The air feels extra cold this morning as I walk into the pre-dawn day. I join Doug and Helen for breakfast in their cozy apartment before heading into the Interior for a look at Hayden Valley and Lake Yellowstone.
As we head toward the Golden Gate the temperature begins to drop. Although it's not yet dawn, I have a hunch we may get a clear day. We stop for a moment at the pullout nearest the spot where 302 died. I want to make sure I know where it is so I can visit it in the future. For those 302 fans out there, it's the first pullout on the west side of the road after you pass the service road. Ah, dear 302. Your life will be remembered and your legacy lives in on the Blacktail Plateau.
A light fog stays with us as we continue south and the temperature continues to fall. I notice beautiful frosty meadows on both sides of the road. At Norris Junction it's 1 degree above zero and as we climb the pass, a gorgeous golden dawn begins. It banishes the remaining horizon clouds and brings a clear day. With it, though, are the coldest temperatures yet - Greta's temperature gauge drops to zero and then below.
Dawn colors seep out: pale peach, muted gold, pale blue and lavender. We dip down as far as minus 9 before slowly climbing back to zero. But the promise of clear skies and bright sun makes me very happy. After so much cloudy weather and falling snow, I am ready for a sunny day, cold or not!
There are patches of snow and ice in the road in the forested sections. The banks of the Yellowstone River are frosted in winter magic and a sensuous steam rises from the water. Out of the mist swim two regal-looking swans.
And when we break out in to the open, oh, man, it is simply stunning. I keep saying this over and over to my little tape recorder. The hovering fog, the vast snow-covered meadows and the frost-covered sage all conspire to create a serene and beautiful vision. Up ahead, the last remaining clouds are split by a "hand of god" sunburst and I drive right through the beams.
This is Hayden Valley on the cusp of winter.
The river is quite busy with ducks of all sorts, more swans, and plentiful geese. But the meadows are empty of bison. Last night at dinner Doug said that when he and Helen arrived two weeks ago, Hayden Valley was full of the shaggy creatures, but since then, they have witnessed their slow and steady migration out of the Valley. The last two days, he says, they have noticed hardly any bison left. He says it's amazing to watch the Park sink into its winter deep freeze one day at a time.
At LeHardy Rapids I notice we are above zero again at a toasty 2 degrees.
We continue south and then turn east over the Fishing Bridge and on towards Mary Bay. We stop here and look out over the amazing Lake under bright morning sun. I have never seen this area look so beautiful, and I suppose I have simply never been here in such a quiet and serene season.
There are many more swans and many cygnets, as well. We do see a few lone bison bulls, one walking along the road. We stop again near Sedge Bay. It is so quiet here, you can hear the ice cracking as it forms, breaks and re-forms again.
I had totally forgotten the unique landscape around the Lake. There are many small thermals, steaming and bubbling, adding to the unique look of the area. And small pools of water on both sides of the road, some frozen and covered with a layer of crystalized ice, that sparkles dreamily in the sunlight. And there are other areas of partially-open water colored by thermal bacteria.
Doug teaches me the difference between trumpeter swans and tundra swans (Yellowstone has both) and we see golden eyes, Barrow's golden eyes and two bald eagles perched in a tall fir tree. The mountains that ring the Lake stand out tall and gorgeous across the water and even the Tetons can be seen, rising far in the distance.
I notice ice crystals floating in the air, like the ones you see in the PBS film "Christmas In Yellowstone". Doug shows me where he saw the Mollies and we scope and hope but those dogs are not around today.
We turn around at Steamboat point and slowly we make our way back north to Canyon. The steam has burned off and now the Yellowstone River looks crystal blue.
We see a little coyote near the river bank and stop to watch him a bit and we stop at Grizzly Overlook so we can scope for the Canyon wolves. I don't see anything moving but Doug finds a suspicious dark lump. It does look like it could be a bedded wolf but we watch a long time and it doesn't move.
We head north again and Helen spots something running on the western side of the road. We pull over and watch three coyotes in the Alum Creek basin. We can't quite figure why they are running, so perhaps they are just enjoying the morning. We drive on and stop in the big double pullout close to Alum Creek. I scope the Canyon rendesvous area from this angle, trying to find the "suspicious lump" or any movement, but I have no luck.
Then Doug asks in his understated way "do you see the otters?". What? I look where he points and there they are - two, three, five...SEVEN otters! They are hopping, humping in their ungainly land-travel way across a strip of ice at the edge of the far bank.
Oh man! Otters! They dive into the water and become instantly graceful. While they are in the water, it's impossible to see all seven at once, because they are in such constant motion, diving, surfacing, diving again. Sometimes their whiskered faces bring up a small fish and sometimes not. Sometimes I just see an otter head trailing the distinctive v-shaped wake.
But they move as a group, and begin to aim toward a low bank jutting out into the river, a popular feeding spot for the ducks. The otters aim slowly for that spot and Doug reminds me otters are carnivores and would eat a duck if they could catch one. Just as he says this, the ducks move away. They are well aware of their danger.
For the next hour and a half we allow ourselves to be entertained by the otter family. One otter is clearly the mother, and I try to figure out the pups are all one litter or a year apart, but the creatures never stop moving long enough for me to compare sizes. Aside from the mother, they all look the same. Maybe Bob knows their history?
I watch them swim to the far bank and giggle as they scramble up the low hill, covered in frosted sage. They roll around as if they itch. Then one otter arrives carrying a fish in his mouth. The others mob him and a mad scramble ensues. I can sometimes hear little squeaking sounds from them.
Many people pull in and ask what we are seeing, because from the road it looks like we are watching ducks and geese. So it's great fun to point out such critters to unsuspecting visitors. People love otters, so they are quick to pull in and grab the camera!
But eventually the cold takes its toll and I gladly accept Doug's suggestion that we head to Canyon for some hot chocolate. We have a lovely, relaxing lunch and I buy some gifts for the folks back home. I thank Doug for taking me along to see this winter wonderland.
They decide to go back to watch the otters again while I succumb to the call of Lamar. We have our hugs goodbye and go our separate ways.
At Norris Junction I spot a sweet little coyote mousing in a meadow. I stop to watch him a while. The rest of my drive back to Mammoth is uneventful but absolutely gorgeous. I love how everything looks so different under bright sunshine. I see quite a few elk in the upper reaches of Mammoth and I wonder if the Canyons will hunt here again this Christmas?
I see the same elk herd on the Blacktail on my way east. I look for raven activity in the area but find none. The day has warmed up all the way to 29 so it feels like spring! I scope at Hellroaring but find no wolves - but I do find many elk and two small herds of bison. And a bluebird flys by. Hmmm, it seems awfully late in the season for him. Maybe it was another blue-feathered bird? I have to remember to ask Doug.
The sunlight transforms the Tower area and Little America, revealing even more beautiful vistas as I drive east. And of course, there's nothing like sun on the hillsides of Lamar. I see bison in the flats across from the Institute and spot a lone coyote wandering between the trunks of the cottonwoods out by the river.
When I get to Mid Point I check in with Rick and learn that the Druids are back at the den area. I join him at the Footbridge and get the rest of the scoop. Two wolf watchers from Utah saw a black wolf today in the flats east of DPH at about 1:30 this afternoon. They say it had a fluffy tail, and my heart sinks because it means 697's group has not left the valley and the Druids will not be left in peace.
Rick hikes out to DPH so he can look back on the Druid den area and hopefully spot them or 571 or anything. The Missouri ladies arrive, and the ladies from Oregon and we all scope dutifully, trying to find a Druid somewhere.
At around 6PM Rick calls to say he sees a grizzly in the rendezvous area. I try to find it from the far western side of the lot but have no luck. I think my view is blocked by trees, so I head down to Hitching Post. Once I set up on the little knob I find the bear, wandering in the sage, sniffing here and there, stopping and tugging every once in a while. My first grizzly! Yay! I watch him a while and then the ladies from Oregon come by with their scope. I help them find the bear and then head back to Footbridge.
Upon my return I notice a hopeful sight: a long parade of elk coming down from the western shoulder of Mt Norris into the middle flats. It's a lot of elk, more than a hundred! Hmmm, this is good news for the Druids, and perhaps just in time.
Then we hear howling - but it's coyotes. The sound comes from the middle flats so I scope there, hoping to find the animals. Their howl is returned by another coyote group, coming from the Soda Butte neighborhood. We are hopeful that the coyotes will spark a howl from the Druids, but the remain silent.
A bright star rises in the south and people train their scopes on it. One man says it's Jupiter!
A familar car pulls in and I see my friend Annie. I knew she was in the Park but she's had some car trouble the last few days and had to be in Bozeman. We are glad to see each other, but we both voice our concerns about the Druids. Rick is spotted finally trudging back across the flats, but alas, has no news to report.
My day ends wolfless, but not without hope. The Druids are back at home and 571's chances of survival just increased. As Scarlett said, after all, tomorrow is another day.
TODAY I SAW: 1 grizzly bear, a blue bird, bison, 4 coyotes, ducks, 2 bald eagles, elk, geese, 7 otters, lots of swans, and the spirit of Allison