I drive through quiet Gardiner, following the taillights of a familiar black Jeep. Doug Dance is just ahead of me, leading the way under the Arch and into Wonderland.
It remains quiet through Mammoth and all through Blacktail but we get some gorgeous first color in the sky ‘round about Hell Roaring. Today it’s a pale golden-orange, changing to a glorious peach. There are bison in Tower flats and a pronghorn on the slope above the Yellowstone picnic area.
And now I enter the beautiful Lamar. I am delighted to see that the river is still made of light, but the clear, cool morning has colored it an iridescent blue. Doug pulls over and I follow. I have learned to trust Doug’s spotting skills. True to form, he has found a grizzly!
It’s a nice, big bear out in the fan, searching for elk calves. How appropriate to be watching a grizzly in Lamar with Doug. Seems like old times. Meadowlarks serenade us as we watch travel up, down and around, nose to the ground.
There are many pronghorn in the valley and a large bison herd in residence up on Jasper Bench. I notice a lone pronghorn, walking back and forth along a gravelly spit between two channels of the river. She seems to want to cross the river.
Back and forth she moves, stepping two front hooves gingerly in the water, testing, looking, sniffing, then stepping back out and walking further down river. Then finally she decides to go for it and walks right into the rushing torrent. It is deep enough for her to swim and she does, strongly. That’s cool. I love to see animals cross the river and I don’t think I‘ve ever seen a pronghorn swim before. She climbs delicately out the other gravelly side and moves quickly up to the sage level. Then she takes off in a mad dash across the flats.
My radio crackles with wolf news. Three Unknowns are being seen on the slope east of Crystal drainage. I head west, thinking Doug will, too. When I get to Slough there is quite a crowd already, mostly on the road level and a few folks up on Dave’s hill. Everyone’s scope is pointed south.
I see Calvin and Lynnette so I join them and soon I see two black wolves with tails low and slightly tucked trotting across the green slope past some big boulders. I watch them move across the hill until they get to a forested spot and disappear within.
I hear people talking excitedly about grizzlies and then I see why. On a high open slope above the Specimen Ridge trail, a mile or more from the wolves, are three large bears, full grown with classic coloring, rooting and digging. Calvin thinks it is a sow with two grown cubs. Wow, a happy grizzly family. That’s nice to see.
Then we hear a report of another wolf being seen, behind us, near the river. The best viewpoint for that is likely Dave’s hill so I pack up and head there. This is the first time I’ve climbed Dave’s this trip, far different from last May when I was up here every day watching Slough Creek pups.
The view from here is fantastic, with the river still so full of water and small ponds everywhere. While I am climbing up a black wolf is being seen swimming the river (from north to south) and is now loping through the flats. As I set up I hear her howl, which is thrilling to hear in this wild spot.
But her howl seems to insult the neighborhood coyotes, who whip up a long and loud response full of defiance against the wolves. I see two of these coyotes and then finally I see the black wolf, running in the rolling hills between the river and the road. The wolf stops and howls again and I hear answering howls from across the road.
Rick is up here now, trying to determine which wolf we are seeing. She is most likely another Unknown wolf, either the alpha female or a female called “Parentheses” for a set of white marks on her chest.
While I am watching this wolf, or rather, waiting for her to appear again between hilltops, I spot a black bear way west, roaming the hills around what I call “the Dead Zone” in the area above Curve pullout. I can see the grizzly family from here, too. What a day for bears this is!
I find a bald eagle in a tree near the river and hear both sand hills and geese in the same vicinity. Then Rick says that the black wolf is crossing the road - near Long Pullout. I smile, thinking of the lucky folk in cars driving this way and seeing this wolf so close. I see her running and enjoy a nice long sight of her as she makes her way up the slope and across the hills.
She stops often, sniffing the ground, following the scent-trail of the two others. Then suddenly I recognize a thin, dark line coming down the hill - the trail to Specimen Ridge that I hiked on Monday with the Loons!
This black wolf is nearing that trail and will surely cross it. I take my eyes off the wolf for a moment to scan the trail. Sure enough, further down are two people with backpacks. Alas, the hikers are stopped, facing north. They remain oblivious as the wolf crosses the trail and continues on her way.
Lynnette notices some alerted elk and we see two of them charge the lone black wolf. Boy, have the elk become feisty! They are likely mothers with calves to protect. The wolf avoids them and lopes toward the tree-lined Crystal Creek drainage. Once she gets in there she stops and sniffs around a while, then comes out again in approximately the same place where I first saw the original two wolves. I watch her pass the same large boulders, then she too, disappears into trees.
As the day warms wolf activity usually ceases but I stay up here a while just enjoying the view. The three grizzlies are gone and all that is left is the gorgeous landscape. I drink it in and count myself lucky to be here.
Now I decide to go watch the coyote pups.
I arrive at Picnic in time to see them playing “king of the rock” on a small boulder near their den. They are so, so cute, tumbling and romping. Then I see one adult sort of slinking up the hill to the west. I see her teats and realize she is the mother. She come back, turns again and heads west. She does this several times and I get a feeling she wants something.
Then I see the pups begin to follow her, in a disorganized line. Uh oh! Could she be moving them again? She goes up the hill, turning frequently to make sure they are following and on she goes. One by one the pups disappear over the top of the slope. I do not see her make any attempt to carry them in her mouth this time. Perhaps the pups would rather avoid that indignity, too, and are old enough now to follow on their own.
Welp, that may be the last we see of these coyote pups for a while. I’m glad I spent as much time watching them as I did. Ruth and Fuad are here, too. I forgot to mention how nice it was to run into them on Friday up at Antelope. We had fun watching the Agates together. They have not seen the Druids yet and are just as eager as I am to see those dogs.
We talk about making our way east and up to Cooke for breakfast. Our next stop is at the confluence, where we search in vain for the beaver. And I enjoy seeing some bison rub their chins against some heavy driftwood. I bet that shedding fur itches like crazy!
Other wolfers join us, including Loons Hellroaring Cat and Gerry, and Calvin and Lynnette and Jim and Joellen. We are all thinking about breakfast so we continue on to the Grizzly Pad. Of course we stop at Round Prairie to scan for our Druids but still find nothing.
I so see a mule deer fawn near the Thunderer pullout and a very pretty buck in velvet just past Barronette. When we get to Cooke we discover we have somehow lost Ruth and Fuad but the rest of us gather at the Grizzly Pad and have a great breakfast. We have a jolly time, joking and talking about wolves and opining about families, children and the state of the world.
On our way back down we see more mulies between Cooke and Silver Gate and then we stop at Barronette for a glimpse of a lone billy goat and three bighorn sheep; two grazing adults and one bedded ram, with a very nice curl.
At Round Prairie we stop at the logs and set up our chairs and scopes. People stop and ask us what we have and we feel silly telling everyone “nothing!“. I see a crow at least, LOL. Lew and Deb come by and we Loons yak with them a while, too.
After about an hour we head west again, ending up at Dorothy‘s. We meet a very enthusiastic man who has three wolves in view! He says it’s a gray and two blacks and does his best to describe where they are, resting on a patch of snow on a hill of burned forest and deadfall above Jasper Bench. I find two black wolf shapes but not the gray. Then I hear Gerry or the enthusiastic man say “it’s head is up” or, “it moved its leg“ yet the two wolves I am looking at never change. Hmmm. I wonder if there are more wolves up here than I thought? Then finally I realize I am looking at two rocks!
I re-position my scope and finally see the gray stand up. Aha! I watch this gray move over to a black so now I see two wolves! They greet each other nose to nose and wagging tails and then both re-bed. The black moves slightly downhill into a patch of deadfall which hides him completely!
Once they stop moving it is nearly impossible to see them. This is a really hard sighting! When other people pull in and ask to see what we have it is quite frustrating to convince them they are looking at wolves.
I decide to take a break and go to Tower to get a spot for my last night in the Park.
I run into Ballpark Frank in the Tower Store parking lot. It’s great to have a chance to catch up with him. It starts to drizzle on us but we don’t care. He tells me about the Loon hike yesterday and I apologize for not having had time to eat dinner with him or Roadie this trip. I promise I won’t miss it next trip.
When I come back down, a cinnamon black bear is wandering in the meadows across from the Tower Jct, drawring a huge crowd as usual. Lew and Deb come by and we watch him a while, together.
Some kind of weird weather arrives, gusts of wind so strong they seem like mini-tornados. Some gusts are full of rain and the impact is of someone suddenly tossing a bucket of water against my windshield. Most of the crowd dashes for cover.
I head back to Lamar. As I cross the Yellowstone Bridge I see a swarm of swallows wheeling and diving above the bridge, as if excited by the wind gusts. I have never seen swallows swarm while it rains, but they seem to be loving it. When I come out past Junction Butte there is a big fat rainbow in Little America, spilling its colors onto the just-wet grass, in another example of the ever-changing beauty of Yellowstone.
Back at Dorothy’s I hook up again with Gerry, Calvin and Lynette in time to see a grizzly up on Specimen. We also notice something shiny in the eagle’s nest but can’t figure out what it is. Calvin says the wolves moved east through the deadfall and are now out of sight.
So now we have but one thought on our minds: Druids. We invite the enthusiastic man to join us and head for Round Prairie.
We park at the logs, set up and talk quietly. Nothing moving. The weather grows ominous and rain begins to fall. We pack up and sit in our cars a while, keeping our eyes and binoculars on Round Prairie while the rain plinks on our car roofs. Rick comes by and I get out to talk to him. He says Druid signals are weak.
This is perplexing news. We all thought the Druids wolves were still in there, hidden in the trees wherever their den is, and that we were waiting to see them emerge, perhaps to go hunting. It looks like we may have already missed them.
Rick says he’s going further west and will take more readings. Laurie comes by and we discuss our options. The vote is to head west. As we come down past Trout Lake we see a line of cars in the far distance, west of Soda Butte Cone, pulled off on the south side.
Rick tells us the jam is for a bear with cubs up on Norris. Then he says the Druids’ signals are getting stronger. This gives me (and all of us) a thrill, as it is enough to mean they may be coming this way, perhaps back from a hunt. We set up where we are and begin to scan the hills on the long eastern shoulder of Mt. Norris. The anticipation is killing me as I am so worried I will miss them!
The rain has tapered to a drizzle but the wind is still kind of wild. And to make matters worse, the terrain here is heavily forested, and will make any glimpse of wolves fleeting at best. They could be anywhere, up high, down low or anywhere in between. Yet I remind myself that I am in the company of several first class wolf spotters so hope remains high.
Lynnette notices some elk bunching, looking downhill in the same direction. Aha! Could the be watching Druid wolves passing below? Then Rick says “you probably want to head back to Round Prairie“.
It takes all my will power to drive without speeding back to where we were. As I approach the first pullout I see it is full so I decide to aim for the logs. Just as I have that in sight, I hear Rick say “302 is passing the knob“. By some miracle we are all able to park without smashing into each other in our excitement. I get out and don’t even try to set up Layla. I just use binoculars.
Immediately I see a big black wolf trotting through the meadow. Hooray! I see a Druid wolf at last, gorgeous 302M. His coat is still very black, although I do see some white on his muzzle and some hints of lighter color on his flanks. His belly looks full and seems robust, fit and healthy.
He trots very businesslike across the meadow, and I admit to a twinge of regret that he is not the wolf I remember from earlier sightings. He is still confident but not quite as cocky as he seemed before. 302 is no longer the lover boy or the lounge-about. He seems more like a man now, a father and provider. Which, in the end, is appropriate. He moves right along the edge of the trees for several minutes and then turns into the forest, passing between trunks and over deadfall, shrinking from view until he finally disappears.
I am utterly delighted! We all are. It’s just past 7:30 and there is plenty of light to see. After all this trying and waiting I can’t believe I actually got to see him so clearly and for so long. I do a quiet version of the Druid Dance for everyone. We are all so happy. Then I see Brian C. who saw them too, having arrived just in the nick of time. He says Ruth and Fuad are with Rick at the regular pullout and we notice that the enthusiastic man is also there, too.
We talk quietly, re-living the sighting when Rick calls softly “there is a gray on the knob“. Whoa! This sighting isn’t over yet!
We whip to attention back to our scopes. I see the wolf on the knob, a slim gray, one of the Druid females. Then I see a large black wolf enter the meadow from behind the knob. This must be 480, the alpha male. The gray comes down the knob and jumps into the grass, then she heads almost immediately for the trees and I lose her pretty quickly. 480 walks through the grass, then stops and looks back.
He moves on and stops again. He looks big and burly and kingly. I remember hearing a report of him last fall that he and 302 looked skinny and folk were worried they may not make it through the winter. Well, it looks like the spring has been good to them both.
Then I see a black wolf on the knob! Oh! It’s 529, the alpha female. She is black with grayish legs. Very pretty. The way 480 keeps looking back, it sure seems like he is waiting for her. How sweet! I like an alpha male to show concern for his mate like that! 529 sits on the knob for a moment, almost as if posing, then she heads down in sort of a romping way. Next thing I know she has a bone in her mouth. Maybe she had been carrying it or maybe she just found it, but she plops herself down a few yards out from the end of the knob and begins to gnaw on the bone.
480 proceeds at a steady trot along the edge of the prairie, passing now and then behind an outlying tree. It is hard to imagine he is the same wolf Chloe, Becky and I used to call “L.S.” LOL. He passes a Douglas fir, then several thin-trunked aspen, and then leaps lightly over a log. He stops and turns then raises a leg, marking his territory.
Since he stays visible so long I am able to see 480 has a lot more brown on him than last time I saw him (over a year ago, when 255 and 286 were still alive.) His muzzle is getting gray. Several times I think I have lost him in the trees only to see him come back out again.
But I do eventually turn back to watch 529. She is so young, she seems barely more than a puppy. Her face reminds me of 21, when he was still black. And Laurie confirms she is 21’s daughter (DNA evidence). She rolls on the bone, kicking her gray legs up in the air. How cute! Then she stands up and I am amazed at how pretty she looks. She has a beautifully proportioned body. Her tail has a lovely, graceful curve with thick feathery fur on the underside which flares out like a skirt. And she moves with grace and strength.
Now she follows 480 on the trail to the pups. She follows his route and marks all the spots he marked. Just as I am getting sad that she is about to disappear, 480 suddenly bounds up from behind a tree. He was waiting for her! Oh boy, I really like him now. The alpha pair trots off into the trees toward their hungry pups. (Note: The pack’s consistently localized behavior is a sure indication that they have pups, although none had yet been seen. Then in late June, visitors were treated to the sight of 11 (!) pups at this location. Around July 4th they were lead away by the adults to their high-meadow rendezvous, although one black pup was not paying attention. It paced and howled mournfully for four straight days but managed to survive until the adults returned to rescue it - to the enormous relief of us all.)
There are no words to describe my happiness at this sighting. After waiting so long and nearly running out of time, to have such a long and clear sighting of all four Druids is just unbelievable. And to have been able to share it with all my wolfer friends is just a dream come true. Thank you Druids for making my last night so fittingly memorable. We say thanks to Rick and realize we have still another good hour of wildlife watching left. So we pack up and head to Dorothy’s.
We see no more wolves tonight but Calvin finds us two bears on the north slope; a sow with a grown cub roaming the sage slopes near the secret passage. And there are always bison calves to watch and sand hill cranes. I also notice that the moon has grown fat, and shines down from high above Specimen Ridge. Gerry helps me re-position Layla so we can look at it. What a sight! It’s almost too bright to look at!
The western sky is ominous with cloud but the eastern side retains some clear blue with thinly-stretched clouds beginning to turn gold. What a great night!
But now it’s time to go our various ways. As I head home I can’t help but notice the sky ahead of me. It is downright “Speilbergian”. A huge storm cloud billows upward and outward, to become a slate-gray wall against which a stupendous light show plays; flickering stabs of bright-yellow lightning and deep, rumbling thunder.
Eek! I wonder if it I’ll make it to Tower before the rain begins and whether or not I’ll be able to sleep through it? I pass mulies in Lamar Canyon and when I come down through Little America the storm looks even more enormous.
A weasel dashes across the road, reminding me to watch my driving.
I make it to the campground dry as a bone. The giant storm continues to flicker and I figure it’s arrival is inevitable. My last sighting of the evening is the bright white moon peeking through my car window as I lay down my head.
Today I saw: antelope, 2 black bears (one cinnamon), 7 grizzly bears (4 adults and 3 cubs) bison, 7 coyotes (including 5 pups), 2 sand hill cranes, mule deer (including a fawn) a bald eagle, elk, geese, one mountain goat, a marmot, 3 bighorn sheep, a weasel, 9 wolves (4 Druids including 480, 302, 529 and the gray female and two wolves from another pack), 6 Loons and the spirit of Allison.