Looking for 527

She is a four year old black female with the Slough Creek Pack. In the picture, she lies in the snow in a drugged stupor, her huge head half-supported by an unseen Wolf Project biologist. Her amber eyes are glazed over and half closed; her pink tongue hangs out the side of her mouth. She has just been re-collared, but will keep her number — 527F. Wolf watchers call her “Bolt” for a Z-like marking on her hindquarters. If anything happens to 527, her collar will be sent to me.

We pass through the Arch on a cold and cloudy May afternoon. Thirteen bighorn ewes graze high above the Boiling River, so many white dots on a blanket of green. At Swan Lake Flats a pair of sand hill cranes feed along its shore while geese glide across the quiet surface and elk watch from the hillsides.

Mammoth Hot Springs and Blacktail Deer Plateau lie quiet under the gray of a late afternoon sky. We stop at Hellroaring to look for the Oxbow pups. The Oxbow pack, a spin-off of the Leopold Pack, has made its den next to a pond which is visible only through a small window in the trees. They have twelve puppies this first year and the turnout is crowded with people and spotting scopes. Every so often someone spots a tiny black or gray ball of fur, wobbling out of the den and crawling over a log or following one of their adult babysitters.

In the Lamar Valley, a black wolf, maybe a yearling from the Slough Creek Pack, sits under a tree east of the Institute looking from side to side. On April 12, 2006, 527F and the Slough Creek alpha female, 380F, denned on a hillside, but were trapped inside by an unknown pack of twelve wolves from north of the Park, unable to access enough food or water for their pups to survive. Both females have pups again this year, along with possibly two other pack females. We hear that 527 looks good, better than the other Sloughs who are thin, maybe not getting enough to eat. The black wolf gets up, walking into the trees and we lose it.

A pair of coyotes pass Soda Butte Cone and travel toward their den, disappearing in the tall grass. Two years ago we watched coyote pups here as they played in the sage in front of their den and waited for their parents to bring their dinner. This pair has eight puppies in a different den, but the pups will not emerge until after we’re gone. Farther down the road a big black bear forages in the meadows at Warm Springs. He ambles along, close to the road and takes no notice of us. As the sun goes down, the temperature drops. We are back in Yellowstone.

The days drift into a week of cold, clear mornings and warm, sunny afternoons. Bison and elk are everywhere. Each morning more bison calves mysteriously appear clinging to their mothers’ sides with bewildered expressions on their red brown faces. The elk are losing their winter coats and growing new velvet covered antlers. Some are scruffy looking while others are so pale they appear almost white. The bison are also shedding, their coats hanging from their backs in pieces of woolly pelts. Soon the elk will have their sleek, brown coats with fluffy white collars and the bison their shiny chocolate colored hides.

As we pass through Lamar Canyon we look for the owl on the south side. The nest is still there, but the owl is gone and in her place sits a red tailed hawk, its head bobbing up and down from the twigs and leaves. Down the road a little further, a fox sits on a large boulder on the north side of the road. He is red-brown with dark slender legs. Someone tells us it’s a mountain red fox, a new subspecies of red fox. The fox yawns and scratches himself, then disappears behind the rocks and trees.

We stop at Hellroaring — again – to check on the Oxbow puppies. Two gray wolves are stretched out, sleeping, and another darker wolf walks around nearby, but no puppies. We hike the nearby road that borders the Blacktail Deer Plateau, which is closed to vehicles. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and only the sound of birds, we spot northern flickers, Clark’s nutcrackers, a black and white ladder back, and a warbler with a yellow breast and black markings who flies away too quickly to be identified. The road is dry, imprinted with old coyote, wolf and bear tracks. For all the wolf and bear sign, we have never seen a wolf or a grizzly here.

We sit down to rest on some rocks overlooking a densely wooded area. Below us in a small clearing in the pines a black bear sow plays with her two cubs. The cubs are at least one year old. They roll around in the grass wrestling with each other and pawing their mother. The sow tenderly grabs one and licks its ears. They crawl over the deadfall and climb the slope, disappearing in the pine trees.

Monday morning there are three moose in “Moose Meadow,” a cow with her two offspring, one from last year and another from the year before. We see more moose this year, mostly cows with yearlings and young bulls, their budding antlers covered in velvet. Frost covers the swampy meadow, puddles everywhere. Even the smallest moose is big.

Six wolves from the Agate Pack are bedded down in Little America, four gray and two blacks. Every now and then, they get up and walk around, licking each others faces and wagging their tails. Two coyotes sit in front of a boulder not far from the Agates, singing and yipping away. We hear them long before we see them. The coyote den is probably nearby and they don’t want the Agates around. All the wolves are losing their winter coats, so they appear lighter. The alpha female, 472, is very light with more gray around her face. She is the daughter of 21M and 103F, so she is a Druid, and looks so much like her father, 21M.

The Agate wolves are very mobile and not afraid to cross the road from the South to the North side and back. They go up to Specimen Ridge to return to their Antelope Creek territory, where their pups are waiting for them. This morning we see a wolf cross the road, weave through the sage and disappear. Everyone watches the road, confusing people driving by, but few are lucky enough to see any of the wolves cross.

We check and recheck the Oxbow Pack. Once today we see the alpha female tucked in under the aspens. We don’t see the Druids or the Sloughs. The wolves stay close to their den sites this time of year and can be difficult to catch. So we head up the Tower Road to look for Rosie and her two cubs who are one year old now. We hike past Calcite where she is almost always nearby. Another couple is climbing the road ahead of us, a sage grouse following closely behind. The grouchy bird nips at the man’s heels, protecting his territory. He chases the man away and is not afraid of me as I snap photos. We climb the slope on the north side of the road through the grass and deadfall to a large grassy meadow filled with sage and trees. A wonderful place for bears, but no Rosie. When we return to the road the grouse is gone.

And so the week goes on. We drive to Hayden Valley and get there just in time to see the Hayden Pack’s white alpha female swim across the Yellowstone River and lope to the den site, turning her head, tongue hanging out, looking back towards the road. There were rumors that the she had been killed, but she is most certainly alive, healthy looking, and appears to be nursing. The Haydens denned late this year and during the winter were seen exploring Mammoth Hot Springs and Swan Lake. Now they are back in their own valley, a very visible pack.

The Haydens were feeding on a carcass in Alum Creek, something we have seen them do before. The alpha male and a subordinate, also very light gray wolves, cross the road and stop at the river. The subordinate tests the water, looking back at the alpha male. The yearling swims smoothly across and shakes off under the trees on the opposite shore. The alpha male looks stuffed and reluctant to cross just yet. He curls up in the sand and goes to sleep. The yearling waits for the alpha male to follow, but finally beds down behind trees and rocks, out of sight.

Later Tim and I hike part of the Mary Mountain Trail, not far from where we watched the Haydens. The path is wet and we negotiate mud and marshy terrain as it leads us back to a beautiful part of the valley, stretching into more winding creeks and rolling hills, filled with the scent of sage and pine.

Hiking back to the road we notice the Hayden subordinate at the carcass again. By the time we race down the trail and get to the site, he is leaving the carcass. He carries a piece to a spot along the creek where ravens harass him as he tries to eat. He then crosses the meadows to the same trail we hiked. The Haydens often follow this alternate route and cross at the Chittendale Bridge to return to their den when they are unable to cross the road. That is exactly what he seems to be doing when we later spot him up the road.

The southern part of the Park near Canyon and Lake Yellowstone is colder, with snow still on the ground in large patches and steep drifts. Both Yellowstone and Sylvan Lakes are frozen. On Yellowstone Lake, long, thin sheets of ice float on the surface of the water. It feels very remote and looks as if Spring has not come here yet. We try to hike Pelican Creek Trail, but it’s closed due to bear activity. We walk in as far as the trail signs and stop where it opens to a lovely, oval shaped meadow. Beautiful here. I would like to go back.

Returning to Silvergate we run into a bear jam in Swan Lake Flats. A line of cars and people are watching a grizzly mother and cub try to cross the road. The cub stands up in the middle of the road and looks around and then both bears climb trees trying to get away from the crowd. Unable to avoid people with cameras pressing toward them, the bears move further into the meadow to grub and dig. The mother bear is smart and tolerates humans so well, we believe she might be the daughter of 264, a Park favorite who raised her cubs in this area several years ago.

Hellroaring Overlook is not crowded tonight and we get a good view of the den site. We wait for what seems like forever and are about to give up when seven puppies emerge from the den one or two at a time. The puppies are tiny, but through the spotting scope, their shapes and colors are very clear. Two light colored adults are babysitting the black and gray puppies as they crawl over logs and roll and fight with each other.

Entering the Lamar Valley we catch sight of three wolves on the north side of the road trotting east from Coyote toward the ridge line — two blacks and a gray. They are probably from the Slough Creek Pack, but disappear before we can identify them. I wonder if one was 527.

It is July now and I’m back in Austin, but each day my mind travels an unseen path back to Yellowstone. The Haydens have five puppies, three dark gray, one very light gray, and a black! A yearling female, who we did not see, apparently had pups along with the alpha female. The Druids, spied from a plane over Cache Creek, have four to six, as do the Sloughs, carefully hidden in a wooded area. The Agates are frequently seen at their rendezvous site near Mt. Washburn tending to their eight new members, six gray and two black. There are lots of bears this year, both grizzlies and black, with cubs of the year and one year-olds. The coyote pups at Soda Butte along with the Hayden Pack pups are the hit of the Park. As I travel back and forth through hot summer days I wish myself there now imagining all the babies.

I think about 527, a mother again. Probably, the daughter of 217F, a Druid Female, and 261M, a male in the Mollie pack, she has been seen frequently since we left, swimming the Lamar River, feeding on a carcass, bedded down in the trees. She does not like the crowds this one and waits till nightfall to cross the road and run back to the den. It’s good to know she’s safe. Maybe some morning or evening on the next trip I’ll be standing near one of her familiar places at just the right moment and look out across the river and the black wolf I see crossing the bench will be 527.

Yellowstone, October 2006

The horse stands outside the barbed wire fence, swishing a tail that brushes the ground, staring intently at a group of horses scattered in the pasture on the other side. He is black, but when sunlight shines on him, a deep brown glows from his coat. He waits, patient, staring, looking in as if he wants to join the other horses.

We are on the Wild Horse Range that stretches along this road for more than 10 miles through the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area and extends acres and acres to the west. The black horse is a wild horse, but I am not sure about the others, even though their coloring and markings are similar to wild horses.

Six miles up the road at Mustang Flats, another black horse stands motionless in a gully surrounded by sagebrush and stillness. I watch him for a long time, just standing, not moving at all except for a very occasional swish of his tail, dragging along the sandy, rocky ground, or blink of his eyes. He is a dusty black except for a brown vertical stripe on the inside of his front left foreleg and a white patch on his nose.

Settled on a flat rock about 100 yards away, I sink into the silence and morning light of the high desert and think about the horse. I could watch him for hours, so quiet, motionless. The sun is warm this first day of October and the sky a clear, brilliant blue. In this moment I cannot tell that the snows of winter are not far away. I never see the horse move in this spot deep in the gully, but two and a half hours later, after driving up and down the road, he is gone.

Across the road a grey horse with a black mane grazes high on the hillside among the junipers. He is difficult to see in the faded green of the brush, even with his light coloring. His black tail and mane are a striking contrast to his grey coat and white blaze. This horse, too, is alone, a bachelor.

Yesterday we arrived in Billings on one of the last warm days of fall and headed straight for the Pryor Mountains. Farms and ranches stretch south of Billings and the land gets dryer and dryer, an unfamiliar terrain. A hand-painted sign announces “Apples.” Rolling hills are brown and red, dotted with juniper trees and sage. Because of severe drought, there is little vegetation. Red rocky outcrops rise from the hills.

The road into the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is rocky, winding and rough. There are ruts, dips, holes, rocks everywhere. Tough work, even for a jeep. It seemed like the longest drive I have ever taken. We stop at Sykes Coulee Enclosure, an old wooden corral, and go no farther. We don’t find any wild horses, but see hoof prints leading down a trail overlooking a narrow canyon. It is silent here at the beginning of the ridge. A baby rattlesnake curls almost hidden in some rocks, his tongue tasting the air in a hiss too soft to hear.

The drive back to paved road is just as bad. Some domestic horses graze among cattle that look like they could be part mustang. One in particular has very beautiful and unusual markings and coloring. He is a pale grey, almost white, with a black face. The black extends down his neck to his withers where it fades out. He has a jet black mane, black socks and a black tail. Gorgeous. There is also a palomino that is the palest of yellows, the color of butter mints. At a bend in the road, mule deer graze in front of a ranch house. In the middle of the herd stands one white doe – an albino deer! It looks just like the other deer except for its ivory color.

Still looking for wild horses we drive north on Highway 37 again into the Big Horn Recreation Area and the Montana Wild Horse Range. Several horses can be seen from the road grazing in a distant pasture near a watering hole. I count 14, including a little black one. It is almost dark now, the beautiful sunset casting mysterious shadows, and we head to Lovell for the night.

The Pryor Mountains straddle the Montana-Wyoming border and are home to some 153 wild horses said to be descendants of horses introduced by the Spanish. These horses are small and stout and have adapted to their environment with thick, strong legs and bones. They are characterized by a kaleidoscope of coloring, including duns, blacks, grullos, palominos and red and blue roans with primitive markings (such as the leg bars on the black horse in the gully), dorsal stripes, and shoulder stripes.

As we entered the range that first morning in October we were blocked by a herd of goats being driven down the road by two border collies and their herders. Three Great Pyrenees frolicked through knee high grass on the other side of the road, totally enjoying themselves and neglecting their responsibilities. Multi-colored goats swarmed across the road and alongside the jeep, followed by their smiling and apologetic managers who told us the goats were part of a state weed control program.

Big horn sheep graze along a short, winding road that leads to a lookout into the canyon and dark water of the Big Horn River. My eyes follow a raptor as it dips into the deep red walls and glides along the water. It is still very quiet. Maybe if we had gone farther up Sykes Ridge Road we would have found more horses. Maybe we should have hiked in closer to the grey horse on the mountainside. Second guessing does no good.

Driving to Yellowstone past sprawling ranches, the Chief Joseph Highway is as beautiful as ever. Somehow it feels like I’m seeing it for the first time. In the warm glow of early evening the forest shines. Grass, pine, aspens — the mix of colors is hypnotizing. Mule deer and black cattle graze on the hillsides and along the road. We pass Clark’s Fork, a red mesa rises in the distance. We reach Silver Gate by early evening and I feel like I am home.

On Monday we wake up to temperatures in the 30s. We rush around the cabin, gathering camera equipment, water and a change of clothes, hoping it will warm up. A mule deer stands in the middle of the road not far past the northeast entrance and takes her time walking across. A few bison graze close to the road in a meadow near Barronette Peak, the farthest east I’ve seen bison in the Park. We were warned that bison have been walking through the cabin area in Silver Gate and near the Soda Butte Café in Cooke City.

Lamar Valley is quiet and the wolves are scattered. The Agate Pack is in Little America and the Hellroaring Pack, a spin-off from the Leopold Pack, can be seen near Elk Creek. Six black wolves – or wolf heads – make their way through the sage. They chase a bull elk and his harem down the slope and continue west. We lose them in the brush quickly when they very likely run over a ridge. Two other wolves, one from the Unknown Pack called “Parenthesis” and “Sharp Right” of the Slough Creek Pack, have been seen traveling together, but we miss them even in our racing back and forth.

In Hayden Valley we find a grizzly grubbing in a deep meadow near the road. He is a beautiful glistening silver with a dark face, ears and hindquarters. Across the river two bald eagles are fishing at the edge of the water. They fly out a short way and dive, then return to the bank, searching the water. We watch for over an hour, until the rain begins.

It rains all through the night, drops pounding on the roof, not letting up until close to 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. A mule deer doe grazes in front of our cabin with her daughter, a curious little grey creature. She peers into the windows of the empty lodge, her little white tail wagging nervously back and forth. Such a delicate looking creature with big ears and big brown eyes, and a body too small for her long legs.

In Little America, thirteen wolves from the Agate Pack lounge on an escarpment near a carcass, probably an elk. It could have fallen from the ledge above after being chased. All the pups are there, though I can only count nine wolves at one time. Tim points out 113M, the alpha male and 472F, the alpha female. Both are very beautiful grey wolves with dark markings. 113M has a very long saddle and black tipped tail.

We hike into Blacktail Deer Plateau, up the hills into the meadows that roll on and on. A beautiful, peaceful area. This is Leopold Pack territory and it is certainly prime real estate for wolves. I cannot think of a better place for a wolf to be. There is less precipitation in this area of the Park and the forage is especially good, making it very attractive to elk and other wildlife. In the distance a bull elk protects his harem of 27 cows. Very aware of our presence, every one of them stare at us, even as far away as we are. Two other bulls graze on the other side of the hill, bugling back and forth. Another bull elk lies in the grass on a hillside and the bulls bugle back and forth.

The following day we see the Agates very briefly, racing around the slopes of Antelope Creek chasing two Slough Creek wolves. They are so far away they are like black lines on the landscape so we do not stay long. We drive back to Little America where we find the two Slough wolves running over the ridge away from the Agates. Six black wolves from the Slough Creek Pack wait at the top of Crystal Creek looking for someone. All that can be seen at times are their ears. They lift their heads, all facing west, noses tilted in the air, and howl. Such beautiful singing.

Back in Hayden Valley 540F, the alpha female, of the Hayden Pack is tucked away with two subordinate wolves in some trees across the Yellowstone River. How white she is! We are grateful, because the pack would be difficult to find otherwise, their grey coats hidden by the yellow grass and sage. It’s almost noon and the Hayden wolves are bedded down, getting up only once in a while to circle and then lie down again. We leave them to sleep while we try a new hiking trail.

The Ribbon Lake Trail runs from Artists Point parking area through meadows and forest adjacent to Hayden Valley. There are lots of wolf tracks and some bear sign and a silver grizzly grazing on a far hillside across the road. As we approach a large meadow Tim spots a chocolate brown lump rising out of the tall golden grasses. It looks like it could be a bison. Soon it lifts its head – a grizzly foraging. We back into the trees away from the trail through the meadow and right by the bear. It’s not until we are on the other side of the meadow that the bear realizes we’re there and what we are. He rises on his hind legs to sniff the air and peers around. He does not like the scent and lopes into the trees.

We continue down the trail, but decide it’s too late to finish the loop, turn back the way we came, singing all the way. The bear is gone and we are both relieved. A pair of harrier hawks fly upside down in a mating dance, diving and twirling in the sky.

Around 5:30 p.m. the white alpha female is still bedded down with a subordinate. It seems like they haven’t moved at all and aren’t going to. We are about to leave when we hear a faint howl in the distance. The white female picks up her head, her ears perking up. The howl comes again and she lifts her head answering. Out of the trees appear three more wolves, a mix of light and dark grey. The subordinate wolves are much darker than I remember them last May. It could be their winter coats. They are all very excited, wagging tails and licking faces. Quickly all five start traveling south along the river while we race to the next turnout to watch. We follow the Hayden Pack down the road, driving from turnout to turnout, as they continue south along the Yellowstone River until we can’t see them in the fading dusk light.

Thursday morning in the Lamar is bright and clear. The Slough Creek Pack overnighted in the Lamar and people are waiting for their re-appearance. From high on a hill, we find one black wolf, head sticking up from the sage near the eroded area of the old Druid rendezvous site. He lowers his head and we don’t see him again.

Someone said a grey wolf was spotted near Soda Butte Cone traveling east. We race to the jeep and speed down the road scanning the trees and banks along Soda Butte Creek. Our cabin neighbor stops her truck as she passes us and excitedly announces there are about “30 wolves at Round Prairie!” We couldn’t get there fast enough, reaching the meadow just in time to see what looks like a huge pack of wolves, black and grey, swarmed together at the edge of the trees. The Druid Pack. Every single one of them, four adults and 11 now large pups. They act very excited and travel quickly east along the trees, wagging tails as they run, stopping to sniff every once in a while. We follow them and watch as they weave through the trees at the edge of Round Prairie, heading toward their den site, and then they are gone.

We drive down the road and try to find them in the trees, stopping at Thunderer and Soda Butte Picnic area hoping we might catch one more glimpse, but it’s impossible. Our luck runs out at Round Prairie. Later we learn how fortunate we are. The Druids had not been seen in Lamar Valley since July.

We spend the drizzly afternoon in Mammoth where a huge bull elk stands on the hotel lawn guarding his harem of nervous looking cows. The cows alternately graze and run away from him. When a car passes by too slowly, or stops to look at him and his harem, the bull lowers his head and rams the side of the vehicle with his antlers. He struts back and forth across the road while fascinated visitors watch through the hotel windows. The bull had already punched three cars by the time we arrived and we watched while he rammed four more. Last year, rangers removed Bull No. 10’s antlers for behaving badly. This elk may be destined for the same fate.

Friday morning, the Slough Creek Pack is on the move, running east to Slough Creek river bottom. Seven wolves, six black and one grey. Parenthesis, the black female from the Unknown Pack, waits on the banks of the creek, staring in their direction. Some friendly interaction between Parenthesis and Sharp Right, a grey female in the Slough Creek Pack occurred earlier in the week, so it’s surprising to see Parenthesis run away as the Sloughs approach the creek. The limping black wolf runs as fast as she can, scrambling up the hill to escape, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth revealing very white teeth.

The Sloughs race into the area and make themselves comfortable. A carcass lies near the creek and the wolves grab a piece and walk away to a spot by themselves where they can eat their portion without competition. One black wolf walks off, a leg dangling from its mouth. They wander back and forth, gathering on top of a low hill where Sharp Right and four blacks howl. Parenthesis, hiding out in the sage, howls back.

Sharp Right is a grey wolf who has a subordinate position in the Slough Creek Pack. She is above the yearlings, but below everyone else — the alphas and 526 and 527. She is named for the sharp angle of her tail. Sharp Right begins to walk toward the sage and south towards the road, towards Parenthesis, stopping frequently and looking back. She seems to be conflicted, walking a fair distance, stopping and looking back; then walking back towards the other wolves on the hill. The whole pack begins to move up the hillside, single file, towards their old den site.

It begins to rain this afternoon, pouring all through the night and pounding the roof of the cabin once again. It never stops. The alarm sounds at 6 a.m. and we pack the car and take a last drive in the Park. Bison line the road — they are such hardy animals — and a few deer. Otherwise, all is quiet except for the rain. A good day to leave.

It’s December now and I am thinking about the Park, the wolves. It never leaves me. Last May, the Unknown Pack terrorized the Slough Creek Pack and the Druids were out of sight, far up Cache Creek. Now the Slough Creek Pack is back in its old territory and the Unknowns, are rarely seen. The snow and promise of a cold winter have led the Druids back to the Lamar Valley, following the elk. And there are other changes — there are no longer 15 Druids. The alpha female, 529F, has not been seen for a couple of weeks and three pups are missing. The Hayden Pack travels with only four wolves. No one knows what happened. It is one of the sad realities of life in the Park and one I find most difficult to accept. We see wolves every year, every season, every day. And then they leave us, or are taken from us, and we have only their memory and the mystery of their disappearance. The grey female, the other Druid mother, has stepped into the alpha position and the pack moves ahead as wolf watchers look forward to the excitement of mating season. There will be more pups in the spring.

Yellowstone, May 2006

The black bear is in the wooded area at the base of the ridge. Her cinnamon
colored cub of the year bounces on and around her, bursting with energy. He
swats at her and she swats back. They roll and tumble over grass and twigs. The
cub climbs on a long grey log lying in the deadwood, broken branches jutting out
every which way. He bites the branches and rolls off the log, only to climb up
again and run along its length. He falls off and runs to his mother, jumping up
on hind legs and trying to climb on top of her.

I hoped I would see them. Yesterday, the pair was foraging in the same area
closer to the road, but trees and other people blocked my view. Now, hiking a
steep trail in the quiet of the morning, I look down and there they are and we
watch this mother and her spring baby alone. I wish I could hear them. I am
fascinated by the sow’s tolerance and tenderness, her willingness to play with a
cub who has no sibling to explore the world with. The cub jumps about, tireless,
until the sow leans back against a fat tree trunk and the cub begins to nurse.
It is a poignant sight. The sow knows we are there and I feel like we are
intruding, so we quietly move on.

Farther up the trail a cow elk lies at the edge of a meadow, her back to us,
licking her calf. They are barely visible in the tall grass. The calf stands
clumsily and has the dark, wet fur of a newborn. He immediately falls, his new
legs collapsing under him. But he gets up again, and the cow rises to her feet
so the calf can nurse. Although her brown body is facing away from us, she turns
her head around to stare at us.

I learned that elk cows will wander away from the herd, sometimes taking one
other cow, to give birth to their calves. This elk has chosen a beautiful quiet
meadow high above the Yellowstone River. We often see bighorn sheep here. It is
the first elk calf I have ever seen since most elk calves are born in June.
Mothers Day 2006. Their faces, the way they look at their young — and us — are
etched in my memory. They are what I see in my mind when I think back.

I have many expectations — I should say hopes — for this trip. I expect to
see black bears in Tower and bison calves everywhere. I hope to see coyote
puppies and I hope to see wolves, especially the Druid Pack who I have not seen
in a year. In between my expectations and hopes are windows into the world of
wildlife where they share some part of their lives with me.

The week is warm for this time of year. Days that begin in the 30s climb to
high 70s, low 80s, and the sun is so strong it feels like it’s burning my skin.
It’s daylight at 5 a.m. and the wildlife are out early for morning feeding. As
the day warms up, most animals retreat into the trees for shade and cooler
temperatures.

The wolves elude us the first few days. I feel both anticipation and anxiety
as I begin this week knowing that it’s been a rough Spring for the northern
range packs. In February, I looked forward to seeing pups — a lot of them — but
life in the wild is never predictable, especially when it concerns wolves.

The Slough Creek Pack denned in the same site it used last year, four dens
dug into the side of a hill. Then, out of nowhere, appeared a pack of eleven
wolves, of which only one was collared and that collar no longer worked. The
unknown pack slipped right into the Slough territory and den site area and
tension between the two packs grew. The Slough alpha female was trapped in her
den for several days, possibly slipping out at night for food and water. The
“siege” continued for approximately one month and in the end two Slough wolves
were dead and there were no puppies. The Slough Creek Pack dispersed, traveling
in groups of two or three in different directions, while the Unknown Pack took
up residence in Little America and the Lamar Valley.

Every year since 1998 I have come to the Park, once, twice, three times, to
see the wolves I have learned to recognize by sight. The harshness of their
lives scratches at me, but I still come, wondering if I will see them and in
what condition I will find them. On our third morning in the Park, we see
“Slight Right,” a grey male from the Slough Creek Pack traveling with a
beautiful grey female. They sniff their way through a large herd of bison,
probably looking for calves. The bison surround their calves and chase the
wolves away. One bull charges at Slight Right.

The grey female has her own troubles. Two coyotes run after her, nipping at
her heels. She runs with her tail between her legs, turning around every now and
then with bared teeth and bites back. The coyotes mean business. Their den must
be nearby and they want the wolves out of there.

The grey female moves east and into the trees. Slight Right beds in the woods
and we lose them both. Occasionally we hear howling — Slight Right looking for
the grey female. In the early evening we see Slight Right again, moving through
the sage, still looking for the grey female.

In the middle of the week, finally, we see the Druids in Lamar Valley. They
are spotted at Round Prairie heading west as they travel along Soda Butte Creek,
all four adults, 480M, 302M, 529F and a grey yearling, moving quickly on the
banks of the creek, through the woods and up the slope toward Cache Creek. 480M
and 302M are not the solid black I remember. As they shed their winter coats
they look greyer. 529F, the alpha female, looks like 286F, who I think was her
mother. A black wolf originally, she is now a charcoal grey. I do not remember
her well. All I remember is seeing her last May, playing on a patch of snow with
another grey yearling and her mother.

This is what I was waiting for. To see the Druids safe and looking good. Once
the most visible pack in the Park, they have been lying low, staying out of
sight, not even howling. They do not reveal their location to any other packs.
480M is a practical alpha, knowing how to stay out of the paths of other packs.
He doesn’t seem to be belligerent or aggressive, going after other packs. The
Druids have pups this year, though no one has seen them yet, and they seem
intent only on protecting them and keeping the pack safe.

They pass quickly, marching in a line along the south bank of Soda Butte
Creek traveling west, past Soda Butte Cone and Hikers Bridge to turn slightly
south towards Cache Creek. And that is the last I see of them.

There are other wolves this trip. Some of the unknown pack chased an elk high
on rocky hillsides in Little America early one morning. One grey and five
blacks. For a short while they chase one elk, then two elk, at high speed into a
gully. One black absolutely flies at the elk and chases them out of sight. I am
glad I got to see them. There is a lot of speculation about these wolves. Some
think they are the old Rose Creek Pack driven out of the Park by some of the
younger Druids in the fall of 2001. I believe this. Most of them are black and I
remember seeing the Rose Creek Pack on this same hillside in March 1999, when it
had 21 members. Part of me is excited to see them return; another part worries
about the inevitable conflicts they bring.

Later that morning we see the Hayden Pack for the very first time. Four
almost white wolves trot along the banks of the Yellowstone River and then one
by one step into the water and begin to swim across to the opposite bank,
gliding, only their heads and noses visible. The carcass of an elk cow, one of
their kills, lies on the other side of the road, where it lay for days,
untouched, a small dome of light fur visible. The alpha female steps out of the
water and shakes herself off, then darts across the road to reach the kill. The
whitest of them all, she is the picture of confidence, her eyes slightly turned
down. An unusual face.

They all get there, one by one. Crossing the Yellowstone, then a creek, wary
of people, especially the two yearlings. They are close to the road, the best
wolf viewing we have had in a long time. And we watch for a long time as they
tear pieces from the carcass, until the wolves walk off through the large
patches of snow and up the hill and down again. Until they bed in the tall grass
and sage and all we can see are the white tips of their ears.

By the end of the week one day blurs into the next as more and more faces
fill my mind. They are more than wolves and bears and bison and elk. They are
images colliding, stories untold. A great horned owl, glowing golden and spotted
brown, wings covering two chicks with fuzzy white heads. A peregrine falcon
lying on her nest, wedged in a narrow longitudinal crack in the wall of the
Yellowstone canyon. Tiny black bear cubs scrambling after each other up a tall
pine tree and suddenly crashing, asleep, little black legs dangling on either
side of its branches. A grizzly ambling out of the northeast entrance, head
swinging from side to side. And a majestic cow moose standing next to Soda Butte
Creek, her left hind leg torn, staring at us, looking through us.

I carry so much with me when I leave the Park that now it is not so difficult
to leave. It is stored somewhere on pages within. Every year I look for the same
things and every year I find some things different. Some wolves are older,
stronger, and some are gone. Puppies grow into new packs. Coyotes now chase
wolves. There are more moose, foxes and beavers and always bison and calves. If
anything is true about the Park for me, it’s change and consistency. I arrive
with expectations and hopes and leave filled by the Park’s generosity.

The Edge of Winter

It was fourteen degrees and snowing when the plane landed in Bozeman. By the time I reach the empty ranger booth at Gardiner the snow has stopped and it’s cloudy, dark and getting darker. Evening shadows surround me as the jeep winds slowly up the hill to Mammoth. The headlights reflect off the road and snow in gray, blue and white. Colored lights twinkle from the administrative buildings and General Store. A huge pine tree towers above the buildings, glittering red, green, yellow and blue. A hare pauses in the middle of the road, then hops away.

I don’t think I even notice how cold it is until I step into the phone booth at Mammoth, pushing aside about 6 inches of snow as the door slides open, and shiver while I talk to Tim, telling him about how dark it is, cold but okay, the flights. . . .

I drive straight through to Silvergate, hands frozen to the steering wheel, eyes on the road straining to see any movement. I can barely see ten feet on either side of the road, as the jeep crawls up and down hills, past Floating Island Lake and Petrified Tree, and all the other landmarks I cannot see now in the silent blackness. A coyote trots up the road in front of me and I follow his gray body gratefully. I have no idea where I am. Finally, I pass through the Northeast Entrance and the “Welcome to Silvergate” sign. It has taken me an hour and a half. From the cabin tucked away in the trees I look out the window at piles of snow and the mountains towering above.

The last week of September Yellowstone was a blaze of color. I cannot remember such a golden fall. Aspens on fire, glowing yellow, tall grass, the color of wheat, swaying in the breeze. Red-brown bison calves, not yet two months old. Clear blue skies.

In perfect Indian Summer weather we watched bull elk defend their harems. Across from the Mammoth dining room, a huge bull with a beautiful rack, stomped and pranced around, bugling his long, high pitched song and chasing frightened cows. Orange cones curved around the dining room warning cars and visitors away from the elk. The cows wanted to run somewhere, bolting in any direction away from the bull. This particular bull had a history of punching cars, so a ranger warned visitors to move their cars, and themselves, out of the area. Last fall, reluctantly, rangers sawed off his magnificent rack to prevent him from doing any more damage. And again this year, by the end of the week his antlers were gone.

Fall is a quiet time in Yellowstone, in many ways. The subtle preparation for winter is obvious to those who look. Bears start moving toward their winter dens and are less visible. Elk begin to migrate down from the hills into the valleys to warmer temperatures and winter grazing. The wolves follow them. The aspen and cottonwoods change color and the entire Park glows bright yellow and gold. The ground squirrels are absent, having already dug underground for their nine-month hibernation.

What I noticed most was what I didn’t see. We saw only one grizzly in Lamar Valley and a sow with three cubs from a distance so far they were merely dots on the spotting scope. There were less elk in the Lamar and we did not see many moose. The most noticeable difference was in the wolf population. We didn’t see the Druids in September. Not one. For as long as I have been traveling to Yellowstone, the Druid Pack has ruled the Lamar Valley and I have watched them every trip. The first wolves I saw were 21M and 40F, the alpha pair at that time, traveling along the treeline near Amethyst Bench. Now, those Druids are gone and some of the original pack members, like 253M, have dispersed. What remained of the pack left the Valley, denning in the Cache Creek area, pushed out by the Slough Creek Pack.

Fall was warmth and comfort and elk bugling in the excitement of rut. Grizzlies were still high up feeding on the best white bark pine nut crop they have had in a couple of years while black bears foraged in the Tower area. Wolves kept their distance from the roads, but were watched in Little America and Lamar Valley. Yellowstone was busy preparing for winter. And so in the first weekend of December I came back. I came back because I did not get enough.

The next morning is cold but windless. About an inch of fresh snow covers the jeep and cabin steps, easily brushed aside. Yellowstone is silent, white. Snow blows across the road and through the woods. Hardly anything stirs except a bird flying up from the pavement until I reach Round Prairie where a herd of cow elk, frightened by the jeep lights, leap across the road and run into the meadow near Pebble Creek. By the time I reach Soda Butte, the snow stops and the roads are clear.

Last night in the dark I saw almost nothing. Now in the morning light, bison are scattered everywhere, shaggy brown coats dusted with snow, breath streaming from their nostrils. Several big horn sheep, rams and ewes, look down from a steep hill overlooking the Confluence. They are grazing along a path used by bison, who amble slowly along the game trail, in between and around the sheep.

The elk have moved down from the mountains to winter feeding grounds. Their rich brown fur is thick. They paw at the snow with their hooves, searching for grass. The bulls still have their racks and instead of fighting each other, they graze contentedly away from cows. One magnificent bull grazes alone next to the road in Blacktail Deer Plateau. Later in the afternoon, when I return from Mammoth, he is almost in the same place, staring at me through the open jeep window.

A friend tells me the wolf viewing has not been good the past few days. The Slough Creek Pack is off near Mt. Everts while the Druids make only occasional visits to the Lamar. The Druids are now a small pack of four wolves: 480M, still the alpha male, 302M, and two beautiful gray female yearlings, who are the last offspring of 21M. Both 386F and 255F, had litters in the spring, but none of the pups survived. Neither female has been seen in a long while and both are assumed dead. The Leopold Pack has split in two. It was 21 wolves in Spring and summer when eight wolves dispersed to form a new pack now named the Hellroaring Pack. February, mating season, is going to be very interesting this year.

I hike around the Mammoth terraces in brilliant sunshine and along the Gardiner River. Everything looks so pure. The trail is packed down to a certain point and easy to negotiate. Fourteen degrees doesn’t feel so bad. My Sorrel boots are holding out pretty well and the foot warmers are saving my toes. I don’t see any wildlife except for ravens and a Clark’s nutcracker. When the trail finally disappears, I hike in almost foot deep snow. At the Boiling River a few people soak in the hot springs and I wish I had brought my bathing suit.

I leave Mammoth a little after 3 and stop at the Children’s Firewalk to see if I can find the Leopold Pack. I hike up the service road to the barricade, again in foot-deep snow. The temperature, 11 degrees when I leave Mammoth, is dropping and an icy wind is picking up. A couple of young women sitting in the truck bed of a government vehicle are looking at something through spotting scopes. I scan the snow covered landscape and spot six dots. Wolves bedded down. The Leopolds.

Rick McIntyre is already parked near my jeep and I grab my spotting scope. I see five Leopolds cavorting in the snow, two black and three gray. The icy wind burns my face so I run to the car and pull on my face mask. It looks awful, but it saves my skin. I am so excited to see wolves loping through snow 1-2 feet deep, but I can’t bear the cold any longer, so I watch only a few more minutes and fold up the scope and tripod and head back. The sun is going down and by 5:05 p.m. it’s dark; by 5:30 p.m. pitch black. I stop for a bison in the middle of the road and wait, rolling down the window to hear its comforting snorts. The rest of the way to Silvergate is a silent drive under a thin crescent moon with Venus shining brightly alongside.

On Monday morning more new snow has fallen, – the dry, fluffy snow that doesn’t stick. I have beaten the snowplow to the road and take a walk toward the Park to look for moose. The world is truly beautiful at this moment. Soda Butte Creek winds through pine trees, their branches bending from the weight of snow and ice. The morning is silent — not even the sound of a bird. What a beautiful place to wake up.

Back at the cabin I see Holly with her two golden retrievers bounding through the snow. I hear the dogs barking and peek through the trees to see if there’s a moose or a coyote, but I can’t even see the dogs. I hate to leave. I would just like to stay here and live at the edge of winter at least one more day.

The drive through the Park is slow. Snow blows into the windshield and off the road. It dusts the pavement and flies up into the air. Close to Round Prairie I startle five bull elk who bound across the road into the meadow. They lift their long legs high and remind me of reindeer. A coyote trots down the road and past the car. By the time I reach Lamar Valley the snow stops.

Bison graze in the meadows and amble down the middle of the road. I meet a few coming towards me and stop the car, waiting for them to jump off the road. Grass and sage peek through the snow. It is not so cold here in the valley and the snow is not so deep.

The Slough Creek Pack is bedded down on a hillside in Little America not far from their den site. They made another kill last night. Laurie tells me an unfortunate coyote tried to scavenge some food and the wolves killed it. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.

The rest of the drive to Mammoth is quiet, peaceful, white. I pass the Children’s Firewalk and say goodbye to the Leopolds in my mind. These wolves — the Leopolds and the Sloughs — do not come close to the road. They make their kills farther in and try to avoid people. The wolf population is down in the northern part of the Park partly due to poor pup survival this year. I missed seeing the Druids and the Agate Pack, whose territory lies in the Antelope Creek Area. That part of Yellowstone remains secluded, cut off from traffic when the Tower Road closes in October. That seems to prevent conflicts with humans or other wolf packs, a good thing for the Agates. They frequently venture down to Tower Junction, but I will have to wait, probably until next spring to see them again.

Leaving the Park I pass ranches stretched out for miles, horses out in pastures, manes blowing in the snow and wind. Crossing Bozeman Pass is a nightmare with trucks speeding by blowing snow everywhere. There are times I can barely see. At one point I actually stop because the windshield is completely covered in snow. When I finally reach Bozeman I pull into a parking lot and catch my breath, trying to remember what this morning was like when I was still at the edge of winter.

Yellowstone, May 2005

This spring in Yellowstone is grey and wet and quiet. Swan Lake is still almost completely covered by a layer of ice. The flats are lush and green while Electric Peak is capped with snow. Two Trumpeter Swans dive at the edge of the shore. Elk are everywhere shedding the past winter, tufts of brown fur sticking out of smooth beige coats. The bulls have begun to grow antlers again. Some resemble little bones and some are quite impressive. All are covered with velvet.

Bison, too, are everywhere. Their new-born calves are the first sign of spring in Yellowstone for me. Little bursts of red-brown energy with dark brown eyes and noses race in circles around their mothers and each other discovering what four legs can do. I roll down the car window and listen to the bison snorting and huffing, watching their breath disappear into the cold air. A lost and confused calf finds its mother and starts to nurse. Just watching brings me a strange contentment and comfort.

There are other babies this year. At the edge of Little America the Slough Creek Pack has dug four dens into a slope with a main den site beneath them. Wolf watchers crowd Dave’s hill, their scopes pointed at the large mound surrounded by sage and fallen aspen. Recently they watched four different “mothers” carry 15 pups from den to den, finally depositing them all in the main den. Multiple litters in packs are becoming more common, but leave no certainty as to which females produced litters or how many pups in each litter. Slough Creek is a large pack led by 490M, the alpha male and a still uncollared all black female.*

From a distance of approximately 1.7 miles, the Slough Creek pups are very tiny. Black and grey furry balls spill out of the den and waddle between the sage, crawl over logs, and lick the faces of their adult babysitters. They are very active and hard to keep track of — I count 10 this time, six black and four grey. Four or five adult wolves are always hidden in the sage ready to play or protect the pups from curious onlookers. A bull elk and his harem share the same slope and are often grazing while the pups play. Late one afternoon we arrive just in time to watch a grey wolf escorting a grizzly from the area, following at the bear’s heels, weaving down the rocky slope, step by by step, until they both disappear in the grass and trees.

Down the road, the Lamar Valley stretches out, silent and peaceful. A grizzly forages on Amethyst Bench. I search the hills for wolves hoping to see at least one of the remaining Druid Pack. Faced with increasing threats from the Slough Creek Pack, they have denned far up Cache Creek and make infrequent trips to the Lamar. Daylight is fading now and a light rain sprinkles the valley, so we continue east to Cooke City as the evening shadows fall.

One morning later in the week we see the Druids from Hikers Bridge. They are relaxing in the grass on the other side of Soda Butte Creek, a carcass hidden nearby in a grassy dip. 255F is not there, supposedly back at the den with the pups, but we do see 480M, the new alpha male, and 302M, as well as 286F, the alpha female, and two pups from last year, a grey and a black. The wolves are losing their winter coats also and some of the black wolves have a rich brown tint to their fur, much like chocolate labs.

302M looks great. He has a very black face right now and a small white patch on his chest. 286F reminds me of 21M as he grew older, very grey with a black/charcoal mask. I remember her being much darker last year and now I mistake her for 255F. The two pups are charcoal grey and a lighter grey. They must be the last offspring of 21M, a sobering thought. They are beautiful, playful, energetic. Together with 286F, who always likes a good game, they roll on their backs on a triangular patch of snow and ice and slide down on their sides. They discover a small object, maybe a pine cone, and are totally absorbed. They toss it up in the air and catch it in their mouths, chew it and swat it back and forth like a hockey puck.

480 M seems to be a very calm, content wolf. A big, black/brown wolf, he remains bedded on a slope, getting up only once to sniff at the snow patch and check on the yearlings. It’s a great relief to see the Druids. After the deaths of 42F and 21M, the pack seemed to struggle in the void left by the alpha pair’s leadership. 253M (affectionately named “Limpy” by some), the beta male, disappeared from the valley for a while and it was thought that 302M, who fathered some of the younger Druids, would become alpha male. Now 253M has his own pack in the Tetons and 302M seems to be content to let 480M lead. The pack is much smaller now. Both 255F and 286F had litters totaling six pups, so they are 12. I look at the “new” Druids and think back to when there were 37 wolves in the pack, remembering all the Druids I knew by sight and who I will miss seeing so much.

We do not see any cubs of the year this spring. Last year was a very successful year for cubs, both black bears and grizzlies, and typically, bears keep their cubs with them for two years. Tower is still closed, so we hike up the gradually sloping road late one morning, past empty, grassy meadows, and find a black bear sow with last year’s cub napping at the base of a large tree across the road. She looks like a black cat, curled up. The cub rests its head on it’s mother’s sleeping body and looks up at us every now and then. We do not want to disturb them so we continue up the hill.

The road curves along the steep Yellowstone River Canyon where we find three osprey nests built on top of tall, rocky spires. All are occupied with at least one osprey visible. We don’t see any eggs, but watch as the birds fidget with twigs and leaves, putting their homes together. On another day, while hiking on the other side of the river, a male osprey flies in towards a nest with a fish in his mouth. We watch him perch on a high branch of a dead tree and eat the fish while his mate squawks at him from their nest below.

Returning down the road, the cub and the sow are up and foraging in the meadow near the pond. Their reflections shine on the water’s glassy surface. For a while the cub stops and plays with something in the grass and then the bears works their way down the meadow. At one point the sow looks like she wants to cross the road, looking back at her cub, who isn’t paying attention. She crosses the road, but the cub stays where he is. The sow then crosses back and the two continued feeding until the cub decides it’s okay to cross. A puddle in the middle of the road distracts him and he starts to drink. The sow joins him when a Park vehicle comes barreling down the road, chasing the cub straight toward us. We back down the hill as fast as we can leaving the bears still running down the road behind us.

Almost every day we’ve seen two young black bears near Petrified Tree, a cinnamon colored and a black. Always together and affectionate and playful with one another, they rub heads, chase and paw each other. They must be siblings. We surprise them once at Tower Junction as we rush round a bend in the road, retreating from a very wet hike along the Yellowstone River. They are feeding contentedly on something in the meadow until they catch our scent and both startled bears take off like a shot, loping across the road and up a hill. The black bear hides in the trees while the cinnamon turns and sits back on its hind legs, looking like a big dog as he watches us hurry by.

We see lots of moose, frequently foraging alone in meadows filled with spring’s new grass or wading in Soda Butte Creek. They seem to like the woods near the Northeast entrance, thick with pine trees and creeks. More than one morning we are greeted near Round Prairie by a cow standing in the middle of the road. Defiant, ears pinned back, her long, gangly legs planted on the asphalt, she refuses to move, waiting for us to inch forward before she jumps off the road into the meadow. Her back legs are white – I never noticed that before. For such a large gangly animal she seems very delicate.

Each day we stop near Soda Butte Cone where a coyote family has made its den. A light grey coyote with a brown mask travels through the tall, swaying grass from the west. Standing in the sage is a darker coyote, a combination of grey, reddish brown and tan with five reddish brown balls of fur glued beneath her, nursing. They rush to the male and climb all over him. They are clumsy at this age, stumbling around in the sage, standing on hind legs and swatting each other.

The adults play with the puppies after the greeting and then begin to trot east to their den, a hole in the side of the hill similar to the Sloughs’. Looking back, they try to convince the pups to follow. The pups continue rolling in the sage and don’t seem to want to give up their play time, so the adults return and lie down at the rendezvous site of sorts. After a short while, the female trots off, heading over the hill, maybe to hunt or just take a break from motherhood, while the male rests his head on his paws and baby-sits the puppies. Later in the day we see a third adult, a darker grey with more brown in its face, hunting in the meadow near the den. The pups have learned well about sounds and smells. Once we stopped to get a closer look at the female and pups, but by the time we set the scope up, the family was gone!

Our last morning in the Park is cold and clear with a beautiful blue sky, the best weather we’ve had all week. There are no coyote puppies at the den site this morning. The adults are west of the den running toward it at first and then uphill. They trot very quickly, almost loping, as if disturbed by something, perhaps the bison snorting and stamping on the hill. But they do not approach the den, just keep running up the hill.

Both 302M and 480M are at the confluence, both difficult to see in the mix of cottonwoods, aspen, tall grasses and deadfall. Across the Lamar River in the distance, a grizzly forages. West of Hitching Post we can see both black wolves bedded down near the creek. They don’t stay bedded long, but move west, quickly, and before long they are on the opposite side of the River in the area of the Druid rendezvous site. Because they are both black and large we can see them even with the naked eye, which is a relief from the week of straining to see the Slough Creek pups.

A pair of Canadian geese waddles along a quiet sandbar followed by four fluffy yellow goslings marked by black stripes down their back. The little ones are at their mother’s heels, almost underneath her, and mimic her every step. The confluence is much quieter than the fast and furious waters of the Gardiner River where we surprised another pair of geese with young. Separated by the creek from hikers, the sandbar is a peaceful oasis to raise a family.

We decide to hike up the steep, muddy trail to Trout Lake one last time. The trail circles the little lake, a mirror of water at 8:30 a.m. The footbridge made of logs was washed away by heavy spring rains, so one needs to circle back around the lake to return. Half of the lake is surrounded by pine trees. In the hollow at the top of one burned out tree, we see a long white neck leaning out, accented by black. At first we can’t quite make it out. It looks a little like a snake, but it’s actually a goose, obviously nesting at the top of the tree. It’s a strange sight, even stranger than the goose in the osprey’s nest near Lamar Canyon.

A coyote is also walking the trail. She trots the edge of the Lake, sometimes backtracking, looking intently at the water. A goose gliding in the lake honks and honks. The coyote approaches the water, trying to find a good place to enter. We think she is after the goose, or eggs in a nest. She dips a paw gingerly into the water and steps back, looks around for another place, and does it again. She walks into the water and starts swimming, her body almost totally submerged, her head and nose in the air, steadily gliding forward, hardly disturbing the water. She swims toward a muddy mass of something in the water, maybe a dead fish, bites at it and turns around, swims toward shore and gets out. She still has her eyes on the floating mass and plunges in again, swims with the same smooth movement, and again fails to retrieve it.

She gets out of the water and shakes off and lies down, washing herself. We can see she is a nursing mother. She seems very calm and not concerned about our presence. She closes her yellow eyes, opening them once in a while, checking to see if we are still there. We do not want to interrupt a mother’s much needed rest away from the puppies for a while, so instead of continuing on the trail, we go back. Glancing toward the water I see the mass has legs and hooves.

We stop at Swan Lake Flats to do some final packing and watch a ground squirrel carry grass back and forth to his nest. He scurries away from his hole into the sage and returns with his mouth stuffed with grass. While the chiseler distracts me, Tim sees an eagle dive into Swan Lake and fly away with a duck! I don’t know how I missed that!

It has rained almost every day, resulting in some very wet hikes and more time spent driving the Park. My thoughts fade into the familiar landscape. I remember my first visit and the years flood back to me in a blur of wolves and elk, coyotes, bison and bear. As their images take their place in my memory, I think of all the brief encounters that remain special to me. I remember the first wolves I saw in the Park and try to keep individual stories straight as their lives cross over each other. It is impossible for me. Before I traveled to this place, I took the order of life for granted. Here the it stretches out before me, draws me in, keeps me coming back. By the time we leave the Park the sky is filling with clouds and a strong, cold wind is sweeping through Swan Lake Flats. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins have just opened for the season, but the Park is still uncrowded and peaceful, making it even more difficult to leave.

*Note: Only three out of the fifteen Slough Creek pups have survived to date. Pup mortality can be very high. (I read somewhere that 1/2 of the pup population survives on average.) It takes a lot of effort on the part of the pack to keep 15 pups fed and cared for since they require a lot of food and are not able to hunt yet. A canine disease like parvovirus can have a devastating effect on and there has been some speculation that this could be the cause of the loss of so many of the Slough Creek pups. Additionally, the alpha female disappeared around June 15 and was not seen again. Her assumed death most likely also contributed to this sad result. The new alpha female is 380F.

 


Copyright-Christine Baleshta 2005