Friday, January 12, 2007

Our wolf-watching trip to Yellowstone did not have an auspicious beginning. This was an organized event through the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and was to take place at the Yellowstone Association Institute in Lamar Valley. We were to start our drive around 11 am Monday morning which would allow for an unrushed 5 hour drive that would get us there in lots of time for appetizers and a glass of wine. I woke at approximately midnight on Sunday night feeling so sick that I knew the chances of my going anywhere that day were slim to none. My night was over at that point as I went from bad to worse with some pretty ugly gastrointestinal symptoms. Anyone who has had the joy of experiencing the seemingly omnipresent norovirus will know what I mean. I tried to convince Ken to go on without me the next morning but he insisted it was both of us or neither of us. I'm actually glad he did as I don't think I could have looked after the animals if he had left. I spent most of Monday sleeping or wishing I was dead and than awoke Tuesday felling quite a bit better although still ridiculously tired and sore. We decided to go ahead to Yellowstone at that point and arrived at the Institute at about 1pm Tuesday afternoon. Everyone else was already out doing something so we had the option of relaxing around the cabins until they returned or doing something ourselves. We opted to strap on our snowshoes and hike the couple miles up behind the institute to the original wolf pen that housed the Druid Peak Pack when wolves first returned to Yellowstone in 1995. I have been to the pen numerous times over the last ten years and it always gives me chills to imagine those amazing animals creating a new home in this unfamiliar territory. I swear Ken has been there before as well but he insists he has not. By the time we got back to the cabins it was 4pm and the others were returning from their activities so we all boarded an Institute van and headed down the road to the site where the wolves from the current Druid Pack had been hanging out earlier that day. They didn't disappoint us as we soon sighted nine of the 11 known individuals in the pack in our spotting scopes. They were too far away to get any decent photographs but it was incredible to watch them interacting with each other through our scopes. I am glad I had that chance to see the big dogs as that was the only time I saw them while we were there.
We got up early Wednesday morning to make another effort to catch sight of the wolves. Although we were unlucky in our primary goal we had a great time watching five coyotes feeding on the few last remains of a bison carcass. Our canid triumvirate was complete when we spotted a red fox crossing the plateau near treeline.
A little later a group of us decided to strap on our skis and try out the Bannock Trail that runs from just inside the Park two miles to the town of Silvergate and then back. Of the eight of us that went Ken and I were the only two with back country gear. The rest had cross country skis which put them at an advantage on the relatively flat trail over our much heavier and bulkier set ups. No one was in a hurry however so it was a very pleasant couple of hours skiing in the beautiful river bottom. When we returned we took a few minutes to drive into Silvergate and visit the photo gallery of Dan and Cindy Hartman, Wildlife Along the Rockies. Their work is beautiful, from the smallest martin to the magnificent wolf shots.
On Wednesday evening we had the pleasure of watching and listening to a presentation by renowned Yellowstone filmmaker, Bob Landis. His footage of wildlife - particularly wolves - in the Park is unequaled.
One of the unexpected joys of the trip was the chance to catch up with old friends. I first met Wynelle when she volunteered at the Institute six years ago. She returned the following winter with her husband Chuck and the two of them are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. They have volunteered every year since and I was just so happy to see them both there.
It was unusual to have a class at the Buffalo Ranch catered as you are usually expected to cook your own meals while there but everyone who ate the catered meals said they were delicious. Unfortunately I wasn't able to stomach anything until Thursday evening so I could only take people's word for it!
We woke on Thursday morning to a changed world. The temperature had dropped dramatically and the snow was falling and blowing steadily across the roads. The drive home was slow and careful with some of the worst roads being inside the Park and after we turned south at Laurel.

One of my best sightings of the entire trip came on the drive home between Fromberg and Bridger. I looked out the side window and saw, just at eye level in the branch of a sagebrush in the ditch, a meadowlark. He was puffed up to three times normal size and was seated such that I was staring right at his brilliant yellow breast. There wasn't a hope of getting a photograph as the roads were far too icy to think of pulling to a stop let alone getting turned around somehow. It was a very poignant as well as beautiful sight because there is no way a meadowlark should even be anywhere near this far north this time of year. He must have been injured and his chances of surviving this bitter cold spell are surely none. It was a great trip and one that I will remember for a long time despite the unfortunate stomach virus that arrived exactly at the wrong time!

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