Lots of snoring going on at Pebble this morning! I slip out quietly and start my last full day in the Park.
It's a nice cool morning here in the most gorgeous place on earth. The Footbridge and the Hitching Post are both quiet. At the Institute I see a few cars and lots of people with scopes in the parking lot. I join them to watch a big boar grizzly roam the hills high above the buildings. He's doing that rambling, nose-down walk that I now know means he's hunting elk calves. He moves in and out of the many folds and gullies in those hills. At one point he seems to be headed straight down to the buildings and I hear excited whispers among the crowd, many of whom are staying in the cabins here. Nothing like seeing a great big grizzly hunting on the hill right outside your cabin!
A little later I notice several people scoping in the opposite direction. They're looking across the valley at Specimen Ridge. An older gentleman helps me align my scope and soon I see two more grizzly bears - a courting pair as he calls them. They prowl around, grubbing and grazing high on a ski slope hill below a snow cornice. I watch their gentle dance as the male comes close to the female only to have her dash off in a burst of speed up the hill. It is steep up there but she gallops easily. The male follows but stops below her and they both settle down to grazing again.
For the better part of an hour I have a grand time switching back and forth between these two bear sightings. Eventually the courting bears top the ridge for the last time and descend out of sight. I go back to the boar but he, too, disappears up a wash. Time to see what else I can find.
At the Hitching Post I run into Mark and Carl. I hear of the marvelous sighting they had of the Sylvan Pass bear and her bold yearlings. What an incredible sighting that was. I think Mark is especially happy because he captured it all on his new camera. We realize there aren't any wolves here today so we decide to give Slough a try. They have to leave today and we think it's fitting that we spend our last hour together looking for Druids.
There's quite a crowd at Dave's Hill. We climb up and join Ranger Bill, Ruth & Fuad, Gerry & Peter and even-bear lover Gary. We have found the Druids alright, but they are bedded down and can't be seen. I still find it exciting as it may mean good news for 103. I'm hoping they have come to escort her and her pups back to the main den.
Ruth points out two eagles, an adult and a juvenile, in a snag-tree across the way. Gary finds an injured bison high on a hill in the distance and we hear talk of a bear seen there earlier. I notice Rick way up on the hill behind us, all by himself. I wonder if he is up there to get away from all of us or because he needs to be that high to see the wolves. Probably both. I see his telemetry aerial in his hand so he must not have them in sight yet.
We wait a while but it's getting warmer and less likely that the dogs will move. Mark and Carl have to get going so I give them Loon hugs goodbye. We promise to see each other again. Then Ruth and Fuad have to take off so there are more goodbyes. Now I'm really feeling melancholy. I've had a lot of great sightings with these guys and it won't be the same without them. Thank goodness I have my hike to look forward to. Bill and I head off for Blacktail Lakes.
We get about half-way to Tower Junction when Bill pulls over and waves me up. I roll down my window. Bill holds up his radio. "Rick just called" he says, "21 is out." Oh Man! Bill can see in my face that I want to go back. I have a sneaking suspicion that he wants to, too. Something about his license plate gives it away.
Minutes later we are hauling our scopes back up Dave's Hill. Gerry and Peter smile wondering why we left in the first place. I get wolves right away! I see a collared grey in a meadow, walking in and out of sage slightly uphill toward us. More wolves! Two, three, I know that wolf! It's 21! I do a Druid Dance just for him. The collared grey is 106, says Bill. The four wolves are spread out but easy to see, all walking in the same direction - east towards us. Behind 21 is a thin black wolf with a greyish face…Oh! It's 42! Sweet, sweet 42. My favorite wolf of all. For a minute 21 stops and she comes up close to his flank. He turns to her then moves forward again. 21 looks like such a bruiser next to lean and mean 42.
The fourth wolf is another collared grey. Bill says it's 218, a yearling. The four wolves trot with purpose, traversing a hill above Slough Creek. Whatever business they had in this area seems to be done. It looks like they are heading home.
We get a nice long sighting of their journey across the hill. Interestingly to me, 21 is rarely in the lead. Instead it is 106. I notice that 21 and 42 look at each other quite frequently as if they are conferring. When they get almost to the edge of my sight line, 106 goes down to the river. She may be wanting a drink or she may be intending to cross it. She stops. 21 comes down and joins her. 106 moves further east along the bank and out of my sight. This is when I notice the cars.
Well, actually the dust from the cars. Two vehicles move along the gravel road in the wolves' direction. I don't know if they are going to the campground or trying to get closer for photographs but the wolves notice them and stop. If they had meant to swim the river here they are now re-considering that idea. 21 stands still facing the road for quite a while.
A coyote pipes up and starts to scold them. 21 turns and heads up the hill. 42 is laying down. 21 stands by her a moment then he moves off. In another minute all four wolves are up and trotting across the same hill in the opposite direction. Wow. It doesn't take an expert to see what just happened. Poor Druids. Their fans are getting in the way of even a little everyday trip back home. But I take it as an illustration of what Doug Smith asserts in Bob Landis' film. "Wolves don't like people." It may mean going out of their way but I hope they never get tolerant of us.
The coyote is still scolding so I scan the slope to find him. There he is, perched on a boulder, high above the wolves on the same hill. Oh he is ranting at them. If I could translate his speech into English it would surely get an X rating. The wolves ignore him and continue on their way. They stay low on the hill, moving in and out of cover and seem to pick up the pace. When they're on the move, even at a trot, wolves can really eat up the ground.
106 is again in the lead. They continue in a line towards a bend of Slough Creek visible from our location. It sure looks like they mean to swim it. Could I really get this lucky? This is a route out of Slough away from people. I know they use Crystal Creek as a route to and from Lamar; this is a direct route to that drainage. It means they can cross under the road along the Lamar rather than over it.
106 arrives at the riverbank and goes right in. I see her swim the river! Her head and the ridge of her back are above water, plus her tail is streaming out behind. The rest is submerged. She reaches the shore and shakes off. She looks back once and then off she goes. Now it's 21's turn and I happily watch him go in. He is quite a strong swimmer and reaches the shore in no time. I watch him shake off and head uphill. Next comes the grey yearling, 218. This wolf wades in a bit hesitantly at first but then begins to swim like the others.
Finally I watch 42's whitening muzzle, her grey back and skinny tail as she paddles across the water. When she climbs out I see how slender she is as well as what I take to be her teats. She shakes off vigorously and trots through the high grass after the others. We get some tantalizing glimpses of one wolf or another for a little while but then we lose them behind a hill. Oh that was nice! I think the Druids are quite gracious to allow their fans such a luxurious sighting. I don't know why I love it so much when I get to see animals cross rivers (as long as they cross safely). Maybe it's because I so recently learned to ford streams myself.
I see Bill beaming. This sighting was worth turning around for. Rick asks Bill to move on to a location in Little America to see if the wolves make it across the road. I am happy to join him. We set up again at a pullout near a stand of aspens. We scope and scan but the Druids do not show themselves. There are less people around at this point and I feel confident they will get back alright.
Bill and I agree it's too late to do Rescue Creek. I suggest lunch in Gardiner, then a shorter hike of his choice. We end up at Outlaws Pizza. We have fun talking about the Park, family, Loons and of course, wolves. On the way back east we see a coyote so close to the road we have to swerve. Since it's now so late, we settle on a really short hike - Wraith Falls. We laugh at how differently our day turned out but in pleasant company even short hikes can be a good adventure. Bill has duties this afternoon and I need to check in at Silver Gate so we say farewell for now, see you in Lamar.
Slough is quiet again as I drive by and so is the rest of the valley. Somewhere around the Thunderer Trailhead I see an NPS horse-trailer parked on the side of the road. I can't help but wonder if it has anything to do with the lost horses. I assumed the horses escaped from some local outfitter and that the NPS was just lending a hand. For the first time it occurs to me that they might have escaped from the NPS itself. I chuckle at the thought of more fodder for Photodude.
I don't stop until I get to Baronette Peak. There is a small tour group in the pullout and they seem to have something in sight. Wow, do they ever! Mountain goats. Lots of them. There is a group of five in one impossibly precarious spot (two adults, a yearling and two tiny-hoofed kids). There is a group of three near a snow-melt waterfall (two adults and a yearling) and a lone billy goat on a low cliff to the left. That's 9 goats!
A little while later I see a 10th goat as the group of five becomes a group of six when another yearling appears. They are very active and delightful to watch. I like the kids, so little and cute as they take hesitant little leaps and stay close to their moms. I like the billy too with his thick white fluff on his front legs and his long, shaggy beard.
Two ladies in a van pull in with their wheelchair-bound friend. Through our combined efforts we are finally able to get my scope lowered to the right position for the seated lady to use. I refocus and voila! She sees goats! We have a nice chat about our favorite sightings and they tell me they've been to Alaska and saw Dall Sheep there. I give them tips on where I saw bears and the best spots for wolf-watching.
I watch the goats a bit longer, then I find some bighorn sheep on the lower cliffs just above the tops of the pines. I wonder if the goats and the sheep ever meet on those narrow cliffs? I head up to Silver Gate to check in. It is quite chilly up here. After a short nap I'm ready for my last evening in Lamar.
At the end of Round Prairie a huge bird drops out of the sky from the hill on the right and passes so close I could have plucked out a feather. I pull over to figure out what it is and where it's going. I am surprised to see it's a Sandhill Crane. I don't think I've ever seen one at this elevation before. The big bird comes in for a wide-winged landing in a meadow on the far side of the stream. But just before it touches down I see there is a second crane in this very spot. As the first one lands, the other bird opens its wings and hops into the air, kicking out its thin legs. The two birds begin a fight, a fight between spindly-legged kick-boxers with wings! This goes on several minutes while I watch, mouth agape. They are as often in the air as on the ground; one going up as the other one is coming down; both with wings extended and long stick- legs striking out at the other. Sometimes they are both in the air just a foot above the grass. It is wild!
Then as if at a signal, they leap into the air simultaneously and begin a gorgeous-looking flight, one shadowing the other, wing-beats perfectly matched, following the line of the creek. I follow in my car, staying easily abreast of them as the road curves with them. I have never seen these birds look so beautiful nor fly so gracefully. They are so in tune and fly with such urgency I wonder if they are courting rather than fighting? They suddenly turn right and sail above me, soaring towards what I realize is Trout Lake. They rise with the hill and disappear over the tree-tops. Perhaps they will continue their bird-ballet in that gorgeous setting. Wow. That was amazing.
There are cars in the big puIlouts but none of the regulars I usually recognize. I wonder if the action is again at Slough. I think 21 and 42 should be home by now but you just never know with Druids. I continue into the main valley. I stop at the Institute to check if the bears are back out. The sky remains overcast and there is a pleasant chill in the air. As I am setting up I hear a lone coyote howl from the hills behind the Institute. It could be a trick of the wind or my imagination but I believe I hear an answering howl from across the valley. What a lovely way to begin the evening. The smell of sage and damp earth fills my head and a cool breeze touches my face. I hear the gurgle of Rose Creek and feel quite at peace.
I look over at the Institute and notice the NPS trailer again. There are four saddled and bridled horses in the corral and a guy in chaps tending them. I walk over and ask if these are the horses that were lost for a while. The guy smiles and says "yeah, we found 'em". I say I hope they were not hurt. The guy says "they're shook up and wore out" but fine. They do look tired, poor things.
I head up to Coyote Overlook and with the help of some folks from Idaho Falls get a black bear far away in the aspen at the bottom of Specimen Ridge. I watch him amble around and at one point he climbs a tree! I lose him for a while then out he comes, higher up on the same hill. He moves in and out of the timber and then he disappears again. There are the usual bison and antelope in the valley but the only elk I find are way up. I think the Druids have scared the elk right out of here. I hook up with Jake and Leslie and we drive around scoping from this pullout and that. We are just about ready to head for Slough when Ranger Bill finds us and gives us the tip of the night. The Druids are in Little America. Plus…drum roll, please…103 has been found!
This is cause for celebration and we pack up instantly to follow Bill. He leads us west through Lamar Canyon and down to Slough. We see lots of people on top of Dave's Hill but Bill does not stop here. He continues west and then passes the Boulder Pond pullout. I wonder if we are going all the way to Tower? About four pullouts later we come upon the action. Cars all over the road, both sides. We find Tonya set up here, her scope pointed low. She helps me get lined up and then tells me the best news of the night. 103 has NOT lost her pups. She has moved her den and the other Druids know it. All three pups have been observed. Hallelujah!
Tonya says there was a chase and a kill and there are still about 20 Druids out there, bedded down. The new den area seems well hidden with lots of big boulders and dense timber. I am so happy to hear this news I don't care that I missed all that action. All I can think of is that if there is a kill this close, 103's pups will surely be fed. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!
I don't see anything moving in my scope, and Tonya says she hasn't seen anything for over a half-hour. The light is going a little sooner than usual tonight due to the thick cloud-cover and we begin to talk of leaving. Then Bill gets more news. The Druids are on the move. They can be seen from Dave's Hill. It is nearly 9PM but we go anyway. On Dave's Hill we find happy wolf watchers here before us including Gerry and Peter who always seem to be in the right spot. There are also a dozen regulars I recognize and twice as many that I don't.
Immediately I see wolves moving. Lots of wolves! They're in a meadow running straight towards us. Wolves, wolves, wolves! So many it makes me dizzy. Then I lose them in willows. But soon they are out on the flank of a hill that leads to the same slope that 21 and 42 traversed this morning. If they keep to this course we will get a nice long sighting. People are counting them. I hear someone get 18 (I think there were actually 21 in all) but my bad eyes give me a mere 12! That's enough!
The long-legged dogs seem very frisky tonight. I watch one black head uphill at a lope, attracting several followers. They get to a spot and stop, greet and tussle and then head back down. I can feel their carefree, lighthearted manner, their joy in each other. It is palpable and makes me feel joyful in return. It reminds me of how it felt to be a kid staying out after dark on a summer night playing hide and seek. The wolves swarm over the hill, heading east, going home.
My happy dilemma tonight is Which Wolf To Watch? The blacks are easy, the greys remain ghostly phantoms, like odd shadows cast by the black ones. I stay on a rambunctious black wolf and see it stop to mouse, then do some sniffing and digging in a hole. I see wolves running, walking, trotting, squatting and scratching, all the while the group is making steady progress across the slope. I see a nervous elk way up high and I think I see some wolves head up there. After a while it just gets so dim I really can't trust what I'm seeing. When the blacks are running I can see them but when they slow down they just disappear.
It's been a great last-night sighting but it's time to call it a night. I wish the Druids well and hope they continue their fun in the dark. I bid my friends adieu. Poor Tonya meant to leave an hour ago. She has to drive all the way to Cody tonight! Leslie and Jake and I wander down the hill to our cars. I turn back for a last look and see Gerry and Peter still manning their scopes, faithful to the last.
Today I saw: Antelope, 2 bald eagles (one adult and 1 juvenile), 2 bighorn sheep, bison, 1 black bear, 3 coyotes, elk, 4 horses, 3 grizzlies, 10 mountain goats (5 adults, 3 yearlings and 2 kids) 2 Sandhill cranes, 16 Druid wolves (including 21M, 42F, 106F and 218) and 11 Loons