Yellowstone Part 4 – Saving the Best (and Worst) for Last

Wow, it took a lot longer to get this post pulled together than I thought it would! I finally learned how to put Watermarks on my photos, so I was trying to get that done before I posted these photos.  So, without further ado – here is the final installment of our epic Yellowstone trip! You can catch up and read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

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Seeing as how this was a trip to Yellowstone, it was high time we spent some time in the park. By this time we moved to our cabin on the Idaho/Montana border, just outside of the western park entrance. Based on my limited knowledge, the western portion of the park was where you were most likely to see the wolves, so I made sure to book several nights at these cabins to give us a good chance at seeing them. It was also cheaper than staying in the town of West Yellowstone, which is mainly just a tourist attraction since you have to go through the town in order to use the West Entrance. This is also where the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is located, and I wanted to be sure to check that out as well.

On our first full day in West Yellowstone, we headed straight to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but I still learned A LOT. They had dioramas of different seasons and species, and had a lot of information about why the grizzly and wolf numbers dropped so quickly. (Mainly, the government at the time thought of bears and wolves as pests, and hired government trappers to kill them off. But more on that later). We were able to watch the grizzlies in their enclosure wrestle and play, search for food under rocks, and munch on tasty elk legs! (Road killed animals go to the Center). The wolves that were there are all extremely old, for wolf standards. They all looked like they were about 15 or so years old and were happy to lay in the sun and get tasty free meals that they didn’t have to hunt down on their arthritic legs.

After the center we went next door to an Authentic Mexican Restaurant. I know, I know. Why on Earth would you go get Mexican food in Montana? It was there, I was starving, and I didn’t think about it. Okay?!

Needless to say, it was terrible food. No flavor. I mean really. I couldn’t make food that flavorless on purpose. Live and learn, right? Now I’m passing on my knowledge to you so you have a better meal somewhere else.

After lunch we headed into the park to look for wild wolves! Yay!

One of the best things about Yellowstone is also one of the worst things about Yellowstone: the number of tourists. We were there before the summer crowd, but toward the end of the week more and more people started coming into the park because it was a holiday weekend coming up. So by Wednesday the park was packed! However, like I said, this is also a great thing because when one person sees awesome wildlife, everyone pulls their car over and you are sure to see whatever it is that they are looking at.

We saw a bunch of cars pulled over so of course we pulled over too. We got to see a huge coyote hunting rodents in their tunnels by pouncing on the ground and breaking their tunnels open, much like they do through the snow (see Part 3).

We continued on into the park, headed toward Lamar Valley, where everyone said is where you see the wolves. We stopped at another pull off where we saw a ton of cars and people with spotting scopes, and sure enough, our first sighting of wild wolves! While talking to a gentleman who had a spotting scope the size of our rental car, we were informed that they had killed an elk earlier in the day, and they were still lounging around letting their fat, happy bellies settle. There was a black wolf, and white wolf, and a dark grey wolf. They were really far off so I didn’t get great pictures, but they were wolves!

After the wolves wandered off, we continued up to Lamar Valley. On the way we got to see a black bear or two, but our only focus was wolves. We got to Lamar Valley and it was the most beautiful place I think I have ever seen. It is now on my favorite places list. Mountains, rolling foothills, herds of bison and antelope, grizzlies grazing on grasses and flowers. It was spectacular. We knew we were in the right place because of the number of people pulled over on the roadside with their scopes and cameras ready. Normally you would wonder what they are looking at, but then you notice that everyone is mingling, and simply waiting. They knew something was coming, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

So while we waited with the pros, we got to see some great stuff. Antelope coming close, bison calves running and playing, a grizzly family running away from some mysterious unseen object up on the hill. Then we noticed the Giant Grizzly on the river below us. Now, I’m no good at judging distance, but I would guess she was about 500-600 yards away. She was feeding on a wolf kill from several days before (according to the pros that were waiting for the wolves to show up) and her name is Scar Face. I’m sure for good reason, but she was far enough away that I had to only take their word for it. According to the pros though, Scar Face has been photographed more times than the Kardashians; I’m guessing because she frequents the area that the wolves are often found in, so people do like I did, and take pictures of her while we are waiting for the main attraction 😉

However, while we waited, Hubby noticed that people were leaving. There were still the same number of people there waiting, but the crowd itself had changed; the pros had given up to try a different spot!

I suddenly panicked – What do I do? Do I stay here and hope that they show up? Or do I try my luck somewhere else? And what if I leave and then find out that the wolves showed up right after I left? Luckily Hubby was there to help me decide. Lamar Valley is pretty big after all, so maybe they will be in a different area. We headed back down the road a ways, and when we were sure we were no longer in the valley we turned back around and headed back to a different pull off we saw. I was getting a little discouraged because by hearing all of the stories, wolves would be everywhere! I wanted to get some good pictures of wolves! Not just zoom in on a picture and have to point out “See? That black speck? That’s a wolf!” I had to see them closer!

By this time my back was aching pretty bad, so I wasn’t going to get out of the car unless there was something photo-worthy, so Hubby got out and made friends with some Canadians who are living in an RV and watching the wolves for the summer. (Fun Fact: the wolves of Yellowstone came from Alberta, Canada. It’s funny that the Albertans come all the way down to Wyoming to see the wolves they gave us!) Suddenly, out of nowhere, a black wolf runs by, down on the river about 1,000 yards away. I’m not sure where she came from, but we saw her swim the river and dash up the mountain before she was gone. I got a couple pictures of her, but nothing spectacular since she was running pretty much the whole time.  Apparently she was Number 89, and she is a rogue female that frequents the valley.

We learned a lot about the wolves by talking to all of the “wolf chasers” (or “sighters” I guess would be a better term).  Because the National Park Service is broke (because it’s always the good programs that get their funding cut first) they could no longer afford to tranquilize the wolves from a helicopter. This leads to shotting them with net guns and tranquilizing them once the researchers have gotten up to them, so the wolves have gotten a bit skittish of people. We also learned that the research program is now on a voluntary basis. The rangers that were paid to follow the wolves now must volunteer their time because the park service can’t afford to pay them. Such a sad situation. What is good though, is that there is such thing as “Citizen Science” much like with bird surveys. Enough people are interested in this subject, that they seek out the animals, watch their behavior, and report back to the rangers. Many of the observers know the rangers and vice versa, so the data that are provided are understood to be factual and non-biased (mostly).

After Number 89 ran up the hill, we started heading back, since it was getting late and we had several hours to drive back to our cabin. We stopped again at our first location because I saw something feeding on the same carcass that Scar Face had been eating earlier.

IT WAS A SILVER WOLF.

We stopped the car and I ran up the hill with my camera and tripod (I had the speed clip this time). While we were watching this grey, I decided to get some video of him feeding (unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me upload my awesome video…I’ll have to figure out how to get it onto YouTube or something). In the video you can hear Hubby and I quietly discussing if the wolf was wearing a collar or not, and if Hubby was going to hide behind me so he wouldn’t get eaten. I stopped filming right before the wolf came right passed us so I could get some still shots of him as well. I probably should have just kept filming because the pictures didn’t turn out great (it was getting dark and he was running) but live and learn, right? (that seems to be a theme for today). After the grey ran across the street into on-coming traffic and almost got plowed by a car, he disappeared up the hill and was gone. At his closest, he was probably 20 yards from us.

Ah. Maze. Ing. I was so happy, and he had gotten so close! I was in heaven. But of course you know what that means, right?

I HAD TO SEE THEM AGAIN. This wasn’t nearly enough. Andrew and I were already planning the next day. Get up SUPER early and get to Lamar Valley before sunrise because that is reportedly the best time of day to see the wolves.

Of course then it took us a few hours to get back to our cabins. And it doesn’t get dark until about 9:30…So we didn’t get back to the cabins until midnight. Last thing we needed to do was get up at 3:30 am after going to sleep at midnight, so we decided that the next day we would relax, get up whenever we felt like it, see the rest of the park, and go to bed early that night so we could get up super early the NEXT morning.

So we did the whole “geyser” thing again the next day and relaxed, doing our last bit of souvenir shopping as well. We had dinner at a restaurant/bar in West Yellowstone called The Slippery Otter, and this place was great! The owner was super nice, they had great food, and really good beer. Finally, we had found good food in Montana!

The next morning we got up at 3:30 am and I drove into the park. At about 5 am we were flagged down by a truck coming up the road, telling us to pull over because 4 HUGE BOATS (on trailers, duh) were about to be coming down the road, and they needed as much road space as they could get! Well of course he flagged us down at a terrible spot – not only was there no shoulder to pull onto, but there was actually tons of tree debris on the side of the road from doing road work in the park the day before! HOW MUCH SPACE DID THEY NEED?! I hoped we had scooted over enough; all we could do is wait. And all I could do while I waited was think about how I’m going to miss the wolves because I’m pinned between a boat trailer and the hillside! Finally they drove by without incident and we headed down the road again, but slowly this time. One thing I didn’t count on was the mount of fog that we had to drive through. Cool morning+geothermal activity=lots and lots of scary fog. I love looking at fog; I hate driving in it. I was super nervous that a herd of bison would be in the road in the fog and I was going to miss my opportunity to see the wolves because there was a dead bison on the hood of my car. So I drove carefully and as quickly as I dared. As the sky began to lighten, it was easier to see that we were engulfed in fog, and it was much brighter than I had thought it would be. I was going really to miss the wolves!!!

Finally we made it to Lamar Valley. I was in such a hurry to get to my spot and wait, that when we saw a truck stopped in the road I almost went around him. Then Hubby saw why he was stopped – the same Silver wolf  from before was standing on the hillside!

The next events were a blur – I took tons of photos, and he wandered off into the sage brush. The truck drove away, and we waited to see if he would come back. He did, and he was actually carrying a child’s stuffed animal in his mouth. No, I wasn’t confused and he really had a live dead squirrel in his mouth – it was a toy. You could see the tag on the plush, and the little stubby legs.  We have no idea why, but he was carrying around a toy.  He dropped it after a few minutes of carrying it around, and then he sort of zig-zagged in front of our car  while he tried to decide where to go, until he walked across the road back toward the river where we had first seen him a few nights before.  Then Ranger Rick pulled up. Seriously. That’s his name. He’s a Ranger named Rick. He asked what we were looking at, and when we told him a wolf, he pulled over and got out his radio telemetry equipment – SCIENCE AT WORK! Sort of. Rick couldn’t identify the wolf because the batteries on his collar were apparently dead; but that didn’t matter, because I got some amazing photos of him while he was with us. Suddenly more and more people started showing up, and we met a huge group of wolf chasers. Rick told us that the black female would be coming by soon (her radio collar was working so they knew where she was), so we waited until, far off in the distance, we saw her making her way through the river valley.

By this point my back was killing me. I could no longer appreciate the magnificent scenery I was surrounded by, because I was in blinding pain.  I told Hubby we had to go to the doctor now.  We headed to the northern portion of the park where the doctor’s office was, but they didn’t open until 8:30, so we had to wait. I was about in tears by this point and when they finally opened, I was at my breaking point. Talking to anyone would cause my voice to break, and I finally broke down and cried in front of the nurse while he asked me all the questions that he had to ask, and cried some more while talking to the doctor. He wrote me prescriptions for muscle relaxers and Vicodin and we had to drive up further north to get them filled at the pharmacy. By the time I received my prescriptions and ate some breakfast, I was done. It was probably 10 am on my second to last day of my vacation, and I couldn’t move without being in blinding pain. I was heartbroken that this is how our vacation ended. Hubby had to drive for the next 2 days because my drugs kept me knocked out. But while I was awake I was still in pain.

Our last night was spent in Centennial, Wyoming, through the Snowy Range. The Snowy Range is one of my favorite places in the US, but I slept through it because of my medicine. We got to the hotel and ate dinner in one of the 4 restaurants in town, and then I went to the room to sleep. Hubby, since he was still on vacation, wanted to go check out the town, so he bar-hopped at the 4 bars in town and met wonderful people wherever he went. I was glad he had a good time, because I felt guilty for being the reason we had to cut the trip early.

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Now my back is feeling better, although not 100%, but Hubby and I are already talking about going back to see the wolves again.

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