At the first chirp of my alarm I fairly spring out of bed.
I have my shower and my tea and make a thermos-full for the road. By 5:50 I'm ready to head out, lugging my scope over my shoulder.
It's warm, 39 degrees, but it's dark and quiet and I love it.
I must admit I miss the snow. I don't feel the animals' presence quite as strongly without their fresh tracks telling tales. I don't see any of the Big Boys this morning but the bison herd is out in the flats to the north. There are a few elk at Phantom Lake but they stay away from the road this morning.
I pull into Tower just after 6:30. I drink my tea and listen, looking out across the whitened flats, loving the dark, noticing that first soft paleness in the eastern sky. I hear a single howl. Could it be a wolf? It was kind of high so I decide it was a coyote. Then I hear howls coming from another direction which are definitely coyotes.
A car approaches from the west. The headlights arc and swing my way. It's a black Jeep which makes it Doug Dance. He pulls up grinning next to me and we whisper good morning. I offer Doug tea and tell him about the howls I heard. Just then it sounds again. We look at each other, eyes bright. That is a wolf.
We start down the road that leads to my beloved Lamar valley. I cross the Yellowstone Bridge and wind on up the hill behind Doug's red tail lights, through the woodsy gateway to Little America. It seems spooky in the dim light. We stop at Long Pullout, the place where Doug saw the Druids last night.
Doug raises his binoculars. Just that quickly we've got wolves. I set up my scope as quickly as my excited hands can move. Doug has counted four so far, and best of all, it's the alphas. It takes me longer to find them, not as used to the minimal light as he is. Finally, I get my scope trained on the right spot and I see big, beautiful 21M curled up on the top of a small hill, perfectly camouflaged as a sagebrush with ears. His lady love, 42, is curled up behind him, slightly uphill. Eventually she raises her head and when she looks this way I see her distinctive raccoon eyes.
I do a Druid Dance of joy. I can't believe my luck in seeing my two favorite Druid wolves this close on my first try. Believe me, I had prepared myself for the possibility of no sightings at all, given that I only had two days. Doug's luck has rubbed off! We are joined in the pullout by Gerry, our Loon from Scotland, who is making his first winter visit. We have a Loon hug and I catch up on his sightings so far. Gerry has brought me a yummy birthday present, a box of chocolate chip shortbread cookies, an authentic Scottish treat. I gobble one down right away. Other regulars stop and join us. I see Brian C whom I met last spring and we have fun catching up. And in a few more minutes up comes Rick McIntyre.
In my opinion, this is a perfect way to spend a morning.
As the light grows I see more wolves. Six in all: besides the alphas I see a bold black wolf that I learn is a two year old male; a smaller black female with a white spot on her hip, a bouncy grey pup (male) and the Half-black. I see why she is called this. Her black coat is mixed with grey. Her sides are very grey as is her muzzle. During this morning's sighting she remains aloof from the others, and she often looks off longingly.
One of them howls and soon they are all at it! Oh, I can't tell you how gorgeous this sound is in the still morning. The way it echoes off the hills, the way the voices blend and refract. To see a wolf bend its head back, raise its muzzle to heaven and let loose its song is something I hope every person in the world gets to hear at least once in a lifetime. To hear it in this snowy spot, away from the distractions and worries of the workaday world, with a handful of like-minded human companions is a treasure beyond price.
After the howling session the wolves seem to wake up. There is an increase in activity and each moves this way or that, playing, nuzzling, stretching. In a lower patch of sagebrush someone spots an antler sticking up at an odd angle. Aha! Someone made a kill last night. Two black wolves trot down towards the antler and begin to tug at the carcass attached to it. Ravens and magpies flutter up from the ground. One raven perches atop the highest antler tine while a black wolf tugs on the meat below.
The grey pup joins the blacks and they have their second breakfast. After a while they move back up the hill toward the alphas and bed down. Then 42 gets up and stretches. I see her stand broadside for a good while. She looks very healthy. Perhaps I am fooled by her full belly but she looks robust and her coat less scraggly than I remember from last winter. Her tail especially looks fuller. 21 also gets up and I watch them nuzzle. In fact, 42 sidles up to him in a fairly unmistakable way. They head uphill together and I wonder if they are looking for a private spot? But no, they simply bed down again. My attention is drawn to the Half-black, who sits by herself on another slope under a tree. She either sees something or senses something as she remains alert on her haunches. She howls frequently and there is a great longing in it. It sounds like she's lonely for a boyfriend.
After a while 21 gets up and trots down to the kill. We get a nice long sighting of him as he crosses the hillside and then stands on the carcass, tugging away. He changes position and his tugging moves the carcass a little so that we can now see the elk's brown shoulder. Doug tells me that he has seen this year's version of the Druid pack make two kills and that neither 21 nor 42 made the actual kill. He says they are thick in the chase and perhaps they still determine the target but the killing is done by their younger, faster children. However, he says, the alphas still maintain first-feeding rights.
We scan the hillsides behind us and the ones to the east. When I come back to the kill, 21 has finished his snack and is heading up the hill back to 42. He beds next to her. I don't see where the other three went, just the Half-black still under her tree. Once the wolves have moved off the kill two bald eagles swoop in. One stays in a nearby tree and the other takes his turn against the magpies and ravens. We get a report that three black wolves have been spotted on Specimen Ridge and seem to be heading west. Hmmmm. This could be interesting. Doug guesses that the three are the ones he told me about, the interloper black male and his two former Druid females, one of which is called the U-black.
A little while later we see 21 and 42 get up and stare uphill into the trees. What's up there, we wonder? I see 21 move forward in a semi-stalking stance. Then on the slope above, three wolves emerge, two blacks and a grey. They rush down the hill toward 21. I have a moment of fear until I realize it's the youngsters, bounding down, tails a-wagging. My fear turns to delight as I watch their joyful greeting ritual. The three wolves must have wandered into the trees after feeding. I swear, though, it looks like they were playing a trick on their parents, pretending to sneak up on them! All three wolves readily offer their bellies and lick 21's face. I see 21 dominate the grey pup, nothing overly aggressive, just a reminder. Despite dad's heavy paw on his chest, the grey looks content.
We hear another report of the three black wolves. They have made steady progress and should be visible to us, soon. Doug tells me that the black interloper has been seen interacting with the Druids in the last few weeks. He has been chased, caught and rolled and once was roughed up by the alphas yet he has not left the valley. He seems to have firmly won the love of the U-black and the other black, as they have been seen traveling as a consistent group for a week or more. We wonder if this interloper means to keep at it until one group or the other has been driven from the valley. Or will the two groups find a way to co-exist?
I leave my scope pointed at the Druids and scan to the east with my binocs. I see Cliff on a hillside way down there and I hear someone report that an animal is running. I see it. A coyote, in fact two of them, running fast as if being chased. Yep, they sure are. On the open sage slopes south of the road beyond Cliff I see three black wolves at some distance from the coyotes. Their attitude seems to be more routine than serious. The lead black is larger than the other two; this must be the interloper black.
The coyotes cross the road and flee into the open on the north side. I follow one up a hillside until it stops running and turns to look back. The black wolves slow down and stop as they near the road. I bet Cliff got some superb footage from that.
I turn back to see what the Druids think of this. Whoa! 42 does not look happy. All of the Druids stand on all fours, noses east, tense. 42 sinks into stalking mode. And she's off. 21 follows her, his flag-tail carrying the Druid banner. The bold black trots behind him and a little uphill. The white-spot black and the grey pup follow. I've got five Druids in a line heading east in defensive mode, ready to rumble.
It is just past 8AM.
We figure the blacks will cross the road once they see or smell the Druids. Doug heads east hoping for some close ups while Gerry and I decide to climb the little hill behind us. I find myself eager to see whatever drama ensues but I am also anxious about it. I feel a bit worried for 21 and 42, having to constantly defend their territory. I wonder if they ever get the rest they deserve, and surely the older they get, the more they'll need?
From the hilltop we catch glimpses of the blacks as they move in and out of the hills. The Druids are far more easy to follow. I see 42 stop and stare, as rigid as a pointer while the others come up behind her in support. The sixth Druid, the Half-black, remains on her hill by the tree. I wonder if she will get in trouble later for her lack of support? Gerry and I spot the coyotes again, now seemingly out of danger. And then we catch a fleeting glimpse of the three blacks who are now on the north side of the road, loping toward the hills. The wind is fierce up here and we have intermittent rain. Actually we've had rain all morning but it hasn't bothered any of us. As usual, when I have wolves in sight I can bear just about any discomfort.
We continue to scan and report, trying to be of help to Rick. Over the radio we hear news of the Swan Lake Pack spotted near the road in Leopold territory. Perhaps there are changes in store for the long-stable Leopolds. Their legendary alpha male was found dead a month ago, killed by other wolves. The alpha female met the same fate last summer, but her pups were raised by the remaining pack. We hear reports of 106's new family, the Geode Creek Pack, being seen crossing the road very near Hellroaring. It thrills me to no end to hear that people are seeing wolves all over the Park!
We get a nice long last sighting of 21, 42 and the bold black moving across the slopes. When they go behind a rise we can still see 21's tail sticking above the hill in its high upward curl. Then out comes 42, head set low and unwavering in her trademark intensity. She and 21 may be old but they are still in charge. The smaller black and the grey pup are many lengths behind. And now the Half-black gets up and belatedly follows her pack. 42 stops again and the others come up with her. 21 beds. They seem to know the blacks have crossed the road.
Doug comes back and says he didn't get the close shot he was hoping for. Then a radio crackles with a report that the three blacks have circled around to the north, behind our position and have just crossed the road to the west of us. How clever! Doug speculates that they are heading toward the kill, now that they have drawn the Druids off. There is further speculation that the kill may actually be theirs and perhaps the Druids usurped it? We decide to move further west. Doug picks the pullout and Gerry picks the hill. We are met with a stiff breeze and some icy rain in the face but it doesn't last. I scan the other direction looking for 42 and company but don't find them. The rain stops but the wind continues. Ooooh does it bite!
Then below us on the road I see a familiar van. It's John and Carlene. We wave and head down to join them. We tell them our sightings so far. Unfortunately they missed whatever was going on in Blacktail or Hellroaring. Nothing happens for a while and then John finds the three blacks in some rocks. We watch them play king of the hill. They move around a lot and we only get glimpses but from what we can see, the black interloper is a handsome wolf. We wonder what pack he's from.
Carlene generously invites us to their house for Sunday dinner. I happily say yes. I know it'll be a hard drive back to Bozeman that night but there's no way I can pass up spending time with a bunch of Loons, especially if Carlene is cooking! We get a few more glimpses of the three blacks as they roam the hills west of the kill. But they mostly stay out of sight. So now the Loons decide to caravan east.
We pass two coyotes in the road, perhaps the same two that were chased earlier. One stops on a crest above the road and I get a terrific shot of him right out my car window. I am also happy to report that the Park Service has seen fit to add an outhouse at the Slough Creek pullout. Most convenient I say. Well done, NPS. Of course it's more evidence for PD's "shrinking pullouts" thesis.
I enjoy my first look at this rugged and wonderful landscape. Up into Lamar Canyon we go and Doug stops at an icy pullout. We leave the cars and walk along the road, looking over the edge to the frozen river. Doug shows us where he saw the cougar and her cubs. The legs of the carcass are still visible on the snow-covered ice far below. I see various tracks leading to and from the remains, and it is thrilling to imagine a long-tailed cat so close. I look around at the cliffs behind me, imagining the feline family sitting on a rock, cooly observing this group of two-leggeds wandering so boldly in their territory.
We also look for otters. John and Carlene saw them here once during winter. We check out spots that look hopeful, but nothing turns up. Despite an every-once-in-a-while spattering of rain, the day is pleasant, a warm 53 degrees, although overcast and windy. We are all in great spirits and enjoy each others company, and the fact that we feel like the only people in the whole Park.
We move into my beloved Lamar. Oh, how I love coming through that rocky portal into the wide open valley. Lamar looks as enticing as ever: soft, whitened slopes, rocky crests shrouded in fog and the winding, frozen river below, its open water like black satin ribbons braided over white-gloved arms.
We see bison in the valley and several elk herds of maybe a hundred or more. As we come down from Dorothy's Knoll Doug stops in the road. We all stop and see what he sees. A coyote is running along the valley floor, but its tail looks really weird. It is scarily thin, I would say it looks completely hairless, only skin and bone, except for the very tip which retains a thick tuft, almost like a puff ball at the end of a thin wand. My first thought it that this poor animal lost all its fur to a pursuing wolf. It seem otherwise robust and healthy. Then on second thought, if a wolf had done such damage to its tail, would the rest of the animal have escaped harm? I wonder if it is a bad case of mange or some other canine illness. He's running from two other coyotes on an old kill. Those two now stop and go back to their snack, disturbing the ravens and magpies. I feel bad for the lone coyote. It must be hard to get through the winter without a nice furry tail to curl up with.
We move on past the Institute. Rose creek gurgles as happily as ever. The bare branches of the cottonwoods and aspens are lovely against the grey sky. There is a big elk herd bedded down opposite the old picnic area. There are more bison on the north side of the road in low pockets; old bulls snowplowing their way here and there. We move on to the confluence and suddenly see four people in the road. They smile at us and point to the river. Oh My God! OTTERS!
I can barely contain myself. We leave the cars at the confluence pullout and I nearly fly out, camera and binoculars in hand. The otters are moving steadily downstream and the people have followed them so we have to walk briskly after them to catch up. You couldn't do this in Spring with traffic coming around the curves in the road but you can in winter. I say a silent prayer that they don't disappear before I get to see them. Carlene and I are so excited we keep breaking into a run. Finally the otters relent and begin to explore the far bank, as if to accommodate us. We stop by the guard rail and watch their antics.
There are three of them, a large parent and two pups. We mostly see their whiskered heads when they poke up from the dark water. Otters are always much bigger than I expect them to be. Maybe because they are so playful I tend to think of them as children, and therefore little, but they're not! Anyway, wherever mom otter (or dad?) goes, the smaller two follow. Their heads pop up, they dive, sometimes with a high arched back and a splash of wet tail and other times the head just drops down and disappears whence it came. Sometimes they pop up in the same area; other times you can make out from the swirls on the water surface that they have moved up or downstream. Just when I think they have gone for good I see three heads pop out again.
They are easy to see now, brown-black against snow-covered ice. A be-whiskered head, a thick long neck and two webbed front feet emerge on this ice-edge. The otter takes a quick glance left and in the blink of an eye curls right and disappears underwater again.
I crouch behind the guard rail, camera at the ready. We watch the otters feed and explore and I marvel at how animated they are. The water must be frighteningly cold. Their fur is slick and dark brown and they seem to be having the time of their lives. Twice they fool us into thinking they will all climb out on the ice shelf and twice they slither back into the frigid water. Then they surprise us by swimming three abreast across the river right at us. We are a good twenty feet above them but still, they are wonderfully close. They pop their heads up as if looking right at us, wondering what our intention is. Then they make a quick turn and head downstream again. I think they are gone but they pop up again against another ice-shelf and this time one of them has a fish in its mouth. He chomps fiercely and the others want it. He uses his front paws to maneuver the fish. Chomp, chomp. Gone.
This fish-eating moment reminds me of Gollum, although the otter is much cuter.
Then they follow the leader back to the far bank. They bob and dive and swirl and play peek-a-boo. We see a bald eagle soaring overhead and watch it dive close to the river. We watch the otters a while longer and it starts to rain again. We're all beginning to feel a bit hungry so John suggests we head up to Cooke for lunch. We bid the otters goodbye and thank them for the entertainment.
Back at the cars, we sneak around the corner to see if the bighorns are out. Alas, they aren't. We watch the dippers at the confluence awhile and Doug points out to me that dippers sing in a most beautiful songbird style. I have heard this song many an early morning but I never knew it was the dippers making it. It must be heard to be believed. It sounds like four different birds at once, full of happiness and cheerful celebration of life. Come to think of it, such a song makes sense for a bird that has evolved such a cleverly unique way of living. Perhaps it assumes an extra cheeriness to distract itself from the cold water it so regularly plunges into.
Doug decides to skip lunch in favor of this otter photo op. We wave goodbye as he gathers his equipment. My Blazer is low on gas so I leave it at the Hitching Post and ride the rest of the way with Gerry. The Soda Butte valley is as gorgeous and empty-seeming as ever. Mt. Norris is edged with snow and the eastern mountains are even whiter. Just past Trout Lake the road becomes icy and I tell Gerry this is the way I remember all the roads last year. We see the remains of a kill in Round Prairie with ravens on it. Pebble Creek is more pebbles than creek but there are gorgeous vistas on the right and left. There is always more snow in this section of the Park and I like the look of it.
We arrive in Cooke City in time to share a power outage with them. It is dark inside the Soda Butte Lodge but they take it in stride. Apparently, this happens quite frequently and not only in winter. The host says "we're on our reduced menu; cold sandwiches and chips". I am in desperate need of coffee and luckily they have that. Carlene wants hot chocolate, settles for chocolate milk. John wants a Rueben but that's not happening. Gerry and I order turkey and swiss. John pouts. He finally settles for a club sandwich on bread since they can't make toast. No sooner does our waitress disappear into the kitchen than the lights pop back on. Aha! Doug's luck works up here too!
John goes in search of the waitress, determined to get his Reuben. And he does! We have a great old time, teasing and joking and spouting off as Loons will do. Several times we hear the loud thump of snow sliding off the roof in the warmth of the day.
The company is pleasant and we don't rush. Yet we all know there are wolves that need watching so we pull on our coats again to head back. The sky is changing and it looks like some kind of weather is coming in from the northwest. We have minimal animal sightings on the way back and see neither otters nor Doug at the confluence. We drive all the way back to Long Pullout where we find Brian C and Ray R set up, focused on roughly the same spot where we got Druids this morning.
The three blacks are still here. Doug was right. They came here for the kill and were seen feeding a bit earlier. Now they are sitting on a hillside above it to the west. We get a much better view of them than we did this morning. The interloper male is pretty, large and solid black. One of the other blacks faces this way and I now get a good look at the U-black. She has a U-shaped necklace of lighter fur that hangs low like a pale white lei against her chest. The U-black is a former Druid wolf. We wonder if we may be looking at a future alpha pair? The third black is bedded and hard to see. I never get a good look at her so I guess I'll have to wait to learn how to identify her another time.
The three blacks howl. It sounds so nice. How I wish I knew what they were saying! Then we hear howling behind us, to the north. Hmmm. Who is that, we wonder? The Druids have been reported east of here, below Specimen Ridge, so it is probably not them. There is a lot of chatter on the radio and it seems to me that suddenly there are too many wolves in the valley for Rick to keep track of. I listen in vain for clear information. The blacks howl off and on. We watch a bald eagle perched on the kill antler for a moment. It takes flight and soars in a circle high above us as wolves howl below. We see some elk in an open patch above the trees, standing at attention. We wonder if the Druids might be sneaking back to surprise the blacks but whatever the elk were watching goes away and they go back to grazing.
Again we hear howling from the north. Gerry and I decide to climb the hill again to try to spot where it's coming from. We notice a broad dark cloud heading this way. If I were thinking clearly I would have comprehended that this was a snowstorm bearing down on us but I am looking for wolves, not weather.
The three blacks remain in sight a long while and we confirm it to Rick periodically. I scan the hillsides to the north, looking for elk, wolves, anything. I pause on a distant hill with a lone tree. Just then, movement! Black wolf! Two of them! Running past the lone tree downhill towards 5 o'clock. Doug has them! Gerry has them! Doug sees a grey, too. Just that fast they are gone.
Did I really just spot some wolves? Yes, I did. There's no mistaking the black ones against snow. Doug says I should call it in to Rick. I'm too shaky so he does it for me. Rick says thanks, asks a few of his dry pointed questions and says let me know if you see them again.
I keep looking at the hillside, thinking I will somehow see an instant replay. I scan the area, trying to guess where they might appear next, on which ridge or out of which drainage. How far away was that? More than a mile for sure. There is a rocky butte called Peregrine Hill. The wolves I saw came down the slope north of it, heading east. Doug slaps me on the back and says on that note he's gonna take off. Doug has been invited to join some regulars at Bob Landis' house for chili dinner and to screen his new National Geographic Special about the Druids. He has managed to squeeze me in, too, and figures he ought to pick up a bottle of wine for us to bring as thanks. I have agreed to meet him in Gardiner at 6:15. Of course, when wolves are around my instinct is to stay and watch them to the very last scrap of light, especially when I only have two days. It's going to be hard to leave.
The temperature is dropping and the wind won't let up. Gerry and I brave it anyway, determined to see more wolves. We'd at least like to learn which wolves we saw. The light is fading but it's not gone yet. John and Carlene's van is gone. They must have headed out. Gerry and I scan the surrounding hills and flats and periodically check back on the three blacks. They are still bedded on the high slope but have stopped howling for the time being. Then Gerry calls out "black wolf".
I follow his line of sight in the direction of the Slough Creek campground. It takes me a while but I finally see it myself. We call it in to Rick and have a devil of a time explaining to him where the animal is. Then Gerry sees a grey, then another. I see them, too. A large grey wolf that reminds me of 113 the Chief Joseph wolf that I saw last year with Charles, the one the Druids tailed and chased for miles. Big and sturdy he is. I see him stand broadside staring across the road in the general direction of where the Druid alphas were last seen. A younger, bouncier grey is behind him and the black that we first saw is several feet behind them. The grey tosses back his head and howls. We can barely hear him as the wind blows it away but it sounds low. Then the big grey beds. I knock my scope and by the time I get it refocused I have lost the black and the other grey.
I look at my watch and it's 5:25. Oh shoot.
Gerry is clearly determined to stay. I offer him the radio so he can keep in touch with Rick, I bid Gerry goodnight and promise to see him here in the morning. I pack up my scope and trudge down the hill.
It feels good to be back in the warmth of my car and I crank up the heater full blast. I head out through Little America past a few more diehards who are keeping an eye on the three blacks. On I go, slowly letting go of the wish I have to stay and watch wolves just a wee bit more.
On the hill past Tower it begins to snow. Just a few flakes, not even enough to turn on the wipers. Then more. And more. As I crest the hill I think I see a car approaching, but it's the reflection of my headlights on thousands of snowflakes. Uh oh. I click my brights just once, and the white-out blindness that results is shocking. OK, no brights. There is already an inch or more of snow on the road. I pull over to put the Blazer in 4WD. Great. I need to be in Gardiner at 6:15 and now I'm suddenly in a blizzard. I figure once I get over Hellroaring it will probably lighten up.
I can't tell you how crazy it is driving back in this storm. The snow blows straight at my windshield; the headlights make it look like volley after volley of white spears are being hurled at me by a giant unseen army. I have to constantly resist the instinct to flinch or duck even as each spear melts soundlessly against the glass. At other times it looks like someone is dumping bucketfuls of spaghetti on me. I rail at the storm, begging the wind to give me a break and please blow from a different direction for just a minute or two. My poor strained eyes need a rest.
I try to stay in the center of the road to avoid the edge. I fear the edge, since I so easily sunk two wheels beyond it last year, getting hopelessly mired, even with 4WD. I usually like driving in snow; I like it better than ice. This is fresh powder, skiers delight, but there is something ominous about feeling it grow thicker and thicker under my wheels. I really cannot see more than two feet ahead and what I can see is indistinguishable so I depend on those orange markers that appear phantom-like on the right in the spill of my headlights. Many are missing, many are bent and some are broken. Yet without them, the edge of the road, and the drop off next to it could be anywhere. I feel very alone.
I tell myself, Doug will surely understand I am going to be late. How late is the question. Had it been this bad 20 minutes earlier when he left? Anyone who has driven this road knows that there are some pitched turns that are scary under the best conditions. And there is always the possibility of elk or bison in the road. I try in vain to see what is coming but it's like driving with a mask on. The ONLY thing I can do is slow down.
So I do. As slow as 10-15 miles an hour, but at least this way I keep moving. For the first few miles I could follow wheel tracks, possibly Doug's, but those are long gone, obliterated by the densely falling powder. I remember recognizing Floating Island Lake as I passed it but the next place I recognize is where the road drops to the switchbacks below Frog Rock. I am happy to find how far I've come yet I realize I have just traveled the entirety of the Blacktail Plateau without recognizing a single spot. Scary!
I tell myself I'm now surely past the worst part. I realize now this is not the type of weather that only hits the higher elevations but a major storm affecting the whole park. Well, the Park needs the snow. I prepare myself for the scary sections to come; the curves near Undine Falls and the steep downhill approach to the Gardiner Bridge. Usually, the lights of Mammoth can be seen beyond Undine, and they are usually a comforting sight to a tired traveler. But I seen none of them tonight. Not until I am well up the hill on the other side of the bridge!
I see no snowplow activity in Mammoth. I thought for sure it would be out and about. I choose to keep going rather than stop in Mammoth. I don't even look at the time. I just keep going and hope that Doug is still there. I feel such a surge of confidence at reaching civilization that even the dreaded Gardiner Canyon road doesn't daunt me. I head downhill at 15 mph and am relieved to finally see another car on the road.
At about Boiling Springs the snow stops. The road is wet but not icy. I finally have the courage to look at my watch. 6:45 it says. Not bad at all. And the rest is cake. I know Doug is the kind of person who doesn't panic. He has faith in me and when I finally pull in we have a big laugh. He hops into Ms. Blazer with the wine and we drive over to Bob's lovely home, right on the Yellowstone river, arriving only a half-hour late.
Once inside I see many faces I know, but it takes us a while to recognize each other as we all look different without our winter head gear. It's a jolly gathering; I am re-introduced to Jim and Judy from Bozeman, Diane and Steve and their charming teenaged son. Ray R is here, tossing out jokes like a professional comedian. And I see Bison Bob, as well as several other wolf-fans. I'm sorry I neglected to record everyone's names.
We have a casual but hearty meal of chili and salad and soup, and two kinds of pie for dessert. We make a half-hearted attempt at cleaning up and then we all assemble in the lower level for the evening's entertainment. With his usual low-key delivery, Bob tells us what we are about to see. He wants to call the film "The Druids of Lamar" but National Geographic will probably re-name it when it airs. He pushes "play" and the film begins.
I see Druids! Lamar! Elk chases! The film is great, full of astonishing and memorable moments you'll want to watch again and again. There is some footage from last winter of the big mid-day elk chase I saw with my own eyes. There are also some hard-to-watch sequences that end in kills. But if you want to learn about wolves, this is the ticket. The photography is excellent as one would expect and there is comic relief from some wolf-researchers as well as from a pair of determined coyotes. Doug Smith plays a main role as he did last time and the narration is good, too.
We applaud long and loud when it comes to an end. I would have loved to watch it again, right away, and I bet everybody else would have, too. But there are more treats for us this evening. Bison Bob loads up his slide projector and shows us to some great close-up wildlife shots he has taken in the Park over the years. There is one of sparring bison that is absolutely superb. And then, our own Doug Dance pops in a few of his treasures, and I know he was pleased with the reaction he got from the crowd. Dougs shots are so unique and beautifully artistic as well as technically brilliant. He has a particularly terrific shot of 21 that I'm sure he'll share with us one day.
The party winds down and we start to think of driving home. We thank Bob profusely and compliment him again. Then into the mist we go. I drop Doug off and remember to fill up the gas tank and then head uphill to Mammoth. This time I find the snowplow hard at work and I have to crunch through a two foot pile to get to a parking space. It is snowing lightly as I squeak across the lawn to the welcoming lights of the Hotel. I manage to jot a few notes before falling asleep. Hoo boy, what a day!
Today I saw: 14 wolves including the 21M & 42F, 3 bald eagles, bison, 5 coyotes, dippers, elk, magpies, 3 otters, ravens, 85 gazillion snowflakes and 6 Loons