Today is like being transported back to last year.
I get that brisk cold blast on my face as I walk out, that sharp wake-up feeling. The snow squeaks under my boots and mine are the first footprints from the Hotel to the parking lot. The wind has saved me the trouble of clearing the snow from my windshield. The temperature gauge reads 19 degrees.
And the weather has given me another present: it has granted my wish to see tracks. That's the way it always is in Yellowstone. A storm may scare you and make driving treacherous, but look what it does for you the next day! See that lump of snow in the road? Elk have crossed here. I beam with delight.
At Lava Creek I see two of the Big Boys grazing close to the road. They look up, chewing their cud. Hello fellas!
Even though it's still dark I can tell that everything is different. I can feel the quiet under the heavy white blanket. At the beginning of Blacktail Plateau, where the road straightens and heads uphill, I see a set of tracks in the center of the road. I stop and get out to inspect them. As I lower my hand for a quick size assessment I catch my breath as I can see they are exactly what I think they are. Wolf tracks! I stand in the headlamp-lit road and grin happily. The tracks lead straight ahead. It looks like one animal. I get back in the car and beam from ear to ear.
On and on they go, sometimes veering right or left and sometimes disappearing behind an embankment only to return a few yards further on. Just below the Frog Rock I see a great swath of disturbed snow across the road and on the hills on either side. It's made by elk hooves and it looks unmistakably like a herd ran across the road. Whether the lone wolf I am tracking caused their flight I will need light to tell for sure.
The wolf tracks continue all through Blacktail. At Phantom Lake I stop again to examine them further. What I see is a pattern of heavy paw impressions and every once in a while a light one. Some prints intrude into each other, so I think there may be two wolves, following close, but again, I am looking at this with only my headlights for illumination.
At Lower Hellroaring the tracks veer left and do not reappear. A while later I see a set of coyote tracks and plenty of the familiar kicked-snow trails of road-crossing elk.
I stop at Tower and smile to see the whole parking lot criss-crossed with coyote tracks. When I get out I hear them yipping in the distance. One set of tracks goes right around the corner to the outhouse. I go slowly in case the animal is still there but he's not. I see other tracks here in the spill of the phone booth light; a small creature, like a mouse or vole.
The first pale glimmers of dawn begin as I drive on toward the Yellowstone Bridge. I slow down when I see low shadows appear ahead. Four coyotes have gathered right at the beginning of the bridge. When I stop one slinks right and another slinks left away from the road down to the river. The remaining two set off at a trot across the bridge. I let them get about half way across and then I proceed slowly. They look back frequently and I see their sweet foxy faces. When they reach the end of the bridge they leap lightly over the snow bank and hide under the low branches of an evergreen. They turn and look at me. I say goodbye and follow the road the other way, leaving them to their morning business.
Into Little America I go and as the light seeps out of the east I see a land transformed. About a foot of snow has fallen here and everything looks right. The evergreens are beautifully dusted and the mountaintops seem higher and brighter. And I can feel that lovely soft quiet that snow brings.
I stop at the Long Pullout and my morning begins again with howling wolves. It's just too, too lovely. The three blacks are stationed on a hill above Friday night's kill. Gerry and Doug and I re-unite and share tea and cookies. Brian C shows up, too. The radio tells us that the Druid's signals are coming from the Slough area. As if to confirm this news, we hear howling to the north. We head up our lucky hill. It is a different trick to climb it today, with about a foot of fresh snow, but it is good exercise and warms me up fast.
As the light grows, the snow looks lovelier and lovelier. This morning's chatter is all about the wolf-tracks each of us saw on the drive out. Doug has an interesting theory. He thinks the track pattern proves that the wolf is none other than the celebrated missing Druid, 253, aka Limpy. The reminds me of the one light mark - made by his injured and atrophied rear leg. I like this theory very much. We know Limpy has been gone for about a week; no one knows where he's been and some are worried he's headed to Utah again.
The blacks howl again and again they are answered from the north.
Our scopes are trained toward the howling sound. Doug spots them first. Alpha Druids. Eventually I see all six of the core pack, the same ones I saw yesterday: 21, 42, the Half-black, the Bold black, the White-spot black and the Grey pup. They are moving in and out of an area full of sage and boulders. We watch them play the "king of the hill" game, a favorite wolf activity, on any boulder with a flattened top. We spend that first cold hour switching back and forth between the black trio on the hill and the Druids in the hollow. Other folk come up to join us, some regulars as well as some friendly newbies.
We also watch the activity on the kill. A bird descends and perches on the antler that we first think is an immature golden. But the more we look at it, we realize it's not an eagle at all. Its beak is wrong for an eagle. I suggest maybe it's a peregrine falcon since we are near Peregrine Hill but the general consensus is some sort of hawk.
Again we hear howling to the north and at one point it seems to come from the northwest. We watch the Druids closely to see how they respond to it. Something is out there that interests them. I wonder if it could be those mystery wolves Gerry and I saw last night?
The three blacks eventually head uphill into the forest and I lose them. The Druids remain frisky and easier to spot in and out of the boulders. Then something starts to happen. 21 and 42 move rapidly to the west. The bold black streaks to the front and the other Druids follow. Brian spots a different black wolf coming from the west towards the Druids. I scan that way and see it! A black wolf with tail low but wagging, head lowered in humility but not quite fear. The bold black reaches this one first and I see a rough but friendly greeting. The wolf straightens up as the rest of the Druids arrive en masse. I see a big tail-wagging dog-pile greeting ritual. Whoever this wolf is, it is welcome. Which pretty much means it must be a former or current Druid. There is much leaping and bouncing and jostling and all the time tails are wagging. Then I see two wolves break out from the pile. It's 42 moving to the left with a black wolf right beside her, licking her chin and face in excited submission. Then I see the black wolf limp!
OH MY GOD! It's Limpy! Limpy is the wolf that just returned! I do a rapid head count and yes! I now see seven wolves!
Good old Limpy! He's been gone a week and we just watched him come home. And what's more, Doug is right! Those were his tracks we were following! He came home over Blacktail Plateau and took the shortcut from Hellroaring to Little America! Sweet!
Some of the Druids continue to look to the west and Rick asks us to be watchful for a second, shyer wolf that may have accompanied Limpy. A girlfriend perhaps? I never see another wolf but I do see 21 and 42 looking that direction with some interest. But nothing comes of it. After this joyful greeting, the alphas move back east to the boulder field and bed down. After a while the rest of the pack settles nearby for a morning rest.
We have attracted a bit of a following. There is an Institute group up here now and lots of people looking in one direction or the other. Nothing happens for a while and we start to feel the cold. We hear reports of #210, a black wolf from the Leopold pack, possibly a disperser looking for new territory. Rick is getting his signals in Lamar, somewhere near the Canyon. I wouldn't mind seeing a Leopold wolf. I also wouldn't mind seeing more of the Lamar today. Doug and Gerry seem to be up for traveling so we pack up our scopes and trudge down the hill.
We drive up the Canyon and into Lamar proper. We see Rick at Dorothy's scoping northwest but Doug doesn't stop. Instead he pulls over across from the Institute and we set up our scopes here. I scan Specimen Ridge and the hills above the canyon. We see coyotes all over the valley. We count five right in front of us. Doug sees a couple of lumps that he thinks might turn into wolves but nothing does. The wind is in our face and it's blowing the powdery snow with it, making for a fairly uncomfortable situation. I don't much enjoy having my face pelted with ice crystals. Of course if I had found a wolf I wouldn't have cared at all!
I suggest we take a hike and explore the old picnic area. I want to see what tracks we might find in the snow. Gerry and Doug are game for this so we are off on our next adventure. A coyote ambassador is waiting for us at the pullout as we arrive. He gives us the once-over and then trots off along the riverbank on a journey of his own, leaving his tracks for us to admire.
Doug leads the way and we follow the river's curve. I love everything about the Lamar here. The snow-edged jumble of logs, the varying shades of grey and white, whether ice or water. I love the spinning pinwheels of ice forming, carried along in the current, the black and white (and red) magpies and the sound of the churning rapids.
The depth of the snow is deceptive in places and there is much standing water, some frozen solid, some waiting to be cracked. We choose a careful path and enjoy being away from the road. We find the tracks of a small creature scurrying lightly along the tops of drifts and not where it nibbled a grass shoot.
We see a bald eagle perched in a tree. Doug gives me a good tip for getting closer for a photo without scaring the bird, by choosing a deliberately zig-zag path, rather than walking toward it directly. It works and I snap off one shot, and...the eagle flies away!
We roam the area and see many interesting things. I am struck by the pattern of blown snow on the rough bark of the cottonwoods. It clings in jaggedy stripes running down the tall trunks. There is frozen water at the base of most of the trees and some of it has melted and re-frozen many times over, creating an intricate layered pattern, like elevation lines on a topo map. There is a pine branch wedged high in the upper branches of two cottonwoods, that almost looks like a bear pole. We can't figure how it got there.
We see holes in the trunk of a cottonwood, most likely drilled out by a diligent woodpecker. It looks like a cozy home for some animal. We find another trunk with a half-dozen of these round openings, like an avian high-rise. I make a note to come back in spring or summer to see who rents these apartments.
We get a call on the radio from Rick. He has located #210 and wants to know if we'd like to see him. We tell him thanks, we would love to but we are on foot in the cottonwoods and it would take us too long to get to him. Too bad.
We continue to make our way to the river's edge, carefully, listening for ice cracking beneath us and mindful of what might lie beneath the snow. We come out beyond the trees on a rise of pebbly ground. Doug heads left and I look toward the river to the right. On the opposite bank I see a slanted ice shelf and a dark wet rock, in the shape of an otter's arched back. I smile and raise my binoculars, I point to the rock and say to Gerry "doesn't that rock look like..." and the "rock" dives into the water.
"Otter!" I cry.
I look at Gerry, totally astonished. He turned just in time to see the otter's tail slide into the water. He smiles. Yes!
Doug comes back over and we sneak closer to see where it went. There they are! Three otters! I'm sure they are the same family we saw yesterday. An adult and two pups. Oh I can't believe this! I am standing on a frozen riverbank with two Loon buddies watching otters play in the Lamar River. The otters slice across the water in a series of elegant porpoise-dives, sleek and silent streaks of dark, wet brown. Then we see whiskered heads poke up and slide back, then they pop up a few feet away and dive again. Again and again we think they will climb out on the ice shelf but each time they just sort of touch it and turn away. More than once I am reminded of Olympic swimmers who time their turns to push off from the wall. Gerry and I get pictures but mostly we just stand here, happily watching these delightful creatures.
After about 20 minutes the otters move downstream out of sight. We explore some more and then attempt to head back a different way. But we are thwarted by a deep trough with water beneath it. It looks a bit treacherous beyond. So, we play it safe and head back the way we came. We come across the tracks of our coyote friend. We see where he veered out onto the ice and then back again. I wonder if he was saying hello to the otters?
The sun is trying its best to break through the blanket of clouds and Doug becomes intrigued at some photographic possibilities. These cottonwoods are the ones he immortalized in his gorgeous golden evening shot, the one in which they seem to glow from within. He helps me get a nice shot of the muted sun behind a narrow snag and gets some ideas for future shots against this portion of Specimen Ridge.
We make our way back to the cars, taking our time, checking out the magpies hanging around the oxbow. I love having a chance to be on foot, to get up close to things. Last year, the snow was so deep I would have floundered trying to do this without snowshoes! I decide I have GOT to come back in winter and do some snowshoeing or skiing with whatever Loons can join me.
We decide to drive down to the confluence to look for bighorns. We don't find sheep but we make friends with a German photographer from Bozeman. He wants to see wolves. We say, stick with us. Then another coyote comes trotting along the road. When he gets to us he moves up the hill, taking the high road and the German photog gets some nice close-ups. Finally the little guy crosses the road, ducks smoothly under the guard rail and heads down the riverbank.
We four move on to the Institute and set up our scopes to try to find #210 ourselves. Doug relates how this wolf has been seen in Lamar off and on, presumably looking for a mate among the Druid females. I wonder if the Druid females are known somehow as the hotties of the Yellowstone wolf world. It seems that all kinds of lone wolves are coming here looking to hook up with them.
We scan Specimen and the hills above the Canyon like we did this morning. Doug thinks he sees wolves a couple of times but they turn out to be rocks. Or at least he never sees them move. I try looking in all the places where I have found Druids over the years, on the theory that some spots may be inherently more appealing to wolves than others. Nothing. Well, I see elk and bison and coyotes and ravens but no wolves.
The wind is still pretty gusty so we decide to move on.
We set up again at Dorothy's Knoll. This time Doug's luck returns. High above the Canyon on a snowy slope that ends in a bare rock butte he finds wolves. Ah, there it is! I see a black shape that every once in a while raises its head so I can make out two ears. There is a similar grey shape about 10 feet to the left and that shape lifts its whole head. I treat our German friend to his first sight of Yellowstone wolves. He sees enough to make him smile.
We try to raise Rick on the radio but get no answer. Constant wind in the face makes it hard to stay on the scope very long. I see the second gray get up and stretch. When I go back to the bedded black I see a wolf standing in that same spot but this wolf looks grey. Hmmm. We are perplexed. It could be that the black got up and we all missed it and the second grey we didn't see at first is now standing in that same spot or it could be that what we thought was a bedded black was actually this grey.
Before we can figure it out, both wolves walk to the top the ridge and disappear. Without a radio confirmation we just don't know which wolves we saw. I think about the two greys and the black that Gerry and I saw last evening in Slough. These could be the same wolves. Who knows?
We decide to head toward Blacktail to see if we can find the Swan Lake Pack. The sun keeps trying to break through the clouds and I start to feel warm. Then I start to get drowsy. I figure it's a combination of little sleep and unexpected sun but it makes driving suddenly very difficult. When Doug pulls over below the Frog Rock I tell him I need a nap. I lower the seat as far as I can, put my hat over my eyes and zonk out.
We all zonk out, each in our respective cars. A whole pack of wolves could have romped right past us and we would not have known it! I sleep for a good 45 minutes and boy does that feel nice! Once we are up and moving again, we scan every which way but all we see is a fairly big elk herd. It is most likely the same herd that made all the tracks I saw this morning.
Anyway it's now almost 3:30. Time to head back to Little America to see what's happening there.
On our way through Tower we hear the first crackle of news. The Druids are in Slough, but not visible at the moment. When we get to Long Pullout we look for the three blacks but they are gone, too. Nothing but birds on the kill. We scan this way and that, listening to the radio chatter. Then we hear that the Druid Alphas have just been seen chasing a lone black wolf into the Slough Creek Campground area. No contact was made but apparently the chase was pretty intense.
We tell Rick about our sighting of the two greys and possibly a black on the hills above the Canyon. Doug later learns that #210 was seen in a different area. So we still don't know which wolves we saw! Gerry and I try to see if we can find that spot from where we are now but I think it's impossible from this angle. Bob Landis comes up to join us and I get to thank him again for the screening last night. I ask about Jeff Hogan but he says he hasn't talked to him in a while.
The sun finally succeeds in breaking clear. The landscape is transformed again and I can't tell you how pretty it looks. We will have a sunset on my last night in Lamar! Gerry and I are scanning and talking and trying to get the lay of the land from this angle. I am just beginning to understand what is connected to what - it's especially difficult to do on short visits when everything looks so different from one season to the next. I am scoping a far away snow-slope with a "Z" shaped clump of trees. I think it's the slope north of Fisherman's Pullout. As I am trying to confirm this guess I see something interesting. About eight elk are bunched and alert, all facing exactly the same way. I tell Gerry what I have. He re-adjusts his position. I follow the gaze of the elk and find they are looking into the trees at the bottom of the "Z". There is a lone tree to the left of that clump and as I am scanning I suddenly see movement. A wolf!
"Grey wolf!" I say.
Then suddenly I am unsure. What if it's a coyote? I watch how the animal walks, how it places its feet in what looks like fairly deep snow. I check out its tail, its ears, its size relative to the elk. All signs point to wolf. Then I see a second one, also grey. Gerry sees them, too. He says definitely wolves. I have never known Gerry to exaggerate.
My heart is racing. I found wolves all by myself! And I did it by watching elk, just like John Uhler taught me.
Doug says I should call it in. Before I do I make sure I know how to describe the place where I see them. Rick asks a few questions and then says "ok, thanks".
I watch the two greys walk past the elk as if they couldn't care less. They move steadily up the mountain and I smile to see them romp a bit. This slope is far away; Doug guesses maybe three miles. It seems farther away than 103's den when we used to watch her and her pups from the Boulder Pond.
The wolves seem to be heading for the top of the ridge and I figure they will soon disappear over the side. But they don't. They walk along the ridge a bit and then begin to run down and to the left. This is really fun to watch because they seem to be playing. They run in big bouncy loping strides, changing direction every three or four strides, like a slalom skier. I notice one wolf is distinctly larger than the other.
Rick radios that he is on his way to our position. I tell him the wolves will likely move out of sight before he arrives. I watch them plunge down the slope until they both disappear behind the ridge.
At this precise moment, Rick pulls in. Of course I am disappointed but step away from my scope so he can see. Then a magical thing happens. The sinking sun finds what she has been seeking all day: cloud-free sky. Her bright rays burst forth, bathing the snow in her last, best light. The hill where the wolves romped is edged in gold. And so is the trail they made. The golden light delicately traces the gently curving story of the passing of two grey wolves
This is what Rick sees when he arrives on the hilltop and looks through my scope.
Rick seems happy and that's enough for me. After a few more scans this way and that we call it a day and head down to the cars. As we descend we see the suddenly blue sky painted with streaks of pale yellow. Oh, how I love this place.
Reluctantly I pack up. I say goodbye to the wolves and drive out slowly. At least I'll still get a bit more time with the Loons since we are having dinner with John and Carlene. We lose the light around Hellroaring. That's when the elk start popping out. I have never had so many tests my reflexes in a single drive as I have tonight. Just past the Rescue Creek trailhead we are suddenly surrounded by bison! They are on both sides of the road. Some very close and some grazing a very steep hill on the left. I am worried that one will spook and charge me. But that doesn't happen. Then just when I am clear of bison I am startled by a huge shadow that moves on my left near a tree. It's a bull elk rubbing his antlers against the trunk, not more than a foot off the road. Aiiiii!
A cow elk pops out on the road below Undine Falls and then another one crosses on a curve just before Mammoth. And in the winding-death-road down Gardiner Canyon I slam on the brakes three separate times for elk that pop out from both sides. I'm telling you, they're out to get me tonight!
Once were get past Gardiner I speed up to 40 but I just don't feel comfortable going any faster. The road is clear and the limit is 65 but I know there are many mule deer out here. Several of them cross between my car and Gerry's. We manage to get to John's house safely and find ourselves warmly welcomed. Ray R and Brian C have been invited too. We yack and joke and talk about wolves. Rachel and Joe join in, too. Carlene serves us a wonderful dinner. Fresh salad with cheese croutons, a scrumptious home-made clam chowder and a yummy blueberry and cream dessert.
After dinner we plop down in their cozy living room and let Ray entertain us with his silly stories. I could have stayed for hours but it's getting late and I have to hook up with Frank and Cathy in Bozeman tonight. So I make my apologies and beg leave to head north. I hate leaving Loons. Someday someone has to invent a way for a person to be two places at once so that I can stay with my friends and also not miss a flight!
I say thanks and give hugs to all and offer best wishes for continued great wolf sightings. Then off I go on the dark and lonely road. Carlene gives me a good warning about animals in the flats on the far side of Yankee Jim Canyon. Thank goodness she did because all of a sudden I see a dozen dark shapes looming up and one pair of eyes. I screech to a halt (the good thing about this road is there is no traffic whatsoever). I think the animals will be scared by my car but instead, five of them gallop up the slope and cross the road in front of me. These are elk, not mulies. Big, fat, thick-muscled cow elk. Whew!
As much as I want to get this drive over with, the thought of hitting an animal is too much to bear so I never go much over 40. I have to stop twice more for deer. I'll say this, it keeps me awake! I keep the high beams on and pass a total of six oncoming cars from here to Livingston! The cola Brian gave me saves my life, keeps me sugared and caffeined up. I stop for gas in Livingston and buy a second coke. That saves my life over Bozeman Pass. Man, I hate driving at night!
Yet each destination I reach cheers me up, that I have survived so far, one stretch at a time. I take the Main Street exit to Cathy and Frank's and find their house with no trouble at all. I must have been a sight to see, though. Hat haired, bug-eyed, desperate for sleep and buzzing on caffeine and sugar! I drop off Cathy's great boots and stumble into their warm and cozy home to meet Cathy's parents. Again I wish I could have stayed longer and been a better guest but I know my driving luck will not hold out much longer.
I get back on the highway without incident and make it to Belgrade pretty quickly. I remember getting the feeling that there are weird lights in the sky to my left. I glance out the window and see stars! STARS! A billion of them in the night sky. Weird lights indeed!
I cheer out loud when I see the sign for my Motel. I pull into the lot, trudge into the lobby and check in. Somehow I drag my bags into the room and set about re-packing for tomorrow's adventure: a business trip to LA. This is where my obsession with prior planning comes to the rescue. I had made a detailed list of what to pack and what to wear and what to have handy. I have no brain left to make decisions and I don't have to. Just follow the list.
My greatest achievement tonight is properly setting my alarm. I get to bed at midnight and have to be up again at 4:30. But I would not do anything differently. I love Yellowstone and I love the Loons. I'm thankful for every minute I got to spend here. It's been a great trip.
Today I saw: 14 wolves including 21, 42 and 253 (Limpy), 2 bald eagles, bison, 14 coyotes, mule deer, dippers, elk, a hawk, 3 otters, and 8 Loons