DAY TWO - SUNDAY, APRIL 27

STILL IN WINTER'S GRIP

It's a beautiful sunny morning as I begin my trek to the Park from my modest home in Bozeman. It's 30 degrees.

I take my favorite route, Trail Creek Road, as I am not at all fond of Bozeman Pass. I am driving Jenny the Jeep, equipped with 4WD just in case. Most of the snow on the ground has melted, but there is still considerable whiteness on the north-facing slopes and of course the high peaks.

The creek is running quite high; over its banks in many places, and the road itself is gooey in some spots but far less than I expected. There is still an ice layer on flooded ponds. I see several mule deer on the drive.

My first view of the Yellowstone is surprising, in that it does not look high at all. In fact it seems just about the same level as I saw it in December. The spring melt has clearly not yet begun. I see several red tailed hawks and one osprey on the drive south and a fairly large herd of elk gathered on the airport runway just outside Gardiner. And I see pronghorn across the river.

More elk wander the quiet streets of Gardiner and there are bison grazing in the school yard below the Arch. The Park is nearly empty of cars as I drive up Gardiner Canyon. I stop at the top behind the employee housing to have my visit with Allison. I am amazed at how quiet it is - and I'm happy to find it this way. I watch a coyote stalking something...aha! A ground squirrel! I see a mad dash and...this time the squirrel escapes with his life. The coyote digs and pounces, but comes up empty.

There are some bedded elk on slope below Kite Hill, including a handsome young spike bull, his beginner antlers covered in rich velvet. Then I hear a loud squawking and I'm surprised to see a pair of sandhills on the slope. I don't think I've ever seen these elegant birds in Mammoth before. But that's one reason I wanted to come in April: each month and each season in Yellowstone is different and I want to experience them all.

I bid Allison adieu and head east.

I pass several bison in the road. The winter has been harsh this year and I have heard talk of many skinny ungulates. These look healthy enough, but as the days go on, I do start to see others who are in pretty bad shape. At Blacktail Ponds I smile to see so much water. Since 1998, when I first started coming regularly to Yellowstone, I have seen these ponds and many others gradually shrink to almost nothing. It's good to see it full again and I hope that once the melt begins it will replenish what has been lost and that enough water will remain through the fall to start building up again.

A lone coyote roams the edge of the water, probably looking for carcasses. It is not common to find winter- killed ungulates here.

As I drive on through the Blacktail Plateau I see places where the daily plowing of the roads has built up a great wall of dirty snow on both sides. Some spots have become virtual tunnels, with snow-banks too high to see over. The road itself is dry and clear of snow or ice. Floating Island Lake is un-recognizable - it's simply a slight depression covered in snow; no outline of a lake at all.

I finally arrive at my first official stop - Tower Junction - where I meet Ballpark Frank and his friend from Butte, Vicky. We have made plans to hike the as-yet-un-opened road from here to the Tower store. We pack up, grab our poles and head out. The day has turned warm and quite windy. I expect I will have both windburn and sunburn before the day is out. I have driven this road countless times but have never walked it and I enjoy being able to see it up close at a more leisurely pace.

In the meadow across from the Roosevelt corral we see a pair of sandhills beginning their courtship. The road is clear and dry but we scan the snow on both sides for tracks. We see evidence of various critters: bison, deer, coyote, squirrels, weasles, and in one spot - possibly bear. We find some scat nearby, too, which looks bearish to Frank. Overhead we occasionally see osprey flying and I see one darting chipmunk.

When we reach the Tower store we find the road beyond blocked by a considerable layer of thick, mushy snow. I try walking on it and mostly sink. Hmmm, looks like we'll stop here a while and then turn around. The view is great, and we see bighorn sheep and elk on the skyline.

We find an empty picnic table and haul out our lunch goodies. I find it so enjoyable to be in this spot without the usual crush of visitors. The air is piercingly crisp and fresh and there is lovely natural music all around, from the steady murmur of the falls and the swishing of the wind to the occasional "peer-peer" of osprey. And of course, there are some squawking ravens, too.

We meander over to the Tower Falls Overlook and Frank mentions that a pair of pines that used to mess up this view. Of course the trees may have fallen naturally, but we find it a bit suspicious. At the same time, we are pleased with the result of our picture-taking. A great deal of Tower Creek's flow is still trapped, hard-frozen against the rocks, but a noisy torrent flows freely through the center, plunging recklessly to the pool far below.

There is still a good deal of mushy, slippery snow on the trail as well as muddy spots. In fact, the trail down to the River is still officially closed. After a little while we head back downhill. As we go, Frank makes sure to point out five different osprey nests and where they can most easily be viewed. I knew about two of them but I am delighted to see the other three.

Three of the five he shows me are occupied by a single adult. And we see several other osprey soaring overhead which makes us very hopeful that there are eggs in those nests! We also stop at Calcite Springs and Frank and I decide to brave the snow-covered boardwalk. I am glad for my hiking poles because there is mighty treacherous footing. But our efforts are rewarded with beautiful views of the Yellowstone, and Frank teaches me a few things about how to locate a peregrine nest.

We continue our hike, still hoping for a bear sighting but no luck. Now back at the cars, we say our goodbyes and head our separate ways. Of course I head east toward Lamar. At the Yellowstone Picnic area I get my bear sighting - a grizzly!

I join the small group in the pullout and Layla's great eye reveals a large golden bear with red ear tags just to the right of a tall spruce tree, tugging at what looks to me to be the remains of an elk. I ask around but no-one here knows whether the bear made a kill or came upon a carcass, although I speculate that wolves may have brought the animal down. No-one really cares because the sighting is relatively close and yet safe. Several other visitors pull over and we happily share our scopes, to a general chorus of "ahhh" and "oooh" delight.

After a while I head on into Little America, delighted to see so much snow and melt-water. There is such rugged beauty here that it takes my breath away. I had made a promise to a Loon friend that I would help him pin-point the spot where I saw two cougars in October a few years ago, so I stop at Boulder pullout and take several photos. At first it is very hard to recognize the spot as it looks quite different under spring snow but eventually I am able to recall enough and figure it out. I make a drawing in my notebook as well, with accompanying notes.

I head further east and again find certain spots where the snow-banks rise above my head. I pull in at Slough Creek and see a lone scoper who looks familiar. It's Elli, a wolfer from Germany. We say hello and begin to scope together. We focus on the Slough den area, both hoping to be the first to see the emergence of puppies. We both know some of the Slough's history and we have reason to believe they have tiny mouths to feed this year. As the days lengthen, we know the pups will soon appear.

Elli convinces me to head up Dave's Hill, despite the fact that there is still heavy snow all over. We sink repeatedly, sometimes up to our hips, but we finally manage to find the trail and make our way up, happily finding a snow-free area at the top on which to set our scopes. We scope for about a hour, braving a stiff wind. But the den area is mysteriously quiet and seemingly wolf-free. After about a half-hour Elli hears a lone howl. We both try hard to find the howler, scoping every inch of the area. About 10 minutes later, I suddenly catch movement - aha! Quite a bit to the east of the den area, a black wolf trots, head low, moving downhill as if following a path, heading toward a grove of aspen. It is only visible for a minute or two. It seems to me that this wolf is limping slightly, although that may be an illusion caused by the wolf frequently breaking through the snow. From this distance, without knowing the wolf's identity, it's impossible to tell.

Unfortunately the wolf disappears before Elli can spot it, but she calls it in, and it is received as good news because no one has seen any Slough activity near the den for several days, and people are beginning to worry that the presumed puppies have either been moved elsewhere, or, worse, have not survived. Wolfers can't help being mildly paranoid ever since 2006, when the Unknown pack showed up and radically altered the Slough's reproductive history.

As it turns out, this is the only wolf seen in Slough territory today.

From this lookout, we also see bison, a few elk, two red-tailed hawks and several geese. And a great deal of late-winter beauty. But the wind is insistent and I am not yet immune to it. So Elli and I agree to head back down to our cars.

I thoroughly enjoy my first view of Lamar Valley - it is austere and wonderfully open and "empty". The valley is an ocean of white. It's is hard even to find the line of the river, as much of it is still frozen with a coverlet of snow.

As I pass Coyote I am distracted by movement in the sky. It looks like two hawks fighting over something in the hawk's claws. Then suddenly a larger bird swoops down and snatches the morsel from the hawk - it's a bald eagle! Whoa! Amazing. The hawk that was robbed lands on the ground and stares upward, wondering how that happened?

At Mid-point I see my first bison calves, in their cute orangeness, standing uncertainly next to their wooly brown moms and a group of aunts and cousins. I stop to watch a while, enjoying the chance to just sit and relax.

At the Footbridge I see several friendly faces - Laurie, Bob and Anne but their scopes are not out so I know there are no Druids in view. I stop to say hello and catch up on the latest news. It's gotten cold again and I note that all my friends are in their full winter gear, despite the fact that it is nearly the end of April. The weather this winter has been like "old times" and needless to say, very good for the overall ecology of the Park, athough admittedly harsh on the ungulates.

After a bit more visiting and many comforting gazes at the familiar view from Footbridge I head back west, to Mammoth. The sky deepens from pink to purple as I as make my way through the ever-changing beauty of my favorite place on earth. Ahhhhh, Yellowstone, you are such a healer.

Soon I am drifting off to dreamland after a wonderful first day in Parkadise.

Today I saw: antelope, 1 grizzly bear, bison (including 2 bison calves), a chipmunk, 2 coyotes, 4 sandhill cranes, mule deer, elk, a bald eagle, geese, 3 red tailed hawks, 6 osprey, 4 bighorn sheep, 1 black Slough wolf, 1 Loon, 4 wolfers and the spirit of Allison.




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