When I arrive at Slough this morning I find Jackson John already here with a large group to tend. He plans to go out to the promontory to show them wolf pups so I agree to join him.
Because there are a number of children in the group I lower my scope to make it easier for them to see. There are only three adult Slough wolves in view this morning and they are all bedded so it is a little harder than usual to see. But once the pups appear and do their usual romping near and below the den it is very satisfying to be able to show a whole lot of people what an active wolf den looks like. In addition, a black bear appears on the hill way above the den site and remains visible a long while in the trees up there. He is never a threat to the pups but fun to watch. And in the flats and meadows we see the usual elk, pronghorn, bison and geese.
I keep hearing reports of a new carcass in the Crystal Creek area, although no one knows whether it is the work of Agates or Sloughs (or even, possibly U-Blackís group). I scope the hills in that area and finally see ravens coming and going. Aha. Then I see a grizzly walking briskly in that direction from Lamar Canyon. I watch him a good long time as he moves in and out of a line of aspen. He is a big bear. I lose him behind a hill but see him again a minute or two later heading up the drainage, zeroing in on the spot where the ravens keep appearing. I lose him again but after a few more minutes a bunch of ravens burst out of that spot. I guess that bear found the carcass! I scan the area, figuring the bear may have flushed wolves off the carcass as well as ravens, but I donít see any.
I visit with Jan and Bill a while and a pair of coyotes trot right past us in the sage. Next, I head to Roosevelt to meet Ballpark Frank and Lurker Pat for our hike of the Garnet Hill Loop. I meet Pat in the parking lot. Itís so nice to meet another Loon! She is a delight and (as Ballpark told me) a very strong hiker. Pat and I share a similar dilemma: a lack of hiking buddies in our circle of friends. But we have both found our solution with the Loons, and especially Ballpark, and feel grateful to be able to continue to pursue an activity we enjoy so much.
After a leisurely time packing up, joking and chatting, we head out. Frank has planned for us to start at the trailhead sign, right where the road heads downhill to cross the Yellowstone bridge, and to finish by coming out along the Roosevelt Chuck Wagon road. I am excited to be hiking in this area because I know itís chock full of wolves. Very quickly we come upon the remains of a wolf kill; the scattered bones of a former elk.
The trail is a double track for a while which makes it easy to walk and talk. We get to a spot where a kind of marshy meadow opens to the left, and we hear frogs. We are looking at Yanceyís Hole, named for a hotel that once existed here. A trail leads through the meadow to an area now used for the Roosevelt Cookout. A small herd of bison and calves grazes at the bottom of the hill on the western side.
But Frank leads us north and up a hill through tough, woody sage and scattered rocks. Garnet Hill looms ahead of us, and the Yellowstone River corridor is to the right. We can see the road to Tower Junction, but there are few cars upon it at the moment. Then we move behind the eastern flank of Garnet Hill and the area feels instantly remote. The trail leads through open meadows and we can now hear the rushing sound of the Yellowstone far below to our right. We canít resist taking a peek at it and leave the trail to do so.
Itís a perfect day to hike. It is sunny but cool with a nice breeze at our backs. I can imagine this hike may be a little less pleasant in the heat of summer but we have no such concerns this early in the year.
Frank spots an antelope and we watch it a while. The animal is aware of us but remains in the area where we first saw it, roving back and forth. Frank speculates that it may have a fawn hidden in the sage. This is the right season for antelope calving but if she has one we donít see it.
We hike on and Frank tells Pat his Norris Bear story. Although Iíve heard it many times it remains one of my favorites, especially in the colorful way Frank tells it. After a while we see the end of the meadow looming ahead, and it is clear the trail will soon head downhill. Once we reach the trees the trail turns into gentle switch-backs and we are delighted to find the first of many wildflowers which will continue to appear throughout this portion of the hike.
We find beautiful Pasqueflowers, lavender on the outside and white on the inside, bright yellow buttercups and purple silky phacelia. I give my new camera a workout although you can see I still have a lot to learn. I did not expect to see any wildflowers this early in May. Pat reminds me that we are currently at a lower altitude than much of the rest of the Park. And with all this rain it looks like these flowers are just eager to bloom.
The trail continues to trend downward getting closer and closer to the river and we become eager to see it. This whole section of trail offers great diversity: many, many flowers and some really cool trees, weird rocks, shady areas and open meadows. Finally we leave the trail and head to the edge of the bank to enjoy the views. A bald eagle soars by and into the trees on the opposite bank. In the river below we see rocks that have been carved out over the eons into unusual shapes. They remind me of dinosaur bones. Across the river is a gravelly bank that looks like a perfect fording spot for animals. I notice an enormous amount of deadfall caught up on rocks in the river and lots more pushed up on either bank. The river is beautiful but mighty treacherous.
Pat and I begin to get very hungry, but we agree to postpone lunch until we get a bit further on. The trail winds through some interesting meadows and even more wildflower diversity, including hundreds of hot pink shooting stars, blue forget-me-nots and even a few yellow arrow-leaf balsam root. There are some huge Douglas fir trees down here, too, and branches with that bright green moss that isnít really moss.
Then the trail begins to wind upwards around the western flank of Garnet Hill. My pace slows a great deal in this section but my hiking companions are forgiving and I appreciate their patience. We are rewarded with the sight of a mountain blue bird which streaks past us and alights in a tree above the trail. We also hear and then see a pretty woodpecker, removing bugs from a dead snag. The terrain gets quite rocky and we begin to see chipmunks dashing here and there.
Frank picks a great lunch spot on a sloping hill above the Yellowstone, in view of Hellroaring Mountain. I enjoy eating my left-over steak and resting my tired legs. The view is great. Below us are a series of waterfalls and the roar is quite loud. Across the canyon we can see several trails and notice a couple walking along it, headed our way.
As usual, whenever I go hiking in Yellowstone, the immensity of the backcountry amazes me, and I gain a better understanding of the lay of the land, which drainage is connected to which and what lies on the backside of familiar mountains.
The couple we saw, a man and a lady from Denver, stop to chat a bit. They tell us they saw a grizzly right at the beginning of the trail (they came in the way we are going out) so we make a note to be on the lookout for it. We pass on some trail info and tip them off about the wildflowers to come.
Around 3pm we pack up and start off again. For a while the uphill persists. We have great views of the river canyon and the high mountains beyond but then we turn east to follow Elk Creek. There are lots of rock falls and we see marmots just about everywhere. If we donít see them, we hear them chirping and peeping to each other. They seem curious about us, and stare from their perches on sunny rocks.
The day has gotten warm and I am grateful when the trail enters the cool of timber again. The creek gurgles in its rocky gorge on our right and we pass scree cliffs of Garnet Hill, cool and shaded with conifers on our left. At one rest stop we notice what looks like an old telephone or telegraph pole leaning over in the stream bed, with wire and ceramic nodule still attached. We wish we had Roadie with us to date it and figure out its story.
Now the trail becomes more level. We are still gaining elevation, but more gradually. The trail weaves in and out of a massive jumble of boulders, which serves as a gigantic apartment complex for marmots. I really enjoy watching these cute and quirky animals. They scamper about this way and that, darting into holes and popping out again behind a bigger boulder. One particularly fat one rests on his belly on a sun-warmed rock, rear legs splayed behind him.
Next we reach a set of gorgeous little meadows, woodsy on both sides, where Elk Creek levels out to become a gently meandering stream. The sun streams in and I think of taking a swim! I do stop and soak my head, as I love to do in so many of Yellowstoneís streams. The water is crystal clear and feels oh-so-refreshing!
Pat soaks her bandana to achieve the same effect. I am very tempted to take off my boots and soak my feet, but in the end my wet hair cools me off enough. This spot is one of the loveliest areas Iíve ever seen on a trail and I intend to find out if camping is allowed here. I would love to wake up to the gurgling of this stream.
I should mention that we find tracks and scat along the trail from beginning to end, including several wolf prints and a half of a bear print (probably a black bear) along with many we assume are elk, deer, bison and coyote. We also find hoof prints from horses and some telltale remains of horse manure.
Then the woods-and-meadows area comes to the end and we see a wide, sunny meadow ahead. What could be an uncomfortable hike in hot sun is avoided by a very nice breeze. We are on the lookout for the grizzly bear we have been warned of, but see no sign of one. We encounter a few soggy areas and have to leave the trail to avoid them. There are a few little log bridges, some of which we notice too late, and others too sodden to be of use.
Then we see man-made buildings up ahead and find ourselves looking at the Roosevelt Cookout center. But, between us and those buildings lies Mad Marmot Meadow. Frank didnít tell us about this.
Now, Iíve seen plenty of marmots in jumbled rock areas, like at Sheepeater Cliffs and similar places. But I have never seen a marmot meadow before, nor have I see the type of wacky behavior exhibited by the enormous population of marmots in THIS meadow. Small dark shapes scamper everywhere we look. Hereís a marmot, thereís a marmot, every which whereís a marmot. And in addition to the rampant scampering, scurrying, popping up and popping down is a great whistling and chattering and peeping. And not only that but these marmots are behaving in abnormal ways. They seem to be in some kind of frenzy. Either we have just discovered Club Med for Single Marmots, or the Asylum for Maddened Marmots.
Besides all the dashing here and there, we see twosomes and threesomes squabbling and wrestling, rising on their hind legs as if boxing each other. And itís happening all over the place, not just with one or two individuals. Maybe weíve stumbled upon a Marmot Civil War. We keep walking and I keep staring at them in disbelief. I pull out my camera and catch one couple in the act. As we get closer we watch them begin to disappear down their hundreds of burrows. Then I notice something unusual about one of the burrow holes. In fact, I notice about six of them in a row, a very straight row, and we realize that they are old post-holes of what was once a man-made structure.
The marmots have sensibly converted these post holes for their use. But thatís the only sensible thing about them. While we are this close to the marmots, their squabbles continue, sometimes only five feet away, right at the entrance to their burrows. I see a few instances of what looks like ďmountingĒ but mostly I see squabbling. I come to the conclusion that marmots are animals who like to Make Love AND War. It sure is entertaining.
We examine the holes and try to decide whether this may have been part of the Yancey Hotel, or some more recently abandoned building. But I confess we are stumped and we find ourselves wishing we had Roadie or Tim A. here with us to help.
Eventually we move on to the cookout area. It is quite extensive, with lots of picnic tables, lots of cut stumps for sitting around a fire, a brand new pair of outhouses, and two locked storage cabins. None of us have been on the Roosevelt Cookout so we can only speculate about what is used for what. We explore the open-air kitchen and see it is a model of efficiency. We also discover a few secrets but I wonít give them away.
One of my favorite things here is a little stream that meanders along the edge of the camp, just a foot deep but clear and inviting. I know if I had come on this cookout as a little girl, it would have delighted me immensely, assuming I could manage to drag myself away from petting the horses.
At last we set off on the final leg of our hike but stop almost immediately at a wonderfully gruesome find. Itís another carcass with bones strewn about in wolf-fashion. But what is striking about this crime scene is a piece of its remaining hide. The still attached fur is definitely not bison and itís too dark for elk. Then Frank points out a remaining leg bone and a still intact hoof. The length alone confirms that this was a moose! Iíve never seen a moose kill before. You may judge our our conclusions for yourself
We set off on the last lap in high spirits, following the rutted wagon road. We figure the grizzly bear has moved off or that the people were hallucinating. Until we come around a bend and into view of the road. There are cars everywhere. People everywhere. They are looking through binocularsÖat us. We turn and look behind us, across the meadow to the north. There, ambling along the very trail we took at the beginning of our hike, is a bear. Aha, the grizzly. Except, the longer we look at him, the less he looks like a grizzly. He is fairly large, but once we see his rump-high silhouette and get a good glimpse of his nose we know heís a black bear.
We continue towards the road while the tourists run through the sage towards the bear. The bear is heading toward the road, and if they had stayed in their cars they could have driven to a spot with an excellent, safe view of him. But it is Saturday afternoon and a bright sunny day after weeks of rain.
When we get to our cars I pull out Layla to take a closer look at our bear. Yep, heís a very nice-looking cinnamon-phase black bear and not quite as big as he seemed when we were in the same meadow with him. This single bear creates one of the biggest bear jams I have ever seen. He makes steady progress toward the road and now begins to climb the hill above the river. Two pronghorn are spooked by the crowd and take off in their speedster fashion heading for the other side of the river. I donít think any of the tourists see them at all. A coyote trots behind the row of trash receptacles behind us but none of the tourists see him, either.
Pat and I thank Frank for the hike and I try to convince Pat to stay but she has a long drive ahead of her. So we have Loon hugs and off she goes in her cute little VW. We have about 2 hours of daylight left so Frank agrees to accompany me to Slough to check out the wolf activity. I leave my car here and ride with him. On our way through the bear jam we see two pronghorn, perhaps the same two, high on the cliff above the Yellowstone River bridge in a position worthy of bighorn sheep. I still donít think the tourists see them.
Anne and Betsy are at Boulder so we stop to visit. They say they are looking for a lone gray wolf that is supposed to be out here somewhere. Anne tells us she did see a pronghorn give birth! Betsy goes up on the hill to the south for a better view. I introduce Ballpark Frank to Anne and as expected, they get along great right away.
Then a herd of bison and calves close in around us, attempting to cross the road from south to north. Their soft grunting back and forth gets louder and louder, the closer they get to the road. Our cars offer some protection but it is a little disconcerting to find myself temporarily within a bison herd! The calves are extremely cute but alas, I forget to take pictures.
Once the bison move north Frank and I head to Slough. This is the first time he has seen the parking situation here and Iím glad he finds it humorous. We head up Daveís Hill and join the wolfers up here. I introduce Frank to Lou, Cathy, Jan and Bill.
We are rewarded with a nice evening sighting. We see the four Slough mothers and several pups. In fact, we witness what I think is the first time the pups have ventured into what we call the lying meadow, characterized by short grass. Finally it is easy to count the pups and I get an all-time high (for me) of 11. But the main thing I notice is the size discrepancy between the pups. One black pup in particular is twice the size of some of the others. And a few pups are really small. Rick explains that not all the pups were born the same day or even the same week. But Iím thinking that big black pup has learned a trick or two about getting food from adults!
Then suddenly someone calls out grizzly! I see it walking in from the right on a trail that leads to the eastern forest. Suddenly two wolves charge the bear and the bear gallops up an impossibly steep and landslide-y hill. I canít figure how the bear can balance his bulk on that hillside but there he is and there are the two wolves. Then the alpha female streaks up the hill to join the attack. The poor bear is cornered on a narrow ledge trail and I canít help but feel sorry for him.
Frank speculates that from the size of the bear in comparison to the wolves, he may be a two or three year old, out on his own for the first time without mom. Recalling my initial glimpse of him, he did look like he was minding his own business and just wandered into this hornetís nest of wolves. Oops!
Regardless of his intentions, the bear is stuck there now, with two wolves below him and the alpha female behind him. A fourth wolf appears on the left. I wish I could hear the noise they are all making. It looks mighty tense up there.
The late-appearing wolf drops back down to the den. Somehow the majority of the pups are now close by or inside the den, although I didnĎt see them move there. This is the third time in a week that I have seen wolves defend the pups against a grizzly. I consider it a privilege to be able to watch such dramatic behavior in this natural setting.
Then somehow, the animals work out a truce. Without bloodshed. Some signal is made and the wolves back off enough to let the poor bear go his way. He charges straight up hill. He seems relieved when he reaches the top. He looks back and I imagine he swears to steer clear of wolf dens for the rest of his life!
I watch the adults return home, where the pups come out to greet them. There is much nuzzling and licking and all is right with the Slough Creek PackĎs world again. What heroic mothers these pups have! And as is fitting for such a Hollywood ending, the sun sinks into the west.
Frank and I head west, hoping to still be able to have dinner before he begins his long drive back to Livingston. I suggest we try something new and we settle on the K-Bar. ItĎs a much more friendly place than I had imagined and we have a tasty pizza.
At last itís time for reluctant goodbyes. I hug Frank and wish him safe driving and thank him again for the great hike. Then I make my way back to the Inn. My feet are sore but not terribly so. Iíve had another superb day in the best place on earth.
Today I saw:
Antelope, 2 black bears, 2 grizzly bears, a mountain blue-bird, bison, chipmunks, 2 coyotes, a bald eagle, elk, geese, 40-50 marmots, ravens, ground squirrels, a woodpecker, 18 wolves (including the four Slough Creek mothers, three other adults and 11 pups), 3 Loons and the spirit of Allison.