This may come as a shock to some of you, but I have no trouble popping out of bed at 4AM!
I pull on my jacket and tip-toe to the Inn's kitchenette. Oh yummy! I find hot coffee, a basket of fresh, firm apples and a jar of powdered sugar donuts. This is the only place I know that caters so well to a wolfer's schedule.
I walk outside to a friendly darkness full of twittering birds. What a nice greeting!
Lots of elk close to the road on the drive out, and a tiny little mouse scurries across the road below Undine.
First light arrives around 5:30, while I'm cruising the Blacktail Plateau. There are little pockets of mist but by 6AM it's clear and not-quite-dawn. When I pull into Slough I find only one other car here...Rick's.
By the time I have my pack ready several others have arrived. I hike up to Dave's Hill to join them and right away I'm greeted by John from Jackson Hole, whom I met at Christmas with Tonya. He is working in the Park this summer as a wolf-ambassador, a volunteer here to assist and educate people in spotting wolves. To keep from confusing him with John Uhler I'll call him "Jackson John".
I meet two other wolfers, Jan and Bill from Kansas, who say they know me from my trip reports. Now THAT is a compliment! I discover that they know lots of the same folk I do: Mark and Carol and Charles and Gerry, and of course, John Uhler.
The meandering curves of Slough Creek look especially gorgeous this early morning. The place is full of sound, mostly from birds: geese, sandhills, ducks, and, appropriately enough, a loon! There are lots of ungulates in view, elk, bison, pronghorn.
I don't see any activity at the den yet, the light is still pretty poor for me, for that far away. So I simply listen to the soft reports that pass between Jan and Bill and Rick. I begin to learn some of the terminology they use for the densite, “the eastern forest” (the group of conifers to the right of the den), “the lying meadow”, (a flat area with yellow grass below the "eastern forest"), and "the bow log", (a white, fallen tree-trunk that has an arched shape). I also learn how the look of such far-away terrain can change enormously, relative to the light.
A lone elk is grazing very near the den and seems downright nosy. I wonder if she has a grudge against the Sloughs for some deceased relative? Two adult wolves appear to be aware of her but their attitude is oh-so-casual. They move towards her and she moves toward them. Then one wolf starts to chase her. She takes the hint and gets away easily.
The morning gets brighter and prettier by the minute. I finally spot a pair of sand-hills that have been making all the noise. Then we hear a bunch of coyotes howling. They are close, probably just over the hill to our left in the sage but I never find them.
As the light grows, I begin to see a lot better but still seem to be missing the bulk of what is being reported. I keep hearing the others softly describing specific wolf activity at the den that I continue to miss completely. I begin to think my eyes are worse than I thought or, that Layla's optics have rusted or something.
Finally I say something to Jan and discover that I've been looking in the wrong place! I've not been off by much, but enough to make a difference at this distance. I've been scanning three of the four "holes" that I saw close to the bottom of the cliff. It turns out that the den is actually far to the left, between the branches of two of the three aspen. Once I concentrate on this area and in the fallen-timber area below it and to the right, I have much better luck! Suddenly I see puppies coming out of the den and rolling down the hill. Below them, two other puppies are wrestling.
I see puppies following an adult along a trail to the right of the den and then follow her down into the sage. And then I see my favorite sequence of the morning: an adult lowers his head, rear end up high and splays its front paws in a classic "let's play" stance. Two puppies respond by rushing toward the adult, wagging their tiny little tails and tumbling over each other. Oh! It's so cute!
Indeed there ARE better scopes than mine and certainly better eyes, but nothing beats looking in the right place!
Then someone calls out "grizzly". I find the bear well below the den, in the flats. He is standing stock still and looks oddly like a statue. To the left of him, facing him about five feet away, is a lone grey wolf. The wolf stands still, too, and I'll bet its growling. The two animals look like they are engaged in some kind of dialogue and I'll bet the language isn't very nice. Eventually the wolf relaxes and moves a bit. The bear responds by moving uphill but that's not what the wolf wants. It circles around and then the bear lunges! The wolf avoids him easily. Suddenly another wolf appears and now it's two against one. Both wolves become bolder and the bear more agitated. Another wolf shows up and still another. The bear runs west a few yards and the wolves chase it. The bear wheels and sits on its butt. The wolves stop. Now they play a dangerous game.
They all move different directions, confusing the bear until one darts in for a nip. Ouch! The bear spins and swipes. The wolf evades the claws. Now the bear really runs. Uphill and to the west. A fifth wolf comes in and the bear backs up into some rocks. The rocks protect his rear end while he faces the wolves with his teeth and claws. They are content to let him sit there a while. Two of the wolves bed while the other three mill around. Eventually they tire of this and one or two heads back to the den. The bear is finally released and ambles away with as much of his dignity as he can retain.
Wow. I remember seeing the Druids chase a bear out of the rendesvous area last summer but this was more intense.
Once things get back to normal I look around at the other people up here. I hear a woman with a German accent and ask her if she's Ellie? Yes, she is. I thank her for her great trip report. Gerry from Scotland sent it to me the day before I left. She is very nice and friendly; she leads a small group of German wolf-enthusiasts. I also meet a tall, gregarious man named Lou (Lew?) whose trip coincides exactly with mine. We end up running into each other one place or another the whole week.
I check to see what happened to the grizzly. It has climbed higher into the rocks and is now asleep on one, soaking up the sun. The light glints beautifully off his fur. If you didn't know he was there you would not recognize it as a bear. But it is!
Scoping so close to Rick pays all sorts of dividends. I learn the name for a behavior I've been seeing off and on all morning. It's "regurgitation display". Ahem: I see a black adult run towards a gray adult, tail wagging excitedly. The gray wolf tries to avoid the other by running away but the black one runs by his side, trying to lick its face. Then suddenly the gray wolf stops and lowers its head, then moves off, while the black wolf stops and lowers its head in the same spot. Although I don’t see anything come out of its mouth (ewww!), you can bet something did! In other words, the gray wolf had just returned from a meal he had had elsewhere (most likely a pack kill). The black wolf knows this, and since it had not been at the kill but instead dutifully babysitting at the den, he solicited the grey and successfully begged for a share.
There are four nursing mothers in the Slough Creek Pack and they are all present on this Mother's Day. In the course of this morning's viewing I see each mother wolf take a turn nursing her pups, each chooses a different place. One stands on the "porch" of the den and it is the sweetest thing to watch the pups gather beneath her. Once, when some pups had been playing in the sage for a while, I saw a mother wolf reach down and take one in her mouth and carry it back up the hill to the den.
All in all I see 8 pups this morning. Some are very dark and some are a lighter color that doesn't quite look gray to me but more brownish. Rick differentiates them as "black" and "light" and seems intent on counting them. I say to myself, when they are a little bigger, maybe they will roam into the area of short grass. THEN they will be easy to count!
I am always interested in what wolves I am seeing and, just as I knew I had to learn the "new Druids" I now want to learn the individuals of the Slough Creek Pack. The only one I recognize for sure is the alpha female. She’s one of the mothers, of course. I remember her very well from my Christmas trip. She is smallish with a skinny tail, with what seems to me as a very direct, no-nonsense style (this could be common to all alphas). She is black with a distinctive gray face. I ask Rick when this pack formed. He says it happened in the fall of 2002, by 217F, a Druid wolf from the 20-pup year, and a Mollie's pack wolf, 261M. Those two wolves later died and were replaced by other alphas. This year there are 15 pack members: four female adults, four male adults and 7 yearlings. And now pups!
I let Rick know that I remain a Druid fan and ask if he thinks there are any former Druids currently in this pack. He says yes, he thinks the alpha female is very likely a former Druid. This makes me beam! From my un-scientific viewpoint, she sure looks and acts like a daughter of 42F.
The other adults I see this morning are a limping gray (I think this was a yearling), the black mother called "stripe" (whose stripe I confess I only recognized once) and the black mother 380F, a wolf who once had a GPS collar that has since popped off. I also see the gray mother and a second gray yearling, 491M.
Other animal sightings this morning include many, many ground squirrels peeping about (I told you, they count!), a pair of Trumpeter Swans that fly noisily but gracefully overhead, and a bright red woodpecker working the trunk of one of the aspens right by the den. And yes, another marmot! I guess this is Marmot Week.
My last sighting of this rich morning session is of a gray wolf running across the flats south of the river. He reaches the water and swims/walks across. I love to see animals cross a river! He shakes off and heads through the willows and then uphill in the general direction of the other wolves. I lose him soon afterwards, but surely this is another Slough Creek wolf, heading home.
I know I’ll miss some action here this morning but I am going on a hike with Ballpark Frank and Roadie. So I say so long and head back to Lexi.
I arrive at the Blacktail Ponds trailhead and catch up on my notes from the morning. The day has warmed considerably but there is still a stiff breeze and I have learned to be prepared for Yellowstone's changeable weather. Then Ballpark arrives and we have a Loon hug and a merry meeting. He says Roadie can't go after all and neither can Pat. So it's just the two of us.
We yak and joke as we get our packs ready. I tell Frank about my expired bear spray and he solves the problem by handing me mdmatt's canister. Thanks Matt! Finally around 11AM we head out just as a bald-eagle soars by. A good omen I say.
Our hike today is improvisational. Frank wants to see if he can find a decent view of the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. I just hope it's not too much uphill. We stop along the the edge of the pond to look at the birdlife and I find the pretty cinnamon teal I saw yesterday. I see several yellow-headed blackbirds and hear their strange but lovely song. We also hear cranes but don't actually see them until we get higher on the hill.
I get winded pretty fast but we're not in a hurry and Frank gives me plenty of time to catch my breath. I recognize this trail as the one Gerry and I took several springs ago. But we soon leave that trail and simply head toward a high, red-streaked hilltop. A lone hiker comes up behind us and stops to chat. I think he says he moved to Bozeman recently from Chicago to work for the Predator Council. He spots a raptor flying overhead and identifies it as a Peregrine Falcon. Add that to my list!
Frank gives the guy tips about his route and we both continue on. The trail skirts a marsh and we see bison on the other side. (photo) We leave the trail and head up a draw to the right of the red-streaked hill. There are all sorts of fascinating things to see as we go: chert, obsidian, petrified wood, badger holes and various tracks and scat. We start to get some pretty impressive views, too, which adds to my overall understanding of the topography of the Park. I see the line of Blacktail Deer Creek which Gerry and I followed and I see how it curves and winds away into the distance. We see bison and spook a few elk and all the bears I see turn out to be rocks.
We begin a very steep climb and I start to get discouraged but once I get to the top I feel a keen sense of accomplishment. Frank’s foot dislodges a football-sized boulder which rolls down the wash we just came up, end over uneven end. A couple of times the rock pauses only to start rolling again until it finally drops into a deep hole. Apparently this was a comedian-rock. Now we head east and see a bare hilltop that just begs to be climbed for the view it promises. The wind is relentless but keeps me from getting overheated. I know I'm getting wind-burned, but whaddayagonnado?
The bare hilltop we climb does indeed offer a fine view. We can see the Yellowstone River and I can guess where Blacktail Creek drops into it. I never even knew the two waterways were connected! We can also see the Children's Fire trail from here and a huge snowfield that you can't see from the road. On that snow patch, crossing it, is a huge elk herd that you also can't see from the road. Behind us now are two hilltops that interest Frank a lot and probably if Roadie were along, he would have topped them, but I just can't. I start to whine and complain for lunch and a good long break.
And yet, Frank cajoles me into climbing one more hill, a rocky one to our right, which he promises will afford us a perfect lunch spot. But I'm glad I followed, because in doing this we came upon a secret hollow, a sweet little protected meadow with a little stream trickling through it. In fact, we have found a Bison Nursery. Everywhere we look we see bison calves lying flat-out asleep by their mothers’ sides, totally relaxed, really zonked. It reminds me of a scene in a Disney movie, Fantasia, I think, where all the little woodland creatures have drifted dreamily off to sleep with their mommies.
We do our best to climb our hill without disturbing them.
In the sky above the hollow a hawk rides thermals.
To his credit, Frank does find a perfect lunch spot and I settle onto a rock with a view. Far below us is the mighty Yellowstone, cutting through steep-sided, heavily forested hills. It is quite a beautiful view, all the more so for being one that hardly any of Yellowstone’s visitors ever see. One of the forested hillsides is slashed by steep skree slides. Below us in the river bed is a sand bar carved out over the decades and chock full of deadwood. And on the opposite shore is a wide meadow, a perfect campsite. (photo 1) (photo 2)
We have a leisurely lunch and yak about this and that. There is a small white flower blooming here which we are pretty sure is Spring Beauty. A red-squirrel scolds us from the safety of a huge Douglas fir. I see (and hear) a woodpecker and then notice an orange-colored bird flitting about. Frank says its a western tanager. That’s a first for me, too. Then suddenly I see a golden eagle soaring above the line of the river. It was HUGE! And golden. Definitely not a hawk. Wow.
We trade Jerky and gorp and I gulp a whole lot of water. And after our rest we decide to head back a different way. Although I’m tired I feel confident that I can climb again if I have to. Which is lucky, because, yes, I have to!
While we were having lunch, the bison and calves woke up and moved off. We see them on a nearby hill. So we hike through the far edge of the bison meadow and up the next hill. We pass an area of deadfall where I see a chipmunk scurrying.
When we top that hill we find ourselves further west than we meant to be. We are on a narrow ridge between two hilltops; the ground falls away sharply and steeply. We head to the left along a trusty bison trail and soon are moving through cool forest.
I nearly jump out of my boots as a grouse spooks in the branches overhead. Oy! Can‘t they do that more quietly? More red-squirrels scold us from these trees. Finally we emerge on a windy hilltop and see the red-streaked hill off to our right. This hillside contains a very unusual boulder that Frank and Roadie call Starship rock. It has some very weird orange spots and a huge weather crack on one side.
The day has turned warm and bright, with a typically Yellowstone deep-blue-sky and fat, puffy clouds.
We head down hill and soon see the marsh before us. We can hear the croaking of chorus frogs. On the very last downhill slope we see a Ranger vehicle zooming up the road with all its lights flashing. Hmm. Wonder what that's about.
We arrive at the cars and Frank offers his traditional post-hike gift of an ice-cold drink. Mmmmm! That tastes great! Since I have still not made contact with Tim and Betsy I am eager to call them. My phone gets no signal from here, though, so Frank suggests we head to Lava Creek. He’s found that to be a somewhat lucky spot.
And it is. I reach Betsy at home and find out that Tim is there, too. His clients bagged due to the rainy weather and so he left the Park yesterday before I got even arrived. At least, now I know why we never ran into each other! But it’s great to talk to them both and I learn that they are getting ready to buy some property to build on, even closer to Yellowstone than they are. Good luck, you two!
While I’m on the phone, another Ranger vehicle goes flashing by so Frank pulls out his scanner to see what’s up. It’s quite a story and people were still talking about it four days later.
Before we head to dinner we decide to drive over to Swan Lake Flats while there is still good light. I hope to see the grizzly sow with two cubs that hung out there last year. As I drive past the hotel I am again amazed to see the oddly empty parking lot. But when I get to Liberty Cap and see that lot empty as well, and all the empty boardwalks, I just have to stop to savor it. Frank grins because he sees Mammoth looking this empty quite often But it’s a first for me!
Once we get through the Golden Gate I see that winter is still hanging on, here. It's really lovely; lots of snow still clinging to the high peaks and many throw-rugs of snow on the flats. The lake is still 2/3rds frozen. Nevertheless, we see two swans, lots of ducks and a pair of nesting cranes. A raven starts to bother the cranes and one of them goes after the raven, taking wing for short, low lunges. Ravens are big but cranes are bigger and that wingspan is very impressive. The raven gets the message and flies off.
There are a few bison in the flats and some elk up high. While we scope, Frank tells me what he's heard on his scanner. Apparently a drunk driver rolled his pickup somewhere east of Cooke City and severely injured a passenger. The driver and a second passenger, both locals, walked home, apparently unharmed, or perhaps too drunk to feel it. The injured passenger was somehow transported west to the Exxon Station in Cooke City and was left there, shivering in a blanket, with apparent internal injuries, growing more hypothermic by the minute.
Frank starts to explain to me about NPS jurisdiction and emergencies but it has become very, very windy and hard to scope. And my feet are sore. So we pack up and go to the Park Street Grille.
We have a great dinner in a nearly deserted restaurant. The pasta dish I get is huge so I have them box up the leftovers for tomorrow. We talk about the Park, the NPS, bison, Loons and NYC. We make plans for the next hike and then go our separate ways.
I employ my usual post-hike therapy by sleeping with my feet raised high above my head. It works!
Today I saw:
Antelope, a grizzly bear, yellow-headed blackbirds, bison (and babies), 2 chipmunks, 6 sand-hill cranes, ducks, a bald eagle, a golden eagle, elk, a peregrine falcon, geese, a grouse, a hawk, a marmot, a mouse, a raven, ground squirrels, red squirrels, 4 swans, 1 western tanager, 1 cinnamon teal, 2 woodpeckers, 14 wolves (6 Slough Creek adults and 8 pups) 2 Loons and the spirit of Allison