I really have it down, now, my morning tea-making and pack-arranging. I step outside into that thrillingly cold dry air, ready for adventure. If Doug is getting tired of this drive he certainly shows no sign of it. We see our usual animals on the way out, the Big Boys, the coyotes and scattered elk here and there.
We try to guess where the Druids will be today. We both think that because we saw them heading east last night, and because of the presence of the large elk herd beyond the confluence, that they will be at the far end of Lamar. John always says if you want to find wolves, look for elk. We agree that the wolves could easily travel that far during the night, especially in search of a meal. So, when we round the bend at the top of Lamar Canyon I am confused. Here is Rick stopped in the road, scoping a hill to the WEST of where the Druids were last seen. We can't stay here to look as we are too close to the turn so Doug pulls around Rick's car and drives on.
Over the radio Rick says the wolves are in the same general area as yesterday and suggests that the best view may again be from Trash Can Pullout. Doug drives on through the valley and I look out at the beautiful country. The valley is quite empty of elk, although there is a lot of wild territory up in the hills that could hide a lot of elk. Well, it looks like the Druids are being their tricksy selves. I was foolishly expecting a nice, open, easy sighting like I got the first two days. It looks like we're in for another day of hard scoping.
We set up at the TCP and we each take a look. No luck. However, a very dramatic dawn begins over the tops of the Absarokas so I take photographic advantage of it. We each go back to the scope periodically, but can't find wolves. Part of the problem is, of course, that we don't really know where to look. Those hills are deceiving with their many folds and rocks and sage bushes. I find the place where I saw the Druids yesterday and I try to methodically cover all ground above, below and to each side. Amazingly, there are heat waves even this early in the morning adding distortion to difficulty. I see nothing moving, and at this distance, even Doug is stymied.
We listen to the talk back and forth between Rick and Bob over the radio. We gather that unfortunately there is no pullout from which the wolves' present location can be seen. I am a little down as this is the first morning I have not had sight of Druids. Just then a car pulls in with skis in its racks. It is our man Ballpark Frank. My spirits brighten immediately. He brings news that both Bob and Rick have climbed up and over the hill in Lamar Canyon again and are hiking out to a viewable spot.
We decide to take off for other adventures and try for the wolves later. This proves to be a good choice. At the confluence we find a bighorn ram way up on the hill so we stop. It is no doubt the same animal I saw yesterday, but he is in a different spot and looks just great walking calmly around way up high, nibbling on grasses and shrubbery. You really have to tilt your head way back to see him. I feel like a New York tourist looking up at skyscrapers. I also watch the dippers in the river and check the edges for otters. Doug saw an otter here on the earlier part of his trip.
We drive on through the eastern arm of Lamar Valley until I spy a lone bison doing that great head-shovel thing in a particularly nice setting. Doug likes the set-up too and gets out his big camera. When Frank pulls up he asks "what kind of hairdo do you call that?" He means on the bison. It's true, this bison has a mop of hair between his horns that reminds me of that bad wig on Moe of the Three Stooges. Frank thinks it's more like an Afro and I can see his point. The bison is very serious about his breakfast, though, and pays us and our silly comments no mind. I have a great time photographing him; he is a gorgeous specimen - very robust with a thick rich coat and that glorious extra mop-top of head hair. It flops around as he shovels back and forth and great locks of it fall past his eyes. When he pauses, though, or lifts his head, the hair sticks up and out and that's when it looks most like an Afro. We three get the giggles over this. We are the only people in this whole valley and it gives us a heady feeling.
The bison pauses in his snow-shoveling, lifts his head and holds it in a perfect pose, with a few un-munched grass stems sticking out the side of his snow-flecked mouth. Then he turns his head the other way as if to offer his preferred profile. Finally he gives us the head-on shot we have been waiting for. He is a most unusual bison. We laugh again and then he starts to move. Not at us, although I suppose we've given him reason to. He jogs toward Soda Butte Cone then all of a sudden starts to gallop through the heavy snow as if it were the hard-pressed sand of a race- track. I have never seen a bison move so fast nor so effortlessly. We can't figure what made him run. He reaches the road and continues his strong gallop right down the highway. We hear his hooves clatter "bluckadum, bluckadum, bluckadum" against the pavement. This bison is hauling butt! Frank is still laughing. He makes me laugh, too. He is thinking that SOMETHING scared the bison and it must be something big! I have visions of a Tyrannosaurus Rex bursting through the trees behind us.
Then we look across the road and see a herd of about 25 elk running up hill. A buck in the lead is prancing, doing this fancy bouncing trot. What's got into him? Have the animals all gone crazy? The buck keeps up his fancy footwork for quite a while, putting on a real show. He holds his head very high and he has a nice big set of antlers. The cows and yearling calves behind him are running and they continue a good distance up the hill before they finally slow and stop. We keep looking behind us to the east, waiting for the monster that MUST be coming. But nothing does. Not even a single car. For the last half-hour we have been the only humans in the whole valley. It could be that our raucous laughter spooked them. We hope not but it is very strange.
We get back in our cars and head up toward Round Prairie. Here we stop and enjoy the quiet. The abundance of trees makes for different scenery and adds to the softness we feel. We hear more birds twittering here than I've heard at any place in my trip so far. Frank tells us the story of the Hypothermia Volunteers. We also look at tracks in the snow. I recognize elk and bison and rabbit and coyote and then I find a smaller set of feet. A mystery animal has done some serious exploring around the edges of the pullout. The tracks are about an inch wide and maybe a little longer. In each one I see five clawed toes with the two outer toes smaller than the inner ones. There is a gap of between 1 to 2 inches between impressions. I say I think it could be a member of the weasel family. The tracks go here and there and over and under and for the most part are evenly spaced as if the creature took its time and was in no hurry. This plus the claws suggests to me a predator or omnivore. I'd be happy to hear speculation from you track experts out there.
We eventually head back west and stop in a few places to check on wolves. Still no luck. But we continue to see strange ungulate behavior, or maybe I am just enjoying Frank's company so much that everything is funny. Here's what I mean: toward the western end of Specimen Ridge is a high white snow-slope. On this slope I see an odd parade of bull elk, about 20 of them marching uphill, one after the other, evenly spaced with about an elk-length between each. They are lined up one behind the other on a switchback trail and from this distance their dark bodies form a perfect "Z" against the white slope. Each elk moves at the exact same pace, resulting in an oddly mechanical look for otherwise graceful animals. It reminds me of the marching soldiers at the witch's castle in the Wizard of Oz (Oh-ree-oh). But that's not all. On this same slope there is also a line of marching bison. The bison employ a tighter formation, head to tail, no spaces in between, and they, too, are all bulls (or at least they are all the same size). There are twice as many bison and they march straight uphill, in the same even-paced motion used by the elk.
As the lead bison reaches the crest he makes a sharp left and the bison parade continues up the spine of the ridge, thus beginning to form another "Z" shaped line. I wonder whether this may be an indication of new weather approaching. I guess it was the odd uniformity of their movement but it struck us as awfully funny.
On we go to Hellroaring Overlook. We figure if we can't find Druids, maybe we can find the Rose Creeks. We don't but that's OK. Frank tells us tales of the BFC and the Montana DOL. An NPS truck pulls in and a Ranger gets out, carrying a sign that he puts up, warning people about begging coyotes and not to feed them. After he leaves we talk about how the animal depicted on the sign is black, which suggests a wolf, not a coyote. I say that people have enough trouble telling the difference between the two animals, that it is not helpful to have an "official" sign that blurs the distinction, especially when the purpose of the sign is visitor education. I add that my sister, an illustrator, would be horrified at such "bad" design. Ah, the pitfalls of bureaucracy.
Our next stop is Blacktail Plateau, the realm of the Leopold Pack. Frank mentions a pullout called "foie gras" which I think is an awfully fancy name for a pullout. I am always interested in how things get the names they get, so I ask Frank what the origin of this one is. It turns out what he said was "Frog Rock". I double over in laughter and to this day cannot pass that pullout without cracking up. We glass the hills for Leopold wolves but don't find any. It is extremely windy here and I have to put on a bunch more layers. A raven flies directly overhead and I notice a very large notch in one of its wings. It is a wonder the big bird can still maneuver with so many feathers gone, but it does. Frank tells the story of the Las Vegas Lip Transplant.
We drive on until we get to the Big Boys. Doug stops. He wants Frank's opinion on something. The Boys are resting in the shadows of some big pines. Doug points to the one on the right. Frank looks and sees what I see, that this bull's antlers are wacko. They are wider and flatter than elk antlers should be. There are long strips of old velvet hanging from them. When Doug first pointed out this animal to me several days ago I assured him that obviously he had discovered the famous "Elkamoose" of Yellowstone. Doug agreed and that's what we have called this animal each day. (Now, Aneita, I know your nick-name has a different etymology but I hope you'll get a kick out of this anyway). When Frank sees the Elkamoose, he is very intrigued. He thinks this big guy's antlers are clearly mutant. He guesses he's about 3 years old, relatively young, and agrees that he looks healthy. Frank believes that this is a good sign that his odd antlers do not keep him from his business. Frank goes on to say that he thinks this fellow could be destined to become one of the future legendary bulls of the Park. Frank tells us a story about the Poacher and the Legendary Bull.
On we go to the Mammoth Hotel where we meet up with Cathy. It's great to see her. We have a lovely lunch and catch up a bit. Cathy and Frank announce they have just launched their new business and that John has put up banners for it on the Chat Page which were designed by Geri & Bruce. Doug says that calls for a toast, which we do. It is so very, very nice to be able to share a meal with folks who love what you love IN THE VERY PLACE that you love. And to think that a year ago, all we were to each other were typed names on a computer screen. Loons are certainly a lucky bunch.
Our lunch is all too brief as Cathy has to return to work but she will be back tonight to join us for dinner. Doug and I take off after Frank. We have accepted his invitation for a personal tour of Mammoth's Upper Terraces. He keeps mentioning something called Narrow Gauge. It has developed into a gorgeous day, with clear blue sky and nice sun. Our tour starts at the ski trail around the Terraces. In summer, this is the one-way loop drive so popular with YNP visitors. Frank gives a special version of his Ranger Talk. He is very good at it. I have never been as drawn to the thermal areas as I have been to the wildlife but Frank makes me a convert. He leads us onto a side trail that I would never attempt myself but he is sure-footed and true. The snow is thick back here and it takes quite a bit of effort to proceed. I see tracks of several animals: elk, bison and coyote. We go up hill and down hill and the exercise gets my blood going so that the cold air is truly refreshing. Just to be hiking this short way in thick snow is a delight to me. It whets my appetite for more and I begin to imagine ski and snow-shoe adventures of the near future.
We come around a bend and I see a sunken area below, partially hidden by a natural stockade of large-trunked trees. The sunken area might be a pond or a marsh except for the thick steam emerging from it. Oh, and the colors: pink, green, yellow, white; no, not your usual forest pond.
We circle this area and Frank takes his time finding the right path. He cautions us to "step where I step". Doug and I willingly comply. Like all of Mammoth, this area is in constant flux. Yesterday's solid ground becomes tomorrow's hot pool. In ways I can't begin to explain the deposits left by the heated ground water build up and dissolve out according to many factors. We take an intricate approach to this very strange geyser that I prefer not to fully describe, as I would not want anyone to attempt it without a guide. There is a spot where the ground seems to have buckled up into a narrow ridge as if a bear-sized mole has been tunneling underneath. On its top Frank points out cracks and fissures. In some spots steam emerges and in others the lack of grass (and utter lack of snow) tips you off that it is HOT under there. Frank carefully leads us to a spot where we can see the cone and the spouting. He is surprised to find big changes since his last visit mere weeks before. Then he and Cathy had seen a single spout of hot water. Today we see a double, one shooting right and the other slightly left, falling into an ever-widening series of terrace layers, in a somewhat "wedding cake" style. As Frank describes what used to be, I can see where the constant bombardment of hot water wore away part of a layer, opening the second spout-hole.
There are odd formations everywhere I look. It's not easy finding a spot where I trust the ground beneath my feet so I don't move much. I take dozens of pictures: little towers of scalloped rock- lace and strange slopes layered in brittle scales. One spot looks like the fossilized imprint of a thousand tiny waves on a beach. The main cone is dull yellow but there is an endless variety of color in the surrounding pools: pink, purple, magenta, sea-green, kelly-green, aqua, lavender, blue and forest-green. After a while of ooh-ing and ahh-ing, we follow Frank back out and up the hill to the trail. As we return along the Loop we talk about how it was discovered that Yellowstone's thermal bacteria hold the key to DNA testing and how the Park now benefits from that connection. That in turn has led to controversy about patent holding and profit sharing. It is a marvelous visit and one that I would never have taken or even known about if not for Frank. Thanks again, Ballpark! In truth, NONE of this would have happened if not for the friends I have made on this page. John, thanks again for starting the whole thing.
Now we head to Lamar to get our evening Druid fix. I notice we don't see as many coyotes this trip. At the Specimen Ridge Trailhead I see two people with a scope trained on this side of the high hill where the Druids were yesterday. At Slough I see two more people doing the same thing. This is encouraging. In Lamar Canyon and we see Rick just pulling out. He tells us that Coyote Overlook is the place tonight. We get there pretty fast and stop along with about six other cars. As we hurriedly set up the scopes I look straight up and see Druids! Yes! I see one, two, three, four wolves walking up the highest slope on the north side of the road. As I watch, three start to bed down; the fourth and two more I hadn't seen till now go over the crest out of sight. The three remaining wolves sit just below the ridge, barely visible and I ache to know what's happening on the far side of that hill. The other folk at the pullout are talking together like something cool just happened.
In all the excitement I nearly miss what else there is to see - 360 degrees of incredible sky! I see Doug swing his camera around really fast to get the variety of views offered in this one amazing evening. There is sky drama all over the place. South above Specimen Ridge there are cloud breaks just above the tree-line which are flooded with the last bright gold of day. The trees glow in golden-edged silhouette. The west is a blaze of orange and yellow; north above the hills where the Druids prowl the clouds have thickened into a bruise of blue-grey and in the east, with its fantastic mountain backdrop, the snow-tipped Absarokas reflect soft pinks and dreamy lavenders.
I am snapping as much of this as I can and also checking on the Druids in the scope. You just never know what Yellowstone is going to offer you and you gotta be ready for all of it! A coyote trots by coming up from the road below. He slows down and stops. He cocks his ears, looking at the far side of the road, listening for rodents. I watch him, loving how close he is. Then I see a car heading this away from the east. It is going way too fast and does not seem to see the coyote. I step into the road and wave my arms, trying to slow the car down. The driver doesn't seem to realize what I am trying to tell him. I step back into the pullout, still waving my arms but the coyote is intent on mousing. Finally the car brakes sharply. The coyote looks up, crosses right in front of the car and leaps over the snow-pile on the pullout side. The car keeps going. I curse the driver. The coyote watches a minute from behind the snow and then seems to decide that was close enough. He trots away in that nonchalant coyote style down through the snow towards the flats.
The sky finally settles down to mere dusk and the Druids disappear over the hill. Frank comes back from chatting with the other wolf-watchers. He reports that a little earlier several of the pups were chasing a bull elk. Although it was a kind of half-hearted chase they came down pretty close before they went back up. Several folk got some mighty good footage. It is thrilling to hear this, even if we missed it. We keep looking uphill, hoping the Druids aren't finished for the night. Frank and Doug and I have a good old time again, chatting and joking. Frank tells the story of the Limping Coyote. We hardly notice that most people are packing up and leaving.
It grows very quiet. We three remain here in the cold, talking softly and checking the hill for dogs. The dark starts to seep in. I look around and see we are, in fact, the only people in this amazingly big valley. Far, far beyond the Buffalo Ranch I see tiny red tail-lights of cars heading home. Lamar is empty except for us... and the Druids. And then, as if they had been waiting for just this moment, I hear them howl. Oh the sheer wildness of this sound! This is how everyone should hear wolves! They howl and howl and howl and howl! It is the best of all because it is night and we are so alone. The sound travels over the hill and down to us in a thrilling, chilling song, long and winding and weaving. And then... with barely any light left, we see the Druids pop up one by one by one by one on the high ridge top. And over they come, bounding down to the next level in burly groups of three and four. A whole pile of them stops, noses touching and paws reaching and then they head to the east, taking a path between the folds, hidden from us again. We watch for as long as we can see them and then stay and imagine them for a little while longer. I do one more Druid Dance in the road.
Finally, feeling thoroughly rewarded for our steadfastness, we pack up and head to Mammoth. We have reservations at 7:30. We are still hoping John and Carlene will join us, so we can have a merry time. But when Cathy arrives she tells us of a phone call from John, explaining that the long-hoped for snow arrived and that they plan to try again tomorrow morning.
We are sorry to miss them, of course, but manage to have a wonderful dinner in the Dining Room. We make plans to go wolf-watching tomorrow and we talk about everything under the sun. I learn that Cathy plays violin in an orchestra and I hope she will play for the Loons someday. Frank is curious as to what Bruce Babbit may have to say tomorrow morning and also who else may show up to hear it. We finally say our good-byes and head up the driveway to Rest. Again we see mulies on our way up the hill. The sky seems darker than usual tonight and I keep hearing wolf howls in my head.
Today I saw: bison, elk, one Elkamoose, a bighorn ram, 4 dippers, 2 mule deer, 7 coyotes, at least 10 Druid wolves and 3 Loons.