As I leave the snug warmth of Laurie's home it is a sparkling 29 degrees. The moon is at half and my first sight of stars reminds me of the amazing sky last night.
The temperature drops steadily as I drive into the valley. At first I am baffled but then I am reminded of basic physics: cold air sinks while hot air rises. By the time I reach Round Prairie it is a crisp 24. First light is growing behind me as a pale blue-green sky nudges the stars to the western edges. I hear elk bugling and take it as a good omen for the day.
Rick and Laurie have pulled over at Exclosure and are already ascending the hill. It's still too dark for anyone to have seen anything so I wonder if this means Rick has Slough signals? I stop at level one to catch my breath and see them both intently looking through their scopes to the south, across the confluence. I have a sudden thought Could it be the Druids?
I get Layla set up in record time and hear Rick say "there are several animals moving out there". With his clear and precise directions I find them myself! On the long sloping shoulder of Mt. Norris, southwest of the trail to Cache Creek, on a low mound are several moving wolves. I see two groups come together and form a large, happy dog pile and then three more blacks come in from the left. I see two large blacks, one with a high flying tail. That must be 480 so the other is 302! Hello beauty! I try to count them but have trouble keeping track of the grays, which are like phantoms in this light.
I realize I'm seeing the Druids' pups for the first time! I can't make out either adult female so I just hope they stay in view long enough for me to try. They begin to howl! Oh, how wonderful it sounds! They howl and howl and howl and I hear so many high-pitched puppy voices. And from behind us we hear more howling.
The Sloughs have answered!
Jan and Bill have them from Picnic. I turn my scope and catch sight of them running through the flats. They have just come down the Amethyst drainage. Oh man! 8 Slough wolves running with tails held high, in a romping, bouncy, excited gait. Suddenly I am looking at the old Sloughs, the Mighty Sloughs of 2005. They make me afraid for the Druids.
I swing back to the Druids and see them still in a happy post-howl dog pile. They are quite far away and safe for the moment. This time I have enough light to see a bunch of pups encircling a black and silver wolf, licking her muzzle like mad - this is 529F.
But I can't stay on the Druids for long as someone has just said "grizzly!" The Sloughs are apparently not intent on going after the Druids but perhaps they are after a grizzly. Now I see the bear, walking fast like he's on a mission. The Sloughs have stopped in the sage and are looking around excitedly. Then I see an elk antler sticking up. Aha! They have a carcass in there! The bear finds it and immediately sits on top of it. The Sloughs seem to have arrived at almost the same time as the bear, but their round bellies give them away. They have already eaten. They may have killed this bull but they let the bear have it for the time being. The bear seems to relish finding the kill and really tears into it.
The Sloughs don't exactly challenge the bear but they do mill around, with tails high. The only one who stays close is Sharp Right who gets in a few nips, judging from the bear's sudden defensive reactions. The sage is high here and it's not always clear what's going on. There is enough light now to see blood on the bear's face as he tugs and pulls on the carcass, at one point lifting it high enough to expose its bloody rib cage.
The carcass is in the sage, behind a fairly large group of bison cows and calves. Jan notices that one of the bison calves, a smallish one, has a broken front leg. It cannot put weight on it and it is terrible to watch it hobble around. More disturbing to me is that this poor little animal seems to have no champion among the herd. None of the cows act like its mother. Many of the older calves seem curious and come over to sniff the calf but when the larger animals draw near, the calf seems afraid and hobbles away pitifully. I can only hope some predator will put it out of its misery quickly.
But back to the wolves. At this point, the Sloughs have moved off and have bedded, somewhat reluctantly, in the sage above and to the left of the bear. The bear continues to eat greedily. The Druids have bedded on and around their low mound, but now I notice a number of animals are up and moving. One black moves downhill, exploring in the sage and I see a gray moving to the left, heading uphill behind some aspen.
I still haven't had a good chance to count, but Rick and Laurie both have 15 (11 pups and 4 adults). We discuss what would happen if the Druids and Sloughs should meet. Rick has come to believe that numbers mean everything in these situations. That even though the majority of Druids are untested yearlings, if they appear together as a group against the 8 Sloughs, the Druids are likely to win the day. Rick's theory is that from a distance a wolf pack cannot tell the ages of rival wolves, or perhaps, they choose to learn that information later after they are again safe.
Rick reminds me that during the famous confrontation between the Druids and Sloughs in late 2004, that although the Druids were on home turf and at first gutsily challenged the interloping Sloughs, once they got a look at their superior numbers, the Druids they turned and scattered, and thus, survived that encounter.
Up here on the hill with us are Marlene and a guy named Greg, who turns out to be the first fellow New Yorker I've ever run into in YNP. He is a photographer who lives in the Village with his wife and son. We let him look in our scopes from time to time and he is helpful to me when my scope's locking mechanism freezes up. Greg also lets us know that there is a coyote up here on the hill with us, walking furtively behind us until he finds a hill free of humans.
The Druids look like they are about to head out so I leave the Sloughs for a while and concentrate on them.
At last, as they are leaving, I get a chance to count them. I only get 12 total but that will have to do. They are all milling around the top of the low mound and now they begin to disappear behind it. Once they are gone, a lone gray pup is left, nosing around in the sage below the hill. Then this wolf raises its head sharply and begins to run quickly in the direction the others had gone as if calling out "hey! wait for me!" then this gray pup too, disappears.
The sun finally emerges from behind the mountains and we are thrilled to have it because this is a COLD morning! It brightens two long thin patches of ground on the Norris slopes and in one of these strips of sunlight, Rick finds the Druids once again. They are running at a leisurely pace and I get one final count. Still I'm at 12. It seems to me that the Druids are headed back toward the Cache Creek drainage, and I realize I may not see them again for a good long while. But it was a delightful sighting, if a cold one. And I am grateful for it.
Now it's time to turn back to the grizzly and the Sloughs. When I get the bear in my scope again we finally have him in good light. I see his face quite clearly and watch him raise his head and lick his chops. For a while he seems to have no manners at all, chewing with his mouth open. Then he tugs on the carcass again and again, yanking it this way and that.
The Sloughs have become animated. They see something below the kill. All 8 begin to move east and drop into stalk mode. Aha! It's coyotes. Five of them. As the wolves reach a grassy patch they break into a run and the coyotes turn tail. For the second time today I witness the Sloughs of old! Then four of them drop out of the chase and the rest continue, turning on the speed. It's 380, Slight Right and two of the black yearlings. They increase their speed and in response the coyotes scatter, zigging and zagging in a practuiced way. One coyote zags when he should have zigged and finds himself suddenly closer to the four wolves. THis makes me really worried for a second, but the coyote pulls another trick and disappears into sage.
Shortly after this the wolves break it off.
Now the four who waited begin to howl and the four who chased turn and come They trot back proudly and have a big tail-wagging reunion to celebrate their...what? Their ability to scare a bunch of coyotes, I guess!! LOL! They have a love fest but somehow Slight Right ends up getting pinned. I wonder what she did wrong? It doesn't last that long though and she is able to escape further abuse.
Now the wolves head back to their bedding spot and things quiet down again.
A little bit later, something again prompts the Sloughs from their day beds. It is probably the pups, who have lots of extra energy, but suddenly they seem to have decided to make a move against the bear. The cool thing though, is that as they begin to move forward, several of them jump straight up in the air, with stiff forelegs and eyes focused intently on the bear. It looks so dramatic but I think it is just a practical gesture. The sage is quite high and this is a way to get a visual on their target rather than rushing headlong and blind against such an adversary. It is so cool to see them do this, though, at least three of them do the wolf hop.
In any case, they continue to press the bear off the carcass and he finally gets the message. He rises on his hind legs and gets the picture himself. He's been chomping on it for at least a half hour, maybe an hour, so he is probably close to full. Anyway, after several nips on the behind and several swipes from him he lumbers off. Surprisingly (to me) the wolves do not escort the bear. They just let him go and turn their attentions to what remains of their carcass.
There isn't much left of it, and they are full anyway. The only wolf that does not attempt to eat at the kill again is 490. He probably had the most in the first place anyway! Or the choice cuts. He moves off to the south and beds while the others pick at the bones.
Eventually the rest of the pack loses interest in the carcass and they begin to wander towards the old rendezvous area. As they reach a mud spot one of the pups finds something and begins to roll in it. Another starts to mouse. Then they amble on towards the top of Chalcedony fan. There is a bull elk at the edge of the trees that looks very skinny to me. The wolves see him but make no move against him. Nonetheless, the bull moves into the trees, casually, so as not to arouse any suspicion.
One by one they move into the shadows between the trees and I lose them.
My goodness! What a morning! 8~)
Before I pack up I take one more sweep over the gorgeous valley, lit by the warm October sun. I see ducks in the river and pronghorn out on the same slope where the Druids were earlier. It is warm enough now to shed my down coat and when I get to the car I feel hungry. I drive back to Hitching Post and make coffee and also some noodles. While I'm slurping away I meet a nice couple Michelle and Tim who just got married this past Saturday at Artists Point. We have a nice chat and I invite them to the Loon Page, because they are clearly already Loons themselves!
Then I head west. I plan to meet Frank W at Dorothy's and then we are going to wander around in the Druid's old den area. I have wanted to know what's up there for years and years. High on my hope list to see is the den (or dens) itself, the lake and the V-Tree.
It is now 48 degrees and warming fast.
After changing clothes and readying my pack, I meet Frank W and we discuss our plans and goals. I warn Frank W that I have been seeing bison in the area for the last several days and although I intend to bring bear spray as a precaution, I believe the only animals we will really have to deal with are bison.
It's over 50 by the time we start, and there is a breeze. The valley becomes deserted in the mid-afternoon and it is a wonderful feeling to have it to ourselves. We leave the cars at Hitching Post start off. When we top the rise I am immediately struck by how private this area seems; no matter that you can see the road below. It seems a world away. As I always find on backcountry hikes, there is an astonishing amount of land that opens up mere footsteps from the road.
We find old bones scattered here and there, and see two live bison across the way. One watches us but as we move up the hill he goes back to grazing. We find a stream to follow and it leads us to a marshy spot with more scattered bones and dropped antlers. Then we begin to see large boulders of conglomerate rock.
I have been told many things about where the Druid den (or dens) is but none of the things I've been told prove true or useful! We wander all over the place, enjoying the views, amazed at the rock formations, listening to birds, smelling the sage and clean air.
We find the Druid's lake in a spot far from where I thought it was. There are several ducks on it; One end of it seems to be turning into a marsh. We find about 6 different "V-Trees" but may not have found the definitive one. We climb high and suddenly the cliffs of Druid Peak frown down upon us. We walk through a cool forest of mighty Douglas firs. Then we come out on a flat mesa and see the most spectacular view of the confluence, ever, better than the one on Jackson Grade. We sit on a couple of low rocks and look at the view and talk and snack.
It's the kind of spot where I believe the Druids may have come. I can see 21 and 42 here, looking out on their valley. If it were legal to camp here this is where I'd pitch my tent.8~)
One of our findings is an old bison carcass, which I smell before I see. As soon as I do I back off and call for Frank to look around for bear. We see none, nor any other animal, and after carefully moving upwind we go back to explore it. To me it looks like there is still enough scavange left for a coyote or certainly ravens.
There is also one particular rock that intrigues us - at first glance it looks like rock on which bird droppings have fallen. This, combined with a sort of small cave that it formed and a pile of seemingly arranged sticks on top makes me think it's some kind of aerie or nest. But when we get up close we realize it isn't. The rock is white and has a drippy white paint look all its own. .
On our way out we meet 25 kids on a quick guided hike into the area. I think there were six guides in uniform. I'd even say they were rangers except they were so young!
We get back to our cars a little before 5PM. We have enough time to gulp a soft drink and grab some snacks before heading out for the evening's wolf viewing. Frank W says he doesn't have great wolf luck but I say that's likely about to change. I believe that our chances of seeing wolves from Exclosure tonight are about as good as they get.
We climb the hill and get set up. I predict that the Sloughs will come out of the trees at about 6:45PM.
But the evening viewing starts with elk. Lots and lots of them. I count 17 individual bull elk just in the triangle area of the Chalcedony fan. In addition, there are two large cow/calf herds, (I stopped counting at 50) each tended by a big bull, moving out in the flats; one moves toward the confluence and the other steadily westward in the flats. And I begin to see more herds up on Jasper and Amethyst.
We check the carcass and find birds on it, and three coyotes. But they are soon spooked off when a grizzly begins to head this way.
He is first spotted coming toward the river from the trees. We realize he is coming for the carcass. He gallops a few times which is terrific to see. His nose is in the air and he seems to lose the scent from time to time. Finally he finds it and begins to chow down.
Then, after feeding for about 10 minutes, the grizzly abruptly rises on his back legs. He looks spooked. He drops down and takes another bite, and the next moment he spooks again, this time bolting away, galloping for for the trees. It is nearly a repeat performance of another night when I was up on Jackson Grade. I wonder if it's the same bear? He heard, saw or smelt something he didn't like and he was GONE.
Later I learn from Jan and Bill that people in the pullout near them were making an enormous amount of noise and they are convinced the bear bolted from the human sounds.
Meanwhile, 6:45 has come and gone and the light is seeping away. I continue to scan the tree line where I saw the wolves disappear earlier today. I am determined to be the one to see them emerge first. But then I think to scan the other direction. When I do that I suddenly see something moving at the tree-line that I know is not an elk or a deer. In another moment I realize it's another grizzly. Just then a man who had been watching with us and had just said goodbye comes running back up to us. He points and says the wolves are in view. Sure enough, there they are, moving just this side of the tree-line further east than where they went in.
I see four of them at first, including Sharp Right. She and three blacks get close to a bull elk. But nothing comes of it and the wolves move on. Now I see the other four as well, moving east towards the confluence. While I'm watching this, I hear of another bear coming toward the carcass.
I drag myself away from the wolves to check on the bears and find the one still moving against the treeline and now I see the third bear coming across the flats to the carcass. The light is just about gone but I can see his lumbering shape cutting across the grass. I stay on him until he finds the carcass.
I take one more glance at the Sloughs and find them passing behind the cottonwoods on the river bank. I wonder if they are hunting elk or hunting Druids? I suppose the answer to that will have to wait until tomorrow.
I'm glad Frank W got to see wolves tonight. We head down to the cars. We have a Loon hug and bid each other goodnight. I thank him again for the great hike. I am staying at Silver Gate tonight and have not checked in.
As I pass Pebble Creek a teeny tiny mouse dashes across the road, and I have a big bull bison on the road west of Warm Creek. I arrive at Silver Gate to find a light left on for me and my room ready. No muss, no fuss! I write a little and then give in to sleep.
Today I saw: antelope, 4 grizzly bears, bison, 9 coyotes, mule deer, ducks, elk, magpies, a mouse, ravens, 20 wolves from two packs (including 480, 302, 529 and the gray adult of the Druids and 8 of their 11 pups; and all 8 of the Sloughs, 14 wolfers, 3 Loons (counting the two newest ones) and the spirit of Allison.