Getting up later than usual allows me to savor a cup of fresh-brewed coffee (courtesy of the hotel) in my room. Unlike most free stuff, this coffee is really good; rich and flavorful.
I see about 5 or 6 more inches of snow has fallen overnight. Itís thick and fluffy and still falling. The snow plow has piled up so much snow behind the row of parked cars that I have to use 4WD low to get out! I find driving quite treacherous this morning as the snow itself is slippery. I just creep along, snow sparkling in my headlights, sometimes blowing full at the windshield, reducing visibility to nearly zero.
The road is so full of snow itís as though the plow hasnít passed at all. Once I cross the bridge there is only one lane down the center of the road that is packed enough to drive on and I am constantly expecting to be met head-on. When I reach the straight section just past Blacktail Lakes I see the lights of the snowplow coming down the Frog Rock switchbacks. Normally I would wait in a pullout for it to pass but I have no idea where the pullouts are this morning. I pick a level spot and pull to the right as far as I dare. I feel my tires slip into the unknown. The plow passes and when I try to move forward I canít. But 4WD low gets me going again. I keep it in 4WD the rest of the way, hoping Iím doing the right thing.
There are elk in Phantom Lake and many other spots. Even in the dim light the snow on the trees looks gorgeous. Despite the difficulty driving I am just as awed by the beauty and diversity of the landscape as ever. At Tower I see the lot is not yet plowed. I drive in anyway. Now I am out of the car, snow swirling all around me, standing in an unbelievably gorgeous winter wonderland. I just keep exclaiming over and over how beautiful it all is.
Just before the Yellowstone Picnic Area I see a coyote hunting in the meadow on the right but Iím afraid to stop since Iím on a hill. I see a small bison herd in Little America and some elk, too. I drive into Lamar and run into Jeff at Mid Point. I tell him what the road was like coming in. He assures me that I can stay in 4WD without damaging the car. Once I take his advice, I have much better traction (duh) and my driving worries are greatly reduced. Jeff also tells me heís heard the Druidís are near the confluence. So off I go.
By the time I arrive the wolves are no longer visible. Several folk are helpful and tell me where they were last, and where they were headed but the snow is coming too thick to see anything anymore. I really donít mind that I canít see them since the snow storm is so marvelous to see in itself. I drive east to the Footbridge just to admire the swirling whiteness then head west again.
You wouldnít know Specimen Ridge even existed. Even the lowest slopes are hidden from view. Visibility stops just past the misty edge of the far riverbank. I rejoin Jeff and a few others at Mid Point. Despite the white-out conditions we scope anyway and talk and joke. Then, miraculously, the Druids are spotted! I see them now, ghostly grey shapes, hunched and struggling against the snow-filled wind. A line of them, evenly spaced, now lighter, now darker, appearing and disappearing in the snow-gloom. We know the alphas are here from the signals, but I couldnít identify them for the world. Once I count 7 shapes, then 8, then 9, then they are gone. The next time they appear I count 10. The official count is 13 although I never see that many.
To keep up with them we are soon forced to move on. I stop across from the Institute, where I get my clearest view of them yet as they move across a rise, putting a scare into some bull elk. The elk run into the shadowy trees and we lose them all. For this whole sighting, the icy wind is in my face, my cheeks and nose are pelted with tiny ice crystals. My lens is fogged and sometimes obscured with a half-moon rim of accumulated snowflakes. My goodness. What I will put up with for a sight of Druid wolves! And Iím not the only one. I share this sighting with some new friends, Mike from Missoula and a couple from Oregon named Richard and Linda. We laugh at ourselves but we keep watching!
The wolves have now bedded down at the edge of the tree-line and the snow keeps falling. We talk about how Yellowstone needs the snow. We hear coyotes howl. Lots of them. I hope that the wolves will be tempted to howl back but they take no notice and remain bedded. A little later we spot two coyotes heading for the very large elk herd at the western end of the valley. They circle around it, one up-slope, one down-slope, but the elk ignore them.
The biting wind finally gets to me and I see it is getting quite late (nearly 11AM) so I decide to head off to see some other sights today. I drive west, and find that beyond Tower the snow is much lighter. I watch elk and bison wherever I find them. I make it to the boulder field beyond Phantom Lake where I pull over and have a snooze. The day has warmed up considerably. I get back to Lamar around 2PM and see most animals in the big herd are lying down. I see Jeffís van ahead at Coyote Overlook. As I pull up I notice he is putting away a roll of film! Ack! Iím too late! I just missed them chasing bull elk on the lower slopes. No kill, though, says Jeff.
I pull over and get out my stuff. I figured the Druids would nap all day and start to move as the light starts to go, just like last year. But thereís no predicting them. Jeff says they got up about an hour ago and moved west and then the pups went after the bulls. He got great footage, he says. Now, even though the wolves are bedded again, he is extra excited, as he feels certain that the Druids are going to go after the large elk herd right in front of us. I agree that would be really cool. There is another truck here, belonging to Jim and Judy from Bozeman, folks I have heard about from others. I like them instantly.
I ask Jeff to just give me only the general direction of the Druids because I wanna find them myself. And I do! I find the Druids bedded on a pretty white snow-slope. Why theyíre just dogs on a hill. As I watch, one gets up, stretches and trots down a slope into trees below. Another is up, another, another, another. Suddenly I have 7 wolves up. They each get up, stretch, yawn, shake off snow and trot down the slope using the same path into timber. A bald eagle is perched at the top of a tree on this slope. When the wolves assemble again at the bottom of the slope they are at the base of this same tree the eagle is in.
I watch them proceed downhill in a backwards 'S' pattern trail in the snow, moving along, cavorting. Then I recognize 21! Thatís a thrill. Hello 21! How nice to see you again! Then I see two pretty grey two year olds (this is a guess based on size). One has a collar. Then 2 black two year olds (again a guess) and lots of pups of the year (based on size and playfulness). Very bouncy Tiggers they look. Oh! One black has a limp. Poor thing! One black has a white mark on his left flank. Another black has a white chin. Then I see 42! Sheís silvery-grey all over and still has that raccoon-mask face. Hello 42! Iíve got the alpha Druids! This is too much and I tear up. Then I do a Druid Dance.
The wolves move into the timber and disappear again. They come right down the Amethyst Creek drainage, which Iím pretty sure is the same little creek that becomes Fairies Falls, to which I hiked in July with Jake and Leslie. Seeing 11 Druids romping, playing and trotting all over this particular area gives me a special thrill. They come out onto the bank above the Lamar and now are wonderfully visible. The snow has nearly stopped and itís a different world.
Then we see the Druids all stop and turn. Something has drawn their attention. It takes a while but we finally figure out what is happening. A cornice of snow had built up on the edge of the 20-30 foot hill that the Druids came down. The last pup must have strayed out too far and started a mini-avalanche. He may even have been caught in it. I see the wind-blown spray. The falling snow may have made a noise and in fact the pup may have yelped although we heard nothing. But a scar on the hillside where the snow used to be is plainly visible.
Jeff worries that they will now be distracted and not go for the elk after all! I worry that the pup is all right. But in another second we see a black pup shaking snow off its back and the Alphas start off again, trotting confidently all in a line. I am not content until I am able to count all 11 that I saw before. Whew! I see 21, 42, three greys and 6 blacks. They are so visible and relatively so close it is too much for me. I jump up and down with joy. Then they drop down into the riverbed and out of sight. Every once in a while I see a black or grey back passing by a gap. They make rapid and steady progress west and the big herd (about 250 animals) is still bedded with only a few up and grazing. They seem totally unaware of whatís coming. We are absolutely certain now that the Druids are coming for the elk.
I sneak over to my car and get everything ready, camera, lenses, extra film, mittens, hat. The action is still over a quarter of a mile away and too far for even my best lens but you never know. I add my down coat and Iím ready. It is only 3PM but it wonít get any warmer today. I have binocs around my neck, my camera on a blanket on the ground and Layla at the ready. We four scan the riverbank for any trace of the wolves. Where will they come out? Will they move past the herd and come at them from the west? The excitement is palpable. Then suddenly I see black ears. I catch backs moving both right and left. I see some other wolves bed down and some facing head on, looking at the elk. There is lots of seemingly random movement. Jeff is sure they are strategizing. I canít tell as I am too excited.
At one point I see six sets of black ears sticking up at roughly 20 foot intervals. It does seem that they have stopped and have spread out with some sort of purpose. I see a grey at the westernmost end moving almost tiredly further west. Its attitude definitely suggests to me that it has given up. I wonder now if this is a deliberate ruse to fool the elk? I see 21 frequently moving about, going right, going left. Then. A grey moves out from the bank and heads almost straight at the middle of the herd in stalking posture. OMG which wolf is that? Itís not 21 or 42. I have never seen a wolf do this with my own eyes. It is SO COOL! The grey stops. I see a black stand up along the bank, up on a rock in Rin Tin Tin posture. Get down! I say, thinking this is a pup exposing himself too soon and ruining the plan. I pan along the bank again and get chills as I see the positions of the wolves stretch approximately the same length as the herd. The grey begins to stalk again, very intent. Then 21 steps out from the river bank and joins the grey. 21 is stalking! In no time 42 is right beside him. I see her raccoon face but have never seen her look like this! The two of them stalk side by side, heads low and focused, straight toward us! Effortlessly 42 takes the stalking lead.
The grey now changes course and moves west, paralleling the river. I donít know where this grey eventually goes as I have eyes only for the alphas. What a sight! The Alpha Druids are stalking a still unaware herd of 250 elk. I glance at my watch, 3:20. I wonder what MY strategy should be? Do I stay with the alphas or watch what the pups are doing? Do I watch the elk? In another moment the elk begin to be aware. Some get up. These bunch. The majority still rest. Itís astonishing to see prey animals so unaware. I guess this is the comfort of a large herd. Maybe they are conserving energy for the chase? 42 and 21 get closer, itís hard to tell how close they are, harder still to guess how visible they are due to the terrain but to us it seems as though the elk are blind and deaf.
21 and 42 still stalk; they do not run. Two blacks and a grey have joined them in the stalk. I have five Druids stalking elk in my scope. Only now do the elk finally get the message. More get up. All get up. They bunch. They turn east. Now they move as a herd, as one animal, running east. 21 is running. 42 is running. The other three are running, thatís five. The elk surge ahead. The Druids will never catch them now.
Then the herd stops. Tightly bunched now, the herd makes an about face and now runs west, right back towards the alphas! I have no idea why they did this. Had they continued east they could easily have put a great distance between themselves and the wolves, perhaps too great to be overcome. What I found out later from the folks watching at the Institute was that a black wolf, out of my sight on the eastern edge, had made its move. This wolf somehow turned the herd around, sending them back toward the main pack.
Anyway, what I see is the herd running back west. Now the alphas really begin to run and the true chase begins. The herd splinters into many groups, 2 large ones and about 6 small ones, and there is chaos. I have no idea where to look so I try all sorts of things. A few of the split groups are very small, 3 to 30 animals, racing across the thick snow. I see one fall and get up again and I instantly know how hard it is for them. There are still two very big groups of running brown bodies. Suddenly I see a single black wolf, streaking across the snow, amazingly fast, near one large group. Where did this black wolf come from? Itís utter confusion. I donít know what to watch. We talk a little as we watch, trying to help each other, never taking our eyes off the action. I listen to Judy as she seems to have seen this sort of thing more than once.
I keep checking on the pups, many of which are still visible along the river back, standing there excited and watching. I keep thinking this will never work, the pups are not adept at this. Then I see that the alphas have joined the black speedster and they are chasing elk as a threesome. I notice that 21 lags behind but is still running fast. They are after a group of about 30 elk then that splits three ways. About 20 of them heads for the river. They run in a line moving from west to east along the riverbank and two wolves are after them. I wonder if there are more wolves still there waiting in ambush? An elk on the river falls and gets up again, but no wolves were close enough to take advantage.
The black speedster and the alphas have stayed on a group of five. These elk are running very hard. It still looks like total chaos. Judy says "this black wolf is gonna get one, watch him. That wolf is fast". I leave the ones on the river and go back to the black speedster and the alphas chasing the five. Just as I find them an elk goes down, apparently it tripped. Just that fast the black is on it, and they disappear behind a rise. The elk re-appears, sort of rearing up and I see the black has it by the throat. Then 42 is on it and those three bodies disappear again behind the rise. I can just see the poor elkís back. Two more seconds and 21 arrives and I see the elkís back flip over on its side. Thatís it. Itís over. One fatal trip.
I am glad to be far enough away not to hear this kill. It is harsh enough to see the suddenness of it. For the first minute or two only the wolvesí tense hindquarters are visible as they tear into the body. Then either their movements trample down the rise or they move the carcass just enough beyond it but now I see blood. I see two other elk about 20 feet away stop and turn their heads, stock still. As if they know their lives are suddenly safe but they canít help staring, like gawkers at a car wreck. I am thankful that I did not see the elk struggle. Shortly after this, the herd gathers nervously, and some even begin to graze. One of the two large groups does not return, but instead heads up the Jasper Bench. They remain on that high ground for several days.
The chase took nearly 20 minutes. It was not choreography. The wolves have to work hard for their meal even when there are 11 of them. The other Druids begin to arrive, one at a time, some bouncy pups and some others more businesslike. A grey is the first. Now I start to hear the wolf noises. Growls, snarls, whimpers, whines. Jeff and Judy and Jim and I look at each other amazed and grateful to have seen this. We remark on how luck could play such a big part.
I ratchet up the power on my scope now that I have a stationary target. I watch 21 growl and snap at the youngsters. I see the hackles raised on his back. 42ís face is covered in blood. I watch some wolves roll on their backs and sides in the snow contentedly. 21 yanks off a huge chunk of meat. A black wolf rips off a similarly huge chunk. I notice three bald eagles in the nearby trees patiently waiting.
A little while later 21 and 42, with sagging full bellies, leave the kill and move off about 50 feet. To my delight they begin to cuddle. 42ís muzzle is orange-red with blood. 21 licks her. Then a black wolf (could it be the speedster?) comes over and does them homage. Then his excitement gets the better of him and he jumps on 21. This gets him a growl and a snap and then 21 stands over him. The black wolf still begs for love, licking 21ís face. He finally lets the black up and goes back to 42. They bed down together. The black beds near them, seemingly contented.
Jeff and Judy and Jim and I debrief some more. We re-live the event, comparing notes and favorite moments. People drive by from the other pullouts, stop and roll down their windows, and ask if we saw it. "The whole thing" we say. Apparently all the regulars got to see this - there were three main viewing spots; across from the Institute, at Coyote Overlook and at Dorothyís Knoll, and once you were at one you didnít move.
The cold finally creeps in and the light wanes. I have been standing outside for two and a half hours straight watching wolves. Thatís nothing of course, to a veteran, but this is still only my second full day! IĎve been hoping to hear them howl and would stay for it but for the numbness in my toes. Finally I choose to head in for the night. As I reach Dorothyís Knoll I see the happy crowd still here. Iíve never seen Bob Landis so cheery. And Cliff is, too, smiling and interacting with everybody. They both got great footage. I roll down my window and say hi and "that was great, wasnít it?" I get nods and grins and thumbs up in response.
I drive back in the dimming light. Near Mammoth a large dark shape looms suddenly ahead in the road. "Whoís riding a horse?" I think, but itís a very tall cow elk walking serenely toward me right in the middle of the icy road. I hit the brakes and start to slide. This is it I think and pump for all Iím worth. At the last minute the brakes hold and my car stops. The elk never stopped walking and continues by me, heading for her chosen spot. She is BIG. I imagine the damage to the car (and to her) that could have been. I had gotten cocky and was going nearly 35. I was lucky. I will NOT do that again.
As I haul my scope inside for the night it occurs to me that maybe she knew I had been rooting against her kin during the chase.
Today I saw: 11 members of the Druid Peak Pack, including 21M, 42F and limpy; 3 bald eagles, bison, coyotes, elk, magpies and ravens