neither of us works in marketing.
Back in my room I enjoy a hot, soapy bath and then off I go to dreamland.
Today I saw: bison, deer, elk, geese, a hawk, a pika, a swan, 5 Agate wolves
including the alphas (#113M and the blue-black) and 6 Loons