We pick up another few inches of snow overnight. This snow is colder and drier than yesterday. And today seems the coldest day yet; low 20’s is my guess.
The swans are nestling on the shore this morning. A lone cow elk stops on a hillside to watch me pass. I come around the bend and into Lamar and exclaim out loud. Wow! A whole lot of new snow is stuck to the tops of the sage hills, much more than I have ever seen on them except in winter. This magical valley looks different yet again. And it’s still snowing.
I hook up with Gerry on the hillside across from Trash Can. I meet Jim and Judy from Colorado. We scope the r-v area but can’t really see much because of the snow. We’ve been told there is one wolf is out there and we guess there may be more. It’s very windy and cold up on this hill and in a little while Judy and Jim head down.
Gerry and I speculate the Druids are likely to be returning to the den from points west. We see elk moving on the north sage hills. A small group of cows are at attention, watching something. One guy calls out “wolf”. Most of us miss it, including me. The way the elk are looking it’s easy to believe there is a wolf passing by. But he must be gone now as the elk drop their heads and go back to grazing.
It’s hard to stay warm up here with the wind blowing cold snow in our faces. I mention the beaver and Gerry seems game to try so we head down the hill to our cars. Just as we start east Jim and Judy come back and call to us, saying “there are two headed this way!”
We back-up, park and haul out the scopes. We set up in the sage just beyond the pullout (it is a tad warmer this way). We focus on the northern hills and I see the group of elk we saw before. They are somewhat more bunched. We are waiting for wolves to appear and then we see large dark shapes moving from west to east. Not two wolves but two grizzlies! Two big dark grizzlies, a courting pair, one following the other, strolling casually along the ridge below the elk.
A clear, relatively close sighting like this is a real treat and I enjoy it immensely.
In this light the bears look about the same size and color. Both have the classic silvery coloring on their humps. Eventually they disappear behind the next hill. We smile at each other, pleased that our willingness to stay out in this weather has paid off. A little after this someone calls “grey wolf” but it turns out to be a coyote. In fact, I see three coyotes! They trot along the ridge, following the same general route the grizzlies took. Maybe they figure the bears will catch something and they can have the leftovers?
We watch elk move here and there. We attach meaning to every head-turn, hoping it’s a signal of an approaching predator. I meet a new Loon named Marlene who seems familiar to me, like I may have met her before. And I also say hi to Trish and Gary who I remember from my first spring trip two years ago. Then Walker comes up. I tell him I met his mom last night while I was brushing my teeth. We chat and scope a while. Gerry is clever enough to look in the opposite direction and finds a wolf. I see him for just a few seconds, out on the alluvial fan to the west. Then the snow comes and hides him completely.
Rick stops by and we learn that the alphas are now back at the den. I turn back to watch the north slope and see another grizzly much higher up on a flank of Druid peak. He’s running downhill on a snow-whitened slope, as if he’s chasing something but I don’t see what. I wonder if this is one of the two we saw earlier or a third bear? He slows down and disappears behind the fold of the hill then re-appears a few moments later moving to the west. My impression is that he is smaller. I think he may have been a younger grizzly running away from the other two.
We scope a bit longer, getting colder and colder. I ask Gerry if he’d like to grab breakfast. He says yes and we pack up and head to Roosevelt. As we near Junction Butte we see lots of cars stopped ahead, and a half-dozen people out with big glass. We know a good thing when we see it so we stop. It’s a grizzly! It’s the grizzly sow with the single cub of the year; probably the one that Doug watched the day I arrived; the same one that lost a cub before the Loonion. Finally I get to see this bear. And she is worth waiting for. She is a gorgeous specimen of a grizzly mom, fat and shiny with a classic hump-patch of grizzled silver. Her baby is more dull brown, but as cute as they come. Oh how I love to watch baby grizzlies. The two of them prowl the wine-colored volcanic rock of Junction Butte.
The bears move behind a rock but we know they will come out again. This spot has excellent potential for a long sighting and it’s within camera range.
Mama griz prowls the slope in the tell-tale zig-zag way, looking for a calf. Over to the left we see a nervous elk cow. Suddenly I see the grizzly put on a burst of speed and then we hear the terrible mewing sound of a caught calf. It doesn’t last long, thank goodness. The bear comes into view in a gap between boulders. Her head is down and there is a light-brown lump in front of her. The cub is under her, too, a moving brown spot between her mighty front paws. The cow elk walks back and forth, fretting, poor thing.
It makes you wonder how any calves manage to survive. Plenty DO, of course, but I can’t help feeling bad about it. Yet I certainly don’t begrudge the bears. Or the wolves, for that matter.
At Roosevelt, Gerry and I meet up with Judy and Jim and we four have a great breakfast. Judy and Jim are active in environmental causes in their town so we talk a little politics; snowmobiles, mass transit, cattle vs bison. Gerry asks do I fancy a hike after breakfast? I say sure. We decide on the Blacktail Lakes area which neither of us have ever done. The day has wavered from snowy to overcast with patches of brightness. The only constant has been the wind.
We park at the trailhead and I find a disconcerting pile of shattered window-glass. I hope I won’t return to a broken window myself. We strap on our packs and water and head out. The hike is mostly open trail with little shade and the wind is fierce. But it’s very pretty with nice views all the way. We stop at a pond and admire the bird life. I still don’t know names of waterfowl but there are several ducks that seem to like this place. I see (and hear) yellow-headed blackbirds, plus some croaking and peeping frogs.
The trail roughly follows Blacktail Deer Creek. It has a bit of uphill and downhill but nothing strenuous. It’s an easy hike for the average walker. We pass a cut-off trail to a really nice backcountry site less than an hour’s walk in. Take note, Mark R! This would be another great first-time camping spot.
We are serenaded the whole way by the peeping of ground squirrels. We see a pronghorn far off on a hill. There are red-tails riding the wind, looking for prey. We pass an exclosure area and note the different vegetation within. For example, the grass is much longer but quite dry. We find coyote and wolf scat on the trail and also some that looks like bear to me. I think how cool it would be to see a Leopold wolf out here, but we don’t get that lucky. We see a much smaller predator though, a beautiful weasel with rich brown top fur and a bright yellow underside, running swiftly up the path, carrying a baby ground squirrel in its mouth.
After a while the trail draws close to the creek and leads us down into a protected hollow. We stop here and take a break on a rock with the sweet gurgling stream behind us. The sun comes out and it gets pleasantly warm. We find wildflowers in abundance and less wind in this more sheltered spot. As we are finishing our snack Gerry looks up and points. Down the trail comes a lone cowboy, riding a pretty brown horse. We nod hello as he passes.
I love being in this area but I start to feel that if I don’t get a nap today I’m gonna fall asleep driving. So we head back up the hill and across the fields. Gerry says this terrain is similar to that of his own country. That sounds nice. He says there are no wolves, though. Nor grizzlies!
As we near the trailhead we see two galloping pronghorns, spooked by something. They make a mad dash down the hill to our left and hurry towards the creek at the bottom. I think they are going to leap the creek but they wheel and zoom up the next hill. Such powerful runners they are!
When we get back to the cars and the day seems to have brightened again. But something tells me the sky is not finished raining on us yet. I say thanks to Gerry for suggesting the hike. I’m glad to have gotten a little glimpse of another corner of Yellowstone. We say “see you in Lamar!” and take off. My face and neck are complaining of too much wind so I stop just below the Frog Rock to apply some soothing lotion. While I’m here, a pair of hunting coyotes trots by in the sage. It seems I’m always seeing coyotes while stopped in a pullout.
My favorite spot to nap is near the Petrified Tree, where the Blacktail Plateau Road comes out. This is where I am now. I tuck my car out of the way in case a service vehicle needs to get by. I try to write but my eyelids are too heavy. I manage some hasty notes and then give in to sleep.
An hour and a half later, much refreshed, I head to Lamar for the evening session.
On the way across the Yellowstone Bridge I notice several animals grazing just below the top of Romance Ridge. At first I think mule deer but then I realize they are bighorns! About five of them, I’d say. Then I stop at B&B and scope a little. I notice a bald eagle on the ground, well, on a rock on the ground, just about 50 feet away. I put my long lens on my camera and snap a photo. Just as I click the shutter a coyote walks into the frame! I click twice more and then he is gone. The coyote went right past the eagle and neither animal seemed fazed by the other. The coyote is now mousing and I watch his fascinating moves.
The eagle remains on the rock. It may be a favorite perch and it probably affords a terrific view. Then I have the good luck to see the eagle spread its huge wings and lift off. I watch it rise quickly on its powerful wings and then suddenly it swerves. I am amazed to see another bird suddenly attack it; an osprey, I think. It dive-bombs the eagle from above. But the really cool thing is that just before the osprey makes contact, the eagle flips upside-down in the air, and kicks out with its great sharp talons, like a flying Bruce Lee.
I watch this aerial ballet-battle for several minutes; I see three separate dive bombs by the osprey; it folds back its wings and just torpedoes straight down. Each time, the eagle flips at the last second and presents its formidable yellow talons. The eagle is bigger but the osprey may has an advantage due to gravity. I wonder what prompts this behavior and can’t help but speculate both birds are probably parents, defending their chicks and hunting territory.
I don’t see anything in either bird’s talons or beak to suggest they are fighting over a catch. There is also a raven in the area, which sometimes seems to be on the verge of participating. He hovers nearby, making me curious. Maybe he just figures there might somehow be a meal in it for him.
Mark R pulls in. We chat and I tell him what I just saw. He says it’s going to be an early night for him since it’s already snowing hard in Mammoth and it’s heading this way. I look west and, yes, I can see it coming. But for me it’s way too early in the evening to give up on seeing wolves. So we move east and stop at Trash Can. It starts raining but we climb up the hill anyway. There are only three die-hards up here with us and the rain comes down harder. We can no longer see across to the r-v and our scopes are getting soaked. So, we abandon the hill and sit in my car attempting to wait it out.
The rain turn to snow. Actually, it turns to sleet although Mark insists on calling it snow. He’s from the South, you know. He points to the windshield each time a drop makes an icy splat. Snow doesn’t do that, does it? I rest my case.
There is a large bison-herd across the river. As the weather blows in it seems to make them feisty. Two orange babies start butting heads, then two bulls get into the act. They butt heads, too. Then one bolts away, galloping bouncily. He swings his head around so sharply that his body whiplashes around to follow. Then he races madly for 50 feet, stops abruptly and lies down on the ground, rolling frantically, legs sticking up in the air. Bison can be so weird. I wonder if a bee stung him? Finally he gets up and trots off, tail up high.
We watch the herd move west, spreading out in a long, dense line, babies tagging along close by their moms. We wonder if they know something about the coming snowstorm. Then Mark remembers that the partial solar eclipse is happening RIGHT NOW! He jumps out and runs to his car. He returns clutching several pair of specially-ordered eclipse-watching glasses. He gives me a pair and we both put them on. They are so dark you can’t see anything at all unless you are looking right at the sun. Just then, the sky lightens and the sun peaks through. We look out and sure enough, we see the eclipse! The moon has taken a small bite right out of the bottom of the sun! It’s really cool, one of the few eclipses I have ever seen.
If we were anywhere else we would be stunned that the clouds parted with such perfect timing. But we’re in Yellowstone and things like that happen here. The open sky doesn’t last long. Now some drops hit my windshield as ice. I ask Mark if he wants to go for a drive rather than just sitting here. He says sure. So off we go. For the fourth time I think maybe this time I’ll find the beaver. He might be out in the cooler weather, I reason.
We go to the confluence and watch a while but see nothing other than some elk and some geese. It’s hard to describe what is falling from the sky tonight as anything other than “multiple personality precipitation”, or mpp. Rain-sleet-ice-snow-ice-sleet-rain-snow. Mpp also has a “remission” phase in which nothing falls at all. At the moment, though, we are in a sleet phase and much of this is falling inside the car through the open windows. I suggest we close the windows and drive up to Round Prairie since it’s so pretty there. OK says Mark.
A little past Soda Butte we notice three cars stopped about a mile ahead, in different spots. I’m always thinking bear but Mark says there was a pronghorn in the field earlier. I note that the cars are ON the road, not pulled off, and to me that means either bear or wolf. We move on and then Mark calls out BEAR! I turn and see it too, on the north side of the road, a big black grizzly sauntering along in plain sight.
Lucky for us, the mpp is in remission at the moment so I pull over and get out the scope. Before I get set up, Mark says “there are two of them!” Sure enough, what I now have in the scope (not that I really need it) is a courting pair of grizzlies, very possibly the same two I saw this morning. If so, they have traveled quite a ways since then.
The larger bear is nearly black and the smaller one is brownish. They move in and out of timber, big and beautiful and so in love. A car has stopped behind us. The man has binoculars but the lady has none. I wave her out of the car to take a look through Layla. She’s glad she did! “Oh my word!” she says. Then the smaller bear sits down. She reaches out her front paws and grabs her toes and rocks back and forth. She is facing the road and she looks so sweet, like a great big teddy bear! The boar seems to like this too. He comes over to her and pushes his nose at hers. It’s hard to tell if she likes this or not, but she rolls onto four legs and walks slowly up the hill. He follows and they disappear into the trees. Ahh, l’amour! What a great sighting!
The mpp is now in a sleet phase, which Mark insists on calling snow while I insist it’s only rain. I wipe off the scope and put it back in the car. We drive on. At Trout Lake we look in vain for the moose. Round Prairie is covered in snow. We see some whitened bones from a kill that we think may be the same one we both saw there in winter. The mpp passes through a snow phase, a rain phase and now back to sleet.
On our way back down Mark spots the bear again. The black boar is galloping west across a sage hill. It goes into timber at a run. I slip into the first pullout I see and jump out of the car. I find my binocs have become horribly fogged so I go to the scope. Out of the trees gallops an elk cow, with the black grizzly behind it. Mark has no binocs so he takes mine and I struggle to get the scope set up in the pouring sleet. As I am fumbling I hear the awful sound of mewing. Mark asks if I hear that. I say the bear must have caught the elk. But when I look up I see the elk is still running and so is the bear. The sleet is blowing at us, making the protective hood on my scope quite useless. But through the blur I see the black grizzly break off the chase, turn and gallop straight uphill. Why? Now I see why. The sow grizzly is up there. And she just caught a calf. That’s the sound we heard.
Mark sees it now. I wipe off the scope and get a better view. The sow has her back to me up on the hill just below some trees. I see a light brown body on the ground beneath her. The boar is just about to reach her when I am distracted by a car pulling in. It’s Rick. I realize my glasses are full of sleet and that’s another reason why my view is so blurry. I need a hat with a brim. I walk over and tell Rick that a courting pair of grizzlies up on the hill just caught an elk calf. He smiles and says “where did you see them?” I go back to my scope to show him and…there are no bears on the hill at all. What?
I ask Mark if he has them but he doesn’t because he’s drenched and cold and is using my fogged-up binoculars. Rick asks “where did you see them last?” and I can only point in the general direction. Alas, again I have failed to be helpful to Rick. I go to my car to get a hat and to wipe off my glasses and I say quietly to Mark “why is Rick here?” and before I can process that idea Rick points and says “the wolves are on that hill over there.”
WOLVES? WHAT WOLVES?
Mark is suddenly warm and needs no binoculars. He fairly sings “I’ve got em!” I look west. The wind is blowing the sleet right at us. Through blurry glasses I see that there are wolves all over the hill to the left. And I do mean ALL OVER THE HILL. The entire Druid Peak pack has stopped to pose for us. I see 21, 42, Limpy, the two beautiful nearly-white greys (one of these is 217F) other greys and all the blacks. Then they move to the east and as they do I count 13. They cross over to the hillside where we had just seen the bears. Bob Landis pulls in and sets up his camera. I glance at the road and see it is lined on both sides with cars. Mark and I have accidentally chosen the perfect spot to see the Druids tonight. In fact, the Druids came right to us!
I hear an odd sound, an elk barking. Is that a warning sound or does it mean she’s been caught?
The wolves move into some trees and we lose them for a while. I take advantage of this break in the action to get a hat with a brim and to wipe off my glasses. Could it be sleeting any harder? Mark is shivering because he has forgotten to zip up his rain jacket. He is drenched. I rummage in my car for the special non-scratchy cloth I need to clean my glasses. While my sight is lost, Mark calls out the action to me so I won’t miss it. “I see elk running!” I find the cloth. “Wolves chasing elk!” Somehow a stray drop of lotion has gotten on this cloth so my lenses are now smeared worse than before. “21’s chasing elk!” I grab my back-up non-scratchy cloth. “Three wolves chasing elk” I drop the cloth in the mud. “Elk running downhill” I grab the next thing I touch, scratchy or not, and wipe the lotion off my glasses. “They’re coming down!” I clamp my Loon cap on my head (it has a brim) ”They’re going to cross the road!” I turn back to the hill, triumphant, with clean glasses and a protective brim. “Never mind, they broke off the chase. They’re going back up the hill”
Timing is everything.
The sleet is coming down so hard it doesn’t even matter if my glasses are clean or not! We can barely see the hill in front of us. I see several shadowy wolf-shapes milling about half-way up but can’t make out 21 anymore. I keep wondering about the bears. Then I see three wolves streak uphill into the trees. I hear someone say a wolf has part of a calf in its mouth. I hear someone ask whether the wolves may have stolen the calf-carcass from the two bears. Given the size of the pack here tonight I would believe it’s possible. Now there are no more wolves visible on this or any other hill.
It makes me laugh. I tell Mark this is the worst weather in which I have ever scoped in, including various snow-storms during my winter trips. My water-proof coat is soaked. My shoes are soaked and none of us can really see a thing anymore. Mark feels much better now that he’s zipped up his coat.
Gerry comes over, grinning. He congratulates us on our lucky stop. He saw the action from a bit further west. We tell him about the two grizzlies, which he hadn’t seen. We talk about how the Druids were due for an eastern jaunt after so many nights heading west from the den. Gerry thinks they may going even further east. We laugh about how hard it is sleeting and blowing and how so many of us don’t seem to care.
At 8:45, though, with no let-up in sight and a great series of sightings already under my belt, I figure I may get to bed early for once. The light is already very dim and it will not get any brighter tonight! Mark is ready to go, too. I dry off Layla as best I can and wonder if I’ll ever get my binoculars un-fogged. We say goodnight to Gerry and hop into the warm dry car. We set off past dozens of watchers, still amazed at the luck that brought the Druids right to us.
Mark is a little worried about the road conditions through Hellroaring. I tell him if he gets scared just turn around and he can crash on my cabin floor. I drop him at his car and he leads the way back. But this night is not through with us yet. As we travel west the snow-filled sky becomes apocalyptic. We are the only cars on the road. I don’t know how to describe to you how wild this valley looks under a raging sleet-storm, you’re just going to have to see it sometime for yourself.
As we come down Lamar Canyon, the wind blows huge wet flakes straight into my windshield, making me flinch. They splat against the glass and I think who is tossing his Slurpy at me? Mark pulls over at Slough and we get out, laughing in amazement at this latest turn of weird weather. I point to the sky, which is now divided equally - the east is grey and threatening and full of cloud while the west is nearly white with even a far away patch of blue. This unexpected light bathes the snowy hilltops of Lamar Canyon in an eerie glow. We even see the faint beginnings of a rainbow.
What an unbelievable evening!
We make it to Roosevelt without further incident. Mark has no trouble over Hellroaring and gets back to Mammoth safely. I am back in my cabin early enough to cook a meal on my little porch, to the sound of the gurgling creek. The sky above me clears and Yellowstone gives me another unexpected glimpse of stars, twinkling happily above the western horizon.
Today I saw: Bison, elk, pronghorn, ground squirrels, 7 grizzly bears (including 1 cub), 6 coyotes, 1 bald eagle, several red-tail hawks, 1 osprey, 1 raven, 5 bighorn sheep, 2 swans, lots of unidentified waterbirds, 1 weasel, 14 Druid wolves (including 21M, 42F, 217F and 253M) and 11 Loons