DAY FOUR - Monday, December 26

SNOWSHLOONING

Itís warmish again this morning, with cloudy skies. There is a mule deer buck right by the Arch. He looks very pretty and there is fog on the road at the big curve below Mammoth. Otherwise, the drive out is uneventful.

I arrive at Long Pullout before first light. Iím the only one here. I roll down my window and right away hear a long low howl. Itís one voice and VERY close. So close that I believe the animal might be in the flats, or at the base of the hills, not up on Specimen. Then I hear answering howls from the north side of the road. Itís too dark for my bad eyes to see anything yet but I get out as quietly as I can and shine my flashlight on the snow at the edge of the road. Fresh wolf tracks! Iím all alone in this beautiful place with wolves howling all around!

I set up Layla as the howling continues. I scan the hills and low slopes in the dim light trying to pinpoint where the close howl is coming from. Then, I catch movement! A pale gray animal trots through the flats a mere hundred yards away from me, along the bottom of a low sage ridge. Coyote? NO! My binoculars confirm it is a wolf!

I softly call it in to Rick and try my best to keep the wolf in view until he arrives. But of course, it disappears behind a low hill. Shoot! Chloe and Becky pull in and I point out where I saw it last. They turn around and drive slowly back west. A few minutes later they see a gray wolf cross the road and run toward the Peregrine Hills. They get a good look at it and tell Rick they think itís the white wolf (the Round Prairie alpha female) Cool! Given where my wolf was headed and where Chloe and Becky saw their wolf, itís a shoo-in we saw the same animal.

The Sloughs are still howling and it seems like there are two groups of them; one in the den area and one further west. What a morning! While I watch the north side to try to see the white wolf, Bob Landis has been watching the south side and has found the Agates! They are almost right in front of us, on a snowy little knob. Nice! I spend the next hour watching Agates and listening to almost non-stop howling!

As the light grows I realize the Agates are bedded in the very same spot where, in February of 2003, I had what turned out to be my final sighting of the Druid alphas. That makes me nostalgic. But I am glad to be seeing these wolves, and from an unusually close vantage point, too! I see seven individuals, including the alpha female (whose face looks like 21 to me) and old 113M. There isnít a lot of activity. I think they are sleeping off a meal. Every once in a while one will raise its head or get up and move around. I see a black pup go over to the alpha female and lick her face, then bed next to her. And later, a gray moves up from lower on the slope and joins the pack.

But itís the howling that makes this morning unusual. Several times I hear a really big group howl by the Sloughs and the Agates responded to that with a group howl of their own. The Agates may have fewer voices but they lack nothing in enthusiasm!

A bald eagle soars overhead and disappears into the trees. Up until now the sky has been overcast but around 8:30 the sun pokes out, warming the low slopes around us in a beautiful glow. As if on cue, a chorus of coyotes begins. I would love to stay here longer but I have a date to go snowshoeing for the first time in my life with some Loons. So I bid everyone adieu and pack up for the drive to Mammoth.

There are lots of elk around the Tower Ranger station, more than Iíve seen in the area in quite a while. And elk are also plentiful at Phantom Lake, grazing the sun-warmed hillsides. As I approach Blacktail Ponds, four of the Big Boys are out, making the many photographers very happy.

Then I notice bison in the swale across the road from Wraith. And more bison on the opposite side of the road and even more bison on the road beyond Lava Creek. Uh oh. It is a very large herd; perhaps the very same one that gave us so much trouble two nights ago. Judging from the total lack of traffic coming toward me and the line of cars stopped ahead, I think this is a Hayden Valley style bison jam.

Hmmm. I know I can get cell coverage at Lava Creek so I pull over and dial Frank, warning him that I may be delayed. It starts to snow. From the size and determined temperament of this herd, I can see no one is going anywhere faster than these bison will let them. I decide to just sit back and watch them.

Some of the yearlings are real troublemakers, butting each other and causing fights. Some moms are very attentive to their youngsters and others are more blasť. One little calf at the rear of the pack wins my heart by picking up a fir-tree branch and carrying it along in its mouth for a while. He finally drops it but then picks up another one a few feet later on.

I also watch how various humans behave when confronted with such a jam. I learn a lot about the various ways one can safely pass bison in the road. And I learn some not-so-safe ways, too!

I finally make it to the straightaway before the high bridge and then simply follow the slow moving animals the rest of the way. A ranger has blocked traffic coming from the Mammoth side so that the animals can clear the bridge first. In the end I pull into Mammoth about a half hour late. I meet Frank and Jackie and Hiker Guy and discover that Roadie will be unable to join us after all. That bums us out, and Frank most of all. But we still look forward to our adventure.

They help me rent snowshoes at the temporary trailer next to the Hotel and I practice on them in the slushy snow next to the parking lot. Then we pack up for the drive to Blacktail. I ride with Frank and since we pass NO bison in the road at all, they tease me for making up a story!

The plan is to snowshoe the first mile or so of the 6 mile Blacktail Road, then head off trail at some point. I have never gone snow-shoeing before and worry that it will be too hard for me. Silly Wendy. I get used to my enormous extended feet pretty quickly and my poles are a big help. The hardest thing for me is the effort it takes to avoid messing up the cross country ski tracks which we follow for most of our route. Both forms of travel are allowed on this trail and we want to be courteous to our skier friends.

The light snow that started while I was stuck behind the bison at Lava Creek has not let up and it continues during our entire hike. I feel plenty warm, though, despite the chilly temperatures. The views up here are lovely and itís fascinating to see this terrain under a blanket of snow. We see elk on various hillsides, a lone bison bull in a little meadow, and hear coyotes howling several times. We see very few other folks up here and that is just fine with us.

Frank sets an easy pace which suits me fine. We snowshoe for about an hour and then take a short break. I really enjoy being away from the road in the cool air. Itís gorgeous and wild and wintry. And I enjoy the Loony company and conversation, too.

Now Frank leads us off trail across what may be a marsh in summer time. I feel ice below almost two feet of snow. The area is pocked with elk prints. I see flattened snow where elk or bison have rested and find lots of spoor and scat. We are heading for a low, forested ridge and once we get there we find a perfect spot to stop and have lunch. While we are munching away, Frank sees something moving between the trees.

Itís Roadie!

How do you like that? She made record time both driving and snowshoeing. I donít find it odd in the slightest that she could find us out here but I am amazed that she caught up so fast! Yet she is still full of energy when she reaches us and barely stops long enough to eat.

We finish our lunch as a Clarkís nutcracker flits into a tree above us, squawking, warning us that he has dibs on any crumbs that we drop. After this delightful break Roadie and Frank confer about which way to exploration. She once found the remains of an old poacherís cabin back here and hopes to be able to find it again to show us. So off we go, traveling through beautiful snow-covered forest. I find it much easier to snowshoe here than on the trail. Jackie says she feels the same.

We snowshoe here and there, up slope and down slope. The sky is a steel gray and the snow continues more thickly than before. I admit that I am quite lost, but as long as I keep either Roadie or Frank in sight I know Iím ok. Roadie sees an ermine scamper across a log but itĎs long gone by the time I reach her. We examine its tracks, though. The prints are very distinct showing slender toes and tiny claws.

The falling snow makes everything serene and quiet. We pass a huge boulder, balanced on a point like a diamond, which makes a handy hideout underneath for small creatures. We pass a stand of huge Douglas firs and see where elk have bedded and browsed. And Roadie points out some bear claw marks on an aspen trunk.

Although we donít find the poacher cabin today we still observe our agreed upon turn-around time. As usual we try a slightly different route for the journey back. This affords us some especially pretty views and I finally recognize some peaks from the Phantom Lake area and get my sense of direction back. We find what looks to me to be the remains of an old coyote trap, a rusted metal rod and chain with a ring attached, poking out of the snow.

Just as we are reaching the last curve on the trail we hear one last chorus of howls. But this time I believe itĎs wolves! Yay Leopolds!

When we get back to the cars we take silly pictures and refresh ourselves with traditional cold sodas from Frankís cooler. I am happy to say I have discovered another great way to enjoy Yellowstone and I can't wait to go snowshoeing again. As much as I love wolf-watching, I really like being away from the roads, too. Roaming in the trees and across the snowy meadows just can't be beat.

The consensus is that we have enough time left to get to Lamar for some wolf watching. So we head east.

It starts snowing more heavily and Frank notices an ominously steady stream of cars heading west and none behind us going east. Hmmm. Maybe this snowstorm is more serious than it looks? Not that it worries Frank any! Then as we head down the last hill above Tower we see a large Suburban, loaded with passengers, off the road stuck in deep snow. A Ranger is with them so we keep driving. Well, at least they picked a handy place for that to happen!

The wind really picks up and snow is blowing every which way through Little America. The mountain tops are barely visible. But we do find Chloe, Becky and Rick at Long Pullout, right where I left them this morning! We pull in and I catch up on wolf news. Chloe says she watched Agates all day. They have a kill in the vicinity and they are currently bedded high up on Specimen, but no longer visible due to the snow.

I bring this unfortunate news to Jackie and Phil and they respond that theyíll simply have to come to the Park another time! Good idea! The snowstorm is actually quite beautiful. It creates a fanciful shrouded effect on the high peak protecting the Agates from prying eyes.

We hang out in the pullout, chatting softly (and sometimes not so softly) and enjoy the still, stark beauty.

Then we start to think about dinner and we decide on Outlaws. Chloe and Becky say theyíll come too! So we head back west as the snow continues to fall. Frank wants to stop at Tower to unload a bunch of cans into the recycle bin and while we are stopped, a pretty fox dashes across the road and into the flats. Frank ends up getting stuck in a high drift next to the bin but digs himself out before we even realize what had happened!

The stuck Suburban is still there but now it is empty of passengers. We get back to Mammoth with no trouble at all and a mysterious lack of on-road bison, too. Although the trailer is closed, I return my rented snowshoes as planned to the hotel and head down Gardiner Canyon. There are mule deer on both sides of the drive to the Arch.

My night ends with some great pizza at Outlaws as well as lotsa laughs and appropriately Loony conversation.


Today I saw: bison, mule deer, a bald eagle, elk, a fox, a Clarkís nutcracker, 8 wolves (including 7 Agates and the alpha female of the Round Prairie Pack) 6 Loons and the spirit of Allison




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