DAY FOUR: Monday, January 28

TALES TOLD BY TRACKS

I love that first blast of frigid air as I push open the swinging door of the Mammoth Hotel. I also love feeling that Iím the only human being awake outside in the still-dark night. I find it inspiring, even at 5:40AM

Another fresh blanket of snow appears on the ground, an additional 4 inches I would guess. It is colder and drier than yesterday. No wheel tracks ahead of me; I even beat the snowplow! This gives me an advantage in that the animal tracks are unspoiled. I find this utterly fascinating and I eagerly begin to read the stories on the white canvas. As a child I believed that all my stuffed animals in their carefully arranged poses on the playroom shelves would come alive at night and have adventures. Seeing the crisscrossing tracks in the headlamp-lit road brings that favorite day-dream to happy reality.

It looks like a big party was held on the Gardiner River Bridge among the four-leggeds. I first think itís elk but the marks look so large. I stop on the bridge, get out and shine my flashlight. Bison! These tracks cover the width and length of the bridge and lead east. I follow this "herd" for miles, smiling. Only when I pass Lava Creek do they leave the road and trample the flats between here and Wraith Falls. This is Big Boy territory but apparently the bison like it, too.

Iím pretty good at picking out the signature single line of coyote tracks, as well as those of elk as they come down a hillside and cross the road, leaving the snow-chunk trail. A bit later as I round one of the forested turns approaching Hellroaring I see a single line of tracks that simply begins in the center of the road. Wait a minute. How did they get there?

Then I see the answer to the riddle, trotting away from me. A coyote. The tracks say this animal was proceeding west towards me when it became aware of my carís approach. It stopped and doubled back on its own track, which it is still following. I stop. It feels bad to see him run from me. The coyote looks back and then hops the snow bank to the left, disappearing into the forest.

Animals are practical creatures and they clearly like the roads. Plowed or not, the road offers the easiest path to the next place, whether the animal knows where itís going or is making it up as it goes along. I wish this were stressed more to Yellowstone visitors. I wish also that speed limits were lower and more fully enforced. So many animals are killed by vehicles.

I enter Lamar earlier than ever. A light powdery snow has begun to fall. It is hushed and achingly beautiful. There is just enough light between the full moon and the emerging dawn for me to make out the shadowy shapes of the hills. I stop at B&B to check out the carcass from yesterday. I see the spot but no wolves are on it. There are birds all over, including two bald eagles. The valley holds not a trace of the big elk herd. Every day is different.

Like yesterday, Lamar seems to have its own weather. The wind is blowing steadily. I find Jeff at Coyote Overlook. I ask if the Druids howled last night after I left. He says no so I am content. He has been told the Druidsís signals are coming from the northwest -high up on the sage hills north of the road. We both scope it out. I see no wolves but I do spot a small herd of wary elk on the lower forested flanks. Then suddenly those elk start to run. Now I see wolves running! Three black wolves romp downhill in pursuit, sending the powdery snow flying. It they werenít black I would hardly have seen them at all. The visibility deteriorates and all the moving shapes disappear. The wind never lets up either. This is absolutely gorgeous scenery to look at but poorly suited to finding wolves! It makes me realize just how lucky I was yesterday.

After a while I head down to Slough to search for a better vantage point. I pass a large herd of elk on the right among the giant sagebrush there. They are very wary of me as I creep past and I wonder if the wolves have come this far down already. I see someone hiking up the backside of Daveís hill with a square-ish backpack. I wonder if it is a wolfer or perhaps one of the folks doing coyote or lion research. I scope from various points but find nothing, Iíve even lost the elk. I head back to Lamar and check in with Jeff at the Fishermanís pullout. No one can see anything in this weather!

So I decide to head east to the confluence, thinking of otter. I stop again at Coyote Overlook and see four coyotes on the kill. I watch them a while and get to see the arched-back, open-mouthed warning posture of one. There are also many ravens and magpies.

On my way east I admire the delicate beauty of the "filigree trees" that Doug and I liked so much last year. They are soft white against the dark grey of the snow-threatening sky. I try a few "art shots" and laugh at my amateurish attempts to mimic Doug. As I proceed east the world gets more and more fogged in. Iíve had snow every day so far but each snowfall has been different. Todayís snowfall re-paints the landscape in very soft focus. Yesterdayís tracks are filled in with new white, paving the way for more stories to be told.

At the exclosure fence I see a sno-mo hauler off the road, stuck in a snow-bank. The driver is out of the car, grinning. I roll down my window and ask if I can help. He thanks me but says a tow truck is on its way. I wonder how this happened but donít ask. Iíll soon learn for myself how hard it is to judge where the edge of the road is.

At the confluence I pull over and gather up my metal. I strike out along the road above the riverbank, looking for otter tracks. I find them and search the thin waterway for the maker. On this grey snow-filled morning I am surprised to hear the abundant twittering of birds in the trees as if it is a cool spring dawn. The bird chorus is accompanied by the quacking of ducks and the quiet murmur of the river. But still I see no otters. Instead the ouzels put on their show for me.

As I walk back to the pullout I see two big bull elk on the hillside above, standing still as statues between the trunks of trees. Beautiful statues of grace and power. They watch me intently. Finally assured of my innocence they lower their heads to graze. I go on to the Footbridge and find myself the only one here. The pullout is yet unplowed. I am struck by the virtual absence of traffic on the road today. For the last hour Iíve not seen a single other car. Maybe Mondays in winter are always like this. I sit and watch the snow grow heavier and the sky darken. The hills begin to disappear behind the thickening white curtain. Such a peaceful place. I have been in this spot so many times, now, and it has shown me such variety of views, spring, summer, fall and winter. This spot, looking across the meandering river towards the mighty Thunderer, is still my favorite view of all.

After some lunch Iím ready for my next adventure. I get out to clear my back window of ice. It is an impossible task today and now I understand why so many of the others donít bother scraping theirs at all. I head back west, still meeting no traffic, so I go 5mph and watch the river for otters all the way. Just past the confluence I see a triangle marker in the road. As I round the bend I see a tow truck has arrived for the stuck hauler and a Ranger has stopped traffic. I back up into a pullout to wait. I canít think of a nicer spot to be forced to stop! I take out my camera and get some nice shots of the thin strip of moving black water. I search the several coyote tracks along the snow-covered surface of the frozen river, looking for particularly interesting stories. I watch ouzels dip and pop out again, fluffing their feathers and sending water droplets streaking in all directions.

Later as I pass the Institute I have an odd sighting of a single cow elk, walking across the huge valley. There are scattered bull bison snow-plowing for grass but she is the only elk for miles. I wonder how she came to be alone?

At yesterdayís kill site there are two coyotes. I watch a while and see one move off and bed down. I drive leisurely west and consider paying a visit to John and his family today. I have made many attempts to arrange dinner with them via cell phone but have been constantly thwarted by a lack of reception. As I pass Elk Creek I see Jeff and Mike again and pull in. They have three wolves bedded down among the burnt timber. I see a lovely grey wolf bedded in thick snow and then two blacks bedded above it and to the right. The grey wolf is particularly pretty to me. It moves about some, heads uphill to sniff noses with one of the blacks and then moves down again.

There is speculation that the uncollared blacks are two former Druid wolves and the pretty grey is a Nez Perce wolf! My wolf sightings have been nearly exclusively Druids. Last winter, thanks to Dougís excellent spotting skill I watched six Tower wolves, former Rose Creek members that had begun an association. This is the first Nez Perce wolf I have ever seen. I find it exciting due to the legendary Nez Perce/Druid skirmish that occurred this past fall. I watch for a while but these three do nothing but sleep.

I head west again and stop at Hellroaring to try calling John again. This time I get a message saying they are online. Aha! They are home! I enjoy the drive especially because for once I am traveling this route in daylight. Just before Wraith Falls I find the road blocked by a herd of bison! I have a strong suspicion that these are the very bison whose tracks I followed in the morning. I see some very large cows and many yearling calves. At first I think it is only a dozen animals but then more continue to emerge from the Wraith Falls trail. One by one they come out, taking their old sweet time. I stop counting at 40! I love how each animal stops in the road, enjoying a few moments on its hard-compacted surface. It must feel so good to their weary legs to have this brief respite from wading through the heavy snow.

Another car approaches from the west and stops, its passengers content to watch the parade that Yellowstone offers them. The bison leaders have now left the road and follow a route between two low hills. The snow is so deep it comes up to the belly of even the largest beast, making their progress slow but steady. Eventually the full herd passes. I wait until the last straggler is behind the slope before going on. I find the Big Boys resting a bit further on and take a few shots.

Just past the Gardiner River bridge I see a coyote trotting through the sage. I slow down to watch him. He stops and looks at me then continues on this way. A little while later I see three more coyotes on the opposite side of the road. They seem intent on something and I wonder if itís the lone coyote I just passed. I stop and watch the threesome. To my delight they stop on the crest of a hill, sit on their haunches, three in a row, and stare off in the same direction. The yip-howling begins and I am in heaven. They take no notice of me at all even though I am less than 50 feet away. I have time to pull out the camera and click away.

I drive on down the Gardiner Canyon road which is much easier to do in daylight and in 4WD! I get six bighorn sheep resting on a hillside near the river. I see lots of mule deer beyond Gardner along the highway. There is barely any traffic on the highway either. I think three cars passed me in the ten miles out to Johnís.

I am in luck to find both John and Carlene still at home. We have a nice visit in their warm and cozy home. I am brought up to date on Frank and Cathyís travails and also learn a few more details of Johnís Albright Center experience. We talk about the Page and poor Lew & Debís homeward travel nightmare. John has just gotten a message for me from Charles so I call him at work and we chat. The kids come home and we make dinner plans. We head to the Mine and have a great meal, complete with decadent desserts. Rachel runs into one of her teachers and they have a lively conversation. I can see itís not just Loons who are charmed by Rachel. Joe amuses me with his carefully selected sarcasm. We touch on a few environmental topics and a bit about New York City and inevitably 9/11, too. I discover I still have strong feelings about that nightmare day that have not had a forum for expression for a while. I hope I wasnít too morose for my gracious company.

All good things must come to an end of course and I must face the icy winding road in the dark again. I tell John and Carlene that I hope they can get out to Lamar this weekend when Charles is also here. I know they want to. Carlene says she still wants me to come to dinner at the house so I gladly promise to fit that in somehow, too.

I get all the way up to Mammoth when I realize I forgot to get gas! Oy. There is nothing for it but to head back down. I would not want to make this drive in the morning BEFORE the snowplow, nor would I wish to get to Lamar late. So, gritting my teeth, I turn around and head down again. This time I am challenged by two elk that step out in the road on the flat section but since I am only going 15mph I can stop in time. As I re-enter the Park for the second time in a half hour I see three mule deer standing like sentinels right outside the Ranger station. I am also rewarded when the full moon makes a belated appearance. This helps immensely and I make it up to the top again without incident.

Safely back at the hotel I stop at the desk to arrange a snow-coach trip to Canyon. The lady at the desk is really nice and then I notice the paperback she is reading: "The Fellowship of the Ring"! I let her know just how cool I think THAT is and encourage her to see the movie.

Today I saw: 6 wolves including 3 black Druids chasing elk, two unknown black wolves and a grey Nez Perce; 6 bighorn sheep, bison, coyotes, ducks, 2 bald eagles, elk, geese, magpies, mule deer, ouzels, ravens and songbirds


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