I'm off to the Park at about 8AM. The sky in Bozeman is a bit hazy, but the sun fights through to make it a warm 46. By the time I get to Livingston it has dropped down to 25.
There is very little snow in Paradise Valley but the temps are chilly and the sky is fully overcast. Along the way I see more domestic animals than wildlife, except for the usual mule deer and one gorgeous red tailed hawk.
But that changes as soon as I get to the Park: in the flats between the Arch and the Entrance gate a mixed herd of elk mule deer and pronghorn are grazing.
There are no cars behind me so the Ranger and I can afford to be a bit chatty. He says that although the winter was cold, it was relatively low on snow, yet it looks like the spring is trying to make up for it. He tells me another snowstorm is on the way. I say, fine with me!
I stop below Kite Hill for my visit with the spirit of Allison and smile to see so much snow still in Mammoth. Then off I go to the east.
Some light snow begins as I head up the hill towards Undine. I notice that Blacktail Ponds are still quite frozen and snow-covered. By the time I get to the S curves, visibility has been greatly reduced. The roads remain clear other than a few icy patches in the shaded areas. At Phantom Lake a flock of small birds explode across the road. They land and rise again on the north hillside, in a series of waves, as individual birds leapfrog over each other, in pursuit of insects or seeds. The flock moves this way, in a fascinating, undulating mass to the west.
Floating Island Lake is still quite frozen and snow-covered, and there is icy water in the depression just east of it. That spot has mostly been a circle of dry reeds for the last 10 years.
I find my wolf-watcher friends at the Slough Creek lot: Rick, Laurie & Dan, Calvin & Lynette plus Jeff from Canada, who I met last July on our hike up to Trout Lake. They have wolves in sight near the old Slough den. Woo hoo!
I see a black wolf known as 754M, who was collared about two months ago. He is walking near a grove of conifers we call the "Eastern Trees", and beds at the base of one trunk. a conifer. This wolf was formerly known as Wedge (for a wedge-shaped spot of white on his chest). We don't know yet what pack he was born into, but he is one of two males that had been accompanying the Druid females during their last month as a pack. But as mating season arrived, a very determined gray female, known as "the 06 female" wooed him to her side.
The other male is newly-collared 755M. When 754 gets up to change position, I see 755's head pop up from his bedding spot beneath a different tree. This male was formerly known as "the New Male" and I saw him frequently during my Christmas visit with the Druid females. It is quite probably that he and 754 are brothers. 755 is almost all black where 754's fur has a lot of gray mixed in. And 754 is larger but 755 is the alpha.
The 06 female - who is pregnant - is not in view at the moment, although she was seen earlier. Everyone is hopeful that their presence here might indicate a preference for this spot as a densite, because it will make for good viewing come May & June.
I consider this a good omen for my visit, seeing wolves so quickly and easily, but soon a snow squall moves in, shrouding these wolves from view. In fact, the snow is thick enough to limit visibility all through Little America, so we turn our attention to some nearby bison.
Calvin and Lynette suggest a drive back west, where the snow might be finished already. I like that idea so I follow them. Besides, we've heard a credible report that the Canyon's were seen earlier this morning above Boiling River.
The snow is pretty thick on the drive west but the visibility does indeed improve as we get lower. We stop at Boiling River and scan the hillsides looking for bird activity or alerted elk. I find a coyote walking on the sagebrush hillside just below Kite Hill, and see an eagle - possibly a golden - perched in a tree up there.
But we don't find wolves and Calvin thinks we need a better perspective thatn this. So we head uphill and park opposite the flats below the campground. There is a nice herd of elk grazing here and Lynette finds one with a sore, swollen leg. Other than that individual, the rest of the herd looks to be in good shape.
Lynette suggests we climb the hill on the north side of the road, which no doubt commands a good view of the slopes of Mt. Everts, where we think the Canyons are most likely to be found. So I pack up my scope head up the hill, careful to avoid icy patches on the snow-covered slope.
As I near the top, huffing and puffing, I am about to say "this better be worth it!" when Lynette calmly announces "I've got 'em"!
Woo hoo! She's found the Canyons! I set up next to her and train my scope on a flat, bare spot one level above the river. I see one, two, three wolves, bedded close the edge of that high bank.
I see black alpha 712M, the white alpha female and the uncollared gray male. Each of them is resting, but not asleep, and we wonder why. They don't look as though they are sleeping off a meal. They look restless.
Lynette confides that when she first got up the hill she saw a cow elk walking up the eroded slope, as if coming from the rriver. She followed that elk a while and then panned a little to the right and suddenly there were the wolves.
She speculates that perhaps the wolves had chased that elk into the river earlier this morning and eventually gave up. And that perhaps the cow was only now sneaking away? She is way up the hill now, far from the wolves, headed back west towards McMinn Bench.
If Lynette's theory is correct, these wolves are still in hunting mode. As we are discussing this, Jeff and a few other folk have now joined us on Lynette's Hill. We are happy for the extra eyes! The sun has managed to come out and we begin to shed layers.
After about a half hour, the Canyons get up. First the gray leaves the bedding spot, headed east, then the alphas get up and head downhill to the river. When they get to the river's edge, they sniff a lot, and then head up hill - the black in the lead. Lynette confirms they are pretty much following the exact route the cow elk took.
I had lost the gray but now he appears down on the narrow river bank. His nose is to the ground and he picks up some scent he likes. He immediately follows the same route taken by his pack mates. He catches up with them pretty fast and we watch their progress up the hill and to the west, following the contours of the eroded hillside. There are numerous gullies that they must cross and I am delighted to see them leap lightly across several of them.
Soon the three wolves are loping easily across flatter and flatter terrain, approaching McMinn Bench, the bighorn sheep management area.
They top out on a hill and pause, perhaps catching their breath. We see an elk herd further west catch wind of them. They bunch and begin to run west and north. Jeff notices an elk taking refuge on the cliff - and wonders aloud if this is the same elk they seem to have been trailing?
I am amazed to see where this elk it - her hauches are right at the edge of a death-drop cliff - but she has put herself there as a defense against the approaching wolves.
They rush towards her, stop, then take turns lunging forward at her! She holds her head up high and lashes out at them with her sharp hooves. She looks like she knows what she is doing, but wow, she is really risking a horrible fall!
All three wolves's tails are banner high in excitement. Each takes a turn, and to me the black male seems to get the closest. But she kicks at him quite aggressively. He wheels and backs off. The precipitous cliff is too daunting.
The wolves stop and stare at her for a while, as if sizing up their chances for success. Hmm, not much. They turn and move off. The elk survives, for now. Wow, what a brave and smart girl!
The wolves move rapidly to the north and west. We lose them over the crest of the hill. They seem determined to hunt and it looks like the drama will continue a while.
So we pack up and head down the hill to our cars. We all comment on how bare the hillside is now, the sun has erased all the snow we trudged through on the way up.
As I drive down the Canyon I reflect on how cool it is to have just watched wolves in this part of Mammoth. When I get just beyond the 45th Parallel marker, I pull over and look up to the skyline and see the smart elk cow, still holding her position on the cliff. I think of all the times I have looked up there and seen sheep, never imagining I might see an elk - much less wolves lunging at an elk!
I hook up with Calvin and Lynette again in the big lot just inside the Entrance Gate. They have found the Canyons again, roaming a bare slope well north of the cliffs. I see them now, too, and I also see three separate herds of elk in the vicinity.
They show me another elk that has taken refuge on the cliffs, this one a calf. I notice a half-dozen big horns in the same general area as the calf. I wonder if the sheep were chased, too? And there is a large group of pronghorn on the lower slopes as well.
The Canyons now take a break and bed on the windswept slope. The activity slows down, but the wolves are easily to see, so it becomes a special treat for the us to not only watch these wolves, but to show the visitors who pull in next to us. I never thought I'd be showing wolves to park visitors this close to the entrance gate! Imagine arriving in the Park for the first time and seeing a wolf, before your first bison?
The wolves remain restless. We feel certain they will continue to hunt until they finally succeed. But since they have had at least two setbacks, they might wait for darkness.
Around 5PM I bid my friends adieu to begin my drive to Silver Gate. I stop to check on the elk and find she is no longer there. The roads are completely clear or snow and the sky is blue, but I know more snow is coming.
The drives is gorgeous but mostly uneventful. I see more pronghorn in the road near Aspen and several bull bison blocking the road at the Lamar River Bridge. I wait for them to decide what to do and they oblige me by moving off. I scope at Slough, but do not find the two wolves I saw earlier.
My next stop is in Lamar Canyon, where I hear sandhill cranes calling from somewhere near Jasper Bench. I can't seem to find them, nor can I find an owl that I hear hooting nearby.
Next I drive into my favorite valley in the world and, as ever, love the sight of it. Bison graze in small groups here and there and I count 15 pronghorn on the north slopes just west of the Institute.
Then as I near Hubbard HIll I see bison assembling on the road, so I slow down. A coyote stands on the north hillside, watching the bison intensely. I wonder if coyotes have daydreams? I think this one did, because he suddenly shakes his head as if dispelling such an unrealistic thought, then trots uphill to pursue more vulnerable prey.
The bison, however, are enamored of the road so they stay. I wait patiently for an opening and finally get one. I slip by, avoiding eye contact.
As I near the Picnic area, I find myself growing quite melancholy. All around me the scenery whispers "Druids" but where are they? The rendezvous is empty, the Western and Middle foothills are empty. The hump is empty. Ah me, how I miss them.
In days gone by, if it was a slow wolf-watching day, one could always head to the rendezvous and find a wolf there. But no more. It seems to me that the hills and the river misses them. But I suppose the coyotes are happy. It makes me doubly thankful for the films of Bob Landis, in which the Druids are preserved for all time.
There is little traffic on the roads in this shoulder season and it is a particular treat to drive these beloved roads at 20 miles an hour, savoring the sights and sounds without worrying about holding up anyone behind me.
Once I reach Round Prairrie I am back in a winter landscape, although the roads remain quite dry. As I come around a curve after the Moose Meadow I see something up ahead moving in the road. I slow down and a reddish face turns to look at me - a fox!
As I slow to a stop, the fox hops over the snow berm and I see its thick tail disappear downhill. I am now on a straightaway with no cars in sight either way, so I put the car in park and hop out, looking for the fox's tracks. Just as I find them, the fox reappears on the road behind me. He stands broadside with his beautiful face turned towards me. His ears and cheeks are reddish, his body mottled gray and his tail ends in a bushy white tip.
He wonders why I don't just get back in my car and leave him alone. Then he seems to realize I mean him neither harm nor good, so he dismisses me and trots away. I watch him go, nose down, right at the very edge of the road. I smile and get back in my car.
I arrive at Laurie's at about 7:30 to a warm welcome, dinner and tea. We chat and laugh and then I head to the loft for a good night's sleep!
I'm back in Yellowstone! Hooray! Today I saw: a flock of feeding birds, bison, 2 coyotes, mule deer, an eagle, elk, a fox, a hawk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, 5 wolves from two packs (755M, 754M of the Slough Trio) as well as all three Canyon wolves (712M, the alpha female and the uncollared gray) and the spirit of Allison