Itís darker than usual on my drive out since I got up extra early. My mantra is ďIíll sleep on the planeĒ.
I stop at Blacktail below the S curves to enjoy the quiet. I breathe in lung-fulls of air, in hopes that I can somehow make it stay with me.
At Slough I meet Jan, Bill, Rick and Jackson John and follow them up Daveís Hill. Two coyotes run through the sage to my right, very close!
Once Iím set up I see that the Sloughs are also up early. Five or six adults are already in rally mode, tails a-wagging, muzzles a-licking. The alphas set off east. The gray-faced female takes the lead and her big black mate 490M follows, as well as 377M, the big grey. Behind these three comes another gray and another black. A third gray, a yearling, remains at the sage den.
The alpha female moves at a determined trot and the rest follow her in a loosely-regimented line, as I have seen wolves do, time and time again. She approaches a resting bison, moves behind it and the bison stands up. She stops a moment as if considering whether or not to put this animal on todayís agenda, then moves on. She moves toward the river and slightly to the east. When she hits the flats she starts to run, then she slows down again for the last slope above the river. At the edge of the water she moves back and forth choosing a spot to cross, then abruptly steps in. The water comes up to just above her belly. She doesn't really swim, she wades across. She reaches a gravel-bar-island and moves slightly upstream along it, then wades across the next channel.
When she reaches the far shore I notice for the first time that both her front paws are white! I canít imagine why I never noticed this distinction before, except that the grass or sage must always have hidden it, or I was too busy watching her face.
She lopes through the sage, increasing her speed as she nears the empty campground road. She zips across then disappears into some trees. I turn back to watch the others. They dutifully follow the route she took and I notice how each seems to sprint across the road when his/her turn comes. They follow her into the trees and disappear.
Then we hear an exquisite sound coming from the trees where the Sloughs are. Howling. And we hear answering howls from the den! Suddenly I see three more wolves, two blacks and a gray, bounding downhill to answer the summons. These three follow the very same track taken by the alphas. I enjoy watching these three ford the river.
Once these three have joined the original five, Rick predicts the Pack is very likely going to Lamar via the Secret Passage. Jan tells me they take this trail fairly often and she grins when she says it. I look at my watch and see I have at least two hours yet. I would dearly love to see these wolves chase elk. John from Jackson says he would, too. So I bid my wolfer buds adieu and thank them for all their help. Then John and I pack up and head down the hill.
We drive through the canyon and I smile broadly as I enter the beautiful valley. We skip Fishermanís and get set up at the first high pullout (some call it Coyote Overlook but I call it B & B). I bet John that I know where the Sloughs are going to show up and I point to the ridge above Fishermanís pullout where I saw them appear at Christmastime with Chloe and Becky.
There are some bear guys here. They are so cool and laconic, never chatty with those they don't yet know. But they are superb spotters and always helpful when they have something good in view. What they have at the moment is a lone black yearling on the Jasper Bench. Oh, and a grizzly bear.
The young wolf is having a joyful morning romp. His attitude is so casual and confident I suspect that he may be a Slough Creek wolf. Others say he is more likely one of U-Black's group. I never find out which but he makes for a memorable sighting. I watch him lope jauntily along the bench, carefree and happy. He meets up with the grizzly. First he passes the bear, then circles it, then charges it, only to get charged in return. He easily avoids the bruin and heads back for more. The two animals repeat this charge and chase a few times and it really looks like the wolf just wants someone to play with. He never makes contact. The bear is not in the mood, though, for whatever reason. Finally the bear heads uphill and the wolf stands there, watching it go.
Next the wolf approaches some elk. They alert and bunch in response. One courageous cow comes out of the group to challenge the wolf. She charges him and the wolf flees. Then she turns on the juice and makes him really run. The wolfís tail is never tucked, though, as if to him itís still just a game.
The elk finally breaks off her chase and prances back to the herd with her head held high. Then two other cows from that bunch go after the wolf. This is more serious and the wolf gets the message. He runs further west and this time his tail is tucked. When the elk finally stop, I see the wolf turn, stand and watch them go, as if to say "whatís the big deal? I just wanted to play".
Now these two elk turn on the bear. The bear wants no trouble and gets the heck outta there. These elk are really feisty and I wonder if they may be pregnant females?
I hear a report over the radio that the Druids are not in the valley today, although they were seen yesterday afternoon, while I was on my hike. Iím sorry I missed them (but not sorry I went hiking) and I am always glad to hear news of them. Then we hear that the Sloughs are on their way.
I point Layla toward the ridge opposite Fishermanís and a little to the right. I see some running elk. Oh, boy. Any minute now! I scan the few trees on the ridge and suddenly THERE! A black wolf pops out on the ridge, big as life. This is gorgeous 490M, the big black alpha male. THERE! The alpha female appears. THERE, THERE and THERE! Five Slough Creek wolves pose on the ridge. The first wave has arrived!
The wolves move along the ridge in classic hunting formation, single file, in and out of sight as they progress steadily east; down a bit, up a bit, behind trees, in front of boulders, then disappearing into hollows. Once when they are out of sight, John calls out grizzly! And there on the next ridge above the wolves is a nice big bear. He moves through the sage, nose to the ground, and the just-risen sun outlines him in gold. Wow! What a sight!
Then I get distracted by all the moving elk. Everywhere I look I see small, nervously bunched groups, standing stiffly, trying to decide which direction is safe. They want to know where those wolves are even more than we do! The valley is electric with the news: The Sloughs are coming!
Then the wolves re-appear running across a green bowl between two ridges. The three late arrivals have caught up and I have a perfect view to watch all eight cross the open terrain. When the last one goes out of sight I scan ahead and see more elk bunching, running, on the verge of panic.
Then I hear a lone howl. It seems to be coming from the green bowl. It is long and mournful and we speculate that perhaps a ninth Slough wolf was left behind. I hear the howl three more times but never spot the wolf. Then it is silent again. Well, silent except for all the meadowlarks and piping squirrels!
Eventually we hear that the Sloughs are behind the Institute, so it's now time to move. I check my watch and see I have a half-hour left. I head east but find no room at the In..stitute. I end up using the same pullout as Chloe, Becky and I used at Christmastime. Anne is here, with numerous others.
All over the hills we see nervous elk. Three of them trot around to the front of the hill, and I wonder if they think they are safer closer to the road? Then I see movement on one of the back hills and get a very brief glimpse of a running black wolf there. This turns out to be my last wolf spot for the day.
Well, I have finally run out of time so reluctantly I pack up Layla, hand over my radio to Anne and bid her goodbye till next time. I head west through my beloved valley, grateful for such a rich sighting on my last day. I pull in at the Institute to say goodbye to John from Jackson. We have a hug and I wish him well for the rest of the summer.
I sing farewell to all my favorite spots as I drive out. Then at Undine Falls I notice a bird in the road. When I slow down the bird does not fly away nor does it speed up. This has GOT to be a grouse. They are notorious for being easy to catch on the ground.
It is somewhat shocking to see all the cars parked at Mammoth Hotel after a week of seeing it empty. As I pass the meadows next to Mammoth campground I see lots of elk grazing and I suddenly remember I forgot to say goodbye to Allison. I pull over right away and look up at her hill. Meadowlarks and other birds are singing. I tell Allison what a great trip Iíve had and how happy I am to have seen the Druids, the mysterious white wolves and the Slough Creek puppies, and especially this great last sighting this morning. I tell her ďsee you next time!ď and blow her a kiss. Then down the hill I go.
I drive Lexi out through the Arch, as is my last-day tradition, and thank the Yellowstone gods for another marvelous trip. I know Iím lucky but I think this trip was the luckiest of all.
And thatís only one reason I keep coming back.
Today I saw:
Antelope, 2 grizzly bears, bison, 2 coyotes, mule deer, elk, geese, a grouse in the road, 14 wolves (9 Slough Creek adults and 4 pups, and an unknown black yearling), 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison