And now for one last drive through the dark to Lamar.
I can't help but feel a bit melancholy on this last morning. But the moon is still high and the snow on Mt. Everts reflects its light, making all of Gardiner Canyon glow silver.
Besides the ever-present elk in Mammoth, though, I meet no other critters on the road until just before Tower, when four mulies appear in the road ahead. I hit the brakes and everything on my front seat goes flying! I suddely have a tub of honey under my accelerator. The deer hop into the meadow next to the Ranger's home, oblivous of the mess they caused. I pull over, laughing, and put my stuff back in its proper place.
I find myself hoping the Dogs will show at the western end of the valley so I can linger to watch them the longest. So when I see Carol and Mark at Dorothy's I know it is a very good sign. Rick is here, too. Even better. Carol is smiling. She comes right over as I am getting set up and whispers the glorious news.
She's seen the Druids!
I do a quick little dance of joy. She says they were all here; 21, 42, 253, all 17 of their current pack. She and Mark watched them at the Rendesvous and then followed them as they travelled all the way west to the bison carcass. She says they fed on it and then went up the hill to rest. I ask her how they looked. She says "great!" They all looked healthy and happy. She says she just loved seeing all 17 together, with the pups all in line. I thank her and do another dance for such good news, then take a look through Layla.
There is a bear on the carcass! A grizzly.
I watch him feed while Carol tells me more news. The Druid signals today are weak and getting weaker, so Rick thinks they may have already headed back over Specimen Ridge. There has been a report of a wolf seen in Slough. Perhaps two of them. Signals indicate a likelihood of 217's group being in the area.
I keep watching the grizzly as he tugs at the leftovers, chang his position frequently, I guess to get better leverage. Then, apparently he has had enough so he moves off and heads uphill. Doug arrives and I fill him in on the good news. We watch the bear climb the hill, walking slowly and unconcerned.
Mark and Carol head to Slough to try to see 217. She's their favorite wolf. I am torn. I am dying to see Druids but it seems like they have moved out of visible range. I have about an hour left. I watch the bear lumber across Jasper Bench while I try to decide what to do. It is the only real anxious moment I have on the whole trip.
Doug encourages me to go to Slough. Better to see a wolf - any wolf, on my last morning, he says. He adds that he will stay here for awhile and will let me know if the Druids show up.
So off I go to Slough. I park F'Ugly, shoulder Layla and head up Dave's Hill. And as soon as I'm set up I get a wolf in my scope! A black wolf, on the smallish side and a bit nervous or tentative looking. The chatter on the radio seems to indicate that the other "wolf" that was reported earlier may have been a coyote. The lone black makes its way up the sage hill behind the campground. It stops to look back pretty frequently. That makes me wonder if it moved up here to get away from unfriendly wolves? I even wonder if it is Black Beauty, but there really is no resemblance.
Don is up here and says he sees a possible kill site down by the river, judging from the flitting ravens and magpies. Hmmmmm. That sounds promising. I scan the area Don describes but I can't say I ever saw what he saw. I find one spot where I consistenly see a bird or two so I figure I will check back there from time to time.
I watch the black wolf for a good long time, trying to figure out what his morning has been like. I hear coyotes howl from two different spots but I don't see them. A whole bunch of people without scopes come up the hill so I re-focus on the black and share the scope with them. Everyone is appreciative and eager to know what's going on. At one point the black stops and poses like Rin Tin Tin on a rock. People really like that!
I keep checking back on the spot where I sometimes see birds, because the black acted like there was something down there. And I check my watch, worried about the time. I am crushed when I see that it's nearly time to leave. I take another good look at the black wolf, trotting higher on a rocky hill and then swing the scope back towards the birds and...THERE! Two wolves running on the flats! I call out "Wolves running!" "Where?" says Don but I am terrible at describing it. "A grey and a black" is all I can manage to say. Don looks in my scope for a split second and then gets them in his. Mark calls out "I've got em."
And suddenly there are wolves all over the place! The lone black is forgotten in favor of this suddenly visible pack of maybe a dozen wolves. Running wolves! I see 2 blacks and a grey, then 2 blacks and 2 greys. Carol and Mark see 5 greys. And then I have five wolves in my scope! Carol recognizes 217 so now I know I am seeing 217's group! Another brand new group of wolves for me! 217 is a former Druid so I suppose I can say I've see a Druid wolf! She is very pretty, with creamy white legs and a creamy white belly. Oh yeah! I remember her now, from other winter sightings.
There is so much going on and all these people who are eager to see it! I have forgotten to share in all the excitement. I get two wolves in the scope and say "here two greys" and then I crouch down while the people lean in, taking turns to see. Then I stand up and refocus on the next view and say "here's a black and 2 greys" and crouch down again while they lean in. It's fun! Of course, part of me would rather hog the scope and have all the wolves to myself but there are so many people up here and I know how it feels to hear that wolves are in sight and not be able to see them. I really believe that buying Layla was the best investment I've ever made. People are grateful when you share, but more importantly, it makes them HAPPY to see these animals.
During my own turns at the scope I try to figure out what's going on. Over the course of this sighting I see 9 wolves in this group, seven greys and two blacks. The group is running from west to east, and slowly heading uphill. I wonder why they are running, if something made them leave the carcass? Did the Druids sneak down the Crystal Creek drainage and spook them off their meal? As much as I like that idea I have to admit that these wolves look like they are running for fun, not in fear.
Then I see a grey wolf limping. Ouch, limping badly on a back leg. And a little bit later I see see 2 more greys limping, both in a very hunched way, as if they have hurt front legs as well. Three limping wolves - I wonder what happened to cause that? Then again, I also notice that all three limpers move just as fast as the other wolves.
I am SO HAPPY that this, of all sightings, is what I'm seeing on my very last morning.
And then the wind suddenly kicks up fierce, like a gale out of nowhere. I lose the running wolves behind a fold in the hill. And then I look at my watch. 8:25! Well, that's it. If I don't leave now I will have to speed all the way to Bozeman. So I say farewell to Mark and Carol and Don and thank them for all their spotting help. I head down the hill and find Doug at the bottom. He is happy for me that I got such a great sighting.
I wish him continued good luck with his work and we have a Loon hug goodbye. Then off I go.
I have a nice last sighting in Little America: a small herd of bison and a grown calf with two birds on its back.
In Mammoth the old man bull bugles a scratchy farewell and I squeeze out another half hour of bliss by doing my pack-up in a Gardiner Canyon pullout. Then I leave the Park by the Arch and head for the airport.
I've had another great trip to Yellowstone and I am sorry to see it end. Oh yes, I will be counting the days until I can return.
Today I saw: 1 pronghorn, a grizzly bear, bison, four mule deer, elk, a hawk, magpies, ravens, 10 wolves including 217F, and 3 Loons