I sip my morning coffee and watch two bison that have come to munch in the meadow next to my campsite at Pebble. I think I saw these bison in Round Prairie last night. It's a bit disconcerting to have them so close but the truth is they are intent on their breakfast and not interested in me at all.
I head out just after 6AM and tell myself I will go to 103's den but I never get there! In the straight stretch of road before the Soda Butte Cone I see cars lining the roadside. I glance to the right and... there's a wolf on that hill! I pull over and join the fun. Bob Landis is here and Gary and Pat and Sandi and Rick. The wolf we see is moving from west to east about half way up the sage hill under Druid Peak. He has a collar and looks dark brown-black. I hear people say it's 224, a yearling male, nicknamed The Bold Wolf. Then I see the grizzly!
A grizzly sow with two cubs of the year prowls the same hillside. It's another first for me to see these two predators in such close proximity. The bear and her cubs are roaming at a brisk clip but seem unconcerned with the wolf. Gary fills me in on what happened earlier. Apparently the bears were near the Druid's den this morning and were chased away by this wolf. Then just moments ago, 224 got too close to the sow and was chased by her.
224 follows the sow's route exactly, everywhere she goes. He keeps his distance but never lets her forget that he is watching. I wonder if other wolves are guarding the den while he is engaged this way?
For her part, the sow seems quite unconcerned with 224 yet seems fully aware of him. I wonder if a wolf would kill a cub if it had the chance? The cubs are not particularly playful this morning. Perhaps the earlier chase worried them or tired them out. They stay quite close to mom. The sow eventually leads them up a drainage, over a log and out of sight. Sandi and Rick ask me if I've been down to the Druid kill this morning. What? Where? Just past the confluence, says Sandi, it should still be visible from the road. Oh boy! I have to see that. So I hop in Ms. Jeep and head west. I found out later that this wolf vs. bear show went on all morning, ending in a draw.
I see cars leaning into the ditch at the Exclosure pullout and about 20 people on the hill above. I hike up with my stuff and see the kill. It's across the road on a rise above the far riverbank about 100 yards away. It's a rather gruesome sight. I have never seen a kill this close. I see the bloody ribs of what was once a bull elk and I see its antlers, stripped of velvet. There are 2 black wolves on this kill, and lots of ravens waiting. One of the wolves has a collar.
Up here already is New Loon Bonnie, Formerly Lurking Loons Michael and Karlie, and Scottish Loons Gerry and Peter whom I met last year with Ruth. Mark R and Carl join us later as do Lew & Deb, Pat & Judy and Dave (of Dave/Sue) and his friend Randy. We're all up here for a chance to watch today's timeless scene. This is just how we like our days to start. We watch and talk softly, questioning and commenting and speculating.
The collared wolf is larger than the other one. We think she is 105F and the other is a yearling. 105 trots away from the kill which brings her close to a bison. The bison chases her for a few feet but she easily avoids him. She disappears for a while and then returns to the kill, and yanks off a few more chunks. A third black wolf approaches from the east and I see a formal greeting between this one and 105. The new wolf adopts a submissive posture and licks her face. After this, all three wolves wag their tails happily.
Although there doesn't look to be much meat left on this carcass, the wolves find plenty to chew on. Periodically I see each wolf trot away from the kill into the sage, lower its head and then return to eat more. I learn that this is common behavior, that the wolves are caching food. I'm not sure how this works. I think they dig a shallow hole and bury a chunk of meat. Whether they are successful at finding these chunks later or whether other animals discover them I can't say. We see 105 set off east, presumably to bring food back to the den for the pups. Her belly looks awfully full!
All this eating and caching makes me hungry myself. Somebody says breakfast and soon Lew & Deb and Mark R and Carl and I are heading to the Soda Butte Lodge for bacon and eggs. Boy is it good. First-timers Mark and Carl are hooked. Afterwards, I head to the Footbridge to wait to see if Tim will show up. I watch a sky drama starring three small birds in their valiant attempt to mob a raven. The small birds are very persistent and work well in what looks like a team effort. The raven finally packs his black bags and heads west. Rick McIntyre pulls up. He walks over to my open window and says in his dry, even way "did you see the wolf cross the road?" What?!? "Uh, no" I say sheepishly. "I was watching, um, some birds".
Aaaaah! I have a sinking feeling I just blew my interview for assistant researcher. I want to crawl into a badger hole. Rick moves on, mercifully leaving me alone. I get busy re-packing my gear, looking around every two seconds, hoping the wolf will re-appear and give me a chance to redeem myself with Rick. Alas, it does not.
I am happy to see Tim pull in. He got my message after all. He says Betsy can't come due to work but that he got us a permit for 3L1 which means we have about a 3 mile hike. That should be easy enough. He says the weather report is not so good. The prediction is for snow!
I am excited about this hike because the Lamar Valley is so mysterious to me. I have long wondered what lies behind the hills and up the drainages. I am also excited because I KNOW bears are here. Just two evenings ago I saw a sow and two cubs high on Mt. Norris. Last Spring I saw a big black grizzly up there. I am going into the realm of the animals and I will be the stranger. I want to learn more about their world and find out if I can fit in.
We cross the bridge and hike the first flat meadow. There are tiny yellow and purple flowers in the sage and lots of scat along the trail. I practice trying to tell wolf from coyote. We get to the first steep slope and I huff and puff up to the top. The view from here is gorgeous. We can see nearly the whole river valley from the confluence out towards the Institute and the Jasper Bench and Specimen Ridge beyond
The trail is generally easy with a modest rise. I go a lot slower than Tim but he is in no hurry. We meet some day-hikers who warn us of a bison close to the trail about a mile ahead. We talk about lots of stuff, Loons and politics and animals and weather and adventures we've had. I see a side of Mt. Norris I've never seen before and I am amazed at how the country stretches out beyond what I know from the road. There are hills and more hills - so much more contour than I had imagined.
When we turn to look at the valley again we have an even more spectacular view. Tim reminds me of a camera shot in Bob Landis's film "Return of the Wolf". A deep voiced narrator says "This is the Lamar Valley". Tim thinks the shot was taken from this spot. Yep. We are right in the Druid's backyard, where the elk and the antelope play. No wonder they love it here.
Further on we see the bison we've been warned of. He is an old bull and we assume he has the usual cranky nature. He rests on the slope about 25 feet from the trail. We pause a while to make sure he sees us. Then Tim picks a route that detours well around him. The grass and sage is thick and makes for slow going. I have no idea what I will do if this bison decides to charge. There are no trees around. All we can do is watch him carefully so we will have a chance to move further away if he gets up or huffs. But the bison seems to approve and makes no threatening moves so we rejoin the trail and continue on.
We find the remains of a kill. We examine the bones and the tufts of hair and pronounce it elk. This is confirmed when we find the skull. It is not yet whitened and looks perhaps a week or two old. We see scraped and torn-up ground all around the remains, and can imagine two dozen wolves tugging at the carcass. We can't prove it of course but believe it to be a wolf kill. Which, of course, means Druids.
There is so much land back here. Hills and valleys and forests and cliffs appear on all sides leading to more of the same, all away from roads and people and trouble. We see evidence of elk and deer everywhere. How lucky we are that so many animals in Yellowstone hang out near the roads where visitors can see them, when there are all these places back here where they could hide all day.
I find a pile of scat I believe could be bear. It is not fresh but Tim agrees it's probably from a grizzly. My radar goes up again. We reach a marker where the Specimen Ridge Trail goes down to cross the Lamar. We stay high. Soon we get to a timbered bluff and Tim starts to clap and whistle. I know why he's doing this. I add my sounds to his and we proceed a bit more slowly. Then suddenly we come to the end of the bluff. We stand on the edge and look over. The wind picks up and blows fiercely. We are reminded of the possibility of snow.
Before us is the flood plain of a rushing river, Cache Creek. A wide trail leads to a ford of the creek, a trail begun by wildlife and widened by pack horses. We can see a campsite across the river on the opposite bluff but Tim says our site is more to the left, still out of view. The flat below is criss-crossed with trails and there are a dozen paths leading down.
We reach the flat and right away I see the orange marker of our campsite. Wow we're here already! First we take a quick peek at the ford. It looks rough to me, much deeper and faster than the creeks I learned to ford in Bechler. Not impossible just hairy for a first timer like me. Tim says 3L2 across the creek is not open yet due to the difficulty of the ford this early in the year. I say I think Cache Creek should be upgraded to "river" status. It is comparable to the Gibbon or the Firehole in my view. And it's very pretty and wild to boot.
The flats end in a patch of forest and this is where we find our campsite. It has an open view to the southeast over a wide-branching channel of the creek. Steep hills rise on either side, heavily forested. There is a fire-ring shaded by trees and large logs in a rough circle for seats. The bear pole is quite high and looks sturdy. One hundred or more feet to the left of the fire-ring are several flat areas under scattered trees that look perfect for tents. Tim and I search the whole site for bear sign; scat, up-turned rocks, scratch marks on trees. We find nothing amiss. The only animals we see are squirrels and birds. The wind continues to gust, leaving little doubt that new weather is approaching. We set up our tents right away in case we have to beat a retreat from rain or snow.
Once that's done we decide to hang our packs and go exploring. Upstream looks the most mysterious. About 100 yards away the river splits in two; the main channel runs fairly straight and carves great chunks of earth from a steep, timbered hillside, some of which has burned recently. The second, shallow channel curves away and makes a gentler cut from the edge of a green slope. Between the channels is a pebble-filled island of downed timber and detritus from a thousand spring floods. We cross the shallow channel to begin our trek.
I have switched to my Tevas and go happily splashing across this narrow creek. It's cold but not TOO cold and feels so good. We wander around this area a while finding handfuls of rhyolite and sulfur rock. We also find bones and what looks like polished glass.
There are small birds here that I've never seen before. Quite delicate birds. They are robin-sized or maybe a tad larger, with creamy white heads, necks and bellies and brown-grey backs and wings. They have long, slender legs but the most distinguishing thing is the way they move. They stand in the water at the river's edge and they bob up and down, up and down. My first thought is dippers but they don't really dip. They bob. Plus I saw lots of dippers in the winter and they were black. These pretty birds also flit about very quickly, flying low across the sandbars and the pebble island. We will have to check Tim's bird book when we get back.
We cross another section of this shallow channel; Tim via a log and me via the water. Tim finds a game trail along the bank so we follow it. We enter a willow bottom and Tim starts clapping and hallooing again. I add my voice now and then and pick up a pair of rocks to clack together. My adrenaline rises as this is exactly the type of spot in which one could surprise a bear. I admit to a bit of nervous apprehension on this hike since there are only two of us but overall I feel I keep my bear fear in check. I don't think Tim is afraid but then he has logged far more backcountry miles than I.
I fall in love with this snaggly forest. It is so wild and... healthy looking. We curve around and reach the main channel of Cache Creek. It is an imposing stream, quite fast and wide and worthy of river-hood. The pines grow thicker and it gets cooler. The river bed becomes more steep, almost ravine-like and there are many burned trunks on those hillsides. I keep listening to the wind and figure some of those trees are gonna drop soon. There is so much cover here, I can imagine twelve moose hiding from us easily. We find a multitude of animal prints, moose, elk and deer. The ground is getting rougher, with more rocks and deadfall, and it becomes hard for me to continue in my sandals. I suggest to Tim that we head back.
Tim climbs a hill to forge a different route back to the tents. We scramble through brush and timber up to a ridge then hike along it. I like this quite a bit. It gives me a better feel of the rest of the land as well as a view of the river course. There is a high slope to our right that has some trees at the top but is mostly grass. There are some gentle slopes to the left as well and at one point we come around a bend and find a pond, perhaps once an old oxbow of the river.
Sooner than I wish, our tents are in sight and we wander back down. Tim and I agree that a campfire would be awfully nice. I start to gather firewood and he gets his water filter going. When these chores are done we feel it's still too early to start dinner so we take another hike. I put my boots back on for this one and we set out the opposite direction.
There's a spot under the bluff that looks like a little cave so we scramble up to check it out. No cave, just an overhang of rotten rock. I slip and slide all over the place on this crumbly, untrustworthy stuff. Tim is more agile and makes his way along the lip of the overhang, finding all kinds of neat things. Finally I have to give up trying to climb higher. I slide on my butt down to the flat again and land in a pile of briars. Ouch!
We head across the meadow following the river downstream. We take another look at the ford and pick out the routes we would take if we had to cross. Then we follow the main channel downstream thinking it would be cool if we got to its confluence with the Lamar. We cross a narrow channel onto a sand bar and find something that stirs my heart: wolf tracks! Three clear prints in the river sand, larger than my palm, no more than a few days old! How I wish I could tell which Druid made them. Was it a yearling on a solo exploration? 21 or 42 tracking prey? This gets my mind racing as I imagine all sorts of wonderful scenarios.
We find lots of other prints as well: elk, deer, possibly moose, and even horse. We speculate that Rangers probably rode back here to check the condition of the ford. We also find coyote and bird prints, too. We wander around, finding this thing and that and eventually work up an appetite.
Back at camp we realize the wind has died down. The sun comes out and it looks like we're in for a nice night and even a pretty sunset. I get out my binoculars and scan the various hilltops. Of course I'm looking for bears but I'm happy to find elk instead. In fact I find elk in just about every clearing that can be seen. A few bulls over here, a few cows up there. We see a brief glimpse of a large bird (golden eagle?) flying above the bluff but it's too hard to tell for sure.
Our campfire blazes and Tim toils over his great roaring stove. He reveals a stash of red wine and it's cocktail hour at Cache Creek. Dinner is delicious (especially the garlic cakes!). We sip wine and stoke the fire and watch the light fade. We yak about Fairyland and movies and living in the American West. The moon comes out and for a while some stars but then more clouds sneak up and cover them.
Ah well, time to turn in.
I really need to do this more often. I shouldn't have let myself get so far from the real world. I have forgotten what it's like to hear the sound of a rushing stream. How I love to hear it. I snuggle into my sleeping bag and reflect that I am sleeping in a place where a Druid wolf may once have napped. Then the river music takes hold and lulls me to sleep.
Today I saw: Bison, 8 Bobbing birds, elk, 3 grizzlies (1 adult and 2 cubs), a large raptor (golden eagle?), 4 Druid wolves (including 224M and 105F) and 15 Loons