Today I prove my theory about getting up early. I leave my cabin at 5:00. I surprise a small herd of Elk in a meadow; they trot quickly toward the trees. I stop to watch them but they don't trust me and move into the cover of the forest out of sight. I feel bad for disturbing them. I wonder if they are reacting because I look like a hunter or because people in cars before me have harassed them. I suppose it's perfectly normal. I suppose they wouldn't stay alive long if they didn't have a skittish nature.
I reach the Footbridge and find it empty. I take the opportunity to enjoy my favorite spot with only the dawn for company. The morning sounds are soft and wonderful. I turn and face the opposite way, finding the view toward the den lit quite magically. I remember the night I saw the Druids' heads pop up on that hill.
I move on and find the Hitching Post empty, too. This is suspicious. I know I can't really be the only one up this early. Then, just beyond the confluence I see two cars in front of me pull over. I slow down and look left across the river. Wolf! Big Wolf! I stop. Get out. A group of teenagers crosses ahead of me and lines the side of the road watching the wolf. I join them with my camera. This has to be 21! He's so big. He's black and has a collar but his sides look reddish brown in the slanted morning light. He trots like the king of the world along the far bank, heading for the open valley. He is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. The view is clear, the light is great and we are too far away to interfere with his plans.
I stand transfixed. But wolves move fast when they want to and soon he disappears behind wrinkle of land. I go back to my car and follow the caravan. We travel slowly around the bend and come into the valley proper. Now I see where all the cars are. A mile ahead they border the road in an unbroken line from Trash Can to the Picnic Area. The caravan ahead of me stops and the teenagers get out again. I drive up a ways and find a decent spot to pull over to the right.
I trot uphill to a better vantage point. With my binocs I pick up 21 again, still on the far bank above the Lamar. He is walking north. Up ahead I see a lone bison. The bison looks up and sees the wolf. The wolf stops. Moves closer. Stops again. Turns his head nonchalantly. Then walks right past the bison as if he couldn't care less! To be fair, the bison doesn't look too worried, either. A few yards to the right there is a dip in the bank, providing natural trail down to the river. 21 trots down this slanted path. He's going to cross the river! I move higher in hopes of watching him do this. I see him wade in. The water MUST be cold but 21 registers no visible reaction. He stands a few seconds, Nope, not here. He moves along the gravel and chooses another spot, wades in, stares, nope, not here either. Again he returns to the gravel, trots north a few paces, wades in and YES!
He moves all the way in and then all I can see is his head above water. Then I lose him. I back up higher on the hill but the bank is too steep. In a few more seconds, however I pick him up again several yards to the right on the near bank. He lopes across the sage, heading almost straight at me! What a sight! He covers so much ground yet he is only loping, not galloping. Then I see, on the road below, the group of teenagers running to intercept him. Why, oh, why do people RUN after wild animals? From my vantage point it looks like poor 21 doesn't have a chance. Either these crazy excited kids will block him or he'll have to jump over a line of cars. As I watch him again, I see his aim has shifted a little away from me and more to my right. What is he making for? There is a solid line of cars with people and scopes everywhere and 21 is heading right into them! I can't tell you how brave and strong he looks loping so easily and confidently across the field. As he nears the cars he seems to accelerate. In two jumps he reaches the cars. Two more and he is across the road, finding, somehow a spot wide enough. Two more strides and he is into the green sage.
His long strides carry him well up the hill. Finally he stops. He looks back, like he's laughing at us silly humans. "You didn't think you could stop me, did you?" Now he's home free.
He continues up hill at a brisk walk. For the first and only time I find a wolf easy to see. This is mostly due to the light which makes his dark body contrast splendidly with the lush green of the slope. He passes above me and I see he has something in his mouth. I watch him for several serene minutes until he finally disappears in a grove of trees, headed toward the den. I look back at the river and re-play what I just saw. What an incredible sighting! I-will- always-get-up-early is my new mantra. I head down the hill and back to my car. The teenagers walk back from their misguided attempt to outrun a wolf. They are happy, none the less, taking excitedly about what they saw.
I move on and find Doug Dance at the Picnic Area. Doug was in the group closest to 21 when he ran the gauntlet. Doug agrees it was a wonderful sighting and we express our admiration for 21's boldness. Doug says there was, in fact, a gap in the line of cars, about 100 feet wide and 21 aimed for it from the beginning. Doug also said that 21 was carrying a stick in his mouth on the whole run. We speculate on what the stick is for. I propose that maybe one of the pups asked for a toy, and dad did the best he could.
Most of the people move on but Doug and I stay, enjoying the morning in this gorgeous place. The water in the flooded Picnic Area has gone down considerably. The slight drop in the water level has exposed a big logjam in the curve of the river and it makes a loud white-water noise. Some ducks enjoy the backup pool it creates. Doug gets a black bear in his scope and lets me see. It is very high up and moves from one grove of trees across a green slope and into the trees on the other side. We talk about bears a while. I complain that everyone keeps talking about seeing a bear called "Rosie" in the Tower area. Everyone but me I say. Doug says he'll take me to see Rosie if I want, and how about a peek Tower Falls while we're at it? Could be a good chance for a rainbow today.
I take it on faith that Doug knows about things like this. After all he's never given me bad advice.
A little while later, not quite to Calcite Springs, we come upon Rosie, just like that! Doug and I join two other photographers with giant cameras on tripods. Rosie is a sweet mama bear, all black, with three black cubs. Rosie is very tolerant of staring humans as long as they don't get too close. We are perfectly content to watch her forage in the timber with her three rambunctious youngsters. Rosie eats non-stop. The little ones prefer to jump on each other, zip 5 feet up a tree, scramble back down, race along a fallen log, bite a branch, snarl, leap on or trip over each other. I never see them eat a thing. I am beside myself with delight at watching them, what a sentimental fool I must have looked. Rosie and the three cubs treat us to a special half-hour show. There are only a few of us as it is still pretty early. As she moves in and out of the timber we move cautiously down the road after her, one of us watching out for traffic, which thankfully is light. She comes out into a bright green clearing dotted with yellow balsam root flowers. While Rosie eats some flowers, her three babies come up around her providing the most postcard-perfect photo of the trip. Then they move back into the timber where they are much harder to see. Doug reminds me about the rainbow so we trudge back up the hill to where we had abandoned our cars.
A short while later we are following the path down to Tower Falls, which I have never seen. I highly recommend it. Doug's expertise proves itself again as we come upon a most magical rainbow. As if the falls are not gorgeous enough! I feel incredibly blessed to see this and to have made a friend of such a generous guy. We spend some time here assessing various angles and I get one especially nice shot with Doug in frame. Then he informs me that he's going to wait a while for the light to shift and thus remove some unwelcome shadows on the cliffs. It's his attention to details like this that make Doug's pictures turn out so great. I am even more impressed by the volume of patience he carries with him. I leave him to his work and decide to try to catch more of Rosie.
Just below Calcite Springs I see three people in the woods just off the road, tracking something. I stop and get out. They are watching a black bear (not Rosie) in the forested hill below. I wonder if this is one of Rosie's grown children. We watch the bear forage a while. Then the bear starts to move up slope. It looks to me like he wants to cross the road. The people start to move closer for a better shot. I say, as gently as I can "maybe we should hang back. I think he wants to cross the road." Miraculously they listen to me and stop, even back up a little and wait beside a tree. And the bear makes me look like a genius by accelerating up the slope. He stops at the road, snuffing at the grass and providing great shots for us all. A truck comes down behind me and we flag it down. The truck stops obligingly. The bear takes two steps onto the road, stops in the middle, takes two more steps to the other side, stops again to turn over a rock and licks up something under it. Then it lurches straight up the hill in four gallumps, turns around and looks back at us as if to say "one more photo, then the show's over". We comply, then we lose him in the thicket.
Just above Rainy Lake I find the Rosie jam. The group of bear-watchers has grown and we have a Ranger to help with cars. We line the road and watch the show. The four bears are less than 50 feet away, moving around in the timber. Rosie is still seriously foraging and the cubs are still seriously playing. Cub 1 runs up a slanted tree and stops as if to pose. Cubs 2 & 3 climb opposite ends of a fallen log and rush each other in a mock battle. 2 topples off, then 3 does the same. Then Cub 1 gallops over to jump on the fallen. This is too much fun! Gary pulls up and we watch together. I say that despite the "Disney" aspect of this sighting I am having the time of my life. Gary grins in agreement. We watch for another half-hour and I use up three rolls of film. Then Doug appears, having gotten what he hopes is a definitive shot of the Falls. The bears have moved into a small clearing. There is a sunken bare spot that the youngsters find tremendously attractive. Cub 1 hides from Cub 2 in it, and Cub 3 gallops up and jumps on both of them. They tussle in the hollow then 1 & 2 gallop out and up a tree. Cub 3 rolls around in the bare spot. Then Rosie moves to the tree and sniffs it. She turns front, stands on her hind legs and begins to scratch her back against the rough bark. It must feel awfully good as she raises her head straight up exposing her throat on which we notice a light-colored patch. She rubs her head, neck, shoulders back and forth. I see her long front claws and her whole underside, including two of her teats. I figure nothing can top this, so on that note I call it a day.
Doug and I find we're both hungry so we decide to head to Mammoth for some lunch. Doug is in the lead and we agree that we'll stop for bear or wolves but not elk or bison. But we don't get that far before we stop...for coyote. Doug made the right decision because this coyote is close and in the open. She's mousing in a meadow. She stands perfectly still, ears cocked, tail stiff. She's a little skinny and I can see several teats on her underside. Then POUNCE. Got it! Gulp and it's gone. She looks at us, turns and trots off.
In Mammoth we pay a visit to Ballpark who is busy but seems glad to see us. We fill him in on Druid news and hear of his last day with Geri & Oldtymr. Ballpark looks SO cute in his uniform! Doug and I have a very pleasant lunch in the Dining Room and make a few plans for tomorrow. He heads off for a nap and I head off to Swan Lake Flats. So many people have seen Grizzlies here I am hopeful of doing so, too.
I stop in the first pullout overlooking the lake. I see no grizzlies but there is a small herd of doe Elk. And babies! I count three, four, five! There are six does grazing here. A seventh lies in the grass, a little separate from the others. I watch a calf move away from the herd on its own, walking up a gentle slope. I look to see if it has a mama up there but see nothing. I worry that this calf is much too far from the safety of the herd, especially because the surrounding terrain looks so right for hiding a grizzly. There are two swans on the Lake and a single Sandhill Crane on the nest in the marsh. I don't see the second one. Eventually the lone Elk calf comes back and I see it reunited with its mother who doesn't seem to have minded that it was so far away. I don't understand Elk behavior very well. I'd like to become better versed than I am. I watch this lovely scene quite a while, calves interacting with each other, subtle shifts in the herd as they move from one grazing spot to another. Then I notice the seventh elk, the one that was lying down, She is now on her feet. Her head is lowered in a way that doesn't quite look like she's grazing. Now she walks slowly back toward the herd. What's that behind her! She is followed by a very small dark animal. It's her calf! A newborn! Either she was giving birth when I first saw her or she had just done so. When she gets back to the others it is clear how much smaller her wobbly new baby is compared to the other calves, especially the one who went on the excursion. The newborn nurses. I look around at the scenery and realize how vulnerable these calves are to the grizzlies in the area. As much as I want to see a griz I don't want to see it take any of these calves. Not today.
The afternoon warms and I start to think of my nap. I take a drive and find a service road. I pull off, find some shade and have a nice snooze. Upon awakening I notice some lovely wildflowers I hadn't seen on the way in - a shrub that looks a little like wild parsley with clusters of pale yellow blossoms, and some deep purple flowers with paper-thin petals and a white knob in the center on a stiff stem. These grow in clumps of stiff green grass. I have not yet been able to identify either.
Now back to Lamar to see what 21 is up to. I stop at Dorothy's Knoll and find Gary with his scope focused on Specimen Ridge. We watch a while and get a great sighting of a big black griz on the prowl. As usual I am amazed at the size of him. Gary tells me a fascinating story of what he and Mark saw earlier. It happened on the opposite side of the road from where we are. It was a collared wolf, surrounded by three coyotes, having a hard time keeping them away. The coyotes were really nipping at him and he was growling and snarling back. The coyotes were determined and the guys were amazed that the much larger wolf seemed to lose the encounter. The wolf finally took off with the coyotes chasing after him all the way. They told the story to Rick who confirmed it was #147 of the Chief Joseph Pack! How do you like that story, Lew & Deb?
Gary and I next spot the Ruffian as he crosses the road and heads into the meadow. We see him lift a leg and scent mark a fallen branch. Then he begins to mouse. I wonder if he walks so slowly and deliberately because he's old? A bit later we see three antelope walking along the river bank moving down the valley. Another coyote comes up from behind and starts harassing them. The pronghorn turn the tables on him and put the run on him! He circles around, tries it again and gets the same treatment. Finally the coyote moves off. I think he was pretending the whole time! I tell Gary I need to check out the Footbridge for Druid activity.
When I arrive I find it a slow night. I miss John & the other Loons. I introduce myself to wolf volunteer Tricia, who is very nice. She fills me in that the Druids are away from the den but the signals are weak. I meet other nice people but we search in vain. Mark pulls in and I ask him for his version of the 147 story. He gladly tells it and then fills me in on his bear sightings. A gorgeous sunset begins with a few small clouds outlined in gold. I remember Doug's advice so I wait a while for the light to change before taking too many shots.
Mark heads home. As darkness descends I watch two coyotes mousing in the flats across the river. I drive up as far as Pebble, thinking the Druids might be fooling us again, but this area, too, is quiet. On my way back past Soda Butte Cone I see a single coyote standing guard at the entrance to the den. Now the Footbridge is nearly deserted. I sit in my car with the windows down, looking at Mt. Norris in the leftover light. I fervently hope for the sound of howling. 10PM comes and goes. Not tonight. Alright. Goodnight, Druids.
Today I saw:
Antelope, 6 Black bears (3 adults and 3 cubs), 6 coyotes, Deer, Elk and babies, a Grizzly
bear, a Sand Hill Crane, 2 Swans, 2 Loons, 2 Bear men and 1 Druid Wolf (Alpha male, 21M)