I meet Rick as planned at 5 near the Arch. Heís driving a SUV, not a van but with just us two, there is plenty of room.
The teepees are lit up from within, glowing in the still dark.
At the gate, Rick presents his credentials to the Ranger along with my ID.
Itís very dark, so the only part of the new road I can only see is what Rickís headlights reveal. I am very impressed with what has been accomplished so far. Still, itís far from finished and remains a daunting task.
The first third of the road is wide and smooth, not yet technically paved but might as well be. Itís already 2 lanes wide. There are a few cars ahead of us and itís kinda spooky to see their headlights turning this way and that.
The middle section is the roughest part. Itís currently still gravel, one lane, very steep and winding.
There are construction vehicles above and below the current route, with lots of piles of dirt. Crews will have to remove a LOT of the hillside to make it wide enough and level enough for two plowable lanes.
The final third is still gravel but less winding, almost straight. Soon we see the lights of Mammoth and reach the final hill, leading down to the back of the Mammoth Hotel.
This slope is really steep, only one lane, bordered by a hastily arranged line of ďjersey barriersĒ, to keep cars from going off the edge. Itís my least favorite part! Then it ends quite abruptly behind the hotel, with orange cones directing Rick into either a sharp right or a sharp left turn.
I tell Rick that I hope the Park has an alternate plan for this ending section, because I would not want to drive it during winter in my Subaru, much less in a tour bus!
We go right and come out on the main loop road. Light is just beginning as we head east, over the high bridge and up through the Blacktail.
We keep going straight into Little America and arrive at a pullout east of Boulder. Itís just dawn when we join a small but quiet crowd. We are looking at the second bison carcass. A bear is feeding on it, and a black uncollared wolf is bedded slightly to the left.
It's a Junction wolf, the first one I've seen since June 5th! I am so happy!
After about 10 minutes, the bear leaves, walking towards the Peregrine hills. The wolf immediately rises to take its turn, pulling off a leg bone. With a little more light she is identified as Thermal Girl. She sits again, gnawing on the bone.
After about a half hour, she moves off to the east, staying in front of the Peregrine Hills. Rick and I shift a little farther east, and in doing so see two more wolves at this carcass; a second uncollared black and 1048M!
Oh, it's so great to see him after all this time, and getting a meal, too!
1048 remains bedded, often looking directly at the crowd while the younger wolf tugs and tugs until it pulls off a set of ribs. This wolf moves off a short way before settling down to eat.
After a while, we drive back to Boulder to view the first carcass. People here tell us a bear (a different one) was on this carcass at dawn but now only ravens and a turkey vulture are in view.
Rick suggests we take a drive down towards Slough, to see if we might find more Junctions. When we get there, Julie A radios that 1048 has left the carcass, crossed the road and is now heading east on the south side.
We set up our scopes right along the road at Slough. It takes a while, but Rick finds him above Crystal Rock, heading east, dutifully bringing food back to the pups.
We go back and talk with Julie a bit. She says 1048 spent a good half hour on the carcass by himself, eating his fill before he set off.
Itís now almost 10, and getting quite warm. We talk about going over to Hayden but decide against it, concerned that we might get stuck in a bison jam and miss the noon caravan.
Instead we go back west to scope from Elk Creek. We donít find wolves here so we try Hellroaring. But alas, we still have no luck.
We DO have a bison jam at Phantom Lake, which I actually enjoy for once!
Back at Mammoth we find a double line of cars routed through the cabin area south of the Hotel, all waiting for the gate to open. But the line moves promptly at noon. It takes maybe 15 minutes to get to the other side.
Of course, its light now, so I see a lot more. I notice a spot that offers a great view of the Gardiner River far, far below. It looks like Iím seeing the Boiling River area. I tell Rick I predict that spot will one day become a very popular pullout.
He says the construction crews are finding it hard to make the progress when they have to stop to allow the caravans up and down. He says on the last conference call, Cam floated the idea that they may cancel the mid-day return time, and just have a morning and evening exit, in order to get the job done. That makes sense to me.
I thank Rick for taking me to see wolves and wish him luck. I know itís hard for him (or anyone) to be displaced from his home in Silver Gate and to stay in unfamiliar lodging in Gardiner. He says heís glad heís seeing wolves!
I move my scope and backpack from Rickís car to mine and bid him farewell. Getting back to Bozeman so quickly via the ďnormalĒ route is something else I vow to never take for granted again!
Today I saw: a grizzly bear, bison, sandhill cranes, 2 mule deer, pronghorn, 3 Junction wolves
(including 1048M, thermal girl and another uncollared black) and the spirits of Allison, Richard and Jeff.