I'm up and out by 5:30. It feels very warm and sure enough, the car confirms it's 45 degrees!
In the back of my mind I am hoping to see 302 today on my way through the Blacktail. But first I look for Canyons, driving slowly through Mammoth and all the areas I saw them at Christmas time. All is quiet. For the first time on this trip I miss having other people around. A few more pairs of eyes would sure help to find these dogs. I do see lots of elk, but none of them seem alerted in any way.
Three Big Boys are hanging out at Wraith Falls. In fact, right in the road. I slow down and they casually cross to the south. There are more elk on the move just west of Blacktail ponds a small herd of cows. I stop a while in case they are moving due to wolves, but see no evidence of it. As I drive up toward the S-curves a bison herd is silhouetted on a hill by the first glimmers of light.
There are elk in the Elk Bowl and a lone bison at Floating Island Lake, which, by the way, now has a rim of open water all around its edge. As I come down the hill just above Tower, two bison are walking up the road on the left side. One has a necklace of tangled vegetation dangling from his horn. I see elk in Tower Flats and in the meadow below Junction Lake. When I look the other way I see a herd of elk on the slope next to the Yellowstone Picnic area, on the hill where we were walking yesterday. All these elk seem to be calmly grazing.
If I am meant to see 302 then today would be the day for it, but he eludes me. I see no wolves or wolf sign all the way into Little America. There is a herd of pronghorn in Little America north of Long pullout. I hear Richard on the radio calling in a sighting. I join him at the big pullout west of the Lamar Bridge.
Once I get Layla set up I look where Richard is looking and see his amazing spot. A lone black wolf sits Sphinx-like, on a reddish rock outcropping all the way across the Lamar River to the north. Wow - how did he find that?
This lone black, whom consensus makes the Widower, is looking intently west. Hmmm, what is he looking at?Richard is smart enough to scan ahead and in a few seconds, calls out another sighting. Two more wolves, a black and a gray on the east slope of the Peregrine Hills.
I train my scope there and see them climbing up the steep slope. I see a collar on the gray and recognize her face. It's 472! And the black wolf is Big Blaze, her alpha male. We tell Rick we think they're Agates.
The alphas stop in the saddle between the two hills and the black stands like Rin Tin Tin looking over to the west. Then we see two more grays, High Sides M and 715F. This makes the full pack. They all look out towards the west and south, then move back our way and bed for a while. Then I watch 472 move toward the north and disappear among the rocks. Richard and I both notice birds flitting around the area and begin to suspect there is a carcass nearby.
Periodically I check on the Widower. He has moved from his original perch but is still on his rock. I suspect he knows whether or not there is a carcass but he's not made it obvious yet.
Then we see the Agates start to move down the hill. They start to run and when they disappear into what looks like a gully from here, I see birds rise up. Rick is at a different pullout, further to the west. He asks if we can see anything on the carcass but we can't even see a carcass! However, in a few more minutes we see the black come up the hill with something dark and meaty-looking in his mouth. He climbs to a perch and lies down to eat it. He chews on it a while, then caches it.
There is a pond of melted snow at the bottom of this hill which we can't see from here (it's visible to another group of wolfers who are also watching the Agates). They report that several of the Agates came down for a drink from that lake.
Now the other two grays come up the hill and begin to move through the rocks along the route taken earlier by 472. In no time they have all disappeared. I turn north to check on the Widower and catch him climbing down his rock from ledge to ledge. If I were writing the story, I would have him heading to the carcass next. I comment to Richard that he is a great-looking wolf, very graceful. I see one last hop and he disappears in sage.
Richard and I join Rick at Boulder Hill. From here we pick up the Agates again. They are now on the flat ground northwest of the Peregrines. 472 stands and looks straight at us a while, not exactly with affection. She then meanders back toward the hill and plops down for a rest. This is now the third day we have seen her in this area. Jan & Bill and I are now convinced that she no longer has pups to feed.
It makes us sad and we can't help but wonder what may have happened.
We see a coyote approaching the wolves through the sage, very cautiously. I hope he is careful! The other Agates mill around slowly with full bellies, then eventually bed down. We think there must be a carcass nearby but I never see it.
Jan & Bill say so long for the time being - they are meeting friends in Bozeman for the afternoon but will be back late and I will see them tomorrow. Rick tells me that Kira picked up 302's signal on the Blacktail this morning so he is probably near his pups' den area. That would at least explain why I had no sightings of him on my drive out.
Rick encourages me to follow him so I do. We stop at Hellroaring where he checks signals and scopes from his window mount, but the Cottonwoods are not in view. Next stop is the Children's Fire Trail, where Rick lets me listen as he tests the various frequencies of the Blacktail pack. I hear 302's "beep", quite loud and distinct, and also the beeps of two of the females, Alpha 693 and her sister, 692. He says this indicates they are all in the den vicinity.
We head out from the lot to a viewing spot in the sage, where we have a steady wind in our faces but can see a wide area where the Blacktail wolves are often spotted coming and going. You can't see the den from here, but you can see the surrounding area. Apparently, the den itself is in a forest, and even the plane has not spotted it yet.
Rick shows me the general area where 302 was born into the Leopold pack (in 2000) and we have a pleasant conversation about the significance of animal characters in various myths and what constitutes "good behavior" in a wild wolf compared to what humans might consider to be "heroic" or "cowardly". We see bison & pronghorn and watch a red-tail hovering in one spot above the sage. But we see no wolves.
Eventually Rick heads back east and I decide to go west and tour the interior of the Park.
At noon it's 54 degrees and I am headed west. Again I am struck by how empty the Park is at this time of year. I really love it for that! I wind up to the Golden Gate and stop at the big pullout to scan the raven nest and to get a look at an avalanche chute on Bunsen. It is VERY windy, and some of the gusts are downright scary.
At Swan Lake I see two sandhills and see a bald eagle soaring above the trees. I pass maybe four cars between here and Norris. The snow level in Swan Lake Flats is really high compared to the Northern Range and remains so all through Indian Creek. I check out several of the "look for moose" pullouts hoping I might be able to see tracks or trails through the snow. I do find a couple of nests on the water, perhaps beaver-lodges but more likely muskrat. I note their tracks going in and out.
As I approach Roaring Mountain I suddenly see cars stopped ahead of me. To the right is the little thermal creek where the water flows over bright-green grass. Well, on the other side of the road is a grizzly bear!
Two cars are pulled over and on is stopped in the road on the opposite side. A ranger is here, too. The bear is very close to the road and offers great views for photographers. I had heard about this bear this morning while watching Agates at Boulder. I figured it would be long gone by the time I drove through, but how happy I am to be wrong!
The bear is dilligently digging at something under the snow near the base of a conifer. It is anyone's guess what his nose tells him is under there. We see mostly dark earth being torn up by those prodigeous claws. I suppose it could be an old carcass or bones or even tubers. I take a few digiscoped shots for fun.
He moves behind the tree and finds a log which he begins to rip at. He licks up whatever he finds, insects, I guess! He is quite unperturbed by our presence and keeps focussed on his task. We do our part by trying to be quiet, talking in whispers, not getting too close. He turns broadside at one point and I see his hump quite distinctly, but I also notice he is not particularly fat. That is quite normal for a bear who has probably not been out of his den very long. He needs to gulp whatever food he can find and that's just what he is doing.
A couple next to me wonders, as I do, whether this might be a descendant of Bear 264? I never saw that famous sow but I believe this is the territory she used. And she was similarly unfazed by close human gawkers. It's a very lovely sighting.
Eventually I pack up and continue towards Norris. I am surprised when I pass Roaring Mountain. It seems to be asleep! There is almost NO steam rising from it. I wonder if this is normal for this time of year or if I am just passing it during a quiet phase? I drive on and find myself in awe of the beauty of the Twin Lakes. So much so that I can't resist stopping to take a photo, even though I have dozens already.
I drive through Norris and decide to scope in the big meadows along the Gibbon for any sign of wolves. I know the Canyons show up here sometimes and there may be remnants of the Gibbon Pack, too. Instead I find 100 geese and spend about 15 minutes watching a lone coyote go hunting.
Brother coyote is a small but very healthy-looking animal, trotting just at the edge of the tree line, heading for a meadow. I see it suddenly stop and listen, then gather itself for a pounce! Missed! But it digs furiously and comes up with a dark morsel. Chomp chomp chomp swallow.
The coyote trots on and crosses into the trees and approaches a small stream. I can't really see it but the coyote's behavior tells me it must be frozen. I watch him carefully place its front paws as if test the surface and it seems to spread it's paws as wide as possible. He seems to cross the area in slow motion, and then returns to his normal trot. Cool I see him stop and listen several times, cocking his head right and left before moving on. Finally I lose him in the brush.
The wind continues to blow quite fiercely and there is no question a storm is brewing. It looks like we will get snow before the day is out.
I head back to the four-way stop because I still have time to get to Canyon. I love the emptiness of the roads! It's just what I wanted!
The snow level increases, naturally, as I gain altitude crossing the pass to Canyon. As the view opens up again on the other side, I see a dark-gray southern sky, quite foreboding. The snow level in Canyon meadows is the highest yet. Boy, what a melt is going to occur once it starts for good. I drive across Chittenden Bridge and stop at Artist's Point. It is 2PM and mine is the second car in the lot!!!!
I park and walk toward the overlook but see there is quite a lot of slushy snow still on the pavement. Hmmm, don't think I want to risk sliding into the Canyon. So I find a perfectly good view of the falls through the trees from dry ground and snap my shot. The falls are stupendous as usual, with snow-covered ice on both sides.
When I get back to Raja, I find a raven waiting for me. Apparently he thinks I've come to give him food. I tell him he is mistaken and to please use his considerable intelligence to find himself some natural food. He cocks his head at me in what I imagine is an attempt to look cute. I tell him, nice try but it won't work. 8~)
I had hoped to get a glimpse of Hayden Valley but the road is closed beyond Chittenden Bridge. I look down the snow-covered lane and remember my mystical sighting of White Wolves. I think their ghosts still lope here with their raven escorts flapping above.
I start back to the Northern Range with the storm approaching. I get some soft sprinkles of rain as I head up Blanding Hill. For a while I run a gauntlet of suicidal robins, as they dart out from the banks and gullies beside the road and flit right in front of my car. I can only suppose they do this in search of insects disturbed by the passing of my vehicle.
The rain falls a bit harder and then turns to a slushy hail. Raja's wipers work very well, I'm happy to learn. Back to rain for a bit and then it stops entirely. The wind continues. As I approach the four-way stop I see 3 sandhills stalking the marshy meadows near Norris Ranger station.
To my surprise, the grizzly is still visible on my return trip, although not at the same convenient spot. He has moved far up a hill covered in new growth. The ranger is no longer here and several cars are parked haphazardly, not quite off the road. I nearly ram a car stopped just beyond the curve. That car moves when he sees I nearly hit him but there just isn't any safe place to pull over so I decide to keep going. I carefully thread my way through the obstacle course of bear lovers and continue on.
A bit further on I come to a stop. A tall lodgepole pine is down, fallen across the road, blocking both lanes. Well, the left lane is totally blocked. The right lane is passable only by using the muddy right shoulder. I wait for the car ahead of me to attempt passage. Hmm, success. I look to the left and see that this tree once stood at the river-side edge of the pullout. Most of its trunk now stretches the full width of the pullout and the highest branch stretches half-way across the right shoulder of the road.
I attempt passage myself and deliberately drive over the very top branches rather than risk the deep mud of the shoulder. I hearing the soft brush of needles against the side of my door. Once I'm past the fallen sentinel I get out to make sure I haven't scaped the paint. No. I drive on and soon see a pickup headed my direction. I flash my lights and wave them down. Its a young couple. They stop and I tell them about the tree ahead.
They thank me for the heads up and say they have a rope and will see if they can drag the tree out of the way. I tell them I will report it as soon as I get to Mammoth. And then I tell them about the grizzly. They laugh and say that's what they are headed to see!
With the wind we've been having, I'm not surprised to see a downed tree, although I suppose I would expect the dead ones to fall before the live ones. But I am no expert on trees!
On my way down through the Golden Gate and below the Hoo Doos, I notice the glint of many still-frozen lakes below. I reach Mammoth at 4PM and find it still warm, 54.
I am almost past the Albright Center when I remember to stop and report the tree! Silly Wendy.
At the S curves I see a large herd of bison and a flock of blue-birds. In Little America I stop to watch the baby bison and see a third youngster has appeared. The herd crosses a shallow melt-water pond on the south side of the road. They splash through, as if they enjoy the sensation. I also love hearing them grunt and moo. The herd approaches the road and crosses en masse. One yearling mounts another, practicing I guess!
A cow walks down the road and I notice she has a weird front leg, as if her knee is blown out. Not sure what is wrong with it but it wobbles very strangely although she does put weight on it. Then I notice another injured bison, a yearling cow with a badly injured front leg. She hobbles along unable to put any weight on it. I wonder if it got broken in a car accident, poor thing. It's hard to watch.
As I head up to Lamar Canyon I see alerted elk in the bowl to the left. I stop to watch a while but see nothing chasing them. The elk go back to grazing. The waterfall in Lamar Canyon is pouring again, but not quite so raucously as that first time. And I swear the northern hills are starting to look green.
I am quite surprised to see that the snow in Lamar Valley is nearly all gone! Those elk might be coming here any day now!
It's nearly 6PM and I have all of Lamar Valley to myself on the windiest day in history. I have been noticing that some birds are having trouble flying! The sign at Trashcan seems to have blown down. Of course it could be from a bison scratching it, but I bet it's the wind.
I hook up with Rick at Hitching Post and learn that signals for 480 and 645 are good but their direction is a bit tricky to pin down. They could be north or south. I stop at Confluence to glass this spot and it starts to rain again.
I turn head back west and scope from Trash Can for a while, scanning the hills where we saw the Druids yesterday and every once in a while checking on the Cache Creek trail. The wind continues to blow and I keep a steadying hand on my scope!
At around 7:30 I get chilled and tell Rick I am about to abandon him. I stop again at Fisherman's to watch a pedestal bull cross the talus slope and a pronghorn parallelling the elk's route about 100 yards below it. The elk is a very large animal but it has only the barest beginnings of his new antlers. And he's all alone. I don't know how he could defend himself should he run into 480 or any group of hungry Druids.
In Little America I pass a large pronghorn herd - 18 strong - at Long pullout. And as I near Junction Butte I see the blackie is out again! This time he is on the north side of the road, very close, rooting in the scrub at the edge of the Butte meadow.
Two cars are here, watching happily and unobtrusively as he grazes and grubs. I watch a while, then move on and stop again to watch a large elk herd just above Wrecker pullout. I am so encouraged by the number of elk I have seen so far. It really puts the lie to what the wolf-haters love to say.
As I pass Phantom Lake, a ranger passes me, lights flashing. Hmm, hope no one is hurt! When I reach the Children's Fire Trail snow begins to fall. It is very light at first but I watch the temperature drop, knowing what is coming. It is dark by the time I get to Mammoth and Mt. Everts is swallowed up either in a snow or dust cloud kicked up by the wind. Perhaps both. The snow falls furiously now, streaking towards my windshield horizontally. Sometimes the snow blows upwards! Brights are actually a hindrance so I click them off. But the traffic is so light I can go as slowly as I want to, and I do!
By the time I reach the Entrance gate it's dropped to 31. Already the snow is beginning to accumulate. I reach the motel at 8:45 and I'm glad to hit the sack. Tomorrow is my last day.
Today I saw: 1 black bear, 1 grizzly bear, bison, Mountain blue birds, 5 sandhill cranes, 2 coyotes, 1 bald eagle, elk, geese, 1 red-tailed hawk, pronghorn, 1 raven, robins, 5 wolves from 2 packs: 4 Agates and 1 Widower, 5 wolfer buds and the spirit of Allison.