I leave my snug little home in Bozeman at 10AM. It's 39 degrees and overcast; the gloomy clouds prevent me from seeing the mountains. Due to the remaining snow on the ground and the intermitten rain in the last few days I decide to take the dreaded Pass rather than risk getting stuck in slushy snow along Trail Creek.
As I head up the winding hill some snow begins to fall, but it quickly turns to drizzle and I'm soon making the turn to Rt. 89.
Soon the rain lets up and the roads are dry. I notice a good deal of snow, even on the lower hills and in the meadows and thick, winter-style snow caps above. A pair of swans browse in a snow-melt pond near Emigrant.
There are more animals than usual along the road between Emigrant and Gardiner, several of them very close.
Mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and bison, some feeding hungrily on the emerging green grass just beyond the shoulder. It's one thing to encounter such large animals in the Park when one is moving at about 30 miles an hour, and quite another to see them ahead while you're going 65!
But I do see them well in advance and traffic is so light I slow down with plenty of time to spare.
I also see a pair of sandhills above the Yellowstone River at Yankee Jim Canyon, and a gorgeous mountain blue bird (male) soars off.
I'm inside the Arch at noon. The rain returns and brings a bit of fog. I see lots and lots of bison and elk on the Arch flats, making me feel right at home. They look a bit on the thin side, but not as wretched and starving as I had prepared myself for. Perhaps these are the smart ones; they moved to lower elevations in time.
I am surprised to see several pronghorn below the west side of McMinn Bench. As soon as I stop in the lot opposite the Mammoth Campground, it begins to snow, which makes my visit with Allison especially lovely. I look up to Kite Hill through gentle white flakes.
The roads remain dry all through the Blacktail and I am amazed at the enormous walls of snow that have been plowed and plowed again on either side. It's like driving through a tunnel!
As I approach the Childrens Fire trail pullout I notice a familiar truck. It's my friends Calvin, Lynette & Colleen. Calvin is scoping the hills for Blacktail wolves. We catch up a bit and I offer them some home-made brownies.
Alas, they have no wolves in view at the moment, but there is a bison carcass way out there, possibly winter-killed, that they saw the Blacktails feeding on earlier today. They give me a tip to head to Lamar, as Becky & Chloe are at the Institute, where they all saw Lamar Canyon wolves this morning.
So I head east.
I see a very skinny bison at Phantom Lake, poor thing. Floating Island Lake is an expanse of whitness. Nothing is recognizeable at all: no tracks, no visible edge or rim. Just snow all over. The amount of snow I am seeing is unlike any April I've ever seen - although in many other years, a decade ago, this was quite normal.
Things are a little different in Little America. A good deal of sage is visible here; more snow has melted in this relatively flat, treeless area. But the road corridor is lined with very high snow-berms, too.
As I head up Lamar Canyon I see a mere trickle of water escaping in a handful of places: the rest still trapped in ice. Snow has begun to fall again, but it melts on contact with the road.
I nearly gasp as I enter Lamar Valley proper - it is so completely full of snow. And most surprisingly, there are hardly any tracks anywhere, which makes me feel a great emptiness. Both elk and bison have abandoned the valley - the snow level is simply too deep.
I find Becky and Chloe in the pullout across from the Institute. They have the Lamar Canyon pack bedded in the hills behind the Ranch buildings. The snowfall has increased, making it impossible to see anything at that distance, so we use the time to catch up on news in each other's lives.
Behind us in the flats we hear coyotes howling. We turn around to look through the veil of falling snow. We find four individuals - clearly related, judging by their behavior and proximity to each other. They cross the road and head up Park Ranger hill. Chloe tells me there is an old elk carcass up there that the wolves had taken down several days ago. We figure (correctly, as it turns out) that the coyotes are headed for the bones. They are exceedingly cautious - they know wolves are around.
We notice a flock of birds swirling overhead and landing in the Institute driveway. What kind of birds are they, we wonder? This time of year is ripe for several bird migrations into and out of the Park. These are smaller than robins but larger than sparrows. It's hard to identify them because they rarely stay in one spot long enough to get binoculars on them! Every once in a while one alights near a puddle of melted ice, takes a sip and flies off again.
Finally the snow-veil lifts a bit and we catch glimpses of three wolves walking along a ridge, to the right, then disappearing quickly over the lip. I see two grays and one black. It is too hard to tell which wolves they are.
Then we see more movement - a gray (our fourth animal) comes down the hill a bit for a mosey. From his overall demeanor, we judge this to be a yearling. We think he might head towards the hill where the old carcass is, but he doesn't. He stops, looking downhill. He seems to see something that interests him below. First the wolf just stares, then drops into a stalk position. Then he stops and sits on his haunches, staring again. We are blocked from seeing what he sees by a series of low hills but we suspect it could be another wolf. The yearling stands and moves down the hill a bit, tail wagging with excitement. He sits again on his haunches, and can't stop his tail from wagging!
We assume one of his pack mates is down there, out of our line of sight, because the wolf's tail tail is wagging so hard it spins in a circle. He bounds downhill in a very playful way, and disappears.
A moment later, slightly to the east, a coyote appears, mouth agape, back arched and moving with a "don't mess with me" stiff-legged gait.
We watch the coyote stop to look back when it gets to a tree and then see the yearling wolf again, slowly climbing back up the hill, whence he came.
I sneak a quick glance to the carcass and see only three coyotes scavenging there, so the one now by the tree is likely the fourth. He continues to move east, looking miffed.
We follow the yearling as he reaches the brown of the hill and suddenly notice another wolf up there. It's the 06 herself. She is bedded near a clump of blonde grass which serves as perfect camoflauge for her gray and cream coloring. Only the dark, wet tip of her nose gives her away.
She looks straight out, right over our heads. She may have watched her offspring's interaction with the coyote. At one point she gets up to re-bed and I see her pregnant belly and the spots of mange that continue to plague her. Admittedly, she is not the lithe, graceful figure I saw in January, but after all, she is less than two weeks from her "due" date.
The snow returns and obscures our view and we admit to feeling a bit chilled. We warm up with a drive to the confluence where we look for otters. Alas, they elude us so we continue on to Round Prairie.
As I pass 21's Crossing I notice a lone bison and about 6 bighorn rams on the hillside, pawing the snow to get at the grass underneath.
We find no otters at Round Prairrie either, but boy is it beautiful country! On our way back we stop at Soda Butte Cone to take a look at a winter-killed bison across the river at the base of the old river bank. It looks like the poor thing just lay down and froze to death. It's huge horned head seems to be just resting on its chin, not dead, but asleep.
But indeed it has died. On one side, an intrepid coyote tries in vain to chew through its tough and likely frozen hide. It looks to us that wolves have not yet discovered this bonanza. We wonder how hard it must be to open such a carcass once it's frozen.
Such carcasses are instrumental in helping predators like wolves and coyotes survive such a winter, not to mention crows and ravens. We watch until the coyote gives up and another snow-squall arrives. We take this as our cue to head west.
The valley is seems very empty. No people and full of snow.
Our evening ends with a delightful dinner at The Mine, where we meet up with Calvin and Lynnette, then the three of us head to our rooms at the Super 8 across the street.
Today I saw: 1 male mountain bluebird, a flock of mysterious migrating birds, bison, 5 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, 2 swans, 4 wolves of the Lamar Canyon Pack (including The 06, two grays and one black) and the spirit of Allison