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       Day 1 May 19th, 2016

Thursday, May 19th, 2016
Mammoth Hot Springs, Montana

   It's raining; a cold rain that drenches you in minutes and suddenly stops. We are holed up in the map room in the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, sitting at a table at the far end of the room watching passing traffic - human and ungulate - from the floor to ceiling window. This morning it was almost clear as we drove across the Gardiner Bridge, passing a bald eagle perched on a rock, looking for his next meal. The road curves through forests of leafed-out aspen, cottonwoods, and pine trees. A black bear ambles across a clearing in the woods near Lava Creek. Not far down the road, two young bull elk, their antlers still covered in velvet, bed in tall grass on the steep slopes.
   The Park seems quiet. A few days ago there was a bison carcass at the foot of Junction Butte which drew enormous crowds who came to watch wolves and bears feeding on it. Rangers moved the carcass because it was too close to the road, and now the turnouts near Junction Butte and the Yellowstone Picnic area are almost empty. Pronghorns skip across the hills of Little America.
   Across the Lamar Bridge at Slough Creek the scene livens up. The Junction Butte Pack has denned high in the sandy, rocky slopes above Slough Creek. Many years ago the Slough Creek Pack had three dens in this same area. Two females in the Junction Butte Pack have denned here; a third may have a den on the other side of Specimen Ridge. Bedded nearby in a stand of conifers are a black wolf and a gray. They are hard to see so far away, visible only when they stand or walk around.
   The gray wolf appears at the den entrance, black pups under her, and stands patiently as the pups weave in and out of her legs. From time to time, she dives into the hole, the puppies following. When she emerges again the pups spill out after her. The black wolf, a yearling, is very attentive to the puppies. He lies down in front of the entrance while the puppies climb all over him. A good babysitter, he even washes their faces. Below the den, more wolves climb over fallen aspen and through tall grass, wagging tails and making their way up to the den, where the puppies come rushing out. Wolves love puppies. From this distance of about a mile they are all a bit fuzzy, but we are lucky to see them.
   We stop at Hikers Bridge to look for bears and watch a grizzly boar amble over the top of Mt. Norris. A little way to the east, a herd of mountain goats perch on the rocky cliffs. In Lamar Canyon an osprey peeks out of her nest of twigs high above the rushing waters of Lamar River. Great horned owls have also nested in the canyon, choosing a rocky ledge protected by pine trees. Three fuzzy owlets stand on the rock balcony of their nest, waiting for their parents.
   By noon clouds roll in, sprinkling drops of rain on the windshield. We brave a walk up Blacktail Road, admiring the phlox and larkspur. Not far in, thunder claps and we reverse course, rushing down the dirt road as a hard rain begins to pound us.
   Last night we walked around Mammoth circling the large commons and checking on the great horned owls nest there, tucked in between the stone buildings near the Albright Center. A group of bison and calves has moved in, joining the resident elk herd. In past years we've seen a few bison here, but not the number we see now - and with calves. Resting on picnic benches we watch calves run laps around the hotel manager's residence. We arrived on a perfect afternoon, sunny and 60 degrees, the edge of a very rainy week.

Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer

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Yellowstone Experiences 2016