I wake up ahead of my alarm. Hooray! I've gotten enough sleep, which makes me happy. I make tea and add the luxury of fresh lemon. Mmmm!
I love that first cold breath of mountain air as I go out the door in the dark. I try not to make too much noise as I crunch across the snow to the car. On the way out the driveway we spook a rabbit into hiding. The sky is overcast and I can't find the moon. As we climb the switchbacks up to Mammoth I watch snow-dust swirl in the headlights. A little later I see car tracks in the road ahead, proving it has snowed in the night. And in a few more minutes we drive right into it.
My first real snowfall in Yellowstone. It's very nice. The snow floats down silent and thick, the type of snowfall that soothes rather than threatens. It also seems quite choosy about where it will stick. It seems to like forested areas and it definitely likes hills, the steeper the better. I am not at all sorry I don't have to worry about driving on this trip.
We see the Big Boys and our usual number of coyotes. We see the remnants of high drifts on the Blacktail Plateau and catch up to the snowplow a bit later. The snow stops somewhere around Tower. It's rather abrupt as if we have crossed a border and snow is not allowed here. The setting moon peeks out, still looking full to me, and washes the hills in silver. Just past the Slough Creek pullout a group of elk bound across the road, and then another group does the same thing going the opposite way.
We hope the Druids will be right where we left them, given what we saw last night, and they do not disappoint. First light arrives as we curve out of the Canyon. We stop at Dorothy's Knoll and see not a single elk. They have abandoned this part of the valley to the Druids. We find Rick and Bob and a few others, scopes set up and already watching. Doug gets the wolves in his scope right away but it's easier this time. The kill is right where the people were pointing last night, far out on the flats, hidden in a little depression. With the naked eye it looks like a pale orange-stain on white, with lots of black dots. In the scope I see several wolves with heads down in the most heavily stained area. I can't see a carcass (just as well!) but they are certainly still pulling scraps from it. I watch a while switching between scope and binocs. We are all so quiet and intent that I can hear the wolves snarl at one another as they feed. I see some ravens flitting in and out and I see a bald eagle perched in a tree, waiting his turn.
After a while Doug edges over to Rick and reports what we saw last night. While they talk I get the scope for long time. I watch as various wolves move around the edge of the kill, as they gather together or separate. I find another big group of them further away, near the river. They are very active, sometimes forming big dog piles of wagging tails and jumping legs. I can hear distinct growling at times. Suddenly a group takes off running, chasing one, then the other, or two ganging up on one and, I have to say it, they look like they're having a wonderful time. While I'm on the scope my hands are deep in my pockets and I wear a balaclava, a cowl, a hat AND a hood on my head. The wolves clearly care not a jot for the cold. I'm sure they consider 8 degrees warm.
Then I am suddenly frozen in place as I hear a sound I instinctively recognize. A long low clear sound that slowly, slowly rises in pitch and then falls again. It is answered by other slow moans, some higher, some faster, then more and more and more and more. So many voices! So many! I weep because I am hearing the sound I have wanted to hear for so, so very long. And I am sure of what it is because I can see the heads and muzzles of the animals making it. This lovely and sonorous wolf symphony plays on and on. So many unusual notes and harmonies, both in tune and dissonant. Just as I think it is wearing away several voices together begin again and the song is renewed with greater joy and even more variety. Finally it sinks again, winding down and shrinking until it is one lone voice again and then it stops with an unexpected bark! I am crying so much I can't see through the scope but I want to give them a round of applause. Everyone froze in silence as this occurred – I can't imagine how many times Rick and Bob have heard this sound but they seem just as pleased and moved by it as I am. Of course I do another Druid Dance.
I am now sure that it was wolves that Doug and I heard that first morning outside the Super 8. It was the same low slow sound, not the higher, yip-howl of the darling coyotes. Still, that morning there were three voices at most and maybe only two. This chorus, the Druid chorus, is made up of so many voices it must unnerve any rival wolf or prey animal that hears it. And still it is an absolutely beautiful sound.
I always imagined I would get my wish hearing one lone voice, never the whole pack, and never while they were in my sight! It is another example of Yellowstone's wonderful surprises.
I wipe my eyes and go back to watching wolves. Many have run off to play some more. A few start up hill and I see others bed down. The light is very good now so I follow Doug's example and start taking pictures. Doug shows me how to attach my camera to the scope tripod and I take some shots with my 600mm lens. Meanwhile he is snapping away on his camera, too. The wolves are spread out now and I attempt a count. Several tries net me a total of 25, although Rick has assured us that all 27 are in view. At least I can identify 21 and 42. In fact, I watch 42 walk back toward the kill. She sits down with her front paws out before her like the Sphinx. She just sits there, regal and calm, staring at the kill as if daring some foolish coyote to venture in. 21 sits down, too, about 20 feet behind her, but his posture is a bit more casual. Behind the two leaders their big family romps and plays, half on the hill, half still on the flats. I see a group of grey pups exploring and digging at something near the riverbank. I see several pups gang up on another one, jumping and tumbling and roughhousing.
My attention is drawn to a coyote that has just arrived on the scene. It prowls just beyond the pullout, traversing the hill until it pauses on a lookout spot about half way to the kill. 42 is plainly visible about 100 feet from it but she now rests her head on her paws. I get some nice shots of the coyote. Just then the coyote reveals its good sense and turns, heading back toward the road. It begins to mouse, seemingly content to wait until later to approach the kill. I see 21 get up and go back to see about the kids. 42 maintains her vigil. She looks up once to see where her sweetheart has gone, then turns back and lowers her pretty head to rest.
We watch and talk and take photos. An hour passes before we know it. Doug and I decide to move on to the eastern part of the valley. Just as I tuck my camera into its case I hear it. They are howling again! I bolt from the car and stand like a statue, along with everyone else at this pullout. We all listen in reverence to the rising and falling notes, the yips the howls the moans the barks the ruffs the wails the sighs. How I love it! The mournful, soulful, heartfelt call of the wild wolf. Twice in one day! Well that certainly makes up for missing it all Spring.
I've gotten everything I wished for and more and I still have four and a half more days! We follow the road up the valley and find some bison pretty close by. I get very brave (or stupid) and take some close-ups using Doug's car as a shield. I just love how the buffalo look with snow on their faces. At the confluence the sun is glistening on the water, turning it a lovely white-gold, so I get some pictures of it, too. But the morning is getting on and today we have plans.
On our way back to Mammoth we spot another collared coyote walking up a steep hill. Doug drives into Gardner Canyon and out through the Arch in order to show me the antelope he found yesterday. We take a left and then follow a bumpy road that leads through low rolling sage hills, lightly covered in snow. On my right I see about seven lovely pronghorn, resting. As soon as the car stops, however, one wary individual gets up and looks right at us. In no time he is moving and then the others get up. The first one dashes quickly toward the largest animal in the group and pauses there. Then in a flash they all dash quickly away, over a hill and out of sight. Although they look very beautiful when they run, I am unhappy because I feel that I disturbed them. I should have used more care, maybe by looking away and not right at them. Doug says they are very wary creatures and would have run no matter what I did. I guess if your life depends on your wariness it is a good trait to have in abundance.
We drive on and the road gets bumpier. Doug doesn't find the setting he wants so he takes no photos. On the way back we see another larger herd a bit further off. They run, too, but then stop and I get to watch them a while. A coyote ambles by and the antelope keep a very watchful eye on him, too. We find elk on these hills as well and, as always, ravens and magpies.
We head back up, park beside the Hamilton Store and walk inside. In a few more moments, in walks Ballpark Frank. We exchange Loon hugs and smiles. We had called Cathy and Frank last night and made a plan to meet him today for lunch. The three of us have a quick catch-up chat and both Doug and I gush about the Great Chase last night. Then over to the counter we go for today's specials. I make a poor choice but Frank seems to really enjoy his burrito. We sit at a table with napkins and silverware and Frank regales us with tale after tale. The "Mt. Norris Hike" story is the prize-winner (and I won't spoil it by paraphrasing here), and the rest are each worthy runners-up. Frank is such a raconteur it is sheer delight to be in the audience when he takes the stage. We also talk about the Page and a few of our favorite individuals. He fills us in on what has been posted lately and promises to report that I heard the Druids howl. Frank is clearly known and liked by the various folk at the Ham store, which comes as no surprise. As we part company he encourages us to meet him later as he and Cathy have planned a moonlight ski around the Upper Terrace Loop. It sounds great but Doug and I both admit that it kind of depends on the Druids! We are also hoping that we will run into Matthew and Mary this evening as they told us they would be driving to Gardiner today.
Frank heads back to work and we see that it is time for us to return to Druidville. So off we go again. Along the way I become fascinated by the patterns left by the new snow and how they look in the lovely winter light. A pile of jumbled rocks on a steep hill has an unusual black and white Art Deco style. The little Douglas firs near Hellroaring are nearly covered in white and new snow patterns have appeared on the trunks of the taller ones. As we climb up through Lamar Canyon I gasp at the frozen river below. One whole section stands out from the rest – it is muted turquoise and a melt pattern has developed in the center that rivals any canvas in New York's Modern Art Museum. I convince Doug to stop and as we do we see a gorgeous sunset beginning.
When we get to Dorothy's Knoll we find the gang's all here. The human gang, that is. The Druids are here, too, but no longer on the flat. They have all apparently scaled the hill and are bedded down in the snow on the bench, further to the west than they were yesterday. There is only one black wolf still in the kill area and I learn from Rick that it is 105. Whether she is serving some pack function down there or just exercising her right to sleep alone I don't know.
The kill is being fed on by three coyotes, and three more are cautiously approaching, each from a different side. There are dozens of ravens and magpies and even a golden eagle in a tree Two of the coyotes on the kill maintain a hunch-backed, snarling posture. One of the late-comers gets too close and is suddenly driven off in a rush by another. I am surprised and delighted to hear the coyotes suddenly begin a yipping chorus. I try to see which ones are howling but can only tell for sure that the one closest to me is one of the voices. There seem to be two other voices coming from behind the hill where I can't see. I do not believe any howling came from the coyotes feeding on the kill. An idea dawns on me that perhaps I am seeing an interaction between two coyote packs. Maybe the approaching coyotes are a pack that is attempting to oust the other three who are currently in charge of the kill. I can't really back this up. It's just a hunch that occurred to me after the yipping ended. Next comes a response that the coyotes can't really be happy about.
The Druids come alive with their own howling session! It begins again with one very low note, rolling and rising and then the others come in one by one by one by two by four by seven by sixteen until the valley is full of the howling sound. Rising, lilting, sharp high notes and spine- chilling low notes go on and on, trouncing the pipsqueak coyote chorus once and for all. This bravura performance by the reigning wolves finally ends on a long single mournful note. This voice, I realize, is 105, who calls to her pack mates from her lonely position far below.
I go back to watching the wolves on the bank and I see lots of post-howl activity. I see tail wagging, urinating (in all styles) scratching, stretching, digging and curling up again. I see 21 walk over and stand next to his lady love, the reclining 42, for a moment. She lifts her head and looks up at him. In another moment he turns and trots back past her then goes up and over a hill behind the pack's resting spot, heading west. Something in the way he moves lets me know instantly that 21 had made some decision. I suppose it is his confident posture, his confident trot. He looks like he's heading somewhere, like he has a plan.
Three black pups come up to 42 and display submissive behavior to her, bending down and licking at her face. Then these three wolves straighten up and follow the exact path that 21 took. One by one they go up and disappear over the hill. Now all the wolves seem to be up and moving, each one eventually taking the very path that 21 took going up and over, dropping down into what looks to be a tree-lined crease between two broad-shouldered hills. 42 gets up, stretches and goes, too. I check on 105 down at the river and sure enough she is already half way up the slope heading for the same spot. I see the last few wolves disappear over the top then watch 105 as she crests and trots off in the same direction. Now there are none.
It is getting dark but not yet as dark as last night. I remark to Doug how I was struck by the look and the whole body language of 21. It looked to me that as he stood by 42 he was weighing his options. Then he seemed to make a decision and just headed off with complete confidence. He seems so fully and easily a leader. Everything about him says it. Doug agrees, grinning.
We get word from Rick that it looks as though 21 has taken "his usual route" down to the Crystal Creek drainage. He suggests that we try driving over to the Slough Creek pullout for the possibility of their re-emerging down there. We do so, and wait a while but have no luck. I am disappointed that we have not seen Matthew and I am skeptical that there will not be much moonlight for Frank and Cathy to ski by as it seems to have become quite cloudy. Doug agrees that we should call it a night here and see about joining Frank and Cathy if it clears up closer to Mammoth. Neither of us have skis but we do have legs and feet!
As we wind our way back we have a very strange experience. The clouds close in and seem to enshroud everything except the small patch of road just ahead of us. It's not like any fog I've ever been in. We cannot see trees or hills or even the flats that we know are there on either side. It's as if nothing exists except the road ahead, just what you can see through the windshield. It was plain weird and Doug likened it to watching a horror movie in a theater when the director puts the camera in the car and you see things from the point of view of the people who are being scared to death.
Doug has an idea that provides a distraction from this, and that is to call Allison. Which I try to do. It takes a while to get to a spot where the phone will work and I finally get through only to get Allison's machine. We leave a message, the "text" of which she then posts the next day. We try again later but get the machine then, too. Ah, well. Missed Allison, missed Matthew, then, when we get to Mammoth and see how cloudy it still is, we miss Frank and Cathy, too.
This is not to say the day ended badly. It would have been much nicer had I been able to share Yellowstone with these other Loons, but I got Druids twice a day for two days in a row! Three separate howling sessions plus howling coyotes. And as we round the corner of the driveway I see a little yearling mule deer plunge quickly into a thicket. My first mulie and a cutie, too. I'd say that is a good day.
Today I saw: Antelope, Bison, Elk, ravens, magpies, a rabbit, a golden eagle, a mule deer, 14 coyotes, 25 Druid wolves and 2 Loons.