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Day 4

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

It’s snowing when we leave Silver Gate this morning, thick wet flakes that melt as they touch the windshield.  It is 32.

In Round Prairie a bald eagle circles high above us in a swirl of snow, shiny black feathers dusted with white.  By the time we reach Lamar Canyon the snow has stopped and the sky has brightened.  On the other side in Little America vehicles line the road, spotting scopes pointed south.  High on the slopes the Junction Butte pack is bedded in the sage.  Deep in the brush they are difficult to spot; only when a wolf walks across the grass or through the brushy vegetation can they be seen.  Several pack members bunch together forming a pile of gray and black dogs.  Wagging their tails, they lick each others faces.  Then they lie down again, disappearing in the muted green landscape.  We count four blacks and six grays with collars on two grays.  When they do get up I have trouble telling which tail belongs to which nose.  There are 11 Junction Butte wolves now after the loss of 911M and a couple of pups shot in this year’s wolf hunt.  Tragic.  This moment though is a happy one as the wolves gather together and howl in chorus, then travel west along the slopes toward Junction Butte and Specimen Ridge.  The wolves stall out on a grassy knob above the trees and bed down, disappearing in the sage.  Snow flurries begin again, destroying visibility and little by little the crowd thins out.

We head west, too, stopping at Yellows tone Picnic area to enjoy the herd of big horn sheep with this year’s lambs along the road.  The sun comes out, breaking open a beautiful blue sky, a very welcome change in the weather.  We hike into the Blacktail Plateau, past the cabin and barn, up into the rolling hills.  Blacktail Deer Creek, bordered by golden willows, winds through the plateau that goes on forever; miles of grassy slopes studded with little forests of pine trees.  Secluded from human traffic with no real hiking trails, no wonder wolves like it here.  And there is plenty of prey, though today we do not see a single elk.  After two soggy days of cold and rain I am grateful for this sunny afternoon and walk through this beautiful place.

The elk at Mammoth seclude themselves around the court house and administrative buildings.  There are two large bulls with very impressive racks.  One reclines in the grassy median with his harem while the other grazes near the courthouse on the lawn, his cows nearby.  We are near the end of the rut and the herd seems calm and content.  It isn’t until we leave Mammoth that we hear bugling – a bull on the hills above Gardiner River gathering his harem.

Past the Upper Terraces we stop to walk through stands of aspen on either side of the road.  Here the aspen still have golden leaves that shimmer in the breeze and carpet the grass like flecks of gold.  While many aspen have dropped all their leaves leaving graceful black and white silhouettes, Yellowstone is still wearing her autumn wardrobe.  At the Hoodoos we find a few pikas getting ready for winter.  They squeak their high pitched call and run over, under and through rocks, munching on grass.  One den is visible, its opening stuffed with bunches of drying yellow grass.

Snow is predicted again for tomorrow.  Tonight, out by the fire staring into the sky, stars slowly peek out, revealing themselves one by one.  A crescent moon, perfectly shaped and glowing platinum, hangs above tall fir trees, shining on the mountains behind it.

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