Itís raining again!
I set off for my first venture into the middle section of the Park. I enjoy passing a deserted Mammoth and driving the winding passage through the Golden Gate. Snow flurries begin as I reach Swan Lake flats and by the time I reach Indian Creek it has begun to stick. Mine is the only car on the road and I enjoy seeing the tracks I leave. I see quite a few bison and elk on this drive but nothing out of the ordinary.
At Norris Junction I turn left and head to Canyon. I want to be in Hayden Valley by dawn, in hopes of seeing wolves and bears in that part of the Park. As I climb the pass the snow falls thicker and thicker. At this elevation the winter snow pack has not yet melted out. A good 2-3 feet still remains, tidied by this morningís coverlet. Visibility drops to about 10 feet. I see tire tracks that turn into the service-area. Someone drove from Canyon this morning but turned around here and headed back.
I stop at Grebe Lake pullout. I step outside the car in the dim light and enjoy how it feels to be so alone. I think of Robert Frostís poem:
At Canyon Junction I see heavy construction equipment waiting silently in front of the barrier blocking the road to Dunraven Pass. I turn right towards Hayden Valley.
As I crest the hill, a straight mile of road stretches like a sort of tunnel of white through the dark firs. At the far end of that tunnel I see two dark shapes side by side, running towards me. I press the brake pedal and slide slowly forward on the snow. The moving shapes donít stop or even slow down, but merely ease over to the empty left lane. Deer? Then I gasp. Wolves! I now can see their shaggy coats are white, or at least the lightest shade of gray Iíve ever seen. Above them fly two black birds.
Finally my tires grip and I come to a stop. With automatic movements I put the gearshift in park, grope for my camera and lower my window, as the wolves' approach plays out in slow motion. The leader is HUGE! As he lopes by, he turns his head and looks me full in the face, his gaze intense and direct. I smell him! I hear his panting breath and the soft pat-it-a-pat of his feet. Now the smaller one passes, also locking eyes with me, wolf yellow into human blue. Oh! That look!
Now they are past me, headed somewhere Iím not invited.
I see them in my side mirror, two white phantoms and their black winged companions. The wolves look back once, but only to dismiss me, as carelessly as they would a passing tree branch.
I wake from my trance and turn off the car, open the door and step onto the road. The wolves are still running, in the center of the road again. I snap a picture of their diminishing forms. here Then I snap another of their neat tracks, side by side in the snow-covered road. here
I lower the camera and just watch in disbelief as they cross the deserted intersection. They slow to a walk, then stop to sniff the ground in front of the parked construction vehicle. Then they turn left and disappear into the woods. Should I follow them? Part of me wants to. It would be easy to follow their tracks, But I quickly change my mind, realizing that it would be better to leave them alone. I feel shaky, as if visited by ghosts in the night. Whoa! I SMELLED a wolf! It was musty and a little stinky, like wet fur and earth. I canít get over how each of them nailed me with their gaze. I will never forget it.
I finally get back in the car. Through the windshield I see their tracks stretching out far in the distance. Where did these wolves come from? Were they on a carcass? Were they chased this way by other wolves? I start the car and head south, determined to following their tracks as far as they lead.
Itís great fun to do this. I lose them and find them a dozen times. I know they took a side trip at the horse corral and I nearly give up, but then, there they are again, a little further on. They took a side trip at Otter Creek and just when I think thatís it, no more tracks, I see them again! When I get into Hayden Valley itself, I find the snow on the road is already melting, making it much harder. I lose them for good at the Mary Mountain trail.
Itís good to see this beautiful Valley again, especially in a season Iíve never seen before. Winter holds on more fiercely here than in Lamar. There is still ice on the river and a lot of snow. The grass is still brown.
I stop to watch a small bison herd, clustered in a low spot with many ponds of melted snow. Some have a crust of ice on top, which is cracked and pocked with hoof-holes. The ones without ice have ducks swimming in them. One duck gets too close to a bison leg and the bison takes offense. The duck has to flap quickly to scramble out of the way.
There are a lot of calves here, too and I enjoy watching their antics. photo They romp and play and slosh through the water. One calf is hungry and wants to nurse. He bangs his nose up against mamaís underside until he finds the teat. She raises her leg each time he does this but I canít tell if that is meant as a protest or an assist.
I scope the valley from several pullouts, looking for wolves or bears or anything moving. I see mostly bird activity this morning. A bald eagle cruises by. Two crows ride a steady breeze rising from the valley. They hover together side by side and I wonder if Iím watching a mating ritual. About a mile down the road I see two hawks doing almost the same thing. But they go further. They rise higher and actually lock talons and spiral together for a short distance, then break apart. I watch them repeat this several times.
I also see a great blue heron in Alum Creek so I settle in to watch him. I pretty much have Hayden Valley to myself this morning. Iím happy to report that the re-paved road is a treat to drive on. I turn around at Mud Volcano and head back slowly, still thinking about my earlier sighting. By the time I get to Otter Creek the sun has erased all evidence of the swift passage of those two wild wolves.
My plan was to spend the whole day outside the Northern Range. But already I find myself homesick, yearning to be back in Lamar. I canít help it! I force myself to at least try my wolf luck in Gibbon Meadows and Elk Park. I scope the tree line and the flats in both places, looking for bird activity or any indication of wolves nearby. I find the area lovely to look at, but the wolves do not appear. I see elk, elk antlers and elk bones.
I check on the pikas but instead find more marmots! Three of them, in fact, sunning happily, looking at me like I just arrived from Mars. When I donít find wolves I decide to give in to my yearning and head back. I confess I do not stop at Norris Geyser basin and I hope my geyser-gazers friends will forgive me! I stop only one more time, in Willow Park, to enjoy the autumn-like colors still present in the willows. I look for moose as instructed, but find none.
As I near Mammoth I feel both hungry and sleepy so I decide to take care of both concerns. Iím too late for lunch at The Mine so instead I buy my first Helenís burger. Oh yeah! Just as good and sloppy as everyone says. I take it to go and head to the Inn. I have a short visit with John Uhler while he works and give him the print I bought for him and Carlene. Then I retreat to my room for my burger and my nap.
On my way back through Gardner Canyon I see three bighorn sheep coming up from a drink in the river. I also see a pregnant elk grazing at the edge of the road. I do miss seeing the elk calves! Then at Elk Creek I run into my first Tower Bear Jam. Itís a double! Two black bears, one cinnamon and the other black. They look full grown to me and are probably a courting pair, although they could be siblings. The cinnamon bear curls up to sleep at the base of a burnt tree while the black bear continues to roam the slope above. He (she) turns over logs and licks whatís underneath, then rips some bark from a tree and gobbles up whatever is on that.
I stay to watch them a while and Iím pleased to see that people are very well-behaved. Iím sure when the crowds start to grow things will be a bit different! I head on into Little America and run into another jam, one of the biggest IĎve ever seen. Just this side of the Aspen pullout is a long, long line of vehicles pulled off on the right. Cars, campers, pick-ups and vans. Between each vehicle is a tripod and a great big lens. Uh oh. What is this?
The cameras are pointed at a spot across the road about 100 yards out in the sage. Ahh, now I see. ItĎs a bison carcass, in fact, itís whatís left of the poor wounded cow. So she has finally succumbed. I wonder if she was brought down here and if someone caught that action on film? At the moment the only things feeding on the carcass are birds. Lots of them.
I try to find out if anyone knows how the carcass got here but between the unfamiliar faces and the blank stares I learn nothing. Oh well. Where do all these photographers come from? I have never seen so many. I suppose they are gathering in anticipation of what predators may arrive in the later hours.
I drive on to Lamar and find it dry and sunny for the very first time on this trip. And very windy! But, oh does it feel SO GOOD to be home! I sit at Dorothyís and soak up the view of my favorite place on earth.
After a while I head back to Slough. The wind is truly fierce and my face is already quite burned. So I walk down the campground road, looking for someplace out of the wind. I find it in the lee of a large glacial erratic. This big boulder protects me while a smaller one next to it serves as a seat. This is the view I have.
I set up Layla and get focused. Aha! The Sloughís sage den has become much easier to see, partly because I am getting more used to it, and partly because it has undergone a bit more excavation. In fact, the excavation is still going on. I watch the gray mother arrive and start to dig. Wow, can she make the dirt fly!
Pups are all over the place. They roll and tumble down the hill and explore all around the opening of the den. I try counting and get 9 this time. Then I notice one of the mothers, 380F, far to the right of the den area, standing on all fours, looking east rather intently. Hmmm. What does she see? Are the other Sloughs coming back from a hunt? She advances slowly, walking stiffly. Oh! Itís a bear. A grizzly!
Brave mother 380F faces it alone, head-on. The grizzly takes a stiff posture in response to 380, tense and threatening, and the wolf does the same, as they engage in a battle of wills.
The radio crackles as people tune into the latest Slough drama. Suddenly a second black wolf appears and joins 380 against the bear. Then another black, "Stripe" I think, and now a gray. Soon the bear is moving. It lunges past them and rushes downhill at an angle. This scares me because I think the pups are in exactly that direction. But Iím wrong. The wolves chase the bear until it suddenly wheels and sits SLAM on its butt. The wolves surround the bear, moving back and forth a few feet away from it.
There is no way this bear can win and he seems to know it. He just wants an opportunity to leave the area with some of his dignity still intact. Two of the wolves bed while the others remain standing. Then at some invisible signal, the wolves seem to release the bear and let him move again. He heads downhill, slowly, making sure he doesnít get bitten from behind. Eventually the bear turns back east and heads into a forest. Some elk in that area get worried but soon they calm down too. They seem to know the poor bear isnít after them, but just trying to find a way out of this crazy wolf neighborhood.
As the bear moves off, the wolves head back uphill. Then suddenly a big black wolf comes bounding down to greet the group. It's big 489M, who must have been napping in the western forest all this time. I watch a happy greeting and lots of tail-wagging. It looks as though the big guy is congratulating the smaller wolves on a job well done. If any of them wished that this sleeper had awakened a tad sooner, you couldn't read it in their body language. They seem happy to tell their tale and he seems happy to hear all about it. It's hard to watch such a scene without smiling.
Then I notice a gray wolf way over to the east. This is not the gray mother, but probably a yearling. He follows the route that the bear took and seems to be making sure itís gone and doesnít double back. Then this gray walks out to the edge of a rock and stands looking over the edge in a classic, Rin Tin Tin pose. The next thing I see is more wolves heading up from down below. The gray bounds down to meet them.
Two collared grays and a black wolf come up the hill. The foursome have a happy greeting and I imagine the gray tells them breathlessly how they just saved the pups from a grizzly! These four head to the den and have a second greeting with the other adult wolves. Itís just a happy, happy, pack of Sloughs Iím seeing this evening.
One of these arriving wolves is the alpha female. She sits on her haunches, with her head inside the den and her tail lying flat over the bulge of the porch. She might be regurgitating for the pups.
Now the light is beginning to fade so I pack up and head back to the parking lot. As I drive by the photo-circus I see a lone coyote having dinner. I wonder what else might come in to feed at this buffet? I resolve to be out here again, as early as I can.
Iím about to pass Curve pullout when I see Adrienne and Bob. They have three wolves bedded under the trees on the slope, two grays and a black. Nice! I canít see much in this light and they are resting anyway so I head in.
In the lobby of the Inn I see a tall man in a baseball cap leaning on the desk talking to John. He puts out his hand and says ďWendy, Iím Dave Parkerď. Wow! I am delighted to meet this Loon, one of the original posters on the Total Yellowstone Chat Page, which became the Total Yellowstone Loon Page. I find him to look exactly as I expected, except for one thing: heís younger than I thought! Dave says his wife Deb didnĎt come on this trip but that the two of them will finally be in the Park for the Loonion this year! We have a nice chat (too bad it wasnít longer!) and then I give him a Loon hug and bid him goodnight.
Today I saw:
Antelope, two black bears, a grizzly bear, bison, 2 coyotes, crows, ducks, 3 bald eagles, elk, 2 hawks, a great blue heron, 3 marmots, ravens, 3 bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, 22 wolves (the Hayden Pair, 8 adult Slough Creek wolves and 9 pups, and 3 Agates), 2 Loons and the spirit of Allison.