The plow passes in the dark as I am clearing snow off the car. There are fox tracks in the driveway and bright moon and stars in the sky.
Itís a chilly 6 degrees when I leave around 6:20. The Ranger house has its Christmas lights turned on.
I see many tracks in the snow on the drive in. With a clear sky, first light comes earlier than usual. The Confluence looks especially gorgeous this morning.
Iím enjoying the drive more than usual today; itís the combination of early light, fresh show, and celebration of having a drivable road at all!
Nothing happening in Lamar or Little America, but when I round the turn at Petrified Tree I catch movement to the south. Two moose!
I find Jeff and Cameron at Lower Hellroaring. They have the Junction Pack bedded in view below the Tornado Drainage. Yay!
I especially enjoy scoping from Lower cause itís flat, thereís plenty of room, and itís mostly sunny.
Itís cold this morning at 16 degrees. The crew is here, so I deliver some baked goods and chat them up. Taylor says the Junctions travelled quite far to the west, yesterday, crossed the Yellowstone twice and are now back here. She thinks they must be tired!
Around 10AM, the bedded wolves rouse themselves and start to move east. They use too low a route for good viewing here, so we move to the higher lot.
We pick them up as they pass below the basalt cliff, aiming for Hellroaring Creek. They cross in the usual spot, just above the big curve. Then they come out on the big open slope about a third of the way up.
I count 27 which is one less than the current high of 28. They stall out about half-way across, maybe waiting for the stragglers to catch up. I notice a dozen criss-crossing trails visible in the snow.
As the wolves go higher, we leave the ice box and move back to Tower, where the sun is shining.
We watch the pack as they test various bison herds they encounter along the way. They donít spend a lot of time, just a quick once-over. If they donít see anything tempting, they move on.
They come to a herd thatís larger than the previous ones. The wolves stall out, sitting on their haunches on a sage-covered hill, looking at the herd intently.
Then I see two calves are part of this herd. Aha! Some of the wolves start down the hill and the bison bunch, instinctively protecting the calves. The wolves surround them, prompting several adults to charge them.
The wolves quickly assess the health of this herd and go back up to the top of this hill to bed. There are many rocks on this knoll, making it hard to distinguish the wolves from the rocks.
As usual, a few of the pups are not ready to sleep yet and start to play.
Around 1PM, they settle down and I go for a warm-up drive. When I get back, Laurie & Dan are here (they usually sleep in the first day of a trip).
As the wolves are napping, a single bull bison begins to trudge up the west side of the sage hill, unaware of what occupies the top. The bull reaches the crest and stops dead in its tracks. Three or four wolves stand up, staring at the bull. As the bullís initial surprise wears off, he gathers his courage, remembering who and what he is. The bull doesnít budge and the wolves blink. They move out of his path and the bull walks on.
The wolves search for different bedding spots, while the bison, now in full possession of his dignity, strides confidently down the other side, towards the herd. He stops once more about half-way down, to face two gray wolves with the audacity to challenge him. This time you can almost hear him grunt ďreally?Ē
The two grays move off, and the bull completes his journey. Nobody displaces wolves like a bull bison.
A little later an uncollared black wolf approaches the bedded group from the west. To my great surprise, this is the former alpha female. Several wolves sit up abruptly and 1276F goes straight to her, tail sky high. She pins the former alpha quite harshly. The former alpha is very submissive. She squirms away once but 1276 pins her again.
She has lost her status. When I was here in October, I saw her leading the group several times. But I also noticed that sometimes she only led part of the pack, and that 907F and 1276F were often among the wolves that did NOT follow her.
Still, this is the first time Iíve seen 1276 pin her. So now, the question is, who is alpha now? 1276 or 907?
A rally begins, full of raucous howling and body slamming and high, wagging tails. The group begins to travel east again, going low rather than high. I count 19 on the move, but several pups are still bedded on the hilltop.
Two bull elk appear, running west. The wolves pay them no mind. They are headed towards a forest on the right above which we see birds circling. Hmm, something is down there. Maybe a winter kill? Most of the wolves head straight for that spot, running faster than before. All too soon, we lose them.
Jeff is scoping from Upper. He says they went into the Little Buffalo drainage and mentions seeing the birds, too.
Once the wolves are out of view, I begin to notice the cold. Itís only 11 degrees. The sun sank behind the hill a while back.
I take the hint and head east.
But the day is not finished for me, yet. Just west of the Confluence, I see three otters in open water, diving and popping up over and over. Itís the mom with two pups. They are almost as big as she is.
Iím the only one here, so I just stop on the road and watch through binoculars. So cool!
After a good 15 minute show, the otters move back west, so I head east.
There is a low cloud on Norris, shrouding its top and several fingers. It looks really cool.
Today I saw: bison, coyote, elk, 27 Junction wolves including alpha male, former alpha female,
907F, 1229F, 1276F, 1339M, 1340M, 1341F, plus 19 more, and the spirits of Alison, Richard and Jeff.