DAY 14 - Friday, June 9

THE COTTONWOOD KILL

The birdsong alarm wakes me on my last campsite morning. It is cool and overcast. I'm the only one up and I feel like the whole world is mine. I take my time, sip my tea and write. I draw the mystery mammal from two days ago. I see pretty brown speckled birds flitting in and out of the big pine tree that shades my site. I see some magpies higher up. The river song is so delightful. I follow a single bird call and find a Mountain bluebird in a tree. Dawn turns pink and orange above the Thunderer and the day is ready.

I think I am out early but I find the Druids have again preceded me. Several cars are stopped east of the Soda Cone. Tom's truck is here and a big white RV. I find a spot and pull over, careful to close my door quietly. I take a position near a man named Charlie who tells me in an excited whisper that he and his wife and son have just seen their first wolf. And they are apparently still in view! He points to the distant river bank. Evidently the wolves have made a kill near a big cottonwood tree on a sandbar in the River. Charlie says two grey wolves (106 and the Saddleback yearling) came down the slope on the den side of the road about 15 minutes ago, crossed and traveled through the sage toward the river. The slope of the riverbank prevents us from seeing them at the moment. I do see some ravens perched in the cottonwood tree, though. We watch and wait.

A few more people pull over. Then suddenly, someone whispers "wolf!" and I see a running grey wolf going up the far bank! At the same time I hear a plaintive WAAH! WAAH! and I see a elk calf galloping several feet ahead of the wolf. Then out of the timber comes Mom elk, stiff legged and determined. The grey wolf veers off in a smooth arc away from the feisty mom and the calf continues past her into the trees. The grey wolf disappears into another part of the forest and mom prances after her baby. Whoa! That was close!

That was a big calf I say to Charlie. He agrees. We are delighted and astonished to have just seen this, although it takes far longer to read about it than it took to happen. I ask Tom if that was indeed the calf I heard and he nods, smiling. Oh, how that sound cut straight to my heart!

Tom confirms that the grey we just saw is 106. There is speculation among us that the calf was already big enough to outrun a wolf or that the reason it was so big was that it had a very good, protective mother. Others say that it shows how hard it is for a single wolf to make a kill and still others say that 106 was only giving a half-hearted chase since there was a kill already. All I know is that the CALF took it seriously!

But today's drama is far from over. 106 reappears, now on the near bank and I get to watch her a good long time. She walks around, sniffs the ground and then trots back to her earlier position. She stops, snuffs around and disappears below the edge of the bank. I begin to look for ways to better my viewing position. Climbing on my hood won't help this time because the big RV is in my way. One of its owners, a nice woman named Peg, is up top. She invites me to join her and I do. This is much better. Now I see 106 fairly clearly on the far bank again, close to the Cottonwood. She begins to trot purposefully to the right and then goes for the river as if to cross it. Now I see why. Three coyotes are running through the sage on the far bank to her left, heading straight for her, yapping as they come. 106 swims the river, tops the ridge and shakes off.

Now she trots across the sage in the direction of the road. She stops frequently, looking back. I see two of the coyotes swim the river and top the ridge. They mean business. They run across the sage now. I lose 106 but others see her cross the road. Then suddenly, I find her again, on the den side of the road only about 50 feet away. She yawns and stretches and seems generally bored by it all. The group below me moves slowly to the north side of the road, most kneel or sit down, enjoying the clear shot of this lovely grey wolf. The way the sun hits her fur she seems to have a reddish brown back, head and tail with blonde sides and a white chest. I don't know how the researchers keep them straight (without the telemetry, I mean). Anyway, she is pretty and quite large. She seems to be waiting for something. I turn around to check in with the coyotes and find they are nearly across the flats at the road.

Then suddenly there is another grey wolf! It has to be the yearling. Boy is he big! I expected him to be smaller but he's as robust as any of them. I don't know where he came from but suddenly he is running toward the hill and the coyotes are now on his side of the road and seem to be chasing him. He starts up the hill. The coyotes continue on the flat and disappear around a bend. Now I look back for 106 but she's gone. A little later I see her about halfway up the hill, sitting beside a tree growing out of a draw. She looks back across the road. Then she turns and disappears into the draw.

With this break in the show we check in with each other as to what we think just happened. The consensus is that the two wolves fed on the kill a while, then when an elk calf spooked and ran, 106 made a half-hearted attempt to grab it until mom scared her off. Then 106 came back to the kill. Since the ravens were waiting all this time in the tree we think the Yearling must have still been on the kill. The coyotes took advantage of the wolves being separated and tried to drive them off so they could have a turn. I have never seen coyotes band together like that for a common purpose, but obviously they do! When 106 abandoned the kill, the Yearling may have given up, too. The two wolves came across the sage by separate paths.

Eventually the coyotes go back across the road and towards the kill site. I see the ravens are no longer in the tree. The coyotes do their chipper trot, very proud of themselves, it seems. They disappear over the edge and I don't see them for a while. Shortly after this, someone watching the den ridge calls softly "black wolf". We all turn to look and see little black ears sticking out along the ridge line just to the left of a few trees. Tom confirms this is 103, the pretty black wolf Mark R and I got to watch several days ago. I see her head pop up, then she's gone again. For the next half-hour we watch her patrol the ridge top, looking over at the kill site, apparently wanting to come down to feed. We can't tell whether she is hesitant due to the feisty coyotes or to the rather large human presence, all our cars and the big RV.

I feel bad that maybe our enthusiasm is having a detrimental effect. I am also getting hungry so I climb down and head out to try to find the Bear boys to invite them to breakfast up at the Soda Butte Lodge. I drive all the way to Dorothy's Knoll but don't find them so I turn around. On my way past the kill site I see the RV is now gone but Tricia and some others are still watching little 103 who remains on the ridge unwilling to come down. She may have had no intention of coming down, of course. We are part speculating and part hoping! There are many less cars now, anyway. It's great to have seen this action. This is exactly what I'd like to do every morning!

On my way through Silver Gate I see a moose in the willows just outside Whispering Pines Cabins, barely 20 feet from the road. What a great ad for staying there! In Cooke City I have a great breakfast and catch up on my notes. I get another slice of cherry pie and to save for later. I cross the street and buy some souvenirs for the folks back east. I see the moose again on my way back but now she's on the other side of the road. In fact she is just a few yards from my old cabin, munching willows quite contentedly.

When I arrive at the Cottonwood kill "viewing area" I see several volunteers still here; Tricia and Gary, Miranda & Chris, Ruth & Vrod. I stop and check in with them and hear that for once I haven't missed anything! 103 apparently never did come down and hasn't been seen in a while. Susan arrives and gets the update. The coyotes are still on the kill. I see ravens in the tree again. Then I spot a grey wolf coming down from the den hills to the north. As he nears the road a car stops. Its lucky driver sees him in time. It's a grey wolf with no collar - the Yearling! He crosses behind the car and lopes across the sage flats, heading (we assume) for the kill. We are excited because we think the coyotes are still on the kill and we may get to see an interaction between them. But then the people in the stopped car get out and start running, yes, running across the flats chasing after the Yearling, cameras in hand. Susan is beside herself. "They will spook him off the kill" she predicts. We are all concerned and annoyed that these people could be so dumb. They were handed a wonderful opportunity to see a wild wolf closer than most people EVER see, and instead of being content they ruin it for all, especially the wolf, by doing this. The Yearling is no longer visible but we can still see the people running. We wave at them, gesturing back to the road but they of course don't see us. They finally stop at the edge of the river. Susan is livid. We all watch intently for a glimpse of the Yearling and sure enough he charges back out a second later, running fast across the flats. He probably didn't even get a bite. Instead of watching an interaction between coyotes and wolves, we now watch an interaction between an angry research director and 3 stupid humans. After the yearling re-crosses the road and lopes into the safety of the hills, Susan gets in her car and drives down to wait next to the still-stopped car for the fools to return. When they do, they get a lecture and a citation. They certainly may have done this out of ignorance but I fervently hope they will learn this lesson and pass it on to others.

Well, it's time to go to Roosevelt to check in for my last night in the Park. I am tying desperately to keep from getting sad. I get my cabin and take a refreshing shower, then re-pack so that tomorrow I can stay in Lamar till the very last second. I carry my cherry pie to the Lodge porch, find an empty rocker, rest my heels on the railing and savor every bite. The sky grows cloudy and threatens rain. Fine with me. I chat with the various folk who stop by. Today is Roosevelt's opening day and an employee cookout is planned. Some folk are worried they'll get rained out. The guy next to me and I see something that makes us laugh. A woman pulls up, gets out of her car and immediately raises her cell phone to her ear. It looks so ridiculous! "Put it down" I say out loud. "Hang up" says the guy. Of course we don't know whether or not it was a necessary call but it really looks strange, like she's an addict, completely oblivious to the serenity and freedom in the place to which she had just brought herself.

I watch the sky go through a few more changes and finally it's time to move on. Three mule deer grazing on the Roosevelt "lawn", make a lovely photo op. They are close and they are sleek and those ears of theirs are so huge! I drive up to Tower to say goodbye to Jake. He always makes me laugh. While I'm there I see a little ground squirrel gorge itself on dandelions. Someone has plucked a mess of them and left them outside a burrow entrance. I watch as one by one the squirrels peek out, advance, hesitate, then grab a flower with their tiny front paws, sit up on their haunches and nibble it down from stem to stern. Most of the dandelions were twice as long as the squirrels!

I take a long last look at Tower Falls then head back down. I run into a two-Ranger Rosie jam. I get a quick photo of Rosie but never see the cubs. This is too big a crowd for me. Plus I doubt that anything could top my earlier Rosie day so I'm off to Lamar. Since it's my final night I stop in every pullout that I have not yet visited.

It's early still, so I figure I should check the Cottonwood kill site. As I pass the Footbridge, a soft rain starts to fall. Just past Soda Butte Cone the car ahead of me stops. So I stop. A grey wolf has just crossed the road! It's moving in the flats to the south. I pull over and get out. I join the man who is now out of his car. We stand there in the rain watching the wolf lope across the sage. Then we both see a second animal, smaller, running a ways behind the wolf. Ah, it's a coyote. The man, a local fellow, is beside himself. He tells me he's been coming here for 30 years and that's the FIRST wolf he's ever seen. I love seeing the effect a wolf sighting has on this man. He is your typical cowboy, nothing soft about him. He is so moved by this and so happy he lets out a whoop of joy. I congratulate him. He says "at first I thought it was two of 'em, but the other one's a coyote". I fill him in on the drama I saw this morning and that there may be a kill out by the river. We get back in our cars and drive to the viewing spot, where there are still folks waiting. We get it confirmed that the wolf the cowboy saw was 106. We watch in the rain a while. A couple shows us their video. They have 21 crossing the road! It happened this very afternoon, while I was at Roosevelt! It's really cool. The rain stops, but we see no more activity.

After a while I head back to the Footbridge and find the Bear Boys. I tell them they missed breakfast but they say they've had good bear sightings today as the weather has turned cooler. I tell them about the guy who had his first wolf sighting here in 30 years of trying. Mark wryly observes that for the first 25 years the guy was wasting his time.

We decide to head west to see the eagle nest again. We do, and see both adults this time. We also see another black bear, which is appropriate given the company I'm in. I feel that Yellowstone is giving me a sendoff to remember forever.

We come back to the Footbridge. The wind starts to blow and it looks like more cold weather is headed our way. My accelerator foot is bothering me again and I start to hobble. The Bear boys make relentless fun of me. A young foursome arrives, loaded with giant packs. They tramp out across the Footbridge, aiming to camp in the Cache Creek area. One kid is a big burly lad, who is casually smoking. Hope he packs out those stubs! We hear thunder and are pretty sure that we're seeing snow up on the high peaks. The new weather makes great cloud formations and I get some lovely last night photos. It also makes the dark come sooner. My last evening in Lamar is wild and rainy and full of laughter.

I head back to Roosevelt in light rain. I see bright eyes in Lamar Canyon and in the forest at the edge of Little America. Roosevelt is quiet yet it seems that a light has been left on for me. I set my alarm for 3. Tomorrow is my last day.

Today I saw: 2 Bald Eagles, Bison, 2 Black bears, Brown-speckled Birds, 4 Coyotes, Deer, Elk, Ground Squirrels, Magpies, 1 Moose, 1 Mountain Bluebird, Ravens, and 3 Druid wolves; 106, 103 and the Saddleback Yearling.


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