Today is my birthday present to myself.
I kiss my cat goodbye and head into the cold dark, loaded down with baggage. Another trip to Yellowstone, my favorite spot on earth. I am eager and excited even though this time I can only be there for two days.
I had planned a 12 day visit, but in late-December things at my office changed drastically. My boss agreed to retire and I will be assuming ownership of the company. Suddenly it was no longer right for me to be so long away from the office. It also became clear that I needed to renew ties to our Los Angeles office. So, I re-routed my flight to LA, and then, noticing that Yellowstone is on the way. . . I added on a weekend in Parkadise.
I’m glad to see how much more efficiently the airport functions. At Newark, the check-in kiosks are really efficient and the security folks finally have it together. My flight is happily uneventful but the sky is overcast so I read or sleep most of the way.
As we descend through the clouds over Bozeman, I see the Gallatin River below me, cutting its winding way through beautifully craggy mountains. I am struck by the lack of snow cover, far less than last year, and I wonder what it‘s like in the Park.
I arrive at the now-familiar Bozeman airport to a balmy 50 degrees. I head to the Avis counter to get my car. When I glance back I see a smiling man striding my way. It's Ballpark Frank. And there is Cathy, too, beaming at me. I wave a big hello. We have a grand reunion. This fun couple and I shared some good times in New York in September when they won a trip to watch the finals of the US Open. Cathy performs with the Bozeman Symphony and has several concerts this weekend.
So I won't be able to spend wolf-watching time with them but they have graciously agreed to meet me for lunch.
Cathy rides with me as I follow Frank through the back roads of Bozeman to their favorite Chinese restaurant. We have a great time talking of Yellowstone and Loons and some of the business decisions I am soon to face. And we give politics a spin, too. We have such fun the time nearly gets away from us.
Next we drive on to their house to get a pair of boots Cathy has generously offered to lend me. This means I get a tour of the neighborhood and their lovely, spacious home. The more I see of Bozeman, the more I believe I could be happy living here.
I get last-minute directions and good wishes I wave goodbye, wishing Cathy luck in her concert.
Then I'm off. Up and over Bozeman pass I go, and on to Livingston. There is snow on top of Pyramid and Pointy Head but none on their flanks. The country looks beautiful but very different from last year. I see a bald eagle perched in a snag above the Yellowstone River. And although I don't see swans, I do spy Canada geese and many ducks. Horses in an open field rush to and fro in a frisky, spring-like way. The great open space of this valley helps me shed the last bit of worry from my New York life and embrace the moment.
I see a big herd of mulies as I reach Yankee Jim Canyon. It's dropped to the low 40's and I wonder how the Park animals are faring. Before I know it I'm at John & Carlene's driveway and knocking on their door. It's great to see them! Loon hugs and smiles are given and I learn to my delight that they are planning to come up to Mammoth for dinner. The reason is some sort of once-a-year event, an all-chocolate dessert buffet. Chocolate? Did someone tell them I was coming? Carlene sees how anxious I am to get into the Park and says, get going, we'll see you later. I hop back in Ms. Blazer and head south.
I make my traditional entrance through the arch and sure enough, the tears come unbidden. It feels so right to be back. And what a beautiful place this is, even in low snow. The white-crowned peaks look magnificent and the rounded sage slopes as soft and welcoming as ever.
Just inside the gate I see my first elk grazing on the sage slopes. Jake, take note: it was a cow and a calf. So that's one, at least!
The roads are bone dry.
I don't stop in Mammoth but head right for Lamar. The light is fading and I doubt I'll make it all the way out. There are many elk in view on the winding way down to the Gardiner Bridge. And bison! I never saw a bison herd so near Mammoth before. Then I remember having seen their tracks in the snow across the bridge last year. That reminds me how much I enjoyed seeing the animal tracks each morning as I drove out.
I marvel at how at-home I feel, how each curve and vista looks familiar, yet slightly different, like seeing a member of your family wearing new clothes. Instinctively I slow down, savoring each view. As I head uphill through the dark trees to the Undine Falls area I pass two basketball sized chunks of rock in the road, broken from the bare cliff on the right.
Just past Lava Creek I find the Big Boys, the group of bull elk that always winter here. There are more of them this year, I count ten, including several younger guys. I pass a bison herd a little further on and I remember Lew & Deb commenting on this herd in their reports. There are many bulls mixed in among the cows and calves. They graze the hills on both sides of the road. It begins to rain, soft and misty.
I stop below the Frog Rock switchbacks and get out to listen. I think about the Leopolds that I was lucky enough to see in July with Pat and how their long-time alphas have passed into history. I don't hear howling but I do enjoy the fresh smell and the quiet. The Park does not look quite as pretty this year as it did last year under all the snow but it is wonderful, nonetheless.
As I move higher I reach some patches of slushy snow and then some frozen spots but nothing I would call treacherous. I pass small bands of elk the whole way out. Just above Phantom Lake one group decides to test my reflexes by crossing in front of me. I stop in time. Note to Jake: there are six calves in this group and they all look strong and healthy.
All through the Hellroaring area I have to slow down for patches of ice. A bald eagle soars out overhead and becomes my guide for a while. The evergreens are free of snow and very dark against the white ground. At Floating Island Lake I stop to look at it. The lake is completely frozen and snow-covered except for a 3 foot black hole in the center. Six zig-zaggy arms branch out from the open water; it looks like a giant spindly star-fish. I wonder if the arms are created by ducks as they feed out from the center. It is quite striking. Nature is a wonderful Artist.
Up and down the curving hills I go, enjoying the view round every bend. I pass the Petrified Tree turnoff and remember how astonishing the wildflowers were at this spot in July. As I come into Tower I see another elk herd out in the flats to the left. A few graze the crest of the hill beyond. And beyond that I see the Mountains of Lamar. Oh how I love to see them!
But the light is going and I am too tired to drive the whole way back in the dark, so I decide this is far enough. I make a U-turn where the road dead-ends. Last year there were always cars here, belonging to skiers, but it's deserted today. I suppose there just is not enough snow. I stop and listen again. No howling. I remember how fruitful this area was for me last year, when Charles and Mark and Carol and Jeff and I saw wolves here nearly every day.
I scan Jeff’s Hill and find some elk between the trees at the top but they graze unconcerned. I notice a lot of blow down up there. I lower my binoculars and just then movement catches my eye. A coyote emerges from the flats onto the road. I have the impression that he may have heard my car and has come to beg. He's far from me but is looking my way. I smile and shake my head.
I take the easy coyote sighting as sign of good will. Reluctantly I bid adieu to the gateway to tomorrow's adventure and head back west. Around Phantom Lake I lose the light and I am forced to face the rest of these winding, unpredictable roads in the dark. I have elk in the road 3 times on the way back. That will keep you alert!
As I near Wraith Falls I see dark shapes ahead and an oncoming car stopped, headlights on. I slow down and suddenly realize what the shapes are. Bull elk. One takes up the whole left lane and a second is just off the road, facing him. Their heads are lowered. They are sparring.
I stop to watch, then creep ahead with the thought of passing them slowly. Dumb idea. They are utterly heedless of me but it occurs to me that they might not take kindly to my passing so close. They lower their heads and lock antlers. The off-road bull pushes the on-road bull backwards across the center line. Had that happened while I was passing them, I would have had a lot to explain to Avis. This is no fight to the death, but it does seem like an argument. I suddenly realize I am way too close to these great animals so I slowly back up. I sit and watch the drama of a warm winter's night play out.
Each time the off-road bull lowers his head to push, the on-road bull meets him stoutly. The on-road bull has the advantage of higher ground and also seems a bit bored with his aggressive pal. But he never fails to get his head down in time. Anytime the off-road bull pushes, he makes a very soft Wheeeehhh sound, a low-volume version of the familiar fall bugle, a dim echo of his past glory on the field of conquest. The on-road bull makes no sound at all, as if it’s not worth the effort. This goes on in the glow of my headlights for over five minutes and I am riveted. The occupants of the other car seem just as content to watch and wait.
Then the on-road bull seems to tire. Or he gives up. Or maybe he gives in. After standing for a while with his head raised, he slowly turns from the other and moves deliberately across the right lane and into the snow on the other side. The off road bull stares after him, as if unsure that this can legitimately be called victory. Then the off-road bull steps onto the road and crosses, following the other. Only after they are both well away do I put the Blazer in gear and move on. When the other driver passes me, we smile and wave, happy to have been spectators at this bull-fight.
I wind up the hill to Mammoth and park across from the hotel. I check into my room and head back to the car to get my stuff. As I am sorting things out I look up to see a familiar hat. It's Doug Dance, just arrived from Lamar. We have a Loon hug. Of course he tells me I just missed the Druids! As I was watching the coyote at Tower, Doug had the alphas cross the road then stop on a hillside and howl! I ask Doug to remove his hat so I can rub his head for luck. This is the newest Loon tradition and, I’m here to tell ya, it works! Doug has had such a fantastic month so far. He helps me lug my stuff inside as I ask him about his day. Then he surprises me by handing me a radio! I am to be Unit 7 for the next two days! He has his own radio and is Unit 3. Way to go, Doug! Now that's a cool birthday present!
We head to the Dining Room and a few minutes later we meet John, Carlene and Rachel, along with two other couples and their kids. The chocolate buffet looks very enticing, very cleverly arranged, and the staff is in a festive mood. Doug and I get a table next to John's group. We have drinks and a great dinner and John and Carlene table-hop to visit with us. We have a blast talking of old times and wolf-happenings and Loon sightings and I hear the amazing saga of their housing miracle.
Then Doug describes for us the current members of the Druid pack and the names for wolves as yet unfamiliar to me: The Half-black, the U-black and the Grey pup. Limpy hasn't been seen for a week. 106 has her own pack, the Geodes. I try to keep it all straight in my head and add it to all the information I’ve read in recent wolf reports.
Now it's time to partake of the chocolate buffet. John and I like the mousse best and I'm also partial to the fudge-brownies. Rachel is her cute self, all wound up with chocolate goodies and a night out with school chums. I am wound up, too but I feel the crash coming on.
We wander outside onto the porch and the misty rain. John and Carlene delight me by announcing they will come out wolf-watching tomorrow. Hooray! They want to see otters so Doug offers advice on the most promising sites. I hug my dear Loon friends again and bid them all goodnight. As I head to the hotel I reflect that my only missed Loon connection this evening is Gerry. He is not listed at Mammoth and I have forgotten where he is staying (Silly Wendy, he was at the Best Western in Gardiner).
I look up to see a few stars poking through the cloudy dark. I feel supremely content to be walking this familiar path under the dome of this particular heaven. I have come 2000 miles to be in the best place on earth.
Today I saw: two bald eagles, bison, 1 coyote, mule deer, ducks, elk, geese and 5 Loons