I awake rested and ready. I fill my thermos with orange-spice tea, fresh lemon and lots of honey and set off in the cool pre-dawn darkness.
Coming down the ramp to the Grand Loop road I see a coyote. It's ahead of me, trotting in the left lane. I stop where I am as there is not another soul in sight. The coyote crosses in front of me and heads across a meadow. He is all business doesn't stop to chat or do anything "cute". I start to move but stop again. There's another animal in the road. A cow elk. She crosses the road too, taking nearly the same route as the coyote. She's all alone and looks nervous. I wonder if there is a connection between these two animals but I never find out.
While their stories continue I head south towards Craig Pass.
I seem to be the only driver in the world today. I have at least a dozen elk and mule deer move away from the road as I approach. I am going about 40 but I slow down when I realize I'm spooking them. Initially I see very little snow at the Pass but as I wind around I find more. But there is definitely less than last year. Then I see the first breathtaking view of the Lake. Oh you beauty! How it sparkles and seems to extend forever like the sea.
A short time later I am driving beside the Lake as the road follows its contours, providing one gorgeous view after another. This is a spectacular day; the air is clear and crisp and the sun splashes and glitters through the tips of the pines.
I see an especially pretty spot and pull over. Two arms of land reach into the Lake, creating a quiet cove. The left arm is a narrow bar of mud and pebbles; the right is a forested cape, edged in a beach of yellow sand. Behind the trees rise distant peaks, clothed in hazy white. The water is glass, a perfect mirror. White pelicans have gathered here. Two stand on the narrow bar, preening. Two more stand motionless in the shallow water, seemingly transfixed, as I am, by the beauty of this spot. One stretches and fluffs its great wings and another drifts by gracefully, nearly swanlike.
I enjoy the quiet. I notice an odd knob on a pelican's beak. Another one has it, too, but not the rest. The knob protrudes from the middle of the bridge of the beak, maybe 3 inches in diameter. Note: I have now been informed that this disk is grown by some males during mating season. Female pelicans evidently consider it a mark of male beauty!
I see geese in abundance all along the shore, and many other types of waterfowl as well. I wish I could rattle off their names but I don't know ducks very well. I lose count of all the hawks and osprey I see as I drive this long loop.
There are little emerald islands winking between the straight dark trunks, clearings in the forest, and I imagine a deer or a bear or a moose standing at the edge of each one. I am struck by the richness of the green on this stretch of road. It seems lush in comparison to the northern areas of the park, probably because it receives more rain and snow. I suppose the extensive forest here holds the coolness Ionger, or maybe the forest makes the coolness. It is nice to see this side of the Park.
Just past Bridge Bay I notice a scraggly young backpacker walking on the shoulder with his thumb out. Calvin from Indiana tells me he needs to get to Fishing Bridge for a shower. I clear my camera from the seat and he hops in. He's staying in the campground at Bridge Bay. He learned only this morning that the showers are four miles north at Fishing Bridge! He hitched to Yellowstone a few days ago and intends to spend the summer here, may try to get work in the Park.
Calvin says people have been telling him bear stories since he got here and he's a little spooked. He asks if they are true or not. I tell him what I know about clean camping and ask whether the people around him seem careful or sloppy. I try to help but don't know if I do. We see some bison grazing on the slopes to the left and I tell him I consider those animals to be a lot more dangerous than bears. I let him out at Fishing Bridge and we wish each other well. I think about how Yellowstone draws people from all over, some who plan and plan for months in advance and others who just go.
I take a quick tour of the Lake area. The Lake itself is the dominant feature, of course, and is amazingly lovely, with a nice beach for walking or sitting and thinking. The Lake Hotel looks great, too, and quite inviting. It has an old-world style that reminds me of places in the Adirondacks or even those elegant alpine lake resorts in Europe. I'm told the dining-room here is the best in the Park. Someday I will treat myself to a room in the Hotel or at least to breakfast on the porch. The cabins look fine, pretty much the same as those at Old Faithful but the setting is far more open and visible which just doesn't appeal to me. In general the area has too many buildings for my taste. I like things a bit more wild. But I'll bet it's pretty in the Fall.
I drive on through the cool forest. As I near LeHardy Rapids I look for the fabled surfing griz. I spot the carcass - a large pinkish-grey lump in the water. It's near the middle of the river, stuck on a gravel bar. There is nothing on it, not even ravens. I notice several "area closed" signs in the woods between he road and the river.
I enter Hayden Valley and I am again overwhelmed by its gorgeous vistas; those rounded green hills, offset by the darker, forested highlands and the blue, blue river, gently wandering through. I see scattered groups of elk and a few bison. Dozens of geese line a curve of the river and more pelicans preen nearby. Still I am virtually alone in this wide and rich landscape. I find a lone cow elk. Her movements are strange. I'm not sure what it is that catches my eye. I notice she looks fat and realize she could be pregnant.
The elk makes wary movements and often turns her head around in a jerky, impulsive way. She changes her position often, looks front, to the side, to the other side, then front again. I watch her for at half an hour and she never once lowers her head to graze. She moves down the slope, then comes back up. Something is going on with that elk but I never find out what.
I get to the big muddy area to the right of the Alum Creek bridge and see something perched on a snag. A great blue heron! Two of them. No, no, four!. Wow! Four prehistoric-looking birds in one spot with great morning light. I pull over and get my stuff out. Tripod legs out, camera on tripod, set the speed. Just as I am fine-tuning the focus…they fly away. One after the other they extend their wings and lift their heavy bodies into slow-motion flight. Maybe they will circle and come back? No. Down the river they go, gliding just above the surface. Two split off and are lost behind the hills. One alights in a snag on the far bank. Another lands in the stiff grass behind him.
Ah well. I wonder if my stopping was the cause of their flight. When you're the only human around I guess the animals notice you more. The swallows don't mind me. They swoop under the bridge, catching bugs. I also see various ducks.
I stop at Artists point. I don't think I've ever been here so early; there are only a half-dozen cars here. The chipmunks and squirrels are out in force and quite noisy. And there's that view! No matter how many times I see it I am enthralled all over again. Listen to the water roar! The colors in the Canyon are bright and glorious. In spite of dozens of photos I already have of this beautiful waterfall I can't stop myself from taking just a few more.
Driving back I catch movement on a hillside. Three mule deer bucks! At first I think one is a doe but then I see two small velvety knobs between its ears. A yearling, maybe? They frolic along the hill above the road. Not foraging, but running and playing They bound here and there, moving in and out of shade and sun, goofing off like boys having a game of toss.
I leave the deer to their morning fun and drive on. I turn west to Norris for another chance at seeing the Obsidian bear. I see elk and bison at a distance all along the way to Norris. I see a bison herd with calves in the meadow by the Norris Campground. Past Roaring Mountain I see three cars pulled over, one of them a Ranger. It looks like I missed whatever was happening. I stop and ask if the Obsidian bear has been seen today. The Ranger says not yet. This is the first and only Ranger I have met in the Park who is less than friendly. I think of PD and move on.
In Willow Park I pull over to try my luck at finding a moose. I find some elk instead. Then I find one elk in particular that is... giving birth! I realize this with a start and look around for people to tell but there's no one here. Could this really be happening? I tremble as I watch through my scope. The elk stands then sits then stands then kneels then stands then sits and each time she stands I see a dark thing attached to her rear end, and her white rump patch has dark stains. Finally she stays sitting for a long time and her head stays down in the grass an equally long time.
This is one of the coolest things I've ever seen. And yet I'm not really sure it's what I think it is. For a long while the elk's head is down in the grass where I can only guess what's going on. I wish someone would pull up and confirm it for me! At one point I almost convince myself that what I've been looking at is a rock and not her back at all, but then her head comes up again and after a while she stands. She is ultra wary, looking around a lot. She raises her back leg and shakes it. Then her head goes down again and I think (hope!) maybe she's licking her baby. I talk out loud to convince myself. I think there's a baby because there's no dark thing attached to her rear anymore and the grass below the elk is moving. Something beside her is making it move. Can they really stand that quickly? Mama elk repeats her behavior, first the wary looks around in all directions then head down to lick or nuzzle. The grass is too tall for me to see her belly so I can't see if the calf is nursing although I try very hard to do so.
Eventually mom takes a few tentative steps toward the forest and I hope this area will allow me a glimpse of the baby but no, there are willows in the way. I wait in intense anticipation. Finally, there! The cow is out. I see her stop and... Omigod! The calf! There it is! Oh! It's so tiny! It looks weird. It moves so awkwardly that it is almost unrecognizable. It leans and wobbles from side to side. Oh man! I can't believe I'm seeing a brand new calf. That's all the glimpse I get as they go into more willows. I wait but I can't see the view improving any time soon. That's ok. Better for them to stay hidden. I step back with a big smile on my face. It takes me a while to work out the kinks in my neck and shoulders. Yet it's a small price to pay for such a fantastic sighting.
Next stop: Swan Lake Flats. I watch a pair of swans on the lake, dipping their lovely necks and coming up with mouthfuls of yummy weeds. I hear the distinctive call of the yellow-headed blackbird and set about finding one. I find two, both perched at a slant on stiff blades of grass. I see the second one open its black beak and out comes that weirdly wonderful call.
I scan the meadow. I find a bird's head poking up through the tall grass. Last year I found a blue heron here so that's what I figure it is but when I re-focus it turns into a Sandhill crane. I've never seen a Sandhill's head up so close. It's very colorful. While I am studying it, another head pops up. Must be a nest! The grass is too high to see if there are chicks but I believe there are. The pair is very attentive to each other and they each dip their heads often. Eventually one rises and flaps off. I find another crane on the far side of the Lake. It forages along the shore, dipping its long neck and nibbling tasty morsels.
On to Mammoth. I find Ranger Bill but not Frank nor John. I head downstairs to the Archives to check the computer to see if Tim has confirmed our hike tomorrow. I find three people ahead of me so I sit down to wait. This would be a perfect time to catch up on my writing but I have left pen and notebook in Ms. Jeep. Another bit of luck solves my problem when Mr. James Musgrove appears and kindly lends me both. James is down here copying some historical photos and documents for his research. He tells me about the hike he and his wife just did down to Seven Mile Hole. He said it was grueling but completely worth it. I invite him and his wife to join me and Tim tomorrow out to Cache Creek. He says he can't as they have to leave tomorrow. Then he adds that he has heard a forecast for snow.
After waiting nearly an hour to use the computer I log on only to find the Chat Page has been reset! The irony makes me laugh. I say goodbye and thanks to James and head upstairs. I find Ranger Bill and since business is slow we chat a bit about the ethics of wildlife watching and photography. He says he'll be in Lamar tonight. I say that's just where I'm headed.
Just past Wraith Falls I spot a raven flying with something dangling from its beak. I pull over and see it land on a rock about 50 feet from the road. I watch the raven tear into what I suppose is road-killed ground squirrel. The raven is constantly moving, pulling, looking up, stabbing, looking up. Sometimes it looks around with open beak, as if it expects attack at any moment. It tugs off bite-sized morsels, using talons and beak in opposition. Eventually the raven lifts its catch and flies further off.
I head east. As I climb the switchbacks below the Frog Rock I see two things: first, a pronghorn resting in the sage just below the ridge-line and second, a dark thing on a boulder about 100 feet away. Why it's a hawk! It's perched there still as a statue. I want to go back down and see if I can get a photo of that hawk. I know there is a pullout just below the switchbacks. I turn around in the Children's Fire Trail pullout. There are two identical vans parked here and I notice a large class on the boardwalk.
When I get back down to the pullout the hawk is still here but alas, it's too far away for a good shot. I watch through binoculars instead. I hear the short, sharp "peer-peer" call. I have often seen hawks in the sky here. I wonder how often I have driven by that boulder and not seen a hawk perched on it due to its excellent camouflage. While I am watching, the hawk leans into the wind, extends his wings and sort of drops off his perch. The wind pulls him up, up, up, and he soars over the land above the wide meadow. Nice.
I notice the pronghorn has gotten up. It moves nervously along the ridge. Just then, up comes a steady stream of traffic heading up the hill, seven cars in a row, more cars than I have seen all morning! The pronghorn wants to cross the road but can't because none of the evenly-spaced cars see him or know to stop. What a bad moment for there to be traffic.
I begin to worry for the poor pronghorn as it seems trapped on the steep hillside. I wonder why it doesn't go back up the hill. Then I see why. The class I saw at the Children's Fire Trail is walking in the meadow above the hill. They can't see the pronghorn. The poor animal IS trapped. At one point it bounds down almost to the very edge of the road just as the fifth car comes roaring up. The animal pivots and charges uphill. It stumbles. Oh no please don't fall! Finally it makes a choice of facing people on foot over people in cars. It bounds over the top of the hill right past the startled class. I watch people freeze in surprise at the sudden appearance of the pronghorn. It darts to the right and in a burst of speed dashes to safety at last.
On to Tower I go and into Little America. Things are quiet at 103's, which is normal for this time of day. I see more pronghorn near the aspens just before the Slough Creek road. Up the Lamar Canyon I go and around the bend. Again I feel as though I have been away for ages. But here is the broad valley again, warm and sleepy in the afternoon sun, nearly empty of the cars and the people that will gather tonight.
I pass the Institute and as the road rises I glance towards the rendesvous area. I see movement in the meadow so I stop. What was that? There! A golden-beige body, low slung, is bouncing hopping running stopping and starting amid the sage and grass. What is that? A coyote? Where is its tail? I watch, transfixed and excited. The animal stops and I see its head, dish-faced, tapering to a point and precisely striped. A badger! It's a badger! I have never seen one with my own eyes. He starts off again bouncing and scrambling through the sage. He must be after ground squirrels or maybe voles or mice. I never put it together that badgers were carnivores but of course they are. I don't see him make a catch but he is certainly intent on the chase.
Eventually the badger moves out of sight. I continue east. Out in the Soda Butte Creek I notice what I take to be an Institute class, about a dozen folk searching the riverbank, looking for tracks. I get a site at Pebble (it just opened today), have lunch and a nap. And after tea, I'm now ready for my evening session.
Between Hitching Post and the Confluence I spot a coyote trotting toward the road from across the meadow. I pull off and watch him cross. He trots behind me along the road and I watch him in my rear-view mirror. He stays by the road until he gets to a certain wash that comes down the hill. He starts up that wash. All I can think is that Mr. Coyote is very sure of himself as he is heading right into enemy territory. I hope for his sake that the Druids are napping.
I drive on, intending to check on 103. But at Trash Can I see a familiar black Jeep. It's Doug Dance, who just arrived in the Park today along with this parents Walter and Helen. We have a merry meeting and I chatter endlessly about the wonderful day I've had. Finally, in his understated way, Doug asks if I'd like to know what he has in his scope. DRUIDS! All the time I've been yakking he's got Druids! Of course I shut up and look. I run to Ms. Jeep and pull out my (his) scope and he offers to get the dogs in view for me. There are six wolves west of the rendesvous area, 3 grey and 3 black. I do a Druid Dance for my Canadian audience.
We watch happily as the wolves interact with some nearby bison. What I mean is, the wolves get chased. Must be yearlings we figure. They move away from the bison and nonchalantly bed down again. We see heads tossed back and we know they are howling but we can't hear it. They get up and greet each other then bed down again. Other folk arrive at the pullout and a Loon Party develops. We have Jake, Leslie, Mark, Carl, Pat, Ruth, Fuad, John Deere, Tonya and Ranger Bill.
Doug decides to go to Little America to show his parents 103's densite. He explains they must turn in early tonight as they've been driving all day. I thank him again for the scope and make sure he knows how much I am enjoying it. We bid farewell till tomorrow.
Someone gets a grizzly on the opposite hill. It's a sow and two cubs of the year. Everyone thinks it's the same one that's been prowling these slopes for the last few days. It is hard to decide what to watch, grizzly or wolves but tonight I choose wolves. The six Druid yearlings are on the move. They pass a group of bison cows and calves grazing near some aspen. I am amazed at how close they come after just having been chased. Watching six wolves slink past a herd of bison is like having a window to the past. I've seen paintings of scenes like this in my animal books at home, paintings from the 1800's. And it's happening now, right in front of me.
The hooved animals are all aware of the wolves and each has some reaction. Then we see something quite strange. A set of pronghorn antlers and a set of elk antlers skim across the grass from left to right. Huh? After a while we figure it out. The animals are running in a gully deep enough to conceal their bodies up to their ears, leaving only the antlers in view. We wonder what's making them run? Eventually they emerge onto higher ground but nothing seems to be following them. The pronghorn trots off and the elk lowers his head to graze.
The six yearlings have moved far to the east and are still going. We decide to follow them and start to pack up. Jake asks me: Footbridge or Hitching Post? I feel certain that it will be Hitching Post tonight. I say these wolves are going to the den but the ones at the den are gonna come down to join them. What a lucky guess!
When we get to the Hitching Post we find the other Loons have chosen this spot, too. We set up and wait for the yearlings to arrive. To my delight Cathy and Frank pull in and join us. Pat and Bill are way out above the river bank on a hillock. Between here and the Confluence traffic seems to have stopped. I can only surmise that Rick is down there, asking people to wait. As cars come east they see all the cars and the scopes and pull in to join us. For the most part everyone is well behaved and quiet. The anticipation is tremendous.
There is a crackle of voices on the radios. At the same time I hear the first howl float eerily on the wind. Short whispers travel across the pullout and all conversation stops. More howling! Oh such a sound! The yearlings have arrived. It's coming from them. I stand stock-still and let it surround me, wash over me. Then there is an answer from the den. Many, many, many more voices sing their response to the six soldiers in the field. I weep tears of joy and disbelief at our luck in hearing this. Back and forth the howling proceeds. Oh how I wish I could translate those notes! There is comraderie in it but also such sadness. Whatever places the sound in a minor key is a mystery to me. It could be that it simply carries better, but to our ears a minor key conveys melancholy and lament. No matter how many wolves are together in an otherwise happy-seeming group, the sound they make does not forget the loneliness of life.
The howling ends. I hear whispers. Excited whispers. I see pointing fingers. Suddenly where there was just hillside and roadway there are now wolves. Druid wolves everywhere. Top of the hill, middle of the hill, edge of the road, in the road, across the road. I am ecstatic. I can't decide where to look! The scope becomes impractical as there is too much movement to follow. Binoculars are better for this! I count eight wolves that cross the road and run down to the river. The river bottom is thick with them; wolves are romping everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.
I see a large black wolf with familiar greying sides and call (perhaps too loudly) 21! I see 21! I see another wolf that may be 42 but she goes behind a rise and I lose her. I see two wolves splashing into a braid of the river and another wolf being caught in the current. I stay on this wolf until it regains its footing and climbs out the opposite bank. It shakes off and runs happily to join the others. I find 21 again. He trots confidently, tail out. I count 9 wolves behind him, more blacks than greys. I turn back to the road.
Two black wolves have stopped at the edge, clearly visible, nervous, worried, too shy to cross. Cars have stopped in the road to watch them from a distance. None are moving. For a long while no cars have passed this spot. Now I hear a new car approaching from the east. As it nears the wolves I hold my breath. Predictably, the wolves spook and dash back up hill and the car continues west.
When the car approached this pullout Jake and Frank ran out to flag it down. The driver stopped and they asked him to wait 5 minutes so the wolves could cross. Jake says the driver is a local man who said he needed to get home. Rick and his troops certainly have their hands full in a situation like this. There is no way they can convince everyone to wait. Honestly I am not sorry that some of the wolves are overly cautious. They may live longer.
The pack moves further away and we are losing light fast. I am able to find 21 again and start to count the wolves trailing him. I'm up to 13. Other folk see more. With the 2 still on the hill my count is 15. They move further upriver. I catch some movement to the right and see more wolves coming east. I can make out 3, possibly 4. Are these some of the original six? The next thing I see is a huge dog-pile of heads-together-greetings, a forest of waving, wagging tails. Then more howling comes from this group, including lots of barks and yips. Then we hear the most plaintive notes of all coming from the hillside above the road. "Don't goooOOOOoooo!" plead the two lost wolves. "We wanna come toooOOOOOoooooo!" It just about breaks my heart.
I see 21 turn and head south. It is the same matter-of-fact "ok, time to go" attitude I saw in him in the winter. The pack follows happily, brimming with energy. This gives me a last chance to upgrade my count. I get 20 this time! Then one wolf moves away from the pack. He sits down in a sphinx-like pose and looks straight back at us. No. Not at us; at the den area. He is a most distinctive-looking wolf, very pretty, one that I feel sure I have never seen before. He has sharp facial markings that remind me of a malamute or a husky. Color-wise I would say he's a grey. I get the clear impression that he is staying to wait for the two lost wolves.
This is a large, uncollared, adult-sized wolf. The only other adult grey in this pack is 106F and she is collared. Could this be a particularly large yearling that taken on or has been given special duties? I check my impressions afterward with Bill and he suggests the wolf may be the new adult male that joined the pack last fall. That wolf is believed to be related to 42 and has assumed beta male status in this pack.
We search the hillside for a sign that the two black wolves will try again. But they remain lost on the hill in the darkness. People start to leave. We Loons stay, believing it's not all over yet. We watch the stream of cars move west. We notice brake lights that come on in roughly the same spot. Some cars stop. We figure the lost wolves must still be visible up there, waiting. If they come down now, we would not be able to see them, but still we stay.
We stand in a small group now, recounting our favorite moments of the night in happy whispers. Frank jokes that while we are all looking west the wolves may have doubled back east and could be crossing right behind us. This suggestion is so powerful to my mind that when I turn to look behind us I see legs moving! I start jumping and pointing. In another second I am red as a beet (or would be if there was any light in which to see me) because the legs I see belong to a person coming out of the outhouse!
We start to pack up and say goodbye. Jake asks "aren't you and Tim gonna hike to Cache Creek tomorrow?" I nod yes. "Well", he says, "that's just the direction the Druids went". He's right! Now wouldn't that be a dream come true - to see Druids on our hike! I drive happily toward Pebble, watching for eyes the whole way.
Today I saw: Antelope, 1 badger, 3 grizzly bears (1 adult & 2 cubs), 2 yellow-headed blackbirds, bison, 2 coyotes, 3 sandhill cranes, 3 mule deer, ducks, elk (including 1 newborn calf), geese, 4 hawks, 4 great blue herons, 3 osprey, pelicans, 1 raven, ground squirrels, swallows, 2 swans, 20 Druid wolves including 21M & 42F, and 16 Loons