Despite getting in kinda late last night both Doug and I are up at the usual time. It is already snowing as we leave, a very quiet but determined snow that continues the whole way out. We pass a female hiker with a very large backpack and walking sticks coming down hill in the dark and the snow. I don't realize until much later that she is with the cougar research team. We have seen their trucks at Hellroaring. Cool job she has. For the first time on this trip, we do not see our usual coyotes along the road. We wonder if this is due to the snow, or perhaps to yesterday's increase in traffic (not to suggest big numbers, but there was an obvious increase). Of course the coyotes could have reasons of their own for being absent.
When we get to Lamar we find ourselves the first to arrive. Again we find wolf tracks by the side of the road but can't make out a clear story. And with the steady snowfall it is too difficult for me to tell how recently they were made. We cruise slowly, enjoying the stillness and the beauty of the snow. I feel acutely aware of animals here, even though I actually see less of them than usual. Doug pulls over at the Picnic Area and we get out to enjoy first light. I hear a woodpecker hammer in the distance. The snowflakes fall with the barest whisper of sound. I have been very surprised by the lack of wind on this trip. I expected that dealing with constant wind in my face and wind-chills in general would be the toughest thing for me to deal with, weather-wise. Well, thanks to great luck I have yet to experience it. It has made standing for hours in single-digit temperatures quite tolerable and even easy.
In a little while we see a car heading this way from the East. We guess it's Rick and it is. He stops and we talk. Rick tells us he has gotten limited telemetry signals from the Druids but no visuals. However, he says that Bob got Druid signals from Hellroaring which indicates they are very high up. Bob also got signals from both Tower and Rose Creek wolves from there. Today is the day Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gives a talk at Mammoth and it is widely known that he and his entourage will be heading toward Lamar afterwards. Rick, of course, would like to direct the Secretary to some nice sightings and I imagine Rick is feeling a bit of pressure to "produce". However, since he knows very well the unpredictability of his subjects, I don't think it's my imagination that the usually calm Rick seems a bit on edge this morning.
He asks Doug if we would head back to Hellroaring and see if we can spot any Rose Creek activity. He says he will keep us updated on Druid activity should it develop. I admit to being reluctant at first as I have had so much wolf luck in Lamar and so far none at Hellroaring. Doug reminds me that on the earlier part of his trip he had good luck there. Of course I know it's the least we can do to help Rick and to cooperate in the larger scheme of what's good for the wolves.
So off we go. The light struggles against the steadily falling snow. As we reach the flats by Roosevelt we see Bob's car stopped in the road. In the meadow to the right Doug immediately sees ravens and magpies and that means a kill. I now see two coyotes with their heads down, feeding. Several ravens perch in a lone tree nearby, waiting their turn. Well, well, isn't this interesting! This is the same meadow where I watched the young elk pronging yesterday. I wonder if One-Eye will get to feast today because of the wolves. I hope so.
Bob tells us he believes this is a kill made by Tower wolves, and that they are still in the area, perhaps bedded down somewhere on that hill above. Doug tells Bob we are headed to Hellroaring but will look for Tower wolves on our way there. I think how are we going to do that without telemetry? Silly Wendy. We drive on through the lovely hills and curves until we get to the Elk Creek pullout. We stop here. I set up the scope while Doug glasses the hills. Then he looks in the scope while I glass the hills. It is a gorgeous spot, a view of a high rounded mini-mountain, forests on both sides and a recovering burn area to the right. On the left are rocky cliffs surrounded by evergreen forest. I hear Doug say "we've got wolves". What? No way! This fast you've found wolves? I remember how astonished I was last Spring when Cathy W. spotted three mountain goats on the cliffs of Barronette Peak barely a second after getting out of her van. This is the same degree of astonishment. Doug grins and steps aside. I look in the scope. WOLVES! Sure enough, what to anyone else would have been merely three rocks on a snow slope Doug has recognized as bedded down wolves. I see just enough ear-flicking to assure me I'm not being fooled. I see a grey, a black and a rock. The rock finally convinces me of its wolfhood by getting up, shaking the snow off its back and bedding back down into a rock shape.
I am utterly amazed. Doug beams and rightly so. And these are brand new wolves for me to add to my sighting history! I compose a Tower Wolf Dance and perform it in the road to an audience of 1 Loon. This is such a great sighting and I must add that he did it in extremely low visibility. Scoping through thickly-falling snow is like scoping through fog. In my excitement I forget that we need to tell Rick and Bob. Doug goes to the car and retrieves our radio to report in. I stay on the scope and watch. These animals sleep, unaffected by the steady-falling snow. They move a little here and there but mostly seem to be napping comfortably.
Doug calls Rick, Rick calls Bob and in a few minutes Bob is beside us in the pullout, setting up his scope. He confirms the sighting and congratulates Doug. We chat a while and I get to ask Bob how the reception was last night. He grins and says he enjoyed it. After a little while he goes back down to Tower and then Rick arrives. By this time we have three more wolves, the full group of six known as the Tower Wolves. Rick is happy. He writes down our names in a notebook and tells Doug he will be given proper credit for the sighting. He says the Secretary and his entourage will be coming out soon and offers to introduce Doug when they do. Rick asks that we remain here at least until he can send another volunteer to maintain the sighting. Of course we do. In a little while a van pulls in and inside is a friendly young man named John, who, coincidentally, we met last night at the Mammoth Dining Room where he works.
We three remain at this post, watching for and reporting any activity as it happens. Several people stop to ask what we're seeing. We tell them and share the scopes We talk about wolves. Sometimes it is hard to convince them of what they're seeing, that we're not crazy. But they leave happy. I have an amusing solo side trip when I feel the call of nature. I scout about for options and find them quite limited. Soon I find myself hiking up a steep hill through thick snow in pursuit of something like privacy. I am pleased to finally find a secluded spot, thanks to some Douglas firs and a great big rock, which still offers an amazing view through my binoculars of the sleeping Tower wolves on the opposite hill. My only concern is that the area directly above me looks like prime cougar habitat!
A little while after my return, the wolves begin to move around. I see them stretch and yawn and interact with each other. Then, as wolves do, they set off on a jaunt, the purpose of which only they know. What do they care who is coming out to see them? I see all six wolves move down the hill, at first taking various paths in no particular order but then they begin to straighten out into a semblance of a line. I am watching a big fluffy black wolf in the lead. Three greys and another black follow. This first black wolf is large but has the bouncy, lively attitude of a young wolf, like the Druid pups. I watch it run downhill across a snowfield in a very jaunty way. I remark to Doug about this. I wonder if this is the alpha and if so, doesn't it look kinda young? Just then I realize the big black is NOT in the lead. There is a grey that has slipped my notice about 20 yards ahead of the black one. This grey wolf has its head down low, nose pointed to the trail. I wonder what it is smelling? Its trot is strong and determined, very similar to the confident trot I have seen in 21. The few times I have seen the Druids on the move, they have always had their heads up.
The grey keeps its head low to the trail as do all the other wolves except the fluffy black one. I would really like to know what they are sniffing! The grey slows down at one point and the fluffy black one draws alongside it. They pause, both looking west. They look just beautiful as they stand there still as statues with snowflakes falling all around them. The black reaches its muzzle to the grey and seems to lick its face. It is clear how much bigger the black wolf is but when they move again, the grey remains in the lead.
As much fun as it is to see this activity, the three of us are aware that our raison d'etre is about to vanish. I scout the terrain ahead to see if I can predict a path that they will follow in which I will still be able to see them but it does not look promising. And soon we lose them all. We know from the radio chatter that "the Secretary has left the building" but they are already too late. I wonder out loud to Doug why they didn't plan a pre-dawn viewing session and schedule the talk for mid- day when most wildlife activity slows down anyway. Then again, since when do politicians, even those who LIKE wolves, do the sensible thing?
A few minutes after this, young John suddenly calls out that he has them again. He points to a tiny triangular patch of clear hillside between jumbled rocks and thick trees. I find the spot just in time to see a single grey wolf cross the space and disappear over the crest of the hill. I stay on that spot a while hoping to pick up other movement but find none. Where they would re-appear after that is impossible to guess and there plenty of forest to hide them.
We stay a little while longer then Doug suggests we might be of further help if we can spot some Rose Creeks as originally planned. We notify Rick and learn that there is still no Druid visibility in Lamar, although Rick remains hopeful. Doug and I set off for Hellroaring. I am so focused on the hills to the right that I realize a few seconds too late that THAT was Frank and Cathy in the car that just passed! I didn't see John Uhler's van behind it, so I wonder if perhaps he was not able to make it after all. When we get to Hellroaring we try calling Frank's car phone but the signal fails. So we set up our scopes and do our best to get some wolves.
The snowfall is even more beautiful to watch from this height. It also makes viewing much more difficult as the distance creates a thicker veil before us. We hear a raven knock-knock-knocking in a tree. We see some interesting small-bird activity. One may be a nuthatch but it doesn't stay in one spot long enough for me to be sure. On the high slopes we see a herd of bison and scattered groups of elk. Doug points out where Rose Creeks are most likely to be seen but we do not find any. After a while we pack up and head back to Elk Creek. We check in with young John, only to find the situation the same as we left it. While we are here we see the entourage pass by, at least ten vans and Doug recognizes Kevin's (Bearman) blue one bringing up the rear.
We chat with John and speculate where in all these hills and plateaus and forests the Tower wolves may have gone to. I wonder whether they may have taken a round-about way back down to their kill or whether it is more usual for wolves to stay away from a kill once they have abandoned it to coyotes. Our radio has stopped working so we relay through John to Rick that we are ready for our next assignment. Rick asks that we keep trying to re-locate the Tower wolves. He suggests a new position between the Tow-Truck pullout and the Yellowstone Picnic area. From there we should have a fairly wide view northwest and may get lucky.
We set up both scope and camera. It is another breathtakingly beautiful spot and all the more so for us being the only humans around. We look and listen, often turning around to look up the hill behind us, where I have so often seen mule deer in other seasons. Doug says the he rarely sees deer in the Park in winter; they migrate to the lower elevations around and beyond Gardiner. Doug and I talk about the Tower wolves and their behavior. Doug thinks the wolves could see us as well as we could see them. His experience tells him that wolves do not like to be watched, which is why they often bed down in places harder to see than that slope. He reminds me that at one point, our two scopes attracted as many as five cars at that spot. It was shortly after that that the wolves moved. I count my lucky stars that I have seen wolves as frequently as I have.
While we are searching, we are visited by a young woman named Sarah, who is "Moose". A new Loon! Sarah and Carl (Bear) are a couple. We learn from her that Carl has been sick with flu which is why we keep missing him at the gas station in Gardiner where he works. She says she met Frank and Cathy in Lamar and that they wondered what was keeping us. We ask if she saw John Uhler there but she hasn't. We tell her there is another Loon in the Park today, Fairyland Basin Boy Tim A., who is skiing with his family at Old Faithful. We have a very nice visit and Sarah spots two bull elk on the very hillside I have been looking at since we got here. Now that I see them, I don't know how I missed them! I also see a squirrel dashing across the snow.
A little while after Sarah leaves, a man in camouflage winter-wear comes by, whom we met earlier this morning at Elk Creek. He tells us he has been in Lamar and that someone reported a grizzly sighting! I am astonished and find it too hard to believe. The man says he missed it but others swore it was there. I assume either this man is pulling our leg or someone has pulled his. We know Frank is in Lamar and wonder if he is telling tales.
We continue our search. I attempt to be very methodical by creating a mental grid of the area and scan it square by square. I find no wolves but I see two more elk, then three, then four. At one point they are all looking very intently at something and my hopes soar. Another moment their heads go down and they move casually out of sight.
I begin to get hungry. As if in response to this, Frank and Cathy appear. They report that John and Carlene cannot make it after all due to the weather. This makes me sad but then they announce the astonishing news that they saw a grizzly in Lamar! I fairly scream. They were at the Footbridge pullout with a number of other folk and it came into view at the top of a draw among some trees to the left of the Druids' old den site. Frank says it stopped under a tree and was digging steadily at a squirrel midden and eating what it found. He says he guessed this bear to be a young male, probably denning on his own for the first time this winter. He says he has been told that in mild winters, like the one Yellowstone is currently having, young males sometimes wake up hungry and come out for a brief spell to see what's available. I am so jealous yet thrilled to hear of this. Cathy says that the Babbitt entourage arrived as the bear started to amble back uphill. By the time they all had parked and walked over to the scopes the bear was gone! Frank adds that Rick's telemetry confirmed that the Druids were in the area but up so high and in such dense cover that not a peep could be had. The last Frank and Cathy saw of Rick, he was headed out to Dead Puppy Hill to try for a sighting from there.
They ask if we will join them for lunch as they know of a great place that has interesting good food at very reasonable prices. We say yes and relay to Rick that we have no sightings to report and are headed out.
The snow lessens and finally stops. I see small groups of elk at Floating Island Lake and then I see more of them walking picturesquely along a ridge near Frog Rock. The Big Boys are hidden under the Douglas firs and again we miss the presence of our usual coyotes. As we reach the lower part of Gardner canyon Doug sees what he has been missing for several days. Bighorn! Doug, Frank and Cathy all see the animal easily - it takes me a while but I finally do - way, way up on the topmost ledge of the bare rock wall. I see one animal although Doug saw two. Cathy points out a regal-looking golden eagle atop a tall spire. Nice!
Lunch is at the Sawtooth Deli. Just as advertised the service is terrific, the food is home-made great and the price is very right. I have so much fun with Frank and Cathy - they are such generous, humorous and knowledgeable companions and they have great taste in food. Over lunch they tell us more about their impressions of Babbitt's talk and the feisty question and answer session that followed. A representative of the BFC was there, as well as other interested parties and a few crashers. Mike Finley sat next to Bruce Babbitt and they took turns fielding whatever came up. It sounds dry on the page, but it wasn't when Frank was telling us. No one can spin a tale like he can!
Back up the canyon we go. We spot the golden eagle and one bighorn again. We drive on into Lamar and stop at the Footbridge pullout. It seems like old times as there are a half-dozen cars still here. Frank shows us where the grizzly was. We see Rick's car in the road about halfway to Soda Butte, stopped. We know there are no pullouts available there, so we decide to be patient. I recognize a Loon that I met last Spring, Judy from Colorado. She is her usual lively self and tells me her version of what went on this morning at Mammoth. We glass the hills that Rick is scoping but see nothing. In the flats I see a lone bison shoveling snow and a long-legged coyote cockily trotting along the far bank of the Soda Butte. I turn back. We have many scopes trained on the forested slope where we believe the Druids to be but can't see a thing moving.
Then our radio comes alive with a call from Rick. To my surprise he asks that Doug and I walk down and join him at his location. I feel both honored and chagrined to be singled out like this. Neither of us know what he is going to ask us to do next. When we reach him he has his scope trained up the hill north of the road and quite a bit to the right of where we had been looking, in a clearing that is probably not visible from anywhere but here. Rick treats Doug and I to the only view of the Druids we had that day. When it is my turn at his scope I see three wolves, plus 21, walking slowly from their bedded-down position under a Douglas fir to a new position under a different tree. I see them for maybe 10 seconds as they move up through a snowy clearing. Then I lose them in the next patch of trees.
From Rick we learn that the Secretary and his entourage did finally get a brief Druid sighting but had to trek out to DPH to get it. I sense an ease in Rick's demeanor that was missing earlier in the day. Doug asks Rick about the grizzly. He confirms the sighting (not that we doubted Frank!) and agrees that it was most likely a squirrel midden that the bear was digging in. Rick finds it interesting that the bear and the wolves were in such close proximity. He believes the wolves had a kill in the area and that the bear may have come upon it. Rick seems to speculate that it is not mere coincidence that both animals were spotted in the same area. We talk about the rarity of seeing a bear at this time of year. Then Rick says he has heard some new evidence that in mild winters, grizzlies are particularly drawn to humans wearing blue coats. I look up from the cover of my blue hood and give him a raised eyebrow. Rick continues this line of teasing as we walk back to the others at the pullout.
I am happy to have had this brief but special wolf sighting and also to have had a glimpse of Rick's unique personality. I feel absolutely sure that he was paying Doug back for his help today. At the pullout we rejoin Frank and Cathy. We hang out talking a while. Then I take a quick hike up the hill in the direction of the old den site. I HAVE to see what it looks like up here while there are no restrictions on my doing so. It is not an easy climb. There is a tough snow crust that I must crack through with each step. I finally make it to the top and look around at the landscape. There is so much more to see here than I ever imagined. I see many layers and folds of hills, big and small patches of trees with hidden pathways to and from every angle. No wonder the Druids were so hard to see here. I head back down which proves an even harder task. I lose my balance as I step into snow up to my waist and topple over. It feels good instead of bad and I lie there on my snow-bed a few seconds, breathing hard and savoring the moment, being a part of the spot at which I stared for so many dawns and dusks last Spring.
Darkness comes to Lamar. Cathy has another great idea for dinner this evening and we follow their car toward Mammoth. At the Tower kill we see one coyote feeding and a big bird in the lone tree which may have been a raven or maybe an eagle. Cathy's great idea is Outlaw's Pizza and we have a marvelous time. I give it my highest recommendation, and you know I know from pizza! I hear more details about Cathy and Frank's new business, their unique ideas for terrific Yellowstone tours. We talk about the future of the Park, what the new Bush administration may mean for its continued welfare and how ready we each are to remain active in its defense.
Finally, we must say goodbye to our friends. I have one more day in the Park and they have to get back to their lives. I am so happy to have been able to share so much time with them and I leave feeling comforted that these two people who care so much about the Park are in fact close enough to it to do the most good. Frank and Cathy, thanks for everything!
Today I saw: bison, elk, a bighorn sheep, a golden eagle, 4 coyotes, a squirrel, ravens, magpies, an unknown little bird, 6 Tower wolves, 4 Druid wolves and 5 Loons