DAY ONE - SATURDAY, December 25th

CHRISTMAS IN YELLOWSTONE

On the drive to the airport I see a bright full moon riding low in the western sky, beckoning me Home!

At last I am off for a much-needed rest. Today, the stresses of work are behind me and even the unusual number of testy travelers doesn’t bother me. (I found out later that their testiness was probably due to the major cancellation problems Delta had).

Now I am airborne, watching America slide by beneath me. I pull out my new laptop and set up a file for this report. Out the window I see a greyish-brown desert landscape, topped with patterns of windblown white, and a river delicately outlined in snow. And over there is a frozen lake with bright white edges and visible cracks.

The high peaks that surround Salt Lake are amply snow-covered but that snow does not extend very far down their mighty flanks. The flight to Bozeman, unfortunately, offers no views of Yellowstone as the clouds roll in thick. But in the area directly below I still find it amazing to see the folded earth-patterns that are mountains. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my sister and I used to bunch up the rugs to build hills and valleys for our toy animals.

Bozeman looks great as always and I am nearly bouncing with happiness to finally be here. At the Hertz counter I am given keys to a pale gold Subaru Outback, a smallish all-wheel-drive SUV with a convenient hatch-back, perfect for my needs. I name her Goldie and proceed to load her up. As I head off to Livingston I am amused to discover that Goldie offers a heated seat!

The first wildlife I see are geese, large geese on a river just before the highway climbs the pass. I see many horses along the way, decked out in their thick winter coats and start to see mule deer, lots and lots of them.

Then at Yankee Jim Canyon a bald eagle appears and soars over the Yellowstone, paralleling my route along the river. Next I see some elk in a meadow and then three big-horn sheep, grazing in the flats near the road. I have one prevailing thought in my head as I draw nearer and nearer to the Park. I want to see Druids!

There are more elk in Gardiner and a dozen mule deer bedded on the lawn near the entrance. I enter through the Arch and look uphill to where my dear departed Queen Allison forever reigns. Hello Allison! Merry Christmas! And you know, I think she hears me. I imagine her giggling and teasing me for not planning ahead about the food, because as I am scrounging in my bag for a kleenex packet, I suddenly find a Luna bar! Thanks, Allison, I say, and tear it open, munching happily as I wind up the Gardiner Canyon road.

I have never seen Mammoth so empty! But it looks very pretty, with tasteful Christmas decorations here and there, behind Albright and in the residential sections. Prettiest of all is the colorfully lit tree in the bay window of the Map Room. The whole place feels warm and inviting and I am SO glad to be seeing it.

I check in to the Hotel but don't unload my gear. I need to get out to Lamar NOW! So I do.

At Wraith Falls, where I usually see the group of big bull elk I find a herd of bison instead. And there are more bison in the wide flats west of Blacktail Ponds.

I am always struck by the beauty of the Blacktail plateau and this trip is no exception. I stop in the high pullout below the S curves and pull on my warmer clothes, my boots and ski pants. I assemble Layla and start to scope, thinking about Leopold wolves. I notice two cars stopped down below and two people looking up to the northwest with binoculars. I see an enormous elk herd. I mean really enormous. I bet there are a thousand animals there, in three distinct groupings, all bedded. Wait, I thought the wolves killed all the elk? 8~)

A couple in a white camper pull in ahead of me. The man speaks to me through his open window "can you see it in that?". I guess he means my scope. I say "That’s a lot of elk". The man says "I mean the bear". BEAR? You see a bear? The man points way up on the slope of Mt. Everts. I put Layla to work and the man adds "he mighta got up in them rocks" and just as he says that I see a black spot moving between trees way up there. I see it! I can't believe it! The man and his wife are both looking through their binoculars. “Yep, there he is“, the man says. I just keep saying thanks and I can't believe it! I am totally surprised. Our bear moves kinda slow, nose to the ground, heading higher and higher. In another few seconds he moves into thick pines and we lose him. It's such a brief sighting that it feels almost surreal. I can’t even tell you whether it was a black or a grizzly.

I say “that's rare, isn't it, to see a bear in the winter? The man shrugs and says "we always see bears here in the winter". They start off up the hill and I call out thanks again. I wish I had asked them their names or where they‘re from. I ought to have made it a point to stick close to folks with luck like that!

I put Layla away and hop back in Goldie. It feels so incredibly good to be back in this magical place. I love every hillside, every curve, every tree. I meet a coyote on the road as I pass Floating Island Lake. I drive past Tower and the "Road Closed" sign, wishing I could drive up there as I did in June. That little pocket of the Park looks so pristine and empty - no cross-country skiers on Christmas Day? What a shame.

I head into Little America and pass more small herds of bison. I glance this way and that, loving every view, remembering sightings past. I have a Christmas music CD playing and I hear "Go Tell It On The Mountain" which seems particularly appropriate in this setting. And then I come around the bend through the Lamar Canyon gateway into the best place of all. Lamar! Beautiful, heavenly Lamar! Here you are at last! Oh, how I love the sight of it.

There is snow in abundance on the rounded slopes but overall it looks more like October than late December. The sky is mostly cloudy and despite the vast open space it feels wonderfully quiet. Quite a lot of the river is frozen, snow-covered and braided with animal tracks. The pullouts are empty and I feel I have the whole valley to myself.

As I pass the Institute I see Druid Peak glowing golden in a patch of sun. I decide I have to stop to take a photo. The next pullout has one car in it already so I pull in ahead of it. Two people stand on the hill with scopes. I hop out and wish them a Merry Christmas. I point to the glowing mountain top. Isn't that beautiful? They nod and smile with the same appreciation. I take a few shots and then tell them I just saw a bear. They want to know where, so I tell them. They say they've heard that a black bear has been seen in the Mammoth area and I agree with them that it could very well be the same bear.

Then the woman asks casually "Have you seen the wolves?" Wolves? What wolves? "They're out on that low hill" she says, pointing across the Lamar. I squeal (quietly) with delight and grab Layla to get her set up. They see the bright yellow flag that Yellow-Eyes Peggy gave me, hanging from my passenger-side visor, and say "you must be one of the Loons“. I ask if they are Loons, too, and they say, well, more like Lurkers. I say I'm Wendy and I meet Kara and Rick. In another second I have wolves in my scope. Druid wolves, of course. How happy am I? Druid wolves on Christmas Day.

At first I only see three, the alpha pair (New Black and 286F) and another black. Eventually I see five of them, including 302M and 255F, napping on a low slope above the riverbed. There is a carcass in the flat between the cottonwoods, a bison I think, and I see birds and several coyotes on it. These lovely people have provided me with my best Christmas present.

A little later their friends Marlene and Pat pull in and I recognize Marlene from trips past. She and I watched a courting pair of grizzlies above the Druid rim trail on a snowy cold morning in June a few years back. And she was here last June when the black bear was on the bison carcass at the confluence.

We watch the wolves and trade stories. I learn that 255 has come in for some rough treatment by the alpha male lately. They say it may have something to do with an unknown grey wolf that she has been hanging around with. I notice that she is grayer than before, looking more and more like 42. Marlene tells me she is a fan of Limpy, wolf 253, and worries that he has not been seen for such a long time. I tell her I think she should have faith, that I don't believe we have seen the last of him. We discuss how his thwarted destiny as the new Druid alpha was probably inevitable, due to his close genetic relationship with the females of the pack, and not from a lack of courage or leadership. And besides, I say, 253 is just a Ramblin' Man.

A beautiful Christmas sunset begins, turning the sky yellow and the river a warm pink. We see bull elk in the forests above the fans and a small herd of bison further west. Four coyotes come and go at the carcass, un-harassed by the bedded wolves.

We discover that we all have reservations for dinner at Mammoth at 7:30. Kara immediately invites me to join them and I happily accept. It is such a lovely gesture on her part and just the perfect answer to my evening.

The wolves seem perfectly content to stay bedded and it is getting quite cold. There is a full moon up there somewhere but the clouds keep it hidden. So, we pack up and head to Mammoth. Below the S curves on Blacktail, the moon finally makes its appearance so I stop to soak in that beautiful sight. There is no need to hurry so I don’t.

There are seven of us at dinner; Marlene and Pat, Kara and Rick, their friends Dorothy and Ted, and myself. This group took a hike together up to the Druids' traditional densite and they are full of stories about it. Most of us enjoy the traditional meal of turkey and stuffing and the portions are enormous! Just as my slice of pumpkin pie is being served, who should arrive but Chloe and Becky! I had no idea they were planning to be in the Park. I am delighted to learn that their visit coordinates perfectly with mine. Now I know I'll have great company and an increased chance of seeing wolves. And if that weren't nice enough, Becky tells me they have settled on March for their trip to New York. Yahoo!

There is talk of a moonlit drive back into the Park as tomorrow is the last day for most of these folk. I would love to do that but after this huge meal I am too sleepy. I bid everyone goodnight and head over to unload my gear. Once that is done I get the urge to have a quick visit with Allison. The trail up to Kite Hill is just around the corner from the back stairway to my room. I have a flashlight but hardly need it as the moon is out in the clear quarter of the sky. After managing about ten steps I slip in the snowy mud and crash to my knees. I get up and start again but now I'm spooked.

I get back down the hill, walk over to an open spot and look up. I think Allison will forgive me. I stand and sing Silent Night softly to myself. I turn and look at Mt. Everts with its dusting of snow at the top, glistening in the silvery moonlight. What a lovely view she has, winter, summer, spring or fall.

I head back to the hotel and hear the pleasant crackle of the fire in the hearth. Several small groups of visitors are sitting and talking, relaxed and happy. I poke my head into the Map Room to look at the tree. The glow is warmest in here. The house pianist warbles “Angels We Have Heard on High” and the “glo-o-o-o-rias” sound like falling water. At a table a family plays cards. The lights on the tree twinkle with sweet contentment.

So this is Christmas in Yellowstone.

Goodnight Allison. Goodnight Druids. Merry Christmas!



Today I saw:

1 bald eagle, 1 bear, 2 big-horn sheep, bison, 5 coyotes, deer, elk, geese, magpies, ravens, 5 Druid wolves (including the New Black, 286F, 302M and 255F) 8 Lurker Loons and the spirit of Allison




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