Today we begin at Elk Creek, looking toward Specimen Ridge. The Mollies may still be up there, but we cannot see them because we are looking right into the rising sun! So instead we look to the north and west, where the long golden rays of day have just begun to touch. A bison herd slogs through a marsh, all turned to glittering gold.
Soon we are driving east, prompted by a report of wolves visible from Slough. When we arrive we find the Lava Creek Trio - alertly bedded on the north side of the road on an open snowy spur to the west of the Crystal drainage. It looks like they eluded the Blacktails after all.
The morning is a bit foggy but thankfully, there is no wind. After a while they lower their heads to sleep and I distinctly remember thinking that this will probably be it for the day! Hah!
Chloe suggests we head back west to try to find the Agates. They are her favorite pack and she is a particular fan of alpha female 472. We stop in a pullout near the Peregrine Hill called Straightaway and begin to scan the slopes to the south where famous #9F once had a den. Chloe also shows me a spot to the south that she calls "the gap" which she says is one of the usual routes that the Agates take when they travel over Specimen Ridge from Little America. I note this spot for future referrence, but we do not find the Agates.
As we continue to scan, we hear a report that the Lava Creeks have moved uphill. We turn our scopes and quickly find them. Not quite to skyline but on a rocky knoll. In silhouette I see two wolves on their haunches and a set of alert ears to the side.
Then we see our friend Marlene drive by, heading east. We are just about to radio a friendly Christmas hello when she gets on the radio herself "Four gray wolves, all uncollared, have just crossed road from north to south" in front of her. Whoa!
We swing our scopes into action and Chloe finds them instantly, travelling uphill in a line, on western side of the same spur that the Lava Creeks were bedded on. Following Chloe's line of sight I see a large gray with a dark stripe down his front leg, perhaps a scar. He is in the flats, moving upslope. Then I see a very light, kind of silvery-gray wolf who reminds me instantly of 42. Then I see two more grays who seem smaller. The smaller grays behave in a somewhat bouncy, easily distracted way, which makes me think they are pups, or at least young. The silvery gray and the big gray have "adult" attitudes, calm and deliberate.
The four wolves are clearly together - we can see that in the way they calmly relate to each other. They stop about 2/3 of the way up the slope, close together.
Hmmm, who are these guys?
Then Chloe says "where are the Lavas"? I turn my scope to the spot where I last saw them. To be sure, they are no longer there, but they are still on that slope. I see all three standing on skyline, totally aware of the group of grays. For an instant it looks as though the Lava Creeks are going to charge down the hill at these four.
Chloe is still watching the grays. She says quietly, "are they stalking?" I look back at the grays through my binoculars and sure enough, the two adults ARE crouched into a stalking posture. But whether they are stalking elk in the trees just below skyline, or stalking the other wolf pack, we don't know, until suddenly all four grays take off, running east and upslope, tails raised high in excitement.
The Lava Creeks disappear and I assume they are also running east, doomed to be chased again and again. But I get a surprise. We watch the grays contour around, below the top of the slope and when they get far enough east I suddenly see them turn and head downhill. It's hard to know where to watch, but I see a gray and a black running for their lives towards the road. I see the large gray disappear behind a hill right at the road and then I see the another gray behind him barrelling downhill toward his position, then suddenly slam on the brakes and stop in a spray of snow.
This gray stands and watches some drama visible on the road or just beyond it, and I try to make sense of the various reports occuring on the radio all at once.
After a few minutes, the larger gray reappears, trotting back uphill from the road to the seated gray, panting. Those two wolves sit for a bit, catching their breath and looking towards the north.
We hear reports from people to the east that all three Lava Creeks made it across the road to the north safely, that no contact was made and that only the large male of the uncollared group crossed the pavement, then re-crossed back to the south.
We cannot see any wolves to the north from our position, but we can see the four grays as they re-group on the snow slope - right about where we first saw them.
Rick has gotten a good look at them and tells is that this group is known to him as the Silver Pack. He says no one is quite sure where they came from, but these individuals have made rare appearances in Little America and Lamar for a couple of years. It's possible these are the same mystery pack of wolves I saw on my last day in October, sniffing around the eastern edges of Druidville. At that time, they also had two uncollared blacks with them.
The four grays are now re-united on the slope and I watch as they celebrate their successful chase of the Lava Creeks. I take an instant liking to them, despite their serious pursuit of the other pack, because of the noticable affection between the alpha pair. The large gray is the alpha male, the silvery-gray the alpha female. Once their rally energy is spent, the alphas bed down and the two pups move slightly uphill to their "room".
We begin to get a bit chatty in the pullout, as so often happens after a bit of excitement, but we are in for a surprise. Someone points and suddenly right in front of us, in the sage flats, about a quarter-mile out, white-faced 471F appears, walking calmly through the snow to the west. And not far behind her is the 06 female.
They are no longer on the north side of the road; they have quietly crossed and are now travelling right under the noses of the Silver Pack. I chuckle at the bold savvy of these two females, but after all, they know this territory well; they have lived here all their lives. We look carefully to make sure they have not been injured in their escape, but they look healthy as can be.
None of us see 147, though, and that gives us a bit of concern.
When the females get far enough away, into an area roughly due south of the western Peregrine Hill, they stop on a small hillock with a snow-topped boulder at the center. 471 raises her white head and howls! Oh how lovely to hear that sound coming from this easily visible wolf. This howl is easy to translate as she calls to her mate, 147M: "We're here! It's safe! Come join us!"
The Silvers react by sitting up and looking west. They two pups hurry down the hill to mom and dad. Soon they commence a howl-fest of their own. I have all four Silvers in my scope: mom on the right, dad on left and the two kids between them, all howling. Once they finish their song, the two pups back tot their "room". But the Lava Creeks are NOT finished. The 06 now has HER say and the two Silver pups dash back down the hill to mom & dad for comfort.
Again the Silvers return their howl, but they are not prepared for the response. The 06 gets into her groove and howls nearly non-stop for the next half hour, with 471F chiming in with harmony every once in a while. The Silvers listen a while, then finally give up, and settle down to bed, as if they found earplugs. The pups finally understand there is nothing to fear and go back uphill to bed in their spot.
Then someone radios that 147 has been spotted north of the road, but south of the Peregrines and soon we seen him cross the road and trot over to the little hillock with the snow-capped boulder where he joins his ladies. We see a very nice reunion, with lots of nuzzling and tail-wagging. The three of them re-bed on in close proximity.
But apparently, the 06 was NOT calling to 147. She is not interested in resting. She stands, fidgets, and throws back her head to howl again and again, growing hoarse. Then once we hear a faint response from north. The 06 hears it too! She whips her head around, suddenly more alert than before.
Now she REALLY gets restless. She howls and listens, howls and listens. We remember that mating season is just around the corner and the 06 was a very popular gal last year. She knows an available male is out there somewhere and she wants to know WHO. She begins to trot slightly east and soon heads for the road, crossing it with little hesitation. She zips through the flats and lopes easily up a hill and stops at the crest, looking, looking, and howling some more.
She is a beauty and she knows it. Now her pack mates howl themselves, telling her to come back. She ignores them and continues to scan for the available male she KNOWS is out there, somewhere. This goes on, back and forth for a good half hour, giving photographers and visitors a real treat.
But no male appears so eventually the 06 comes back across to the south side and re-groups with 471 and 147. She tries to settle down but...she just can't! She has love on her mind in a powerful way. She starts howling again, continuing to put on a great show for us all. Again we hear a response from the north. She leaves the others and heads across the road, this time to our west. By now the pullouts are packed and her crossing thrills them to no end.
I watch her lope across the snow-covered flat between the two Hills and I see her stop and look back. She howls to 147 and 471, as if to say - "come with me! But if you don't, I'm going anyway!" With this last, she turns and lopes into the trees and out of sight.
This "dialogue" continues for another fifteen minutes until finally, the 06 wins. The two remaining Lava Creeks relent and begin to move west. They basically follow her trail, although they move more cautiously than she did, keeping to the cover of boulders and gullies until suddenly they, too, reach the road and cross it to the north.
I find them again, trotting briskly along the route that the 06 took across the snow, disappearing into the trees. The Silvers are still bedded, seemingly sleeping in peace. They MUST carry earplugs with them. Wow, what a show!
We know nothing can top this, so we decide to change the scene and head to Lamar.
When we leave the Canyon and enter the Valley, we are quite surprised at the low level of snow. Nearly none. We do see bison and a few elk on the north side hills, in small groups. Of course, it is still exceedingly beautiful and I am glad to be here. I think about what I read in the journal of mountain man Osborne Russell. He called it "the secluded valley" in which "happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor".
At the confluence we notice a good deal of open water, despite the extremely cold temperatures. We see otter tracks, but nothing fresh. We do see dippers and ducks and I always love seeing what Mountain Man Osborne Russell called "The most beautiful valley in the world".
We drive as far as Round Prairrie, admiring the beauty all the way. There is a lot of steam at Soda Butte Cone and we are not sure if this is a function of the cold or if thermal activity here is increasing?
In Round Prairie we enjoy seeing the line of thick icicles dripping over the cut bank, and love seeing the mist rise from the river.
On our way back west, we stop to check on the Silvers. We find a large gray wolf, uncollared, wandering nose-down on the slope where we first saw the Lava Creeks bedded this morning. We assume this is the alpha male of the Silvers, but then realize he is not, because we then find the Silver Pack together, all four of them, on the westen side of this spur, high up near the trees.
So this large gray is a mystery wolf. I wonder if he could have been the voice howling to the 06 earlier today? We watch this mystery gray as he continues sniffing and then sets off east, disappearing into the Crystal drainage. The light is failing so we pack up and drive west.
Our evening ends with another delicious meal at The Mine.
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, dippers, ducks, elk, 8 wolves in 3 packs (3 Lava Creeks, 4 Silvers and one mystery gray) and the spirit of Allison