Happy Thanksgiving Everyone! This week we give thanks to Leslie Patten for contributing the following story to Writing the Wild. Leslie lives on the eastern side of Yellowstone National Park in a remote valley that is home to wolves, grizzly bears, cougars and elk. She is the author of The Wild Excellence: Notes from Untamed America. She is currently working on a book about Mountain Lions. Visit her blog entitled The Human Footprint.
It was late March, an early spring-like day, when I set off for a short hike on Cougar Flats. This would be a day to remind me once again that there is nowhere in the lower 48 like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where one can experience what I did in just a few hours. Follow me on my magical excursion.
I began my hike on a well-known trail that falls 45 feet down to the vast plateau above the rocky cliffs of the Clark’s Fork Canyon. Within moments I came across cougar tracks in the melting snowfield. After following the tracks a few steps, the elusive cougar disappeared.
The parking area sits high above these lower flats and from there I’d noticed a few elk grazing in sun-melted patches of new spring growth. Once on the plateau, the small herd of seventy-five elk shifted their feeding location to be nearer the cliff edges. These small spring groups of elk are not usual. In January, they usually bunch up in large herds of 300-700, favoring wind-swept meadows and high ridges. As the weather warms and the forage is easier to reach, family groups divide up and disperse throughout the valley. Soon they disappear to follow the green-up into the high country of Yellowstone where they will give birth. The elk spied Koda and I, becoming a bit skittish yet still quite curious. The day was warming, so these elk had no desire to commit themselves to be afraid of a person with a well-behaved dog. They ran a short distance in our direction, then circled back to feed, their hooves pounding on the frozen earth, emitting a strange hollow sound. I was headed for the creek, and I moved quickly away so as not to disturb them further. Within moments I spotted fresh wolf tracks, two sets, and running alongside was a lone coyote. Since all three were sprinting down to the creek, I began following their tracks that led down a narrow gully, feeding into the river’s edge.
The coyote had gone its own way, while the wolves sidetracked to a small meadow for a view. From there, I glassed around, probably doing what the wolves did with their own eyes and good sense of smell. Over on the next ravine, I could see a very large gathering of birds hanging around a large melting ice field. Thousands of birds were gathering in trees, taking time for a drink. Their raucous chirping sounded like a hoard of crickets. After about fifteen minutes, they all took off in flight together leaving me once again with the silence of a winter not quite turned spring.
The wolf tracks crossed the icy creek southward, so this was my signal to head for the north end of the mesa to look for the mountain goats that frequent the thousand foot cliff flanks and ledges. From a viewpoint along the rims I can see several miles of canyon perches and eroded cuts where goats like to take chances. I approached the cliffs through a wooded area, and once again heard that strange din of crickets growing ever louder. The flock was flying in, maybe following me I mused, but this time instead of resting on an ice field or in the trees, the large birds were in continuous motion, flicking from tree to tree, circling my head, in a spring-has-come rapture. We’d had an exceptional juniper berry season this winter, so I suspected these Bohemian Waxwings were feasting before their migration to the far north. Tail tipped in bright yellow with a rusty under tail color, these beautiful birds share the sharp lined faces of their cousin, the Cedar Waxwing, but are slight larger in size.
Whatever they were up to, the sheer force of their presence and numbers was preternatural. The spring sun warmed all things—battered old limber pines, the new bunchgrass poking through the snow, even the crooked lazy shaped junipers that held the berries made sweet by a winter of freezing temperatures. I stood and allowed the warmth to penetrate my bones, closed my eyes, and listened to their incessant Zreee buzzing as one common tone. The quieter I became, the less concerned they were about my presence. Yet instead of resting, thousands flocked around me, flying in circles, tapping me with their wings as if to explore what kind of creature I was. At last they seemed satisfied with their benediction over me, and as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone.
I’d forgotten about my goats. I circled the rims, thinking today’s hike had come to a nice close. Here, the mesa edges out to a steep, heavily wooded animal-only couloir that meets the bluff in a slide towards the river. A large douglas fir guards the couloir’s entrance. I walked over to the tree to rest and absorb my Waxwing adventure. There to greet me at the tree’s base was a fresh cougar scrape.