It's a beautiful frosty morning. Orion and both the Dippers are visible above me. Rick drops a letter in the mail box by the motel porch and heads on while I am still scraping frost from my windshield.
Somehow I thought since it got so warm yesterday that it might be warmer this morning but the gauge says 28, same as it's been the last few mornings. Blue Sue has seat heaters and I take full advantage!
I head off into the dark, expecting the Sloughs to be near the rendezvous this morning.
There are some thin white fingers of fog stretching above the Soda Butte.
I see Marlene at Exclosure so I stop to talk with her. She says no definitive signals yet. Rick just told her he has 490 but weak, and he could be anywhere. We see some coyotes across the road on the other side of the river, chewing on something. I make the mistake that this is the leftover carcass from yesterday.
I drive on and hook up with Laurie at the next pullout and we scope around.
We see a lot of elk. We hear a report of a grizzly. We see it now, coming across the flats. There is an elk herd moving that way and the elk get skittish. The bear pays them no mind and continues moving toward the river. He has scented something and moves quickly. He stops close to the river bank and lowers his head as if he is eating. The voice over the radio says the bear is on a small carcass in the area where the poor little injured calf had been last seen last night.
Looks like the calf met its end last night. Well, all I can say is I am glad the poor thing is out of its misery.
Laurie and I keep watching elk. There are now two large heards in Lamar. One low near the confluence and the other high, being literally herded by a big bull, who is slowly driving them up the Amethyst drainage and on to f Jasper. There are other groups on the naked hills behind the Institute. Still lots of bison everywhere and dozens of lone bull elk dotted everywhere in the valley.
Rick suggests someone go to Slough to look at Crystal for 490. Laurie and I head there but are soon stopped by a group of bison crossing the road. They are on the move so we just stop to wait. I have to say I much prefer to have them cross in front of me during the daytime!
We continue through Lamar Canyon and then get stopped again by bison at the bottom of the hill. But this resolves itself rather quickly too. One lone bison remains in the left lane but I find if I don't make eye contact with an animal that close, I do better.
Jan and Bill are scoping from Slough and Rick wants Laurie to go to Hellroaring. I split the difference and stop at Boulder Pond. I scope in every direction but find no wolves. I hear bugling going on all around me and see the largest elk herd yet right here in Little America. Two bulls seem to be vying for this band. One bull runs them downhill and across the flats. Then another comes up and runs them around the other side and up the hill again. I count 50 cows (18 calves). I do not see these bulls fighting but they sure are bugling a lot.
While this is going on I notice the frosty cover on all the grass and sage in the meadows. It glistens like Christmas wrapping paper. The sun is up but still in its cool phase. I look out on a classic October morn: twinkling frost on the grass, plumes of exhaled breath from the elk set to the shivering sounds of bugling elk.
After a while I remember a present I have for Jan and Bill so I head back to Slough. It's just a humorous something I found on my hike yesterday (don't worry - it's an "un-natural item, and not an artifact). They get a kick out of it. We scope for a while in this thoroughly gorgeous spot. We see elk, bison and a lone coyote.
Rick calls and "encourages" someone to try Dorothy's, hinting at a climb up Cardiac. I tell Jan I have not been up there yet and I am game to join her so we pack up and head there. I have stopped about 1/3 of the way up the first level when Rick calls again and suggests we come west.
Hah! Well, as it turns out, I am not sorry I was spared a further climb. But as I sail through Little America I see the sun has grown in power and the frost has turned to dew. In fact, the sky has turned completely blue, that bright, wide, classic Yellowstone blue.
I think we are going to Hellroaring and I prepare myself for disappointment that whatever is being seen now may be gone by the time I get there. But I see Rick pulled over at Elk Creek along with the rest of the gang. I stop at the lower pullout and hike up with Layla. When I join the group I see I have not missed a thing.
It's the Agates!
From this pullout you can see into Yancey's hole, the meadow where the Roosevelt Chuck Wagon goes during summer cookouts. The rutted wagon road can clearly be seen. This is a popular place for the Agates in the wintertime but I am frankly surprised to see them here this early in the season. They are clearly visible in the flats and they have a carcass. The sunlight streaming into the basin shows the rounded contours of their bellies. These wolves have clearly eaten well recently.
A flutter of ravens and magpies draws my attention to a gully at the far side of the basin. The remains of an elk are there. I got to know the Agate wolves in the spring when Calvin, Lynette and I watched them for two days straight, morning, afternoon and evening. I recognize alpha male #113M, one of the oldest wolves in the park, and his mate, the even more gray than last time 472F. Laurie helps me identify 471F, the very light gray with the bull-terrier face and the beta male 373M. Here also is 525, the black female with her GPS collar, and the "uncollared gray" - who currently has a noticable limp. I am never able to identify 524, another gray female but she is here.
The revelation of this sighting for me is my first glimpse of the famous Agate pups which YNP visitors have been watching all summer from the Dunraven road. These are "Calvin's" wolves and I am especially pleased for his sake, to be seeing them.
This is yet another long, un-interupted sighting and I delight in seeing many of their behaviors. I watch them chow down on the carcass, I hear them howl, I see them rally, and I see the pups enormous enthusiasm. After they finish eating they begin to move uphill into a rocky area. They take their time and go in groups of two or three. You can always tell the pups because they stop to play along the way, while the adults just walk up , find a spot and bed.
One black pup remains on the kill by him/herself for a while. The number of ravens increases as the wolves leave and this black pup is quite surrounded. He decides he's had enough and suddenly leaps up in the air really high, trying to snag one of the birds. They all escape, but I think he gives them something to think about! Then off he trots, following the route the others took.
I find 113 and catch him in a big yawn. Then he puts his head down for a nap.
The birds have the kill and a bald eagle soars in. Many people stop and have a look and we are able to help a whole lot of peole see wolves, many for the first time. The wolves cooperate by not staying bedded for long. They remain a little bit active so more folks get to see them. It is always easier to show someone a moving wolf than a bedded wolf.
The pack changes position several times and then they all start down again for another helping. Honestly, as much as I enjoy showing wolves to visitors, it does get a little wearying after a few hours!
At noon I decide it's time for a break. The day has warmed to 50 and I need to change into cooler clothes.
I head up the Tower road and find the change of scenery delightful. I have to stop just below Calcite because there are sheep are in the road. Both in the road and just off the road. It is a group of about 20 bighorns, no rams. This group contains some of the smallest bighorns I have ever seen. Perhaps they are all particularly young. There are 5 babies (lamps) and 15 other animals. Most have short horns and look like goats, domestic goats.
I thought bighorn sheep were big? I guess it's just the rams with big curls that are big.
These animals seem utterly fearless of the road, the cars and the people. I'm sure people feed them but I seen none of that this day. The cars stop and photograph them right out the window. One animal walks right up to the open car window and rubs his/her chin on the side mirror. The person inside snaps a photo or two and stays there in the road blocking traffic. (not that there is really any traffic)
While traffic is stopped, two photogs walk down from the Calcite pullout and get right next to the sheep. I mean touching them, mere inches away. I know is wrong and perhaps I should have said something but truly, the animals' own behavior suggests that they have no problem with the photogs being that close. Only the babies seemed the slightest bit shy, staying close to their mothers' sides. Other that that, there was no nervousness or wariness. I'm not excusing the photogs behavior, just saying, that without any presence of rangers, it would sound strange coming from me to warn them away.
Greg, from NYC is up here, and we chat, while watching this scene from a distance. Tonight is his last night in the Park so he seems a little sad. He gives me a bottle of water because he heard me say I'm almost out. Thanks Greg!
After a while I drive on. I stop at the pullout where the poor woman from Michigan lost her life. I stop again at the osprey nest pullout and carefully look down at the empty nest below.
I drive on to where a barricade has been placed and turn around. I stop one more time and look out at the gorgeous river below.
Now I head to Slough. I want to drive the whole campground road since I have not done so in four years. The road has become dusty during these last few dry days but I find a nice pullout where I want to have lunch. It's a spot overlooking the river and with that tall cliff rearing up behind. Doug showed me a golden eagle nest in there one time but I don't find it now.
There is one fly fisherman in Slough Creek. He seems to know what he's doing and it's a pretty picture. The day has warmed to 60 so I get out my chair and go barefoot in my Tevas. I have some lunch and pull out my laptop to write a bit. Now here is a setting in which I think I could write all day long!
I place a call to a friend in NYC to let him know what I'm seeing, where I am, how I feel.
After a nice long break I decide to head up to Baronnette to see if I can find any goats. And because I hardly ever get to look at that stretch of road in the daytime! Is it beautiful? You betcha! I find three goats all by myself - a nanny and two kids. I go on up to Silver Gate and stop at the new (to me) gift shop right across from the motel. I got a few things and a cup a joe. I like the selection in there, they have some really nice cards and I find their merchandise varied and unusual. The owner just had a baby. She said she was driven all the way to Livingston when she went into labor!
On my way back down the light becomes exquisite. When I get to the confluence, the sun lights up the tops of the willows and cottonwoods with an incandescent glow. I notice this warmer weather has brought out more fishermen.
I pause at Dorothy's enjoying the light and the sun. I hear more elk bugling. It's my last night and I am trying to decide where to go to look for wolves. I know the Sloughs are around but no one has seen them today yet. Then I remember Chloe's advice. On ones first or last day in the Park you should go with the sure thing. To me, the sure thing is going back to Elk Creek to wait for the Agates to wake up.
So that's what I do.
I see Marlene's car at Rick's pullout so I stop and walk around the corner to talk to her. She introduces me to some friends of hers. They are watching coyotes on the Agate's kill, waiting for the Agates to move again. I tell her I'm going to try Elk Creek again.
Elk Creek is deserted. Hmmm. The second I have Layla set up Marlene calls to say "we have the Agates!" I don't ask where because I figure if she can see them, I can see them. I focus on the carcass. I see the coyotes and the birds but no Agates. Then I see the coyotes scatter every which way. I pull back and there they are!
Here come the Agates, walking, strolling, strutting across the flats, all spread out like a victorious army walking over land they have just taken from an enemy. They don't need to run. They don't need to stick together. They are cool, confident, heck, they own the place!
And then I see the General, old 113M bringing up the rear. Now the wolves in front, pups no doubt, begin to run. The birds explode into the air. The pack descends on the carcass and begins to feed as a group all at once. Except 113. He hasn't arrived yet (!).
But actually, they don't stay very long. After only a few minutes they move off and separate again. A few of the pups pester 472 for a while and I see her snap at one of them. They run off and she beds. 113 has still not made it over to the carcass. I am distracted as several blacks and a gray run off together, grabbing at their each others' mounths. One of them has a piece of hide.They alternately play tug of war and keep away. Another pup has a bone and goes running. The others chase after him and tussle for possession. Then three of them play tug of war all three noses to the ground, grabbing and pulling. Finally one breaks free and tears across the flats, bone in his mouth, pursued by the other two. They catch him and the game begins again.
Another of the pups has something round in its mouth, maybe a leg joint? Size-wise the pups look as big as the adults but in attitude they are all pup. It goes on like this from 5:30 to after 7PM. The adults, by contrast, lay on their sides in the gr@ss, seemingly worn out just being close to the youngsters!
I meet Abby, one of the wolf researchers. She records information from 525's GPS collar. I am able to help her by telling her that 525 moved away to the right just after they fed as a group. I tell Abby that 525 seemed to be uninterested in any of the play the pups were engaged in. 113 remains on the carcass while the pups are playing. He finds something to chew on, brings it back to a spot in the grass and plops down by himself to chew on it.
The pups continue to play and play and play. They jump on each other. A gray is bedded in one spot, gnawing on something. A black approaches and then suddenly bolts away and runs really fast in a circle. Maybe he stole something from the gray but the gray doesn't react. The black finally comes back and this time, when he reaches the gray he just sits down on top of him. This starts a wrestling match which only ends when they both get up and chase after each other around in circles.
A Korean family pulls in and I show them the wolves. And I meet a really nice family from California travelling in a van, two teenaged daughtersand two sons a bit younger. They are all extremely well-behaved and polite. The girls at first are too cool to to get excited about wolves but when they see how the pups are playing their cool just melted away and they grew big smiles.
The parents are soft-spoken and ask Abby a lot of really good questions. I like Abby a lot, too.
But finally the light goes and at 7:10 I have to call it a night.
I have an easy time going back through Little America and I enjoy watching the stars start to pop out. Then just past Dorothy's I see bison eyeballs near the right side of the road so I slow down from 40. Just then a bison calf dashes downhill from the left and bolts right smack in front of me. I slam the brakes and everything slides forward. I miss that foolish creature by about two feet. If I had not already slowed from seeing the eyes on the right I would have hit him for sure. Whoa!
I'm sure glad no one was behind me!
Then just as I start forward again another bison (the calf's mother?) runs into the road and stops in the left lane, blocking it completely. Other bison (the eyes I saw) are grazing right at the road edge - is the grass just sweeter there do you think?. I sit and wait, knowing at least that my brake lights can be seen. After a while the ones grazing move down away from the road but the mama hasn't budged. I inch forward, swerving way over to the right and pass the big mama with about four feet of room. I do NOT look her in the eye but just keep going, very slowly.
That's it and I am through. Whew!
I see two other creatures on this drive to Silver Gate: a mouse at Pebble again (must be a mouse migration route!) and a lovely, unexpected mule deer buck in the meadow at Baronette.
Today I saw: antelope, 1 grizzly bear, bison, 6 coyotes, mule deer, ducks, a bald eagle, elk, 3 mountain goats, magpies, ravens, 20 bighorn sheep, 13 wolves of the Agate Pack, 8 wolfers, 1 new Loon (Greg) and the spirit of Allison.