My drive out includes one elk in the road right before the Elk Bowl, and the usual coyote right past Floating Island Lake. I pass Bob Landis, standing outside his car at the high Elk Creek pullout, listening to the sounds of the darkness.
When I get to the low Elk Creek pullout, where we were last night, I see Calvin and Lynette already here and they smile and point to indicate they have something. I join them and set up my scope on the berm.
The Agate wolves are right in front of us. Well, well. How’s that for a start to the day? I see the black-turning grey alpha female walking slowly uphill with her slight limp. Behind her is the alpha male 113, and I see another large collared grey. I also see two pups, a grey and a black, distinguishable as young wolves by their shape, smaller size and inquisitive nature. These two are exploring the area just below the hilltop. Another black wolf appears on the left and heads toward the first three. The adult wolves gather under a fir tree with wide-spreading lower branches and begin to choose bedding spots. Oh! Look there! A previous rock has just grew ears! So that brings my total wolf count to 7.
The two pups move down the slope to a small frozen pond which they find quite fascinating. They walk on it, snif it, nibble at it, and come up with snowy snouts or small chunks of ice. They push each other back and forth a little bit and even their big, wide paws slide a little.
Then they move back up the hill to join the bedded adults. These wolves have probably spent the night feeding on the carcass across the road and are now about to sleep it off. The alpha female beds close to the trunk of the big fir tree on what looks like a snow-free bed of old needles and forest litter. I notice that the grey pup has similar markings to the “lone” wolf I saw yesterday, including a black tip on its tail.
Although these wolves are not particularly active, they are closer than usual, and the light is growing, not diminishing, so I notice more detail. Although the alphas are bedded close together I don't see a lot of affection between them. It seems to me that 21 and 42 not only bedded close together but often made some sort of nuzzling contact, however brief. Perhaps they were unique, or maybe my sentimental memory is skewed that way.
While we are here we hear a radio report that the carcass down here is a lion kill. Oh boy, do we like that idea! I think I’m correct in saying that most wolfers are also cougar fans. Many wolfers have been lucky enough to have seen a lion or two, including Chloe and Becky. For me, just to know that one is active in this area is cool enough!
While the wolves are napping I check out the surrounding area. I find a bald eagle perched in what looks like the same snag as yesterday. Then I find two more, perched on twin spires of another burned tree.
Eventually the wolves get up and move to the other side of the hill. I find myself anxious to see Druids and feel guilty for missing them yesterday. I would love to be the one who first sees them returning from Cache Creek.
Chloe wants to try to spot the Geodes again from Hellroaring so she and Becky head up there. At the last minute I decide to follow them, despite our lack of luck yesterday.
As I arrive, Becky points out a golden eagle swooping past the clearing. I set up Layla and not five minutes later Chloe calls out "wolf"! I can't believe it. That was so fast! She helps Becky and me get our scopes on the right spot - a snowy slope in the lower left portion of the sweeping view that Hellroaring overlook offers. At first I see a black wolf moving steadily up the slope, then I see greys behind it, one, two, three, five. As the black reaches the top, he stops there, pausing rather dramatically, his black body stark against the sunlit white. Then another grey comes bounding in from the left and two more greys walk more slowly in from the right. Soon I see the signature wolf pack event, a friendly dog pile greeting, full of wagging tails and excited movement.
Then they move off in a purposeful way and I have a chance to count again. 8 greys and the one black. 9 wolves! I notice two of these wolves are paler grey than the others. I didn’t know it then but one of these must have been the alpha female, wolf 106, the former Druid omega. She is Chloe’s favorite wolf and, coincidentally, the first wild wolf I ever saw.
The Geodes disappear over the hill and just that quickly our sighting is over. It probably lasted three minutes! Had Chloe not been looking in exactly that spot at exactly that time, this whole pack would have climbed the hill, welcomed each other and gone on, all without our knowing it. But we are thrilled to have seen them and I thank Chloe over and over. She is beaming, and rightfully so. It’s sweeter when you find them this way!
We scan the area beyond the hill, trying to predict where they might re-appear. Given the terrain in this area, they could easily remain hidden for quite some time. And there is no telling which direction they might go, as wolves rarely do what is expected of them.
We intend to wait them out a while, anyway. Chloe tells me I saw the whole pack, and therefore I must have seen 106 whether I recognized her or not. She also tells me that the one black wolf is a former Druid, too, 374M.
We watch about a half hour but we see no more wolves. So we pack up and head to Lamar.
Half-way through Little America we stop for a largish herd of bison to cross the road. Some rambunctious yearlings stage a head-butting contest to see who gets to cross first. I laugh to see the weary tolerance displayed by the older animals as they step onto the road, taking up “crossing guard” positions while these teenagers have their fun. When the youngsters have finally galloped down the slope into the flats the oldsters clear the road again and traffic proceeds. As I pass, I hear a lot of grunting.
When we arrive in Lamar it looks to me as though the Valley has received a smattering of new snow. It is dry enough to blow off the roadbed but it still collects in the pullouts and at the road’s edge, covering yesterday’s tracks and making a clean slate for today‘s. It looks gorgeous.
We set up our scopes at the old Picnic area pullout and scan the surrounding area for wolf 348M, a Druid disperser, a grey, which will make a hard spot. Unfortunately for us, the wind has kicked up, which makes for unpleasant scoping (unless you have something in sight!) That’s the only thing that kinda defeats me about winter trips to Lamar, scoping with a fierce wind in my face. We don‘t last very long at this spot and soon someone suggests we move to Round Prairie to search for the black pup again.
We find the old carcass but not the pup. The day is very quiet, but not without rewards. One of them we spy on the Pebble Creek side, where there a lovely stand of bare aspen trees form an exquisite backdrop to a bunch of red-orange willow bushes.
We decide to drive up to Cooke City for some lunch at the Grizzly Pad. I carpool with Chloe and Becky which gives me a rare chance to visit while we drive. We compare notes and talk a little politics.
Lunch at the Grizzly Pad is delicious. It’s a very homey place and I think I like it better than the Soda Butte. Right after we arrive, a rush begins and soon all the tables are filled and a line forms at the door!.
On the way back we stop at the Hartman’s “Wildlife of the Rockies” Gallery. Through the window I see a lot of birds: big blue jays, some Clark’s nutcrackers and a stellars jay, as well as a very industrious seed-gathering grey squirrel. We admire their photos and shop a little and then Dan and Cindy invite us inside where Dan gives us a slide show presentation of some of the animals he, Cindy and Cassie have photographed recently. My favorites are the marten photos and the mountain foxes.
I end up buying a grizzly photo and a coffee mug with a picture of 106 on it. If you have never visited their gallery just outside Silver Gate, I heartily encourage you to do so. Not only do they have excellent photographs, reasonably priced, but Dan and Cindy are personable and generous individuals.
Dan walks us out to our cars when we leave and shows us lots of marten tracks which are much larger and rounder than you would think.
We return to Round Prairie and find two coyotes on the old kill but not much else. We check for otters in all the likely spots along Soda Butte Creek and end up at the confluence. We see tracks but not the animal itself. I climb up the hillside path to try a better angle but I think I’m too nervous about falling to do a good job of scanning. I climb back down and join the others looking at tracks along the riverbank. Then I notice a familiar car passing by. It’s Ballpark Frank! He pulls over and we have a merry meeting. Roadie is behind him and they have sorta been looking for me. It‘s great to see Frank again and I enjoy meeting Roadie, too. I tell them we are looking for otter or beaver so Frank gives me tips on where to look. They saw the Agates earlier in the day but say the wolf activity has tapered off for the time being.
Unfortunately, Roadie’s car has developed a gas leak and she is understandably eager to get into Gardiner to get it fixed. Ever the gentleman, Frank offers to follow her there in case she has further trouble. So, my visit with these Loons is cut short just as it starts.
I rejoin Chloe and Becky at the Picnic pullout and we walk along the riverbank looking for otter tracks. We find some but none that look fresh. It is astonishingly beautiful here, though and the river offers endless items of interest.
We decide to call it an early night and head west. The only critter that I see on the drive back is a mouse in Little America that scurries across the road through my headlight beams.
I follow Becky and Chloe to the Yellowstone Village Inn, where three mule deer greet us. Evidently they stay here free, too, along with the elk! The lobby of the Inn is very inviting, with a warm fireplace, comfortable couches and a rocking chair. And there is a very handy kitchen area available for guests, with fresh hot coffee, hot water and a microwave.
John checks me in and hands me the keys to the “wolf room” which is very, very nice and appropriately wolf-decorated. I can’t tell you how right it feels for John to be managing this hotel. He and Carlene have always been so accommodating to the Loons. How nice that they now really do have enough room for us all!
While I am getting settled in my room, Becky and Chloe have gone ice-cream hunting. They return with both chocolate and peppermint (my two favorites!) and we share it with John in the kitchen, yakking and laughing. Then Carlene comes by with a cake for Rachel’s 13 birthday. Rachel and some of her friends are celebrating her day with a dip in the indoor swimming pool. A little while later they all squeeze into the kitchen for Rachel to make her wish and blow out the candle.
It’s a nice way to end the day and I think to myself that this will certainly not be the last time I visit the Yellowstone Village Inn.
Today I saw: Bison, 6 coyotes, 3 mule deer, dippers, 3 bald eagles, 1 golden eagle, elk, jays (Blue and Stellar) magpies, 1 mouse, Clark’s nutcrackers, ravens, a squirrel, 16 wolves (including the entire Geode Pack (including 106) and 7 Agate wolves (including the alphas)), 6 Loons, 6 Lurker Loons and the spirit of Allison