January 25, 2023
We switched up our strategy for our final day in the Yellowstone interior. No detours, no chasing leads… just straight to Hayden Valley for some early morning exploration.
We assumed, of course, that we’d be able to see something, but the northern part of the valley was socked in with fog. Eventually, things did clear slightly. In the southern end, I spotted a distant otter.
As I stepped out in the pullout to photograph the otter dot (dotter?), I noted something on the ground. It turned out to be a driver’s license, slightly creased after being run over by a snowmobile, coach, or both. Uh oh. Someone wasn’t going to get home unless we tracked down the owner.
With the improved cellular signal in Hayden, I immediately went to work. I quickly tracked down the owner of the license on Facebook, but I knew that any message I sent them may not be seen right away. So I also posted in a Yellowstone-related Facebook group. Soon I had someone who had found their family’s business. A voicemail was left.
Back in the northern half of the valley, we stopped for a small group of frosty bulls. It was really nice setting… not chewed up with tracks and speckled with droppings.
My thoughts returned to our lost license investigation. It still didn’t feel like I’d done enough. Dropping the ID off at a ranger office didn’t make sense… it’s not easy for someone to just ride back into Canyon to pick up a lost item in winter, and I also had no idea which park entrance they might have entered to access the park. Leaving it at West Yellowstone might not be good for someone staying in Gardiner or Jackson…
I really needed to find this person before I left for our drive up to Gardiner, so I did another online search and found another business-related connection. I reached someone over the phone and left my info, hoping they’d pass along the message… just as I lost a connection on the drive between Canyon and Norris. I hoped that the next time I had reception, I’d have heard back from them.
We had only a few hours left before we had to depart for our Gardiner drive, so we opted to go down the west side of the park. Out at Fountain Flats, a herd of bison browsed before an awesome backdrop of rising steam.
At Midway Geyser Basin, someone had decided to do some off-roading…
Around this time, I felt a buzzing in my pocket. A message! My last phone call had worked, and the owner of our lost driver’s license had called. Turns out they were staying in West Yellowstone, right next door to our hotel. We agreed to meet up when I got out of the park.
We made it as far as Biscuit Basin before we needed to turn back. A robust coyote investigated something near a creek, just out of our view, but we couldn’t linger. Our final tour of the Firehole Canyon yielded no cat sightings, and we were soon back along the Madison.
We stopped for the two more coyotes, the second of which may have been the same individual we photographed the previous afternoon. This time, it went into the river, sniffing around and at times peering intently into the water.
I hoped like heck that it would pull up a fish, but it eventually returned to shore and kept moving. As did we. Upon our return to West Yellowstone, we got to the hotel and starting packing up the car. I made one more call, and soon we had a happy reunion between a driver and her license. Just in time too, as they were leaving for the Tetons the next day!
Our departure was a bit slower than expected, but after a good 3+ hours we arrived safely in Gardiner. Thursday would kick off our northern range exploration.
January 26, 2023
This is my third stint in the northern range on this trip, and I had good reason to question whether we’d see some serious action over these next three days. Many folks have noted that it seems slow.
This may be due in part to the absence of many of the ungulates… the northern boundary near Gardiner is teeming with elk, bison, pronghorn, and sheep. The first two obviously provide a lot of food to winter predators to the east, but also scavengers. Even the presence of coyotes has seemed subdued so far.
I was curious to see what would happen. Our first notable sighting actually did break a bit of a pattern: a fox near Elk Creek! By the time we found a pullout and walked back, it was out in a meadow some distance away.
Nonetheless, it was nice to see a fox in the park again. Our traditional path to the northeast corner carried us through a completely empty Lamar; not a single car passed us. I surmised that all of the wolf watchers had gathered far to the west, while all of the photographers that had beaten us into the park this morning were congregating somewhere in the northeast with moose and fox on their minds. As a result, we had the valley completely to ourselves.
Sadly, there were no coyotes, otters, or eagles to share it with. So we ended up soldiering on. One distant moose was at Round Prairie (we just missed a couple others closer to the road), but there were no canid or other sightings to give us pause on our way out of the park. Before arriving in Cooke City, one of my clients spied a Ruffed Grouse by the road.
Some might grumble about this non-furry sighting, but it was a new species for this trip, and there was an opportunity to snap some pictures at close range as it plowed through the snow. Perhaps one of my clients even managed to snap a picture of the species’s peculiar winter toe barbs, which grow outward seasonally and act as makeshift snowshoes. Can’t wait to see the photos.
Shockingly, there were no foxes in Cooke City after five were reported there yesterday. I was secretly thankful, as the situation there is unsavory and won’t end well if that many animals end up being fed.
Following a Cooke City Coffee stop, we headed back into the park, soon to find evidence of another unfortunate wildlife situation. Just past the Confluence, a coyote was perched on a hillside above the road. As we slowed, it staggered down to us and stood directly next to the vehicle.
This limping coyote has been around for a couple years, and there’s no question as to why it came up to the vehicle.
In order to avoid giving into its, er… wily charms, we continued on. No sign of our morning fox at Elk Creek, and with designs on returning to Silver Gate for lunch, I drove all the way back through the Lamar and out of the park again (the limping coyote was stationed in its usual place near the road, waiting for passers-by).
Just as we exited, some folks on the road ahead caught our eye. Our suspicions were confirmed as we approached and were told a fox was seen near the road. Everyone piled out as I found the last spot in a nearby pullout. We caught brief glimpses, and while I never got any photos, I could see the fox through the trees, scarfing down a cached meal (hopefully not consisting of chicken nuggets and Pop Tarts).
Following our own meal—also not consisting of chicken nuggets, nor Pop Tarts—we were back in Yellowstone. During our drive through the northeast, we were told of an older carcass off the road, perhaps one left by one of the park’s newest wolf packs: The Shrimp Lake Pack.
Can we talk about this pack for a sec? Why the Shrimp Lake Pack? There are two other lakes directly nearby, Trout and Buck. Why choose Shrimp? It’s like someone didn’t want to waste quality names like “Trout Lake Pack” or “Buck Lake Pack” on a small group of wolves that may have trouble establishing a foothold in the prized territory of the Lamar. Are the other two options being saved for bigger and better things?
People are already referring to them, collectively, as “The Shrimp.” My clients have taken to the “Prawn Pack.” And frankly, if they continue to grow, evolve, and establish themselves as an elegant, nuanced family full of complex culture and proud tradition, they may graduate to Langoustine Pack territory (something for which I will almost certainly employ a French accent).
Anyway, I have yet to see any of The Shrimp, but I’m excited that there’s another potential far northeast pack to look for in the tradition of the Druids and the Lamar Canyons.
The gray afternoon dragged on as we started making our way home. Flurries blew in, and as we approached Phantom Lake, client Linda (a local) mentioned an old bull elk carcass that was within view of the road. We crept along so she could point it out through the trees, when this suddenly came into view.
There were yelps in the car as the stare of this stunningly-preserved corpse pierced our souls.
Oh, well no… it wasn’t the carcass. Just a live bull elk hanging out near his dead friend. Emotions calmed. The rest of the drive back to Gardiner was devoid of zombie elk. Snow continued to fall, as a promised winter storm threatened to seriously mix things up over our final couple of days.