DAY ONE - Tuesday, December 23

THE CHRISTMAS BEAR

I wake to see a good six to eight inches of new snow on top of the foot already fallen in Bozeman. The temperature gauge reads 3 degrees at 8:30AM.

Last evening I had a nice dinner with Ballpark Frank and now I am ready to begin my Yellowstone adventure. But I'm not going over Bozeman Pass: I'm taking Trail Creek Road. I have a sturdy gray-blue Forester (which I've named Fredricka) and I am good to go.

Along the Interstate I pass a bald eagle perched on a fence. Traffic is light and the pavement is treated but far from clear. There are patches of packed snow and ice in the left lane, but this does not deter local drivers. They pass me as I creep along at 45 in the right lane.

But soon I reach the relative safety of Trail Creek road. It has been plowed, similar to how Yellowstone's roads are in winter, so it is perfectly fine to drive on, especially since traffic is nearly non-existent. To me, the only real disadvantatge to this road is the ruts, which make it quite bumpy at speeds over 20mph. But in winter, the snowfall covers the ruts and evens them out, leaving the road smooth as silk.

The countryside is gorgeous under the snow cover and the air is clear and invigorating!

I see a golden eagle alight on a fence post. Hmm, wonder if there is something edible hidden in the willows below that fence?

A light slow continues to fall as I drive and admire the rural beauty. Three horses in their thick winter coats stop their munching to eyeball me as I roll past.

When I reach Highway 89 I find that, unlike other years, it still has a good deal of packed snow on its surface, along with a lot of ice. The amount of falling snow has increased, too, so I make very poor time through this last 40 miles. But thankfully, there is very little traffic. I see my first elk and mule deer herds as I near the Devil's Slide area. I reach the Yellowstone Village at 11:30AM and find my room conveniently ready, so I offload a bunch of stuff, plug in my laptop, call my NY office one last time and then head off to the Park.

It's become so foggy that I cannot see the top of Mt. Everts. I stop at Mammoth and have my traditional visit with Allison - this time indoors. I sit in a comfy chair before the fire in the lobby, close my eyes and think of her and what she means to me. It always makes me feel better and get's me fully in the mood to enjoy the Park.

After this I head upstairs to see if I can find Mark R. Thanks to some friendly employees I do find him in his own office and we have a nice visit. Mark now has a window, something he has always wanted, and it offers an appropriately lovely view of Kite Hill.

We catch up and he gives me some tips on the latest animal sightings, then sends me on my way. There are Elk in Mammoth on both sides of the road as I head down to the high bridge, including one nice spike bull that I especially like. The snow level is pretty impressive for Mammoth.

As I reach the Frog Rock I see a familiar car and driver and stop in the road to chat with Kathie L. She gives me the skinny on wolf activity today (hardly anything) but suggests I head on to see the Christmas Bear, who, amazingly, is still in view.

Mark R told me about this bear. Either he was not yet in hibernation or had been woken out of it, but he was first seen two days ago, having commandeered a fresh elk carcass that 302's group had taken down in the Phantom Lake area. I had enjoyed hearing about it, but thought surely the bear would be gone by the time I arrived. But now, encouraged by Kathie's news I continue east.

As I head downhill for my first view of Phantom Lake I see a coyote feeding on something and a guy out of his Jeep taking photos of it. Aha! This must be what Kathie meant. But I see no bear, just this one coyote, tugging at what's left of an elk, along with some ravens and magpies.

As I pass the guy with the Jeep I ask if he has seen a bear on this carcass and tell him what I've heard. He says no, so I figure I am too late after all. But I park in the pullout and set up Layla. The coyote is close enough that through my scope I can see the saliva on his teeth! The Jeep guy moves on and I find a second coyote above the road, curled in a tight ball. The feeding coyote has had enough of frozen meat and trots across the snow-covered lake bed, crosses the road and heads up the hill. The sleeping coyote lifts its head, aware of the other, then lowers it to snooze again.

I head east myself, hoping to get to Lamar before I lose the light. But as I top the winding hill above Phantom Lake, I see a sudden traffic jam - well, a parking jam I should say. About six cars and trucks are squeezed into a lot on the right, and there are photographers on both sides of the road, looking northeast. Aha!

I have found the Christmas Bear!

Everyone is watching a large, dark-brown grizzly, nose down on what's left of an elk. In an area of trampled- down snow is a circle of brown, made of disturbed earth and left-over hide. At the left of the brown circle is the bear, moving slowing and chomping on bits of pink and white - the frozen bones and remaining flesh of the carcass. There is also an ever-changing circle of flitting black birds, diving here and there to snatch a morsel not noticed by the bear.

Behind the bear, on a snowy hilltop, rests a coyote sentry, curled against the chilly air.

I see Bob L with his camera on a low hill to the south. I set up Layla and begin my visit with the Christmas Bear. He stands broadside at the western end of the brown spot, scraping up earth and dry grass, that reminds me of the straw one sees in a Christmas Creche. The bear's head is down and his pawing is relentless but sluggish, as if he's on auto-pilot. He lifts his head and steps on the carcass, then sort of slowly crumples atop it, stretching his head forward and closing his beady eyes.

In a few minutes he is up again, gives me his round behind and continues to scrape earth and grass over the remains. I now see he is not scraping for underlying food, but to pad his "mattress". After another lethargic scraping session, in which I get ample views of his enormous and useful claws, he sacks out again, this time staying asleep.

I scan the remains and find several sections of bone, still pink with meat, and several hunks of hide that still seem plump with potential nourishment. However, the whole thing is stiff as can be, quite frozen, viewed through a light veil of falling snow, thick enough to obscure the nearby slopes.

The Jeep guy is here and he grins at me, acknowledging the superiority of this sighting over the carcass we saw further west. He introduces himself as Mike.

As the bear is asleep, I take the opportunity to chat with Bob L and to distribute some of the Christmas treats I brought, just for moments like this. The sentry coyote gets up for a quick walkabout and I notice he has a sore front paw. Bob thinks he may have been hit by a car earlier in the year. He tells me wolf sightings have been pretty sporadic lately.

The bear rouses himself again for a short while. He looks straight in my direction and I see his brown face straight on. I am always surprised by the relative small size of bears eyes. He sniffs and chuffs and then his head droops again. He's out!

Rick drives slowly by so I decide to head east to hook up with him. I pull in next to him at Elk Creek and we have a nice visit. He gives me another update and a radio. Yay! I am unit 53. There are quite a few elk visible here, at least in the areas that are visible. Usually I can see Junction Lake from here, but this afternoon it's just a wash of white, with only the haziest suggestion of ridges to the north east.

But as it is my first day, I don't find it discouraging and I am fully under the spell of the Park's winter beauty. After watching a few bison down in Yancy's Hole I pack up and continue east. The temperature has risen to a toasty 10 degrees!

At Tower I see two more coyotes in the road and another pair of the wily critters just past Junction Butte, feeding on what looks to me like a very old carcass. I reflect that I saw almost NO coyotes in September, nor any elk, and already on this trip I have seen good numbers of both.

There is a sizeable bison herd on a slope below Specimen Ridge (the one with the trail in the center) and I see small herds of elk on pretty much every hillside that is not obscured by snowfall. I continue through Little America, determined to make it Lamar before turning around. I plan to look for otters in Lamar Canyon, but when I find the pullouts are not yet plowed I decide to leave that to another day.

My first view of Lamar is as wonderful as ever - it always seems to me that the orchestra in my heart swells to an emotional high as I make the turn at the end of the canyon and those gently rounded, but awesomely high bare slopes first appear.

I notice a track of gouged-out snow near the B & B pullout where someone ran off the road, but this fails to make a big enough impression on me - as you will see later. I stop at Dorothy's for a scan of the area. I find elk on the northern hills and three brave elk in the flats below along with a good number of bison. What a change from the old days of big elk herds in this snow-covered valley! Clearly, the Druids (and other wolves) have completed one of the most successful re-education programs ever undertaken on the elk of Lamar.

I would rate the amount of snow on the ground to perhaps a late-October level and I hope, for the Park's sake, that snowfall levels will increase before lone (and I had no idea how prophetic this thought was to be!)

It is now after 4PM so I decide to head back. I hope to reach Gardiner by 6 so I'll still have time for dinner in my room and to post a qwik report to the Loon website. I see another coyote in the road in Lamar Canyon, a very petite animal, (perhaps a yearling female?), bringing my total for the day to 10!

Somehow, the limited visibility in Little America only serves to make the view all the more lovely and I muse to myself that going wolfless on my first half-day with such bad visibility is not the end of the world. No sooner do I have this thought than I see brake lights up ahead. The only other car in the valley has stopped in the road. I stop, too, and THERE! Black wolf in the flats to the north.

The wolf is heading for the road, wanting to cross, but wary of the stopped car. Then, to my amazement and delight, the the car backs up, thus giving the wolf more space. I applaud the car's driver. Good move!

I check my watch: 4:31. I want to be able to describe this wolf to Rick tomorrow. It's gorgeous, very black, no collar, with a graceful build. Then I notice lighter coloring on the muzzle and some creamy lighter color on the belly and inside flanks of its rear legs. The wolf quickly cross and disappears into the camoflauge on the south side.

Woo hoo! I've seen a wolf! I scan the area to the south but do not see the wolf emerge, so I put Layla back inside and drive slowly forward to share the sighting with the people ahead of me. Thus I meet Juliet and Phil. I thank them for helping me see a wolf today and compliment them for backing up so the wolf could cross, saying that few Yellowstone visitors would realize that's the right thing to do.

Juliet & Phil caught one glance of the wolf on the south side, heading toward Specimen Ridge, but I don't see it again. Content with this sighting, I head slowly back west, continuing to see many elk along the way. I stop for another glimpse of the Christmas Bear, this time with only two cars for company, and enjoy the gift of this close sighting. The bear is awake again, feeding on the frozen remains. What strong teeth he must have!

As I descend the curves down to Phantom Lake I remember, as I always do, my very first wolf sighting, way back in 1998, and that first astonishing impression of their long, long, legs. But tonight there are elk here, in the basin and on the hills on both sides. Even with what's left of a deceased relative at the western end, elk are feeding here. I find more elk feeding in Gardner Canyon on my way down from Mammoth. Then to my surprise, my cell phone rings! It's Becky and Chloe, who have arrived from Missoula, asking me to meet them for dinner.

I do so at The Mine, our favorite spot. We have a great reunion and I hear about their amazing wolf sighting right in Mammoth! Right about when I was seeing my lone wolf in Little America, they saw four wolves cross the road about half-way between the high bridge and the chapel. Three grays and one black, most likely the Canyon Pack. We take it as a sign of good wolf sightings to come.

My first day in Yellowstone has been delightful. Now we'll see what tomorrow may bring!

Today I saw: 1 grizzly bear, bison, 10 coyotes, mule deer, 1 bald eagle, 1 golden eagle, elk, 1 black wolf, 3 Loons and the spirit of Allison.




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