I shoulder my scope and push open the hotel door into the early darkness. I am greeted by an utterly stunning sky. A crystal bright moon shines over my shoulder and the wide Wyoming sky presents me with stars as well. Again I find new snow on the ground, a light dusting this time.
The moonlight makes the whole drive out just spectacular. I just keep exclaiming "how beautiful!" as I go, especially when I see the way the moon lights the snow-laden trees. At Blacktail Plateau I pass Bob Landis in a pullout doing telemetry. Now I am first; no tire-tracks ahead of me. This area is particularly gorgeous. I find elk as usual at Phantom Lake, and more in what I call the Elk Bowl. At lower Hellroaring I stop and get out so I can fully feel a part of it, so still and magical. Oh what a gorgeous world.
The elk do move around a lot at night! I see plenty of hoof-kicked snow left in the road. When I get to Little America the clouds return although the first twitters of light are rising in the east. The moon is shrouded and all is soft and quiet. I stop just to listen. Into the beautiful Lamar I go. I stop at B&B to check on the kill. Snow has covered it up and there isnít even a magpie in sight.
I spot Jeff at Trash Can and pull over to chat. He tells me there are two wolves on the north ridge west of Druid Peak. Rick calls and confirms that these two are 105F and 103F. We all find it very interesting that they seem to be traveling together, since 103 helped to kick 105 out of the Druid Pack this fall. I get them in my scope and watch them follow the ridge line a while. All too soon they disappear. I see elk in pockets on the next hill and wonder if something might happen. I wonder where the rest of the Druids are?
Rick gives me a lesson in wolf-watching etiquette without intending to. He leaves his car in the pullout and walks up the road, nearly a quarter of a mile, with this scope and tripod. As it turns out, 105 and 103 are now visible only from the crest of that hill and he knows there is no closer pullout available. I make the mistake of assuming rules are different in winter when there is hardly any traffic. I drive to the crest and pull over as far as I dare. Mike and Richard are here, and we have become friendly. We set up together and watch the two Druids that are now bedded amidst black rocks (just to make it harder for us to see them!). I notice how much like 42 both these wolves look. They have the same raccoon-eye mask, although their coats are much darker. At one point one of them is sitting on her haunches and the other is asleep on her side. A short while later a Ranger comes by and points out what a dangerous position we have put ourselves in. If we had left our cars below, like Rick did, we could have stayed a good long while. Ah well. Lesson learned.
It is just 8AM and already I have seen two Druids so I head for the confluence to try to catch an otter. Still luck evades me. But I do see a lone coyote walking, then trotting through deep snow in the lowlands, sniffing here and there. Then I am treated to a most wonderful sight, unique to winter. I spy eight magnificent bull elk far out in the willow flats, heading towards the road. They stretch out in a gorgeous line, prancing through the deep snow, flinging powdery spray-trails behind them, heads high, their impressive antlers classically poised above their strong brown backs. Good lord what beautiful creatures!
I decide to head to Slough, the most logical place to find the Druids given their position yesterday. Yet I find nothing there nor in Little America. Then, as I enter the forested area before the Picnic pullout I see some nervous elk at the edge of the dry lake beneath Junction Butte. Hmm. This looks promising. And then here comes Jeff. He stops and rolls down his window. I see a BIG smile on his face. He points to the side of the road. "Wolf tracks" he grins. I turn around and follow him. At the Swan Lake pullout he sets up his camera and tells me the story. As he was passing through Little America he saw the whole pack, 14 strong, trotting right alongside the road, some of them IN the road, heading toward Junction Butte. Elk were scattering every which way. The Druids went up the hill, and are now somewhere on top of Junction Butte. They may have a kill in the area, too.
Whoa. This is nice.
A short time later, Rick calls to say he has them in sight. He asks Jeff to try spotting from the Yellowstone Picnic Area. I ask if I can tag along. Jeff says sure. Mike and Richard come too. When we get here Jeff says he thinks the view will be better on top of the ridge. I look up at the steep snowy slope and think heís crazy. But then I think, why not? I shove my camera and film and mittens into a bag and sling it over my shoulder. I hoist my scope and off I go. I follow what pretends to be a trail here. Hah hah. Itís the work of several elk, thatís all. I sink down a full foot with each step but I am determined and I do make progress. I reach a half-way point and Jeff is still not coming so I set up Layla and take a look. Just as I do I hear the first howl.
Oh man. It gives me shivers right down my spine! My first howl this trip! I am now weeping with joy and digging in my pocket for kleenex. I listen to the howls and scan the slope looking for them. In two seconds I have a howling grey wolf in my scope. Then I see the others! At the top of the Butte is an evergreen with wide-spreading lower boughs. The Druids are under this tree. I see a black wolf with reddish undertones, then Joy of Joys! I recognize 21 and 42! Theyíre howling! Then a black, another black, a grey, and another grey. The first grey is still doing the loudest howling of all. Oh, how the notes rise and fall and mingle into a great wild chorus. I look down at the cars and see that the guys donít hear it. I call to them but the wind is not in my favor. I wave my arms and point and finally they see me. They stop in their tracks and now they hear it. I go back to my scope and watch happily.
HAPPILY? I am out-of-my-mind-happy to be standing on a snowy slope, watching the alphas and their pack-mates make the most beautiful music known to Yellowstone. I look at my watch. Itís 10:33. Everything this winter is happening at unexpected times. I would think this should be nap time for the Druids. But Iím not complaining!
The howling goes on for a really long time and I see tails wagging and heads thrown back. Every once in a while it diminishes to just one or two voices but then it strikes back up again. I am in heaven. Jeff is finally here and he looks in my scope. He reports the sighting and the howling to Rick. Then I watch the Druids create a perfect Christmas-Card portrait under the snow covered- branches. It looks so nice! Then there is a full break in the howling and many of them disappear to the north. Rick reports that he can still see them from his position.
Then from behind me, from Tower, I hear more howling. Itís fairly close and very exciting. We marvel at it and Jeff reports to Rick. In another minute the Druids start up again. This is extraordinary! I canít see them this time but from the sound, it seems like they may be only on the other side of the tree. They howl a very long time and just as enthusiastically as before. I think the Druids have a very low sound in comparison to the other group. Jeff thinks so, too. Then the music dwindles to one voice and I find that wolf, sitting off to the side of the central tree in a sphinx-like position. Itís a grey. Maybe the same grey I saw first. How cool is this?
I notice movement again and see various wolves heading to the left. They move excitedly, jauntily toward the western end of the Butte, to a bald spot bright white in snow. I see lots of tail-wagging and happy trotting. They are wonderfully visible against the snow and Layla the Leica brings them close.
Five wolves stop at the edge of the Butte. It looks like this spot affords a great view of the area, the Yellowstone Canyon and the hills and valleys of Tower beyond. The Druids make a happy family portrait. A grey sphinx sits at the brink, forelegs extended a little over the edge. Two black wolves sit on their haunches on either side of this grey and behind the grey, standing solidly on all fours are 42 and 21. They look out, as if posing for a dog show, heads erect and leaning slightly forward over the more casual-seeming grey. All five wolves look off into the west. What a movie-shot! Are they looking for the other wolves? Or perhaps at the elk herd in the flats opposite the Ranger station? These five stay like this for several long and magical minutes. It is an amazing sight. They look so confident and ready for anything.
The portrait finally dissolves and one by one they move back under the sheltering branches of the evergreen. Finally just the grey is left at the watch point. I have time to admire this wolf and his/her pretty markings. Then when this one retreats under the evergreen I decide to head up higher. I run into trouble as the trail disappears and the snow gets really deep. Jeff forges ahead and breaks trail for me but it does me little good as my legs are half as long as his. I sink up to my hips with each step. I finally get smart and use my tripod as a walking stick. I must remember to try this in the Spring to see if it is any easier a climb.
Huffing and puffing I get to the top. I find what I would call back east a hog-back ridge. There is a precipitous drop to the Yellowstone Canyon straight ahead. Jeff says he spooked four bighorns as he came up. He shows me their tracks and then spies some wolf tracks right along the top. It could be two, maybe three animals, or merely one going back and forth. I think this looks like a perfect spot for mountain lions, too! Jeff points to how far out the sheep tracks go along the very edge of the impossible precipice. Yeow, I would NEVER get near where those tracks are, not in the driest weather, bband those sheep went there on snow and ice!
The view is extraordinary. I can see a part of Little America that Iíve never seen, as well as the sweep and scope of the Roosevelt area and Junction Butte itself. It is completely worth the strain of the hike up. It feels really wild and remote up here even though I know the road is close. I set up Layla and find the Druids again. Most of them are bedded but I am lucky enough to see a good deal of interaction including some delightful rough-housing. I notice the one black wolf that moves with a pronounced limp. I wonder how he got injured. Jeff says this wolf has been limping for a long time. At first I think how will he keep up with the others, then I suppose he must manage pretty well or heíd already be dead.
Again we hear howling. Several voices, maybe four. This time it seems to come from the area in front of us, but lower down, below the Butte. As it turns out, Richard and Mike watched these howling wolves from the Wrecker pullout. They said the animals were mere yards away, right in front of them! The Druids respond of course, but I donít see them as they are again on the other side of the tree. The most I see is a tail wagging, knocking snow off a branch. A little later Jeff spots a lone black wolf traversing the sage below the Butte. Whether this was a Druid wolf running an errand or having a bit of a wander while the others nap up top, or one of the four howlers I never found out. We watch this individual for quite a while. Only when it eventually makes its way back to the top and joins the other are we sure it is a Druid after all.
A while after this I notice 21 and 42 are up. He begins to court his mate. First he nuzzles her and rests his chin on her back. She growls a bit and snaps but she doesnít move away. He gets more rambunctious, climbs on her shoulder. Hmmm. His aim is a little off. She moves away. He tries several mounting passes. Jeff has been roaming around, checking out the incredible views, exploring the ridge. I call to him, um, I think 21 is trying to mate with 42. This gets his attention. He watches through my scope a while and calls it in while I keep watching. After a while Rick calls back and explains that the actual mating dance is a far more complicated ritual than what I have reported seeing so far. Cats, I could tell you about; I donít know dogs.
Well this is a PG-13 report so the details will stop here but I suppose anyone who has been around canines much will know what Iím talking about. I will tell you that about 15 minutes later, I find myself watching the exact behavior that Rick has painstakingly described. I become an inadvertent "Peeping Wendy" at a most private Dance of the Druids. I wave Jeff back to the scope again. He watches a while and then calls Rick. Yep. This time itís for real. We pass on lots of information, estimate how many minutes, and answer Rickís precise questions. From his vantage point, Rick is able to confirm what we see and on January 29th, 2002, I watched the first confirmed mating of the 2002 winter season between 21 and 42 of the Druid Peak Pack. After hiking up that slope I consider it a fitting reward! Letís call it Alpha Amour on Romance Ridge.
The ritual is over and the rest of the Druids converge on the alphas, greeting and nuzzling each other. Shortly afterwards they begin to bed down. 21 has got to be tired! Jeff and I have been up here for over an hour and standing around does make one cold. We note that there are elk on both sides of Junction Butte, all over Little American and in the Tower flats. We speculate that the Druids will likely nap for a while and then come down in search of dinner. So we pack up. Jeff chooses a direct and far quicker route down and we are back at the cars in no time.
I drive around a bit, searching for the other howlers. Eventually I decide to head back to Lamar to check on 103 and 105. I donít find them either! I go east to the Footbridge seeing lovely things all along the way, including a coyote mousing near the old Lamar picnic area. When I pass Rick I see him wave but I donít realize he is trying to signal me that he has the two black Druids in sight. Thanks anyway, Rick.
I love every inch of this valley. Just driving slowly from one spot to the next is so wonderful, the actual sightings one gets are pure delicious icing on the yummiest cake in the world.
A pale sun has come out and the day warms. It brings out the few colors that are here; the sage looks greener than before and some of the grasses glow golden. I see snow sparkles and try to capture them on film. As I move through Little America I see a coyote on my right. I stop to watch and see he is heading for a small herd of bison in a low pocket. I watch the bison herd and am delighted to see two young bulls sparring. They seem to be enjoying the sun, too. Then I see the coyote among them. Whatís he after? I wonder to myself. Then I see him dart suddenly. He disappears and then reappears in another second, bearing some kind of booty in his mouth. I can see fur and something pink. I could almost believe he caught a rabbit but on second thought maybe thereís an old kill down there and he just grabbed a morsel of that. He runs up a snowy hill carrying his prize. He stops at the top and looks back to make sure no one is after him. I think itís part of an elk leg. Then he trots over the other side. I notice there are two sets of coyote tracks on this snowy hill. Both tracks lead down to where he grabbed his prize.
I move on and find my buddies Jeff, Mike and Richard in Little America, at the Boulder pullout (note to Mark R: This is actually a few stops west of Boulder Pond where we watched 103ís den). This spot affords a good view of Junction Butte and the surrounding land.
We find elk on the hillside right away and begin to voice ridiculously specific predictions of what will happen next. Several times the elk move and we all snap to, only to admit that they are simply walking on to better grazing. The conversation is lively. We talk politics and Yellowstone and Afghanistan and then wax rhapsodic about other beautiful places; Glacier, Alaska, Africa, Patagonia.
We see two coyotes slyly approach the elk. One of them has a very white belly. Some other folk pull in and ask what weíre seeing. I let them look through my scope but admit we have no wolves. It begins to snow again. We start to get cold. I try various ways to stay warm but nothing works. All the elk have now gone downhill out of sight. If Druids were chasing them right now we wouldnít see it.
Jeff gets a call from Rick asking for help in locating 105 and 103 who are now on the move. I tag along again. We set up at Trash Can and start scanning the ridges. Thereís less than a half hour of good light left, but I would very much like to help Rick find these wolves to repay his trying to signal me earlier. I find some bull elk, a bison and a few cow elk but no wolves. Then Jeffís radio crackles. I hear Bobís voice: "The Druids just made a kill at Tower" he says dryly. Hah! I went the wrong way. Since itís nearly time to leave anyway I bid Jeff and Rick goodnight and head for Tower. Maybe Iíll still have enough light to see them feeding.
As I come up the rise from crossing the Yellowstone I slow down, ready for anything. When I top out, the first thing I notice is the missing elk herd. They had been at this end of the flats. No wait! There they are! Way over there. Wow they look nervous! I drive on slowly and stop by the solitary tree. Many elk are bunched on a bluff above the flats near the road. They are warily coming down the bluff, one at a time or two and three together. There is another large group of elk in the distance at the far northwest end of the flats. They move diagonally towards the road in a long line. I hear lots of mewing. It looks like the chase is over and these elk are 'recovering'.
I watch a yearling that is mewing. It is at the front of the group that seems to have already descended from the bluff. It stares at the long line of elk returning to the center of the flats, and I imagine it may be looking for its mother in that group. Who knows? It ventures out across the open space and I see it 'make contact' with a cow elk in a way that makes me believe they know each other. I have still not found the kill and the light is nearly gone. There is not a single car in the area so I am on my own.
I look in the branches of the few trees in the area for birds. I find them but they remain in the trees. I suppose that means the wolves are still feasting. I try to guess where the birds are looking but the light is too dim for that. I scan the flats, watch the elk and try to follow where they are looking, all to no avail. I wonder if itís in some hollow that I canít see from here? I move on and turn right and then pull over across from the Ranger station.
The parade of elk down from the bluff continues and now they move more solidly in twos and threes. I keep scanning but I never find the kill. Ah well. Iíll come by in the morning. Let the Druids eat in peace unobserved for once!
It continues to snow lightly all the way back so I am robbed of moonlight this time. At the end of the straight stretch after the Frog Rock switchbacks I am aware that Iíve put on some speed. I am just beginning to slow down when in my headlights I see a gigantic creature approaching the road from the left. My first thought is giraffe, this animal is so tall. I pump the brakes but I realize I am about to run out of space as the animal gets closer and closer. It is a stunningly gorgeous young bull elk, slim and tall, with high rising antlers. It moves in a positively regal manner. I stop just as he gets to the road. Had he moved a bit more quickly I would have hit him for sure. I turn my head to look at him; I could have reached out my hand and petted his nose but he has a look in his eye that scares me. I drive forward just as he lunges over the plowed pile of snow into the road behind me. I have the distinct impression that he was charging my car! In spite of the fact that my car is made of metal he makes me feel completely vulnerable. I donít stop. I donít look back. Not until I am 50 yards away do I look in my mirror. He is now across the road, still walking like he is on his way to his coronation.
I have one more elk encounter further on. Just past Undine Falls as I am rounding the last woodsy turn, a cow elk comes down the cliff on my left to cross the road. I am only going 15 here so I am able to stop in time but the tires make a noise when they grab which scares her. She tries to run on the icy road and she slips. She avoids going down but just barely. Finally she gets her feet in the snow at the side and heaves herself over the pile into the safety of the forest. My heart was in my throat.
As I walk from my parking spot into the hotel I am astonished to see a clear sky overhead. The rising moon is still obscured by cloud yet Orion is blazing bright. The black bowl of night sky is a rich velvet and a million blazing diamonds are set within. The air is so clear and crisp I just stand there staring. Tolkien must have seen skies like this. He wrote of a time "when the dark under the stars was fearless". I say an Elvish prayer and the stars of Elbereth glitter in answer.
Today I saw: 13 Druid Wolves including 105F, 103F, 21M, 42F, limpy and 8 other pack members; bison, coyotes, elk, magpies and ravens