The three of us head out around 6:30, into 11 degree cold.
As we wind our way down from Mammoth to the high bridge, a dry, top layer of snow drifts across the road, driven by gusts. It swirls and sails beautifully, obscuring and then revealing the pavement. We see two snowshoe hares but no wolves.
We stop at Undine and listen for howling but there is none. Snow falls more thickly and we watch a huge bull elk walk slowly uphill towards the road. He is a beauty. We see another bull in the Lava Creek area - so it looks like the Big Boys are back.
We stop at the Children's Fire Trail to listen for howling and to scope for the elusive 302. The wind makes it very difficult so we don't stay long.
I decide to stop to watch the Christmas Bear while Chloe and Becky drive on. Mr. Bear is active this morning, chewing on the remaining morsels and dragging/flopping the hide and bones all around. The little coyote is perched atop the hill waiting his turn.
The bear investigates what's left of the elk, concentrating on its head. I watch, fascinated as the bear tips the elk's skull upward. It no longer has has ears, lips, nor eyes. But it does have teeth which seem to grin ghoulishly, as the bear seems to make it rise from the dead. The bear puts the elk's muzzle in his mouth as if tasting it. He mouths the skull - could he crack it? Does he want the brains? But he drops the head and continues his examination. Next the bear grabs the still-furry neck and drags the carcass to the right, making the still-attached limbs flop and dangle like a gruesome puppet.
All this work wears him out and the bear finally flops down again for a nap.
I head east. Again I am delighted to see abundant elk all through the Blacktail. I hook up with Chloe and Becky again at Hellroaring. There is a new carcass visible below, likely felled by 527's group, but we do not find her or her wolf pals this morning. I do see two coyotes, one chasing the other, and lots of birds, including a golden and a bald.
I drive on to Elk Creek and scope from here. I am so eager to catch a glimpse of 302 that I willingly freeze myself to do so! But he remains out of sight. Instead I find a welcome patch of blue sky but it soon disappears. It's almost 10AM and all of 12 degrees! I continue east past the Petrified Tree road and the large pullout on the left. Then I make a foolish mistake, taking my eyes off the road a little too long. Suddenly something is wrong -the car is moving funny. It takes a split second for me to realize my tire is off the road. Too late, I try to edge back but now I have two tires off the road. Luckily I am going very slowly so I just stop.
I'm headed slightly downhill, but the road itself is ice. I feel REALLY stupid because this was entirely preventable. I sit for a minute trying to figure out my next move. I have a radio, so I know I can summon help, but I wonder if I can get myself out of this. Before I have time to make a plan, a car from Yellowstone Adventures stops beside me. A nice man with several young passengers. He asks if I'm ok. Yes. Offers to help. Yes, please! First we dig away the snow from the tires. He has a shovel and I use a snowshoe. Then we gather sticks and branches to put under the tires for traction.
Alas, it doesn't work. I thank him and his passengers and tell him I will call my friends. I call Becky & Chloe and confess my stupidity. I go back to shovelling and wolf-watcher Barbara and her friends shows up. They offer to help. Barbara has a set of chains, which she carefully sets on the ground as a path for my tires.
Becky and Chloe arrive and assess the situation. Chloe asks for the keys. She hops in, guns it and ZIP, she's out. All four tires are on the road! Hooray!!!!!!! I do a Grateful Wendy dance in the road.
This only goes to show that an all-wheel drive vehicle is only as good as its all-wheel driver!
I can't thank Chloe enough, but I also thank Becky and Barbara and her friends, and the man from Yellowstone Adventures and his passengers and Kathie L and Cliff. There are some mighty good people who visit Yellowstone.
A little while later we get some welcome wolf news - Rick has found 527F and her group from Lower Hellroaring, and they are still in sight. So our caravan heads over there.
I have always liked this pullout but until today I have never seen wolves from here. Our sighting is far away but thanks to Layla, I am able to see 527F, the black former-Slough and her current group of four companions: the gray alpha male, a second gray and two other black wolves, walking up a steep, snow-covered hillside. They bed near a distinctive-looking conifer.
We have a nice visit with Rick and I learn that 527 was actually born a Druid, and is the daughter of 21 and 42! She became a Slough wolf when she reached maturity and was a stalwart Slough for several years. But eventually she earned the wrath of notoriously harsh Slough alpha female 380 and was driven out.
Luckily for her, she "met a nice guy", the big gray who is now her alpha male, and they found a way to stay out of trouble by sticking to the high slopes and drainages around Hellroaring. For a while another black wolf was often seen in their company, but never close enough or frequently enough to determine that wolf's sex. Then more recently two more wolves have been consistently seen keeping friendly company with 527F and it is likely that they are "cast-off" Slough wolves, since their appearance coincided with the disintegration of the remaining Slough Creek pack. But truly, we just don't know, and won't know until there is either some DNA testing or regular, close viewing.
As we are scoping, people drive by and stop to ask what we see. When we say "wolves" they pull in and we share our sighting. A lady looks through my scope and suddenly I see her face light up and she bursts into tears. I ask "is this the first wolf you ever saw?" She nods dabbing at her eyes. I put my arm around her and say "I know the feeling!"
A group of elk moves through the trees at the edge of the meadow - one group on the right and another on the left. I love seeing how they disappear between the trunks! Then another snow squall moves in and hides the wolves from view. It's still early so Chloe, Becky and I decide to head east in search of otters.
We stop at the confluence and look all over it for tracks. We find some at the western end, but they do not look fresh and they do not lead us to otters. Instead we are entertained by various dippers and lots of industrious ducks, and of course, the gorgeous views in all directions.
After a tasty snack we head back west. Other than a red wrecker pick up, we have the entire Lamar Valley to ourselves. As we are driving down the little hill from Slough the sun peeks out from the cloud long enough to bathe the area in a gorgeous golden light.
We stop at Lower Hellroaring and since visibility is a bit better than before, we get out long enough to check on 527F. Yep, she and her group are still bedded on the slope near the conifer. We also notice a beautiful young bull elk in the flats.
We head on and as we near the Yellowstone Picnic area, Chloe comes to stop ahead of me. I see why. A coyote sits on its haunches right in the middle of the road. We all watch it until a Ranger comes up and blares his siren at the wily animal. The coyote moves off but glances back at the Ranger as if to say "sheesh, man, chill out".
As we near the area where the Christmas Bear is, we see people all over the road on both sides. Ahhh, the bear has finally moved off and is probably heading for a nice, long hibernation. Welp, it makes me glad I stopped to watch him this morning.
We plan to stop at the Children's Fire Trail to scope for 302 but when we get there, we see we have to stop here whether we like it or not. Remember the red wrecker I mentioned? Well a Ranger is blocking traffic above the S Curves because a car has gone off the road below and the red wrecker is attempting to pull it out.
So we set up our scope and look to the south for our boy, 302. Unfortunately, the wind up here is so fierce that we turn around to scope to the north! We don't see a thing moving in either direction. Then the Ranger lifts the blockade and we head west again. The wind continues to blow and gust all the way back, making lovely white swirls that dance on the road in front of us.
We see three big bulls at Lava Creek. We end our day at the Dining Room in Mammoth where we have a delicious Christmas Eve meal. The room is so pretty and the season's decorations are tasteful and festive. And to top it off, we hear a rumor that around 11PM last night, people saw wovles right outside the hotel!
Merry Christmas to Allison, to all Loons and Lurkers!
Today I saw: 1 grizzly bear, bison, 4 coyotes, dippers, ducks, a bald eagle, 1 golden eagle, elk, 5 wolves (including 527 and four others), 2 Loons and the spirit of Allison