Iím up at 4:30. Guess what! Itís snowing!
Itís still dark but at 6:15 I start for Lamar. It takes forever since I can only go 20mph. Itís very windy and the snow blows straight at my windshield. I see dark shapes of elk in Phantom Lake where Iíve never seen elk before. Some are resting but a lot are up and grazing. I see lots of trails of single elk where they came down the hillsides spilling little telltale pieces of snow in the road.
I get some big wind at Blacktail Lakes and lots of blowing snow in the roadway. I reach Tower at 7:20 and itís still snowing. I love it!
In Little America I see bison and more elk. Just past Slough Creek I see a single elk crossing the road, then a second. I stop. A third elk stops in the road and looks back at me. Then to the right in the big sagebrush I see dozens of elk running towards the road. They keep stopping and looking down but they see Iím waiting. There are quite a lot of them, fifty, sixty, maybe a hundred. Finally I think they have finished then one more runs out of the sage, stops at the road then finally crosses. I drive on and when I pass the spot where they crossed I see only 3 trails in the snow. Most have carefully followed one of the three trails. Then I notice a few rebels that took a different route up a wash. They go pronging along. I stop and look back and see the rest of the herd side-hilling through the sage. I roll down the window and listen. I hear the soft swishing as their legs brush the snow. I hear their mewing calls. Nice.
I go on up Lamar Canyon. The river looks very low. Itís full of snow and seems fully frozen.
I turn the corner at the Gateway to Lamar and feel so happy to be home again. I see my beloved hilIs and the beautiful valley cloaked in a gentle snowstorm. There is a small herd of elk above the western end of Jasper Bench. As I go on I see a bigger herd in Lamar proper, beyond the slope of Dorothyís Knoll. Then just past the Institute I find the biggest herd of all. Yay! I hope the Druids are seeing this!
I see Rick at Coyote Overlook scoping high on the north ridge. The Druids are up there for sure but visibility is pretty poor that high. Itís my first day and I am too excited to stop. I keep driving. It keeps snowing and blowing.
I see lots of bison alone and in scattered small groups. The Lamar River is all white with only the barest sliver of open water and even that disappears under snow for many stretches. Across from the Footbridge I find fifteen bull elk grazing a slope and enjoy watching them awhile. I find two bull bison shoveling snow in the flats across from Soda Butte. I drive east and reach Round Prairie. I see the remains of a kill Lew & Deb wrote about. There are four ravens on it but they all fly away when I stop. Access to Pebble is blocked off and you canít tell where the road is the snow is that thick! Seeing all this snow does my heart good, knowing how dry itís been for so long.
Eventually I head back to the confluence, loving every inch of country I see on the way, marveling at the frozen curls of the river, the wind-art in the snow, the stillness of the trees. I stop to try to get shots of three bighorns on a cliff above the confluence. Itís when I have crossed the road to look for otters that I am discovered by Lew & Deb. How nice to run into friends in the most beautiful place in the world!
Lew and Deb tell me the Druids were seen briefly on the ridge but that they were too late to see them. We decide since visibility is so poor at the moment, why not go up to Cooke City for breakfast? Iím game for that so off we go. The drive up is breathtaking. The snow gets deeper and deeper and the snow-draped trees more and more beautiful. The road is solid ice and I stay a fair distance behind Lew for safetyís sake. We have a great meal and lotsa laughs. I try several times to call John to make arrangements for a later get-together but I canít get reception to last long enough to complete the call.
As we are coming back to Round Prairie I pull over to try again. Rick is here scoping something. Lew & Deb follow his lead and in no time I am looking at my first wolf of this winter trip! Why, itís pretty, shy 105F. She is out here all by her lonesome, sleeping on a little hill. I do a Druid Dance of course.
I find it highly appropriate that the first time I unveil Layla the Leica on this winter trip is to view a Druid wolf. I am reminded that 105 has been kicked out of the Druid pack and has been fending for herself for a couple of months. She is bedded down at the end of a white bench. A little while later she gets up and moves down the slope. She sniffs the ground and then starts to dig in the snow and comes up with a frozen carcass. She yanks some hard meat off it and then twists off what looks to me like a foreleg. She bounds off with it through the deep snow into the timber. The ravens come in and get the rest. As she moves it is apparent just how deep the snow is. She has to make huge leaps to make headway. She moves more deeply into the forest and we lose her.
A little after this a white van pulls in and Lew & Deb introduce me to the guy that gets out. Heís Jeff Hogan, a wildlife filmmaker who is here for a month doing some filming with Bob Landis for National Geographic. He and his girlfriend Leine, who is also a filmmaker, live in Jackson and travel wherever their work takes them. Madagascar is next! Mark R mentioned meeting Jeff in his quickie trip report which I read right before I left. He seems quite a friendly fellow. Rick asks Jeff to stick around here while he heads off on other business. Jeff retires to his van for a lunch of sardines.
Lew & Deb say they have got to start for home. I just hate it when Loons have to say goodbye. We exchange hugs and they generously lend me two rolls of 400 speed film as I have already run out. I wave goodbye, wish them luck and we say "see you in the Spring!"
I still have my scope out and I watch the ravens on the frozen carcass. Then I spot a coyote coming in for a free meal. Then Jeff says 105 is out of the timber. We watch her move here and there, she scares the coyote away and then she heads through the snow at a pretty fast clip going east. Jeff says "hop in" so I drag over my scope and we drive up east a bit. He has an idea where sheís going to come out and he wants to be there when she does.
We stop at the Thunderer trailhead and hike through thick snow into the woods to a particular spot. I see he has an eye for a terrific setting and it would be incredibly cool if she came trotting out of the trees into this clearing. But 105 doesnít show. No matter. I enjoy scoping the scenery anyway. I tell Jeff about the Loons and convince him that he is one. We talk about east and west and the differences of living in each place. Finally we give up on 105 and head back down to Round Prairie. The coyote is still here. Jeff checks in on the radio. He says heís heading west, probably to the densite. I say see ya later and off he goes.
I watch the coyote and the ravens a little while longer and then move on. I see a lone bull elk on the hill by the trail to Trout Lake. He has a lopsided pair of antlers. One side curves back just as it should but the other side tilts to the right. It seems to make him walk funny like he really is off-balance. Further down the valley the bison from this morning are in even better position for pictures so I take some.
It has not stopped snowing all day.
At the confluence, I see that the bighorns have come right down to the road! This makes it too easy. Three of them. Close enough to pet. (I donít). I get lots of pictures. I look for the otter again. Nope. Then I set off again.
At about Mid-point I see an Institute van far ahead of me stopped in the road. An oncoming car is stopped too, holding up two more cars behind it. They obviously see something but what? I stop and look and then suddenly I see it, too! I canít believe it. A wolf is in the roadway. Not a coyote. This is a wolf.
A collared grey wolf with creamy-white undersides and a black tipped tail. A beautiful grey wolf. She turns out to be 218F, a Druid born in 2000, the year 42 became alpha. She is dawdling near the road. She crosses and stays close, then crosses back and still stays close. Her movements seem related to whether cars stay still or not. There are some impatient folk on this road as this is mid-day on a Saturday. Finally the cars remain stationary long enough and she bounds into the valley through the deep snow. I am able to grab some shots thanks to Lew & Debís film. I lose her then find her again. A magpie flies behind her, sinking and rising right above her head. Jeff pulls up, grinning. I grin right back.
He drives ahead to the Institute and sets up his camera. I stay put and watch her with my binocs but soon realize that Iíve lost her again. I remember how deceptive the flat land in front of me is; not flat at all but full of dips and levels. Then I suddenly see what Jeff has anticipated. The huge herd across from the Institute is bunching. They surge forward, forming a long thick line of brown bodies. 200 elk running three or four abreast, crashing through the snow, flying in panic from a single gray wolf.
I head west, past Jeff, watching the drama unfold, trying my best not to run off the road. I stop a little past the Institute, watching, enjoying and taking pictures. After a while 218 seems to tire of the game and slows down. The herd senses this. Some break away and turn. They stop and stare, shocked at the indignity of it all. 218 gives up and turns towards the road again but by now she has drawn the attention of all the weekend visitors and there is no place to cross.
No matter. 218 is adaptable. She trots west past the now-stationary herd as if totally disinterested in them after all. She moves casually, red tongue hanging out, all by her lonesome beautiful self. The wind is really blowing. It makes tufts rise on her thick fur, like cowlicks here and there on her back. Five or six tufts not always in the same spots lift up and drop again on her back and sides as she moves along. Her two-tone side-coloring reminds me of 21.
She remains intent on crossing the road but she has all the time in the world. As various people move around to get a better view of her she adapts by changing her course. Eventually she climbs the hill below Dorothyís Knoll and somehow finds a route between the cars. She crosses the road and disappears into the sage. She seems headed back in the direction of the densite after having a bit of afternoon fun with elk. Ah, to be a young wolf in Lamar Valley.
Jeff and I gush about what an incredibly cool sighting that was. He got the whole thing on film and he credits me with bringing him luck. Happy to do it. We both head east to Hitching Post where the signals indicate the rest of the Druids are back at the den area. We donít get any more action tonight although we try going to the Footbridge for a better view. Nope. The light starts to fade and I begin to think of the drive back. I am still no good at night driving but, having no recourse on this trip I am resigned to put up with it. Off I go, having thoroughly enjoyed my first full day in Parkadise. On my way past Floating Island Lake I notice a deep gash in the snow to the right. Someone got stuck there today, I say to myself. Glad it wasnít me!
Somewhere around Hellroaring I notice that there is still a lot of light left in the sky, the slopes are really glowing. When I come out into the open I stop and look over my left shoulder. Itís the Moon! Ghostly, but nearly full it has poked out from the overcast and brightened all the snow-covered land. Itís lovely.
Iím low on gas and I realize I will have to head down to Gardiner to the all-night station to get it. Ugh! I creep down in the dark and several times when I touch the brakes on those horrendous curves I feel the wheels slide. I pump like mad and slow down to 15mph. It takes me over a half-hour to get down. At this point in the trip I am not yet using 4WD because I foolishly believed it was bad for the car. I am using 2nd gear but it is a nightmare journey. Itís the same on the way up, but I do make it OK.
From my room I call the desk to ask if there is any message from John. The desk clerk says thereís a message but not from John, itís from Lew & Deb Demler. I ask her to read it. They say they think Mark R and Carl may have started a new Loon tradition as they were also run off the road and got stuck in the snow! They are both OK and so is the car. Luckily they got pulled out by a passing tour van. They said it happened near Floating Island Lake. Oh no! I saw the spot! The gash was from their car! OK Wendy, I say to myself. This is one tradition you need not follow!
Today I saw: Two Druid wolves, 105F and 218F; 3 bighorns, bison, coyotes, ducks, elk, a magpie, ouzels and ravens