My alarm goes off and I wake to a dark, cozy world. Despite having left the front window open a crack, it seems as though my car windows have fogged up. As I rouse myself and poke around for my Tevas for a journey to the ladies room I suddenly realize why everything seems so dark. It isn't my condensed breath on the windows.
As I open the door, a thick clump of white plops to the ground. Four solid inches of thick, wet snow hugs my windsheild and sticks to every window. The wind has blown snow in every direction. I reach back in my car and switch from Tevas to boots!
Even in the dark I can see the campground has been transformed into a winter palace. It looks gorgeous. As I head up the slope to the lighted bathroom (thank you!) I hope I will not slip! The sage plants are heavily bent with the wet snow and I brush against several of them as I trudge up, knocking off their snow blankets.
Later I find it somehow humorous to be scraping snow off my car in a campground. This development solidifies my decision about the Tetons. If there is this much snow in "low lying" Mammoth, I expect the mountain passes will be worse. I will forego the journey to my beloved Tetons today, but keep open an option to see them later in the trip. The trouble is, I have various reservations in the northern range for the rest of the trip and no way to get a refund. The Tetons may have to wait until Spring.
As I walk around Blue Sue one more time before heading off I see coyote tracks in the snow. He must have walked right past me in the night!
I head east into the blizzard. Snow is blowing hard and I don't feel comfortable going much more than 20mph. But that's OK; it is so pretty, even in the dark. There are bedded elk shapes in Mammoth but I don't see any bulls. At least they are not trying to thrash me!
At Wraith Falls I see that the tracks of the single car ahead of me stop. The driver has turned around. Now mine are the only tracks in the pure white. I stop below the S curves in Blacktail just to enjoy the quiet and the cold. Leopolds are still asleep or perhaps roaming silently!
My first animal in the Park, fittingly enough, is a coyote, trotting across the road at Phantom Lake. He pauses on a hillside and I say hello. He looks slightly annoyed.
How beautiful everything looks! The conifers in Black Tail are covered in Currier and Ives snow, one of my favorite things to see. First light at 6:53. I see my first bison at Floating Island Lake. I get to Tower about 7:15. I hear a bugling elk behind the ranger station and then see a cow elk trotting out from a hollow. Perhaps the bull is bothering her? A truck pulls in, blocking my view. A man gets out and something about him is familiar. It's Calvin! I can't believe it!
He sees me and can't believe it either. We have a hug, a wolfer hug, which is really similar to a Loon hug. Calvin has just discovered that the Dunraven road has been closed due to the weather. This was to be its last official day. It makes Calvin a little bit sad because he won't be able to see "his" wolves, the Agate pack, Agate viewing has been particuarly good this summer and fall and he has been spending much of each day up on Antelope watching them.
He tells me no wolves have been sighted yet today, and that he is going to Elk Creek to look for the Hellroaring wolves. Then he will probably head in to Lamar. I tell him that's where I'm going and we wish each other happy sightings.
Just above the Bridge I see a coyote mousing. Successfully I might add! Chomp chomp. And on the other side is a lone bull bison grazing. I join Calvin again at Boulder and just enjoy being in this beautiful place. I hear elk bugling and ravens calling. The sun is struggling to make its presence known and sets the snow glistening in patches. Then Bob drives up and stops to tell me they have just spotted Sloughs at Dorothy's but you have to be up high.
I head that direction, loving the views all the way. It's autumnal, under light snow. I break into an enormous grin upon my first sight of Lamar - it is a pastel painting - a watercolor - undescribable. It feels like I am looking at the face of a loved one, long missed. Like seeing your mom again at Christmas, or a best friend you haven't seen for months. It's gold and sage and there are spot, well-chosen by nature, that hold a dusting of white. There is some frost on the river and some snow on top of that. The top of Specimen is shrouded but Jasper is still visible.
There are many bison close to the road and some look especially nice with a light frosting of snow on their humps and shoulders.
I am too late for the wolves but not too late for a reunion with my wolfer buds. First I see Laurie, who so kindly sends me e-mails on occasion, keeping me in the loop about wolf activity, and then I hear "Wendell!" and I see long-bearded Bill of "Jan and Bill", the two people who were so instructive to me during the great Slough year of 2005.
I meet their new puppy, McIntyre (yes) and say hello to their dear 3-legged Anna, Both dogs love chomping on ice and there is plenty available. Everyone's car is snow-covered and there are big build ups of ice behind the tires. These chunks drop off with a resounding smump or slursh sound every few minutes while we are parked here.
I also see Anne and chat with her a while. Bob is here, too and I tell him how much I enjoyed his footage on his latest bison movie but how dreadfully bad I thought the narration was. Anne says "you mean the way they made wolves seem like gangs?" I say yes. I tell Bob I watch it with the sound turned down. He says, yes, that is his recommendation.
I say it's too bad of course, because there are cool natural sounds that he captured which you miss watching it that way. We talk about what a wasted opportunity it is for National Geographic to have chosen such melodramatic, made-up narration. He is still pretty hot about it and I don't blame him. He has told National Geographic that he will not work for them anymore. I tell him, for what it's worth, I cancelled my NG subscription when I saw how they had abused his hard-won work. I am glad to hear that his next film will be for the PBS program "Nature".
I also see Mark and Carol, whom I've not seen for two years. They tell me they had a great birthday party for Charles when he was here last week. And of course I say hello to Rick. He gives me a radio and I become Unit 53. And here also are Jim and Joellyn, and Frank and Kay from Texas.
I very much enjoy the view from Dorothy's and although I see no wolves, I watch everything else not shrouded by the falling snow. There are many bison herds here, with now-brown calves. They are still young enough to be entertaining and I enjoy seeing them. A herd that has just crossed the road decides to run down the hill to the flats. It looks like something is behind them but they are just running for fun. Several of the young males butt heads in a juvenile imitation of the rut.
There are also pronghorn, including a band of 11 that walks primly up the slope of Jasper. I hope they will draw out the Slough wolves bedded out of sight up there.
Then Bob asks "Has anybody seen this carcass out here?" I see where he points, and, sure enough, the remains of something (elk probably) are still visible in a gully out on the flats. Three coyotes are feeding on it, when the ravens will let them. I think I counted 27 ravens! And an immature bald eagle waits for its moment in a nearby cottonwood. There are two other large birds on the carcass - one is a bald and I think the other was a golden.
This carcass was shrouded in snow earlier but leave it to eagle eyed Bob to bring it to our attention.
It could be that this was the Slough's dinner last night and they are now sleeping it off up on Jasper. The snow continues to fall, intermittently hiding the animals we have come to see. It's cold but not terribly so and I am standing in the most beautiful valley in the world.
It's gonna be one of those low visibility days but since it's my first day that's fine with me. Laurie asks me where I'm staying tonight and I confess I was thinking about camping at Slough. She insists I stay in her house in Silver Gate as none of her family is here at the moment. So I say yes! She also says she is having a dinner tonight for the local folks and that I am welcome to join. I tell her I'll come early and help her set up.
Most of the wolfers leave around 10AM as the day shows no sign of revealing more wolves. I want to drive around and enjoy the place. But as the pullout clears I begin to hear a chirp chirp chirp. I scan with my binoculars and find a single bird perched on a sage bush. It could be a meadowlark or perhaps a sage thrush?Its feathers fluffed up to a plump little ball against the cold. It is mostly brown-speckled but has a distinctive yellow throat, an orangish-brown stripe on its head and another extending from its eye, quite beautiful in its subtlety.
It continues to chirp as if calling a friend, or perhaps asking the snow "are you finished?".
The bison herd that I saw running earlier now crosses the river and heads up the bank on the opposite side. They disappear into the falling snow. I drive to the confluence and love seeing the fall color here. The willow flats are gorgeous shades of yellow, orange, purple and russet, often all these colors in one bush! I see another coyote mousing here. There are bison on Druid Peak and several of them standing in the road between Hitching Post and the Footbridge. The roads on this side are completely free of snow - the wind has blown it off.
I head to Black Tail to see what I find over there. While stopped in a pullout a coyote tops the road, trotting towards me. He does not seem to be begging, just passing through. The Park seems totally empty and I love having it to myself. My only disappointment is not being able to go up on Dunraven.
I head to Elk Creek where I find more elk herds. I watch a patient bull as he approaches cow after cow, tasking and being refused. Then finally he finds a willing partner and they have a mating dance. I have never seen that in the wild with my own two eyes.
I also watch several herds of bison, including one with a very small, still slightly reddish calf. The mother is very protective. And I find a bald eagle in a tree and later, a hawk. In Tower flats I watch a northern harrier (the raptor with the white patch on the back of its tail) skimming over the snow-dusted field, then twist, dip and strike. It caught something.
The snow continues all day but as I drive, here and there I find drier spots.
As I pass Boulder Pond again I note it is no longer a pond but a flat with many, many potholes. I counted at least 20. There seems to be a lot more moisture in the Park now than there has been in many years.
I now head east and hook up with Calvin again at Dorothy's. It has warmed considerably to 33 degrees. We see the ungulates in the Lamar and I show him the carcass that Bob found. The snow still limits visibility, though.
Eventually I bid goodbye to Calvin and head up to Cooke City. At 5PM while I'm passing Baronette, the sun finally comes out in a patch of pale blue sky. Could it actually be clearing up? And just that quickly it clouds over again. I pass a group of lone bison bulls at Warm Creek. I get gas and help a man from China figure out how to pump gas for himself. I shop at the gift store and find some items I have seen nowhere else in the Park.
Around 6PM I pull in to Laurie's driveway in Silver Gate. What a great place. It's two floors plus a big loft - a fully constructed log house with a wrap around deck (currently full of snow!) and a two-car garage. There is a gorgeous guest suite on the first floor which I am lucky enough to stay in. Gorgeous bathroom, huge closet and a king-sized bed. A bit different than my arrangement last night!
The main floor - living room, dining room and large open kitchen is furnished comfortably and tastefully. I told Laurie I am going to steal some of her ideas for my own place. There is also another bathroom on this floor and the main bedroom where Laurie stays. She also has a fireplace and the most spectacular views of Silver Gate's two huge mountains.
She has a wonderful kitchen and I do my best to help her set up for the pot luck dinner this evening. I learn that a number of the folks who are here for long periods of time have developed a habit of skipping the evening session. Even Rick stays in some evenings, to do his paper work.
The guests arrive and the merriment begins. We have a fun, relaxing time and the meal is varied and delicious. I learn from Bill and Jan that Calvin saw the Sloughs come off Jasper and move into Druid's old rendezvous area. He also had two grizzlies and a black bear.
The evening winds down and I can't tell you what a treat it is to NOT have to drive anywhere in the dark for once! I help Laurie clean up and we are off to our beds by 9:45. Another day awaits tomorrow!
Today I saw: antelope, bison, 5 coyotes, ducks, 2 bald eagles, one golden eagle, elk, a hawk, magpies, a meadowlark/sage thrush, a northern harrier, ravens, 17 wolfers and the spirit of Allison.