The morning is lovely and quiet. A little bit of fog clings to the hollows. On the drive through Little America the animals elude me but once I round the bend at the top of the canyon, Lamar stretches out in all its beauty before me.
A bull bison walks parallel to the road, then turns and crosses the pavement. I watch him make his lonely way up the sage hill, to a place only he knows. There is fog on the river that looks like swirls of cotton candy. I look for the lakes on Jasper Bench that the moonlight revealed last night but they seem to have disappeared. Is there such a thing as a moon mirage?
I stop at Coyote Overlook and put Layla to work. I hear the sound of sandhill cranes echoing in the valley but I cannot figure out where they are. Finally I find them across the river from the Old Picnic area, striding together in the riverbed. Such odd birds, very ancient they seem to me. I see bison grazing just below the tree line on the alluvial fan and I scan the hilltops for elk. I find a few on the highest slopes. I drive slowly all the way to Round Prairie, enjoying the views, the smells and the quiet.
I come back and scope every inch of the rendesvous and the confluence and finally resign myself to the fact that the Druids are not in the valley this morning. I go back to Picnic to see if I can find the sandhills again and I run into Pat and Lynn. They give me the scoop. Druid signals were picked up from Hellroaring but none have been spotted yet. The Leopold pups have been seen. We decide to take an earlier than usual breakfast at Roosevelt. It is yummy as always.
After breakfast Lynn joins Ranger Bill in the parking lot in front of Roosevelt for a guided hike of the Garnet Hill Loop. Pat and I chat with him while Lynn gets packed up. Then we wave goodbye and then head off on our own adventure, in search of the wolves of the Blacktail Plateau.
We pass by Hellroaring but there's nothing going on yet so we end up hiking along the Blacktail Road. It is gorgeous and chock full of wildflowers and mating butterflies. It also is home to bees and skeeters and there is very little shade. When we get back to the cars we are very hot and of course I need to douse my head.
While we rest and gulp water at the Frog Rock pullout, I hear coyotes yapping. The sound seems to be coming from across the road at the Children's Fire Trail. I see two people there, looking at something. Pat gets interested and walks towards the road without her binoculars. I hear her call to me and wave wildly. I come running, and bring my binocs (but not my camera, alas). Pat is saying something over and over which I don't understand. "Four brown babies? But they shouldn't be brown". I think Pat's been in the sun too long. I look where she points and suddenly I see movement. A large black body moves up a dusty sage hill, on what looks like a trail. Several smaller bodies follow it. Pat keeps saying "A black wolf and four brown babies!" I am very confused.
I do see a black wolf with a radio collar. Suddenly the wolf halts and swivels around, growls and snaps at the closest "baby" which is hardly what one would expect a wolf to do to its young. My head finally clears and I realize what I'm seeing. Those are coyotes! They are harassing the wolf, "escorting" him from their territory where they very likely have a den.
I'm looking at a Leopold wolf! Just what I came to see! Pat and I are now on the same wavelength and we watch the drama unfold. The black wolf continues up the hill at a fast walk, startlingly visible to anyone driving on the road. The four coyotes follow about two lengths behind, close to each other but taking four separate tracks. I stay on the wolf, making mental notes of his appearance. He is male and he is very large, at least in comparison to the coyotes. Something about him reminds me of 21. His chest and neck are robust and his sides go grey halfway down just like 21. Unlike 21 his forehead is still black. That's all I get as he crests the hill and disappears. The coyotes give up the chase. They stop and turn, then break into a lighthearted run going back down the way they came.
Pat and I are amazed. It is especially exciting to see a wolf from the Leopold Pack as they are quite famous in wolf lore but are rarely seen by tourists. Their fame is due to the fact that they are the first pack known to have formed in Yellowstone in the "natural" way, by a male and female dispersing from their home territory, who then meet, mate, den and raise pups in a new territory. The Leopolds have raised pups on the Blacktail Plateau every year since 1996.
This intrepid pair, 2M from the Crystal Creek pack and 7F from the Rose Creek pack (daughter of famous 9F) were both pups trapped in Canada and released in Yellowstone in 1995. 7F died just this year but her pups have been raised by the rest of her pack. 2M is still the alpha male of the Leopolds, and is now the last known living wolf of those re-introduced in 1995. I do a Leopold Dance and Pat approves.
In the next pullout we meet a man and his son who saw the black wolf appear just as we saw it disappear. They followed it with their binocs across the meadow and just now lost it in a clump of trees. They are very happy. It's their first wolf. We enjoy talking to them and fill them in on the part we saw. We tell them how rare it is to see a wolf so close to the road in the middle of the day!
At Hellroaring we find Brian C. We spew out our sighting to him and ask him to call it in for us, which he does. Then he gives us some news: Druid signals are still being received and it is believed they may be headed home! I wish I could stick around to see them there but I have other plans for this evening.
We have a nice chat with Brian and then I have to head south. Tonight is the pre-Thorofare campfire at Bridge Bay. I decide to go the long way since I have time. Near Wraith Falls I see a group of running pronghorn, 15 of them, the most antelope I've ever seen together. I also get a split-second glimpse of a coyote on the hill above them.
I head on through Mammoth and stop at the south end of Swan Lake flats to gather firewood, my contribution to tonight's campfire. I have an uneventful drive the rest of the way to Canyon. I am ahead of schedule so I do some souvenir shopping and find a bandana designed like a map of the Park. I can't resist buying it since it features part of the Thorofare Trail!
Next I head south for Hayden Valley but before I get there I see something that makes me stop in the road. A bull bison grazes beside the left lane. Not 10 feet from the bison's head is a 40-ish man holding the hand of his grade-school-aged son. They stand there stiffly, watching the bison eat. Without thinking I say "Sir you are WAY too close to that animal. Get back across the road behind my car".
Cars behind me stop while the man and boy cross behind me. They walk along the right shoulder to their car parked up ahead. I creep beside them, keeping my car between them and the bison. Once we are passed it, I roll down my passenger window and call to him. "Sir, I'm sorry for being so sharp but please understand people have been killed by bison in this Park. You can't predict what they'll…" The man keeps walking. He doesn't want to listen anymore. I suppose I embarrassed him terribly in front of his son. Then I see a woman sitting in the car with her camera. I put it together: she was taking their picture!
I drive on but I'm shaking. I have never seen anyone do something so stupid and so dangerous right smack in front of me. Those parents put their child a length away from that animal's horns. I hope I did embarrass them.
Luckily the rest of the way is incident-free. The valley's beauty is soothing and all the bison I see are far, far from the road. At Bridge Bay I check the bulletin board. I see the word LOON! It's a note that tells where Jake and his family are. I drive back to say hi. I find two tents but nobody home. I leave a note attached to my fly swatter. I figure that ought to get a laugh out of Jake. Then I drive to Lake to check in.
The room I'm given is designed for a whole family. It has three Queen-sized beds and a gigantic bathroom. If only my Manhattan apartment were this big! Lake Hotel is absolutely lovely and I hope to stay here again when I have more time to concentrate on its history and elegance.
But for now I head back to Bridge Bay. Opposite the registration hut there is a moose lying in the cool grass beneath some trees. I take his picture and then see a familiar truck pull in. Tim A's truck! I join him as he check's in and we chat. Then he spills the bad news.
"Hey listen. Dan's not coming."
Tim tells me the story. Dan's not hurt but he had an accident on the highway in Nevada. The car ahead of him hit a jack handle that was in the road and it flipped and slammed into Dan's radiator.
"Oh, no! That can't have happened! Poor Dan!"
My heart goes out to him. I can imagine how disappointed he must be. Poor Tim doesn't want to be telling me this any more than I want to hear it. He explains how he got a phone call from Dan with the news, that Dan knew his car could not be fixed in time to make the hike. He is stranded. Tim went online to the Loon Page to try to come up with a plan that would get Dan from that tiny Nevada town to the Bridge Bay boat dock by 8AM Thursday morning.
A plan was hatched for Ed to rescue Dan and drive him from Nevada to Salt Lake City. Tim would then pick Dan up from Ed and drive all night to Yellowstone and thus arrive in time for the hike. Trouble is, by the time Tim told Dan of the plan, Dan was no longer in Nevada. His dad had come to the rescue already and had driven Dan to the Grand Canyon (Arizona) where he worked.
So we are both bummed. The trip will not be the same without him.
On we go, however, and when I pull up to Jake's campsite, we see the rest of the gang is here. It's great to see Jakeman again. We meet his younger brother Pete and his parents, Laurie and Lonnie. They are all easy going, warm and funny, instantly likable. Loons Lori D and Kristine are here, too. Of course Tim has to tell them all the news about Dan again and it puts a bit of a damper on the evening for a while. The hike will not be the same without him.
Then Pat and Lynn show up and we do more introductions. We get the fire going which keeps the skeeters away. We are yapping up a storm and getting pretty hungry. Lonnie suddenly appears with hot dogs and before you know it, we are roasting wieners over the fire. Pat adds a tub of blueberries and we manage to have a jolly time. We catch up with each other and make predictions for the hike. Jake and Pete recount some of their recent adventures in the Beartooths. They talk about climbing Colter Peak and looking for an Indian Medicine Wheel up there.
Just after Pat and Lynn take off, Allison and Mark R arrive. They know about Dan already since Allison got a message directly. Our Queen Loon makes the evening very special with the gifts she brings. First is a bottle of wine, but not just any wine, "Smoking Loon" Merlot! She also has plastic wine glasses for all of us. We each take a tiny bit and toast Dan. Then we toast John Uhler and finally we toast Allison. Then she pulls out another gift to the Boyz of the hike, Swisher-Sweets cigars, the significance of which harkens back to the Original Basin Boyz hike to Fairyland in 2000. The cigars are to be smoked at a point of our choosing, as long as it's in the Thorofare.
Allison, you are the best! Thanks again!
Thanks to all the Loons who gave up an evening to celebrate with us. For me, I think it helped to soften the Dan news to have you all there supporting us. Special hugs to Mark R, Lori D, Kristine, Pat and Lynn, and of course Queen Loon Allison, for sharing that special night with the Boyz and Girlz of Thorofareyland!
Well, all good things must have an end, they say, and the Young family needs to get some sleep before tomorrow. The plan is to meet at the boat dock no later than 8AM. We all head to our various cars and have many hugs goodbye.
Tomorrow I'm going to the Thorofare!
Today I saw: Bison, elk, 5 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, 1 moose, 15 pronghorn, 1 Leopold wolf, and 13 Loons