Once again, I am the only one on the road.
I've checked out of my cabin and I'm off to Lamar. I won't worry about the scope yet. It's too early to go into Gardiner and anyway I still have my binoculars. I'll just have to enjoy Yellowstone the way I did before I owned a scope!
Just past Wraith Falls I spook a band of bull elk. Three, four, five of them. Hey! Could these be the Big Boys? They trot with antlered heads held high along the crest of a ridge, showing off beautifully. Too late I think of looking for the Elkamoose. Next time, Aneita!
As I approach Elk Creek I see something dark moving. I find a spot to pull over, grab my camera and sneak to the road edge. It's a black bear. The bear is below me at the edge of a burn about 200 feet away. I crouch by the roadside and watch. At the first camera click the bear looks up. He sees me and I smile. He goes back to his grubbing and rolls over a very big rock. He must have found something because I see his tongue licking the ground. He looks up at me fairly often. Each time he does I see his sweet brown nose and take his picture. He sniffs the air. He makes a fast move to the right. He starts digging into the hillside. He uses both front feet, changes position often and repeatedly pauses to stick his nose in the hole he's made. He digs for a really long time and the dirt is really flying. I don't see him get anything, though.
I keep expecting another car to come down the road but none do. The bear gives up on digging and moves into a patch of green grass and yellow wildflowers. My view of him is now blocked by a little tree so I get up and move about 3 feet to the right. The bear looks up and stares at me a long time. I feel that I've disturbed him so I don't move any more. His head goes down and I guess he's grazing. I try to figure out what he's eating but his head is turned away and all I see is his very fat butt. He finally turns front again and looks up for a pretty shot. Then he starts ambling up the slope. I take a few more shots as he's coming up. Then I realize he's not stopping. He's coming up to the road, probably to cross it and I don't want to be here when he does. I stand and slowly back up. The bear keeps coming.
I retreat to Ms. Jeep and sit inside with the door open. I wait to see what will happen next.
The bear appears on the road 30 feet away. He stops and looks. Sniffs the road. This is the shot the folks back home love to see. I step out and take it. He poses for me very nicely and then lumbers across the pavement. He ambles up a hillside of yellow balsamroot, then beyond the flowers into the timber and out of sight.
This is the first time ever that I've had a lengthy bear sighting all to myself. It is very satisfying.
I roll into Little America and see some mulies bounding away from the road. My next stop is the Boulder Pond. I find Ruth and Fuad here with Don and his giant binoculars. Ruth is concerned. She tells me no one has seen 103 or her pups since Saturday morning. Coyotes have been seen in the area and the other Druids have not visited in quite a while. There is some speculation that 103 may have moved the pups to a new den but no one saw or reported this.
I move on into the valley proper. At Dorothy's Knoll I see the bear crowd out in force. They are watching a sow grizzly and two cubs of the year prowl the high ridge on the north side of the road. The bears are beautifully back-lit by early morning sunlight as they move just below the crest of the ridge. The cubs stop once to tussle then look up and see mom far ahead. They gallop to catch up, then in a blink all three are gone over the other side.
Then someone gets a bear in the valley. It's a black bear below the Jasper Bench near some trees. Some bull bison on the flats see the bear, too and apparently do not approve. They start to trot in his direction. The bear sees them coming and runs. He stops at the bottom of the hill to look back. He turns again and gallops up the hill into the safety of the timber. I wonder what the bear did to the bison to deserve that?
I drive East. There is another crowd past the Institute at what I think is called Midpoint. I see Doug Dance and his parents. I hop out and say good morning. We chat a bit and Doug brings me up to date on his sightings. First on his list is a wolf sighting in Willow Park. It leapt from a rock into the road right in front of him and then he watched it feed on a kill. He's not sure what pack this wolf is from but it was a collared grey. Next he tells of an amazing grizzly sow-and-cubs sighting in the Sylvan Pass area, likely the same bear Lew & Deb saw. I ask him about the Obsidian bear and his eyes light up. He says the Park Service shut down the Norris Campground yesterday because she and her cubs were on a kill nearby. It sounds to me like Doug is having his usual great trip.
Today he has a lone black wolf near the Lamar River. Also out there but not visible at the moment are Mama Griz and two yearlings. He asks if I would like to see the wolf. Now I tell him the woeful tale of my possibly broken scope. He says lemme see it. Walter comes around to look, too. They both give it a professional inspection. Miracle of miracles the scope is NOT broken. It's just that a little gold washer that is supposed to be part of the scope has screwed itself onto the ball head instead. Doug and his dad set about repairing it on the spot. The appropriate screwdriver is located. Tiny screws are removed and a spring is lifted out. Voila! The scope grips properly again. Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Doug even shows me how I can prevent this from happening in the future. I am so happy I do an extra special Druid Dance to celebrate.
Then I put the scope to work. I get the black wolf in view and watch him wander and sniff and dig near the river. Then I hear the grizzly is out. I can't believe the choices I have on this trip. Druid wolf or griz and cubs? I choose the bear this time mostly because of the cubs. Doug initially said he thought these were yearlings but on second viewing we decide they are not quite big enough. I venture they are unusually large cubs of the year. Maybe they were born early or came out of the den early or maybe Mama Griz is really good at feeding them.
The cubs are quite playful. They scamper on logs and jump on each other and tussle and I am in heaven watching them. Mom walks along the riverbank, nose to the ground sniffing everything. We lose them periodically behind stumps or debris but they always come out again. There is a bison watching their approach that does not seem amused at all.
A friend of Doug shows up, another photographer by the name of Bill Priest. He sets up next to me and we chat about stuff. I find the black wolf again and point him out to Bill. He has no trouble finding the bears! Mama Griz turns and heads for the river. Before I know it, she is in the water swimming across. I can't believe I'm seeing this! I have always wanted to see a bear swim a river. I do an impromptu Grizzly Dance and accidentally bang Bill's tripod just as he was about to snap a shot. He makes light of it but I feel really bad. I move my scope further from his to give myself more dancing room. I'm really sorry, Bill. 8~(
Mama griz gains the far bank and shakes off. Both cubs enter the water; one swims fine but the other one gets pulled downstream. Mama ambles down the sand bar alongside the cub until it finds its footing. Her other cub makes it across just fine. The second cub scrambles out and shakes his butt, his head and his butt again. I really can't believe I'm seeing this. They are now on a pebble island between two braids of the Lamar. What they just crossed was the easy part. The next channel is deeper and faster.
For a while it seems as though they intend to stay on the island. The cubs go back to romping. They are so CUTE! I see the sow study the river as if picking her spot. This time she positions herself downstream of her babes. Into the water she goes and I see her swimming. Both cubs get in the water. One swims well and makes quick progress but the other is swept down past mom. Mama climbs the bank and without shaking off, she gallops, I mean GALLOPS along the bank following her little one who is being carried quickly down with the current. I can only imagine the noises they are making. The other cub is now across and comes running after mom and thenů whew! The little one gets hold of the bank and struggles up, up, up. Now he's got it. The poor little thing shakes off so hard he falls over. But Mama Griz gives him encouragement and he seems, all in all, none the worse for his ordeal.
The bear family heads uphill away from the river. The morning is still cool and it must feel good to have the sun on their wet fur. Mama griz leads both cubs all the way to the top of the bench. Then she surprises me as she suddenly stands up on her hind legs. She looks west, at the hills above Lamar Canyon. The cubs mimic her and I think I will die of happiness.
Then Mama griz does another sweet thing. She sits on the open hillside in the sun and gathers her twins to her breast. The cubs nurse on the hillside, a perfect picture of bear contentment and I can see it all in my scope. This is one of the most absolutely satisfying sightings I've ever had. It's right up there with my first Druids last year and the Great Elk Chase during the winter.
I look for the black wolf again but he is either bedded down or has left the area. Bill shows us some terrific prints he has and we ooh and ahh over them, especially the ones of mountain goats. I visit with Doug and his folks a while longer and I look out again for Mama Griz. I find her far up the hill, just about to enter the timbered slopes of Lamar Canyon. Take care, Mama Griz. Keep your babies safe!
I head east to the Footbridge and sit here looking at the scenery. It's all brand new again thanks to yesterday's snow. The ledges under Druid Peak are neatly outlined in white and the whole domed top is wrapped in a snow-shawl. Mt. Norris shows just a light dusting but Abiathar and The Thunderer are completely white again.
I drive to Pebble and reserve my favorite site. Then I'm off to Cooke City for breakfast. I find even more snow up here. The evergreens droop with it and all the rocks wear snow-crowns. I see several re-born waterfalls gushing happily downhill through the snow-softened forest. I look out the window of the Soda Butte Lodge at the newly white peaks and add to my notes.
Lamar is cool and quiet when I reach it again. I drive through the valley slowly, enjoying the solitude.
I go to Floating Island Lake to look for the Sandhill chick. I can't seem to find it, though, nor any sign of the adults. I go to the next pullout and find myself distracted and fully entertained by the calls and antics of yellow-headed blackbirds, which are here in abundance. I see five in all, one on a nest and the other four flitting here and there. Such an odd call from such a pretty bird.
I watch the waterfowl, too. There is a black duck (a coot?) on the far side of the lake repeatedly diving and re-surfacing. There are brown ducks busily feeding in the reeds along the far edge. Then right in front of me I see splashing and hear odd quacking along with it. A duck seems to "run" across the water into the reeds at the near edge. What the heck is that? This duck's feathers include white, black and reddish brown but mostly I notice his distinctive blue bill. I figure he is the male and start to look for a female. Maybe that splashy water-walk is a mating display. Or is it fighting? After much searching I find a shy brownish duck that the blue-billed duck pays close attention to. I think my first idea is right and that he is in love. I see him do the splash-dance for her three more times.
I take a ride up toward Dunraven to see if there is any snow left over. I find some on the shady side of the road and all the high peaks and ridges are nicely dusted. Then I sneak into a secluded pullout and zonk out for a while.
Nothing disturbs me this afternoon and I sleep a long time. The sky is overcast and it starts to drizzle. It's time for more adventures. On my way down I come upon a typical Tower bear jam. About 20 cars on both sides of the road, people out of their cars walking everywhere, traffic at a standstill and it's all for one medium-sized black bear foraging in timber at the bottom of a hill.
I set up near a tree and I see several people start down into the brush toward the bear, cameras in hand. Before I can open my mouth, others in the crowd call them back. The bear is close enough for good shots and we all get them. Despite the large crowd this is a very nice sighting. The bear cooperates by remaining in view and moving just enough to keep it interesting. He does regular beary things like going up on its hind legs to sniff a tree, eating the tops of flowers, turning over rocks and licking up bugs. But at one point a family in a diesel pick-up pulls up and dad fails to shut off the motor even after being asked nicely by several folks. I take this as my cue to go.
I ease Ms. Jeep through the cars and the people and soon I'm in the clear again. I pull into Calcite Springs with the intention of looking for sheep on the cliff but instead I see movement on the hill to the left. It's three black bears, two yearling cubs and their collared mom. They are enormously playful, enjoying the cooler temperatures I guess. The three of them play "chase" up and down the tree trunks.
Up goes a cub, up goes mom right after it, then up goes the second cub. I can hear their claws scraping the bark. I watch, astonished. They are snarling and making bear noises at each other. Then Mom backs down and romps to another tree. The second cub follows and jumps on her while the first stays in his tree and bleats. Mom tussles with her big cub, lunging and wheeling. I've never seen such playfulness in a mother bear. I wonder if she's young or just a playful sort? The bleating cub scrambles backward down the trunk to the ground, runs over to the others and jumps on them. They are really feisty and put on incredible bursts of speed as they cavort from one tree to the next. I see them climb three separate trees in the space of five minutes. Finally their play takes them to the crest of a hill where they pause and give their human admirers a last wonderful look. Then they gallop over the hill and out of sight.
I would love to know more about this mom. How old is she, and what do we know of her history?
I head East. I check in at 103's but find there is still no good news. It has been more than two days now and with all these human eyes failing to find her it doesn't bode well. I don't want to think the worst but it's hard not to. There has been so much good Druid news, I have long been fearful of hearing something bad.
I stop at the pullout across from the Institute and scan the river's edge. Jake and Leslie arrive and we catch up and kid around and look for animals. We find bison and pronghorn in the valley and some bull elk up on the ski slopes. We talk about 103 and our hope that she has moved the pups to another location as an explanation of her absence. We discuss her chances of making the trip to the traditional densite with her pups, crossing all that territory where we've seen an abundance of bears. Not good odds, we figure, unless they have a full Druid escort.
Ranger Bill pulls in and I tell him about my rainy hike out of Cache Creek. Bill says he wants to hike Rescue Creek tomorrow and asks if I'm up for it. It's about 8 miles he says. I tell him yes and we set a time to meet. Then he is called to cover a position above the Exclosure Fence. There is a report that the majority of the Druids are at the den and a few others are out at the rendesvous spot. Perhaps this has the makings of another Druid pow wow?
Jake and Leslie carpool with me and we follow Bill. We trudge up the hill, higher than usual this time. We are rewarded with the sight of 2 Druid yearlings in the rendesvous area, a black and a grey. They are lazing about. Then another grey comes out of the timber where he was probably sleeping. Two of the wolves give half-hearted chase to an elk cow but soon give up. I lose the black for a while but then see him coming back to the others. Jake is on the scope for a while and he says one of the greys is howling. We don't hear it but it's pretty far away. When I look again I see three greys and a black further away, sniffing around in a bare spot. I don't know where the third grey came from. Then a bison starts to run at them. The wolves move out of the way easily.
The wolves bed down and we get the impression it's going to be a quiet night. The main pack remains at the den this evening and we make do watching antelope, a few elk up high and the bison herd with its calves. A little later Jake and Leslie and I make a pilgrimage to the east just on principle. There are tons of people at Hitching Post and tons more at the Footbridge but no Druids. We stay until dark. Somehow, as much as I want to see them I find comfort in their non-appearance. Who wants wild wolves that operate on a schedule?
I drop off Jake and Leslie at their car and then head back to Pebble. It rains lightly the whole way. I see eyes in Round Prairie. I think it's bison but I pretend it's the Druids, winking at me.
Today I saw: Antelope, 6 black bears (four adults and 2 cubs), bison, blue-billed ducks, brown ducks, elk, 6 grizzlies (2 adults and 4 cubs), mule deer, 5 yellow-headed blackbirds, 5 Druid wolves and 8 Loons.