When I walk out the door this morning I am greeted by a bright half-moon and a billion stars. As we creep down the icy driveway we see elk on the slope below and as we approach the Park entrance we see a whole herd resting in a field. A few yards ahead of us it is snowing: another second and we drive right into it. Up the canyon we wind, past the homey lights of Mammoth and across the Gardner River Bridge. The snow stays with us most of the way.
Our radio remains silent as we enter Lamar and travel its length. As we round the bend near the confluence I am looking up the hill to the left in search of bighorn. Doug is looking at the river. He suddenly points, then swings into the pullout. I whip my head around to the river and see it. Otter! Oh boy. I'm excited! An otter this close and on my very last day! I get out as quietly as my excitement will allow. It is way too dark for photos but my binoculars bring him right to me.
Actually I can see him with my naked eye. He is a great big guy - he looks as big as a coyote. I had no idea otters could be that big! I guess the other ones I've seen were further away. This otter looks right at me with big round eyes and long stiff whiskers. His slick fur is dark, dark brown and sleek as a seal's. He sits hunched on an ice-shelf extending from the snowy riverbank. His long, wet tail looks heavy, its end still in the river. He only stays a moment then slips into the water without a sound or a splash. It is so silent a move I can't call it a dive although he does go nose first. To my everlasting delight he pops up about a minute later on the ice at the other side and waddles a step or two away from the edge WITH A FISH IN HIS MOUTH! I am beside myself. I see the fish still wiggling. He makes short work of it, though; it's gone in seconds. The otter gives me another look and slides underwater again.
I inch off the road into the snow for safety even though there are no cars besides Doug's yet. As I wait for him to re-appear I look around at this unbelievably gorgeous setting. The confluence is not just one river joining another. It is a flatland maze of water braids, where plants live the lush life from willows to cottonwoods to marsh grasses to thistles to sage. The water channels meander and curl; many sections are frozen over but underneath them all runs the fast-moving water. Wherever it runs free it looks jet black. Some sections of riverbank have snow piled thick right to the swift water edge and others have grown ice-shelves of varying thickness. Still other sections of the bank have begun to lose their snow in the mid-day melt revealing underskirts of brown and golden grasses. And on all sides, the background is mountains.
It is still pre-dawn and snow continues to fall; a thinner version of what we had yesterday. The channel nearest me is hard black and fast, framed by puffy snow-covered banks, pockmarked by tracks, mostly coyote. I first saw the otter on the main channel of the Lamar which this channel joins just to my right. At that junction is a triangular shelf of ice that is growing slowly whiter with today's snowflakes. This is the spot where the otter popped out a minute ago and ate his catch. Foolishly I expect him to show up here again. But another minute more and here he is – his head poking out, looking around. He goes under again and then his arched back breaks the surface and disappears. He seems to be gone an even longer time and I begin to wonder if he has traveled either up stream or down stream but then again his movement catches my eye. I watch him hop-waddle up the bank on the right and sure enough he has another fish. This one seems fully one-third his length. He moves to a flat spot on the bank and sort of flops on his stomach with his front paws before him, holding the fish upright. I can see his claws and the webbing in his paws. The otter opens his be-whiskered mouth and bites the fish head clean off. Yeow! That's more than I needed to see.
He sits in that position, finishing his meal and then preens a little, biting and smoothing some itches on his rump. He twists his spine with the same agility and grace as my cat. Again this otter looks up at me before romping its humpbacked way to the water. Into the fast black river he slides once more. I watch a while longer and several times I see his head pop up, catching a breath before he dives again. I see him on the bank one more time but he is far upstream to my left. Light is still about fifteen minutes away but we now have news on our radio that the Druids are in the valley. I bid goodbye to the otter and set off for more adventure.
Beyond the Footbridge, beyond the Soda Butte Cone we go and then we see a wolf-jam of cars. Bob Landis has his big camera out and his sound equipment. We find a spot and very quietly take our positions with the rest of the faithful. I point the scope to the south side of the road, on a fairly high forested slope above the line of the Creek to a small clearing. I see wolves. Yahoo! This makes six straight days I have see the Druids. This clearing is bigger than the one on the north side of the road last night. Plus the light is growing, not diminishing. I see wolf after wolf pass this clearing on its way up the hill. We speak in the barest of whispers. I hear that there is a kill on the near side of the river some distance to the right - I look there with my binocs and see the ravens. I make note of a nearby stand of aspen for easy reference later. As usual with the wolf kills I have seen, the spot is low and partially hidden. I can't see any part of a fallen animal - I can only infer it from the presence of birds flitting there and back.
Doug feels this is going to be a great photo opportunity so he gets out his heavy equipment. I am happily left to man the scope and I take full advantage. I find another clearing up higher with even more wolves in it. I hear Rick counting greys and blacks. I see Alpha 21 and a moment later I recognize 42. Some of the wolves merely move silently through the trees, one grey sits on his haunches and scratches behind its ear with a hind leg. Before this task is finished a black jumps on his back and the two wolves begin a mock-tussle. This takes them into the trees to the right so I don't see who won. For the most apart, though, the wolves look less energized this morning than I have seen them on other days. I guess they are stuffed.
My count this morning is 15: 4 grey, 9 black, plus # 21 and # 42, but I hear Rick count to 25. Then Doug reports to him that there is a black wolf down low, in fact, at the river. Rick responds that 105 was headed that way earlier. Rick sees another wolf up top and says "26" and then Doug says there's in fact a second black wolf at the river. I want to see this so I switch from the scope to my binoculars and sure enough I see two black wolves walking slowly out from the trees toward the kill site.
There is a pause and then Rick says "OK that's 27".
I am just about to move the scope to the two closer wolves at the river when the howling begins. Oh is that gorgeous. This sound floats to me while the snow falls, the incredibly lovely, gentle, soft and silent, wispy snow. I look though the veil of it to the forested slopes hearing the floating wolf notes, echoing off the mountains behind me and back to the slopes they occupy. My heart just melts. This is perhaps the longest and loveliest howl symphony I've heard yet. We are all stock-still and Bob is taping. The notes rise and rise and dip and rise and dip again. New voices come in, drop out come in again. It is endlessly complex and rich. There seems to be a stronger melancholy in it today but it could also just be me on my last day. And still it goes on. I lose all track of time. I know it is very cold today but I do not feel it. I am transported by this sound; it gets right into my skin, into my spine and the thrill runs up and down the back of my neck.
As it ends, with a last note from one of the two black wolves on the river I look quickly into the scope to watch for the usual post-howl activity. I see mostly tails wagging and a few muzzles touching and licking but the wolves are in the thick of trees now and hard to see. A little later I see them head over a bare white slope and disappear down the other side.
I decide to watch the two black wolves and to get some photos now that the light is good.
Doug suggests I attach my camera to the tripod so I do. I have 105 and the black pup at the kill. They both feed sporadically but seem to be more interested in chasing the ravens and magpies. I catch 105 in the air after one of them. It's a mighty close call for that raven. I notice it remains in a tree for a long time afterwards. The black pup heads away from the kill and eventually sits down to rest on a low slope next to a fallen tree. After a few more lunges at the birds, 105 heads back toward the pup. She is carrying something in her mouth. It looks like maybe a shoulder blade. She drops it or maybe she is chewing on it but she eventually brings it close to the pup and she sits down too, occasionally chewing on it or playing with it. The two of them hang out here a while. At one point the pup grabs the bone and gnaws on it. Then they both bed down. I am suddenly distracted by a bald eagle flying right overhead. I hear its heavy wings flapping, pushing against the air. I look straight up at it through my binoculars and through the falling snow and I see its white head, its yellow beak and even its dark eye! That is so cool.
Back to the black wolves. The pup is still sitting on the slope but 105 now stands alert, looking at the kill. I look over at the kill and see why - two coyotes have approached to within 10 feet. But 105 doesn't challenge them. She sits up on the slope with the pup and lets the coyotes come all the way in and begin to feed. I wonder if it was the approach of the coyotes that sent the eagle on its way?
Doug and I check in with each other and find we are both feeling chilled. He has been working glove-less for nearly an hour. It's 8 degrees and we have been out for three hours. We agree to make a visit to Steve Torreylet and to warm up. As we head out I remember the left-over pizza from last night that we still have with us. I LOVE cold pizza and this is especially GOOD pizza, to boot. The tea in my thermos is still wonderfully hot and in no time I am thawed out again. After we eat we zip over to the confluence to see if the otter is back. I would dearly love to get a photo. But we see no sign of him so I settle for some gorgeous river shots instead.
We get a call on the radio from Rick who lets us know he has the Druids again, bedded down. So we head back and find Rick at Soda Butte. We pull over and set up the scope. Sure enough, I see a nice bright bench up pretty high against a lovely backdrop of aspen and fir. I see many, many grey and black rocks scattered about here. Lots of those rocks have ears and noses. I count 22 in all! A number of people stop by as we three are watching and Rick is generous with them, letting them see the sleeping dogs lie. Rick points to the best spot for viewing the kill. He says from that angle you can even see the rib cage. A while later Rick heads out for lunch.
The snow stops and it becomes a bright, sunny day. We check out the spot Rick mentioned. I see the kill including the still-pink rib cage. There are now three coyotes on it. They lunge at ravens from time to time but don't leap at them like 105 did. I check the spot where I last saw 105. No sign of her or the black pup. I assume they have re-joined the pack. I fold the legs of the scope and walk back to the car. On the way I notice a track in the snow I have not seen before. About three feet from the road in a section of clear snow there is a large oval-shaped imprint and two more beyond it, with a gap of about two to three feet between each. I'm sure a moving body made them. A body moving pretty fast. They are about a foot deep, roughly two feet wide and maybe four feet long. And, in the snow on the road I find a single wolf track.
With the sun out in full Doug wants one more chance at bighorns in Gardner Canyon and says he wouldn't mind a last bowl of clam chowder either so we're off to Mammoth.
I am happy to see our normal number of coyotes again including dear old One-Eye who crosses the road in front of us near the Petrified Tree turnoff. When we reach the Big Boys we find them in the sun and stop for some lovely shots of them and their shiny antlers. I also get some shots of Lava Creek which I've been wanting. There is something I love about the soft puffiness of the snow banks and the still black water snaking in between.
During lunch in the Dining Room I see some elk cross into the area behind the parade grounds. One cow looks quite weary and I wonder if she is either old or sick. Then a coyote trots by with the usual cocky attitude. He stops to think whether those humans getting out of their car might be manipulated into giving him some food, then thinks better of it and hurries on his way.
Doug drives into Gardner Canyon and we both scout for bighorn. He says with the sun out so nice, perhaps they will come down to drink. But they elude us. We go all the way down though and find ourselves in a spot we have both admired, with particularly good light right this minute. It's the unusual landscape beneath Sepulcher Mountain. I am skeptical that I can capture it in a photo, though, as much as I'd like to. Sepulcher Mountain has a dramatic shape, a broad triangle with a scooped out bowl at its top which gathers light particularly well. Beneath this are its great forested shoulders, giving off a dark blue/green cast. Beneath these are softer rolling hills, almost like sand-dunes in contrast to the jagged flanks above and their color is both brown and white. The white is snow and the brown is the patches of dry grass revealed wherever the snow has melted. To me there is something sensuous about this section but I'm not sure what make it so. And at the very bottom are the sage flats, not really flat at all but seemingly so in contrast. The flats remain in snow but some grasses push through in strands of pale gold. With so many contrasting shapes and contrasting colors it's a lot for the eye and the mind to process and I see white gold white brown white blue green white all in one expanse and, well, I just love it.
Doug turns around to drive back and bam! There they are. Bighorn sheep on Mt. Everts! Doug sees several individuals. I see two. They are, unfortunately, up too high for the shots he has in mind. Ah well. But we saw them!
Now we head out for the last time and the light is sweet all the way. We stop below the Frog Rock to glass for Leopolds on the Blacktail plateau. It is even more windy than usual and we give up pretty quickly. I see elk way up on the snowy notch, a bull elk and a few cows. In the earlier part of his trip this is the spot where Doug saw the Leopold wolves for the first time. We know they're out there somewhere! We go on and stop at Hellroaring Overlook but again no wolf-luck here.
Into Lamar we come and the sun on the hills is just as gorgeous as ever. My heart always swells at this spot and I always feel at home. We see scattered elk in the broad valley and a few sleeping buffalo, each with a dusting of snow on its brown back. As we approach the confluence I am hopeful for one more sight of the otter but instead we get another bighorn on the opposite hill. This is a different animal than I saw before. His horns are different - the points go beyond a full curl. That's a big bighorn!
As we near Soda Butte Doug recognizes the car stopped there. It's Sarah and Carl! I meet another new Loon! Carl is younger than I thought but in all other respects, just the type of guy I expected to meet from reading his posts. He ignores his lingering flu symptoms and stands bareheaded in the cold. At least he wears a warm coat and gloves. Sarah smiles in her easygoing way and shrugs her shoulders. It seems Carl has left his sick bed in the hopes of seeing the grizzly that was here yesterday. While he searches the draws and hollows I set up the scope and find the sleeping Druids right were we left them 3 hours ago. I take note of the fact that several of the shapes that I thought were rocks when I looked this morning have moved themselves since, and in fact have sprouted ears and tails. Little by little I am learning to tell a sleeping dog from a horizontal rock.
Doug and Sarah and Carl and I talk about wolves and bears and politics and the chat page like old friends. Some other folk pull in and it's like a party. We share scopes and swap stories. Looking east I see one van at the pullout where we started this morning. There are now several researchers trekking out through the snow to examine the kill. And shortly after this Rick shows up. He teases with us and the other visitors, all the while sharing his scope and answering questions in his dry way.
The Druids start to move around. I see 42 get up and stretch. A grey pup comes up to her and licks her face. Another grey resting nearby comes over to join them but 42 steps over this grey, straddling it in what looks to me to be a gentle form of dominance. The grey lies still offering no resistance and 42's head stays up. She does not lunge or bite. While 42 does this, the first grey wolf wags its tail excitedly. Then these three settle down again. I mentally compare this style of discipline to the aggressive style used by former alpha 40F from the footage in The Return of the Wolf. I remember several sequences in which 40F dominates 42. She snarls and growls, uses her mouth to bite and clamp onto her sister, and 42 grovels miserably beneath her. It may be foolish to make a judgment based on just one instance but I wonder if this is an accurate example of 42's more easy-going command or if I'm just catching her in a mild moment.
I let someone else have a turn at the scope and I take a break to look for the grizzly. Doug finds some bull elk on a slope fairly close to the Druids' bench. He remarks that one of them has a broken antler. Rick adds that some of the pups were chasing that elk earlier. We speculate how it may have gotten broken.
I find some coyotes trotting along the flats on the far side of the river. I'll bet they are heading for the kill. Rick says quietly "they seem to be getting up". He means the Druids! The scope is being used so I look through my binoculars. I see lots of movement: yawning, tail wagging, and stretching. Rick speaks quietly into a tape recorder so I listen. He mentions the time. He says "21 pins the grey pup". I don't know what "pins" means and I wonder if it is just standing on him or if it includes rougher measures. I hear him start to count, then stop. He says 21 beds back down.
When I get back to the scope they have settled yet again so I return to bear-searching with Carl. He is telling me that ravens sometimes call to bears to alert them to sick or dying animals. Ravens apparently want the bears to kill the animal and to break the hide so they can have a feast. I never heard this before. Carl says he has been hearing a raven make that call so he is looking for the dying animal AND looking for the bear. As we are talking I suddenly hear Rick say "they're howling" and I freeze because I hear the howling at the same time! We all stop talking and listen. Oh that sound! It seems much further away than this morning and I think, maybe the wind up there is blowing the sound away from us to the south. This time it is very soft and haunting and sounds more diffuse than any of the other times, almost like one fat voice than the dozens it actually is. But again I hear the tinge of sadness floating within the hills, among the trees, out of the snow. And then it's over.
I slip back to the scope and watch the pack. I see 21 standing on all fours, looking out like the hero he is to me. I see him make his decision and turn around. He heads up the slope to the right and disappears into the forest. One by one his family follows, orderly but not rigid, casual but not sloppy. I wonder if there is another spot where we can see better where they are going. I scout the slopes looking for a clearing in which they might show up. The hills are layered here and the wolves could be anywhere. And as usual the light is waning. Rick gets in his car to go in search of a better vantage point. Before he does, though, Doug returns the radio he has lent us. I say goodbye to Rick and repeat my thanks along with my hope to see him in the Spring.
Doug and Carl and Sarah and I stay here a long time as the light dims. The days are getting longer but not by much yet! We are still hopeful that the Druids will burst out from some where and a chase will begin. I find three bull elk who have gathered around a large Douglas fir. There is a dry patch under the tree that looks reddish with fallen needles or seeds. Two of the bulls begin a half-hearted sparring match. They touch antlers and push a little, testing each other. Little by little it gets more and more serious until one surprising moment when the down-slope bull is backed up so fast he nearly goes down. At this point the third bull engages the first and they go at it. Their first tussle is sharp and rough; then they settle down into gentle, almost playful nudging. The down-slope bull is not out of it yet and when the moment is right he comes back in, pushing his earlier rival so hard he turns, disengages and runs twenty feet away before he stops, wondering what just happened.
This goes on a full half-hour and I enjoy it immensely. In the back of my mind, of course, I am thinking what a perfect opportunity this is for the Druids to take advantage of. These bulls are not paying attention! But the Druids are off elsewhere and they do not appear again. I am not sad. I have been amazingly lucky to see them so often on this trip. And my favorite thing about it is that I have seen them here in their own territory, the place I love so much. The place where I love to be myself.
Doug and I take our leave of Sarah and Carl and begin a farewell drive through the valley. First we go east beyond Round Prairie and up through Ice Box Canyon. The snow is so much thicker here and the closeness of the forest makes it dark and a little spooky. The road gets immediately icy, too. Seeing this I am not at all sorry I decided against staying in Silver Gate this trip. On our way back I bid adieu to each special place, the Footbridge, the Confluence, the Picnic area and the Buffalo Ranch, my new favorite spot at Dorothy's Knoll (because of the Great Chase) and the top of Lamar Canyon. I say good-bye to the Junction Butte coyotes who sit on the top of rocks to greet the morning, and to One-Eye, and to countless elk and bison. It's dark when we get to the Big Boys and the Elkamoose but I say farewell to them, too.
As a final gesture Doug drives out through the Arch which he says is his tradition. The last thing he does on this last night in the park is focus his scope on the night sky. Doug points out the Rings of Saturn, Jupiter's moons (I see two!) and best of all (for me) the Orion Nebula. He has been waiting for a night in which conditions would permit us to see these wonders. Isn't it just like Yellowstone to provide it on the very last day?
What a place!
Today I saw: bison, elk, an otter, two fish, dippers, three bighorn sheep, 10 coyotes, ravens, magpies, a bald eagle 22 Druid wolves and 3 Loons.