In the dark of the morning Laurie and I listen carefully to the sounds her car makes, but we hear nothing amiss. After running a good 20 minutes, her car's temperature gauge still reads normal. She decides to risk it.
It's about 6:15AM and there are thousands of stars glittering brightly overhead. As we descend to the valley, however, we begin to get a bit of fog. Then at Pebble Creek, an enormous full moon pops out, surprising me with its brightness. How gorgeous!
We join Rick at the Footbridge where he is checking for signals. We know there is an old carcass at the base of the hill to the south, and wolves were feeding on it several days ago. It's still too dark for me to see but something out there has caught Rick's attention.
It's 35 degrees but I am not yet used to it, so I slip into my down coat and add gloves and a hat before setting up Layla. I see a large, dark shape moving in the sage. But it's not a wolf - it's a grizzly!
While we chat softly, the light slowly improves and I get a much better look at the bear. He tugs and tugs and shifts position several times. It is thought that this bison died of natural causes, but various carnivores have been feeding on it for nearly a week so there is not a lot left.
Rick informs us that signals are spotty for the Lamar Canyon alpha 755M, in the general area from the den forest to the hills south of Soda Butte. We look for him for about a half hour, but he eludes us.
I head west, taking in the morning beauty. As I pass the Confluence I hear an elk bugle so I stop to try to locate him. Just as I am about to give up, I see him, way out in the middle flats. Then I notice a small band cows on the lower slope of Norris. They are looking at him with interest. Well, tis the season.
As I approach Exclosure Hill, a herd of bison has just forded the river and the leaders are crossing the road. They head up the hill towards the Ledge Trail so I wait for the tide of dark brown grunters to ebb, and then move on, a big smile on my face.
I stop at Dorothy's to enjoy the view for a while. Then I put Layla to work and...I find another grizzly! This bear is making his way east along the tree line, nose down, approaching the big fan. A couple of visitors at the other end of the pullout are looking that direction and I assume they see the bear, so I go over to share the sighting with them. It turns out they are watching bison, and are only too happy to learn about the bear.
They are very enthusiastic and polite, exactly the kind of people I like. And from Indiana, no less. I tell them about the Lamar Canyon wolves and their pups at Slough Creek. As so often happens on the northern range, I continue to encounter these two visitors as we share sightings as the day goes on. Alas, I don't remember their names.
Lamar Valley looks gorgeous in the early morning light. It touches on the yellow-gold aspen and the dark firs. The river glistens, and I note its flow is radically reduced from the torrent we saw in June. But the pebble-islands between the braided channels are just as picturesque.
A herd of pronghorn moves alertly across the flats and numerous bison complete the scene, grazing contentedly.
A little later I arrive at Slough and join the throng. I am happy to find the pups in the same area as I saw them last evening. Three of them are perched attractively on the low berm above the river. I try to study them so that I will be able to tell them apart in the future, but it's pretty hard.
The high point of the morning is the revelation that mom is here, too.
Two of the three posed pups get up and wander together down the hill and join the fourth pup in the sage. One of the three flops down and rolls on its belly. That's when the 06 appears, sitting up from her resting place in the sage. The pup paws up at her face, trying to get her to stand. It works!
There she is, the amazing huntress, transformed from her free-wheeling girlhood with the Agates into a doting and diligent mother, alpha female of her pack. She is the daughter of 472F and Agate founder 113M, grand-daughter of Druids 21 and 42. She has been seen taking elk down all by herself, even while pregnant. I suppose she figures, if not me, then who?
I wonder if she will pass on this handy skill to her pups?
Again, this morning's sighting is not high drama but to a wolf geek like me it is fascinating nonetheless.
The last pup stands up and walks down the hill, greets another pup and the two of them travel together down the bank to lap a drink of water from Slough Creek.
When the darkest pup is with any of the others, he/she seems to be dominant. Still as a function of play, but the dominance is clear. At one point three of the pups, including the darkest one, head back up the berm and sit on top, as if posing for a magazine cover. One has its front legs stretched out, sphinx-like; the other two sit on their haunches. All three look off to the western flats.
There are bison in the area and apparently I missed seeing a grizzly earlier this morning. But the morning is full of wolf fans, friends new and old. Besides Rick and Laurie, I say hi to Jan & Bill, as well as Stacy, the gentleman cowboy from Tennessee and stalwarts Sian and Gerry.
I get to visit with Rick a little bit, which is always fun. But he mostly spends his time showing the wolves to the many visitors who seem to have arrived just for this purpose.
Sometime later, Rick gets a report that a collared black wolf was seen crossing the road near Soda Butte Cone. The visitors show him a photo they took and Rick can tell it's 755.
One by one, people begin to head east. Jan & Bill and I speculate that, since 755's signals indicated he was near Soda Butte this morning, he may be interested in the old carcass across from Footbridge that the bear was on.
The pups seem to be napping for the time being, so we pack up and head east. Footbridge pullout is empty so I keep going but then up ahead of Soda Butte Cone I see the enormous jam.
People are looking to the north but I know there will be no room for me to park, so I pull off the road and look from here.
Laurie comes by and asks "did you see 754?" and points right across to the north. Just that quickly I see a lone black wolf moving in a crease between two hills. He pauses near a tree, then lopes out of sight.
We watch a while, looking for more movement. I also look to the northeast, where I believe 755 has been seen. Then Jan and Bill come by and I get more news from them;apparently, 755 has gone uphill and to the east, sort of towards Trout Lake but more importantly, a new carcass has been found at Round Prairie, easily visible from the road.
So off we go.
It is late morning and the crowd is quite large. The two pullouts closest to the carcass are already jammed, and cars line both sides of the road, some tilted quite steeply along the bank. I find a spot and make sure my wheels are all outside the white line.
Happily, the people who choose to stop are sensible and courteous to each other and to the animals, and somehow, room is found for all. Jan, Bill, Laurie and I take positions east of the preferred lot, scoping between the thin branches of some aspen. A photographer is to our left, close to the aspen trunks.
The carcass is readily visible, in the middle of the shallow channel, at the sharpest point of the first curve. Two nervous-looking coyotes are picking at it. It looks to me to be about 200 yards away - which I consider close.
As for the prey animal, Rick has called it an elk, but there is a growing speculation from the watchers that this could be a yearling moose.
Apparently, a cow moose and yearling calf have been seen in this area somewhat regularly during the last weeks, and yesterday a bull moose was seen near them, as well.
The evidence for moose includes a partially-visible back leg which looks too dark and too long for an elk, and a partially submerged muzzle that seems more moose-shaped than elk-shaped.
The coyotes leave and I am surprised at the lack of birds. Perhaps the water, even though it is shallow, is moving too fast for them? A lull sets in and people begin to leave in ones and twos. Jan & Bill and I start to talk about lunch in Cooke City. There is a new place that just opened that they want me to sample.
I slip the lens cap over Layla's great eye, fold up my tripod legs, and balance it on my shoulder. But Jan & Bill are now talking to a photographer so I casually lift my binoculars to my eyes while I wait for them to finish.
I turn my gaze to the west, to see how many people are still in the other pullout. In doing so, I see what at first I think is a person walking out from the road through the brush to a point just above the river. On second look I realize it's not human but a dark-furred animal - is that bear? I say out loud "hey what's that?". The animal emerges from the brush and I see four long legs and a dog-like muzzle. Black wolf!
Now everyone sees it. The wolf stops for a moment at the edge of the bank, then drops down into the river corridor. A few seconds later he reappears, upstream, walking through the willows, heading, of course, to the carcass. Rick shushes us and says evenly "Folks, this is 755".
I am amazed at this very close sighting of this particular wolf. I have seen him several times but always at a distance. I first knew him as "the new black male" who began to hang out with the surviving Druid females last fall and into winter. I remember seeing him with those poor Druids, the only one with a fluffy tail and a bounce in his step.
He was then wooed away by the 06 female and became her alpha male as they founded the Lamar Canyon Pack. He seems a far more sober animal now, a father and an alpha.
He is dark black, with a smattering of gray-white hairs on his flanks and under his chin and his golden eyes are intense. We get several direct stares from him.
He seems a bit thin to me, but not in an unhealthy way, and his lean body makes his legs look even longer. He limps slightly on his front paw. He crosses the creek, sniffs around, doubles back and heads to inpect the carcass. His manner is very nervous and hesitant and I am reminded that, unlike his mate, he is very wary of the road and people.
The crowd is respectful, and at a legal distance, but this wolf does not like us. Mostly folks are quiet except for the constant click of cameras. 755 creeps closer and closer to the carcass, but then someone slams a car door. The sharp sound seems to spook him because he suddenly turns and trots away, taking refuge in the high brush at the next bend in the creek.
He stops and looks back, mesmerising us with his eerie, golden eyes. There is something slightly accusatory in his glance. His ears show how uncomfortable he is - they are somewhat flattened and pointing to each side. Laurie calls them "airplane ears". He looks like he is frowning. After standing several minutes still as a statue, he turns, crosses the far channel of the river and trots into the trees. Wow!
The crowd begins to murmur its appreciation. Rick is pleased that so many people got to see this wolf and that no-one tried to venture out to further disturb the wolf. There are some among us who feel we should all leave so the wolf can eat in peace, yet even if we all did so, a wolf in view so close to the road would surely draw attention from people in the next passing car, and once they stop, the jam would begin all over again with a new set of people.
We hear a muffled dog bark from inside one of the parked cars. While the owner tries to quiet the dog, we see what made it bark - a coyote trots along the hill above the car. The animal weaves through the tree-trunks, then dashes across the road and into the wide meadow of Round Prairie, curving to the west and heading toward the carcass.
Next we hear coyotes bark-howling from the forest to the south and then Laurie calls out that 755 is chasing coyotes in that area. I see several moving shapes. The one in the meadow begins to yip-howl and then we see the shapes running the opposite direction. The coyotes have turned the tables on 755 and now begin to harass the lone wolf back deeper into the woods.
The bark-howling continues and echoes throughout the area, bouncing off the high mountain walls that surround this spot. When coyotes do this it always sounds to me as if they are cursing a blue streak in dog talk.
His scolding goes on a very long time and we wonder if poor 755 has any way to put his toes in his ears?
After another interval it appears that 755 has decided to take a nap and wait out the crowd. We wonder if his brother/buddy 754M is back in there or still north of the road. Perhaps together they could drum up the courage to grab a bite, or at least drive the coyotes away.
We watch for another hour until the coyotes feel brave enough to have another feed. They squabble a bit for a spot at the table, but they seem more relaxed now than they were when I first saw them.
And speaking of the table, I remember that I am hungry! Laurie says she is not going to Livingston today so I head up to Cooke City with Jan & Bill for some lunch.
The day has turned perfect. It's hard to remember the cold of the morning as it is now 54 lovely, sunny degrees at 1PM. We have a tasty, healthy lunch at The Loving Cup, a fairly new place between the Miner's Saloon and the Soda Butte Lodge. It is run by some very friendly long-time Cooke City residents. They offer good, inexpensive food and delicious coffee. You should check it out!
I can never see enough of Jan & Bill. We always have an eclectic and boistrous discussion ranging from current politics and wildlife issues to history to the pros and cons of the final episode of LOST.
But they have plans for a hike with their dogs and some Cooke City friends so I bid them adieu and head back to the Park.
I stop at Baronette to scope for goats. It takes a while but I find two, both males. I also chat with some friendly visitors who have also stopped to see them.
After a little while I see two familiar faces - the guys from Indiana I met this morning at Dorothy's. I show them the billy goats and ask if anything was feeding on the carcass at Round Prairie. They say yes, coyotes, but then they tell me they also saw a wolf! I assume they mean 755, but the wolf they saw was a gray, uncollared, and it close to the road in the Lamar Valley - a bit east of the Institute. They tell me it was walking on the river side of the road, shadowed by a coyote. They said people were stopped everywhere.
I tell them it sounds to me like they may have seen the 06 female. She fits the description and is very nonchalant about traveling near the road. I tell them I bet she is heading to the carcass, and I want to be there when she arrives.
When I arrive at Round Prairie, there is still a large crowd but I am able to find a spot. I find Laurie and tell her what I've heard. She grins, saying yes, Rick has already radioed to her that the 06 is headed this way.
So now we know that this carcass almost certainly belongs to the Lamar Canyon Pack. They probably got it last night, and at least the 06 must have travelled the 30+ miles back to their pups at Slough, where we found her this morning, bedded. The males may have done so ealier and may have been returning to the carcass at dawn when Rick got their signals at Footbridge.
While we are waiting for the 06 to arrive, 755 appears in the trees, coming back towards the carcass. He eventually moves into the open and tentatively crosses one braid of the creek, only to bed on the gravel bank. The coyotes are still feeding and become visibly nervous. Eventually they split. About 15 minutes after this a whisper goes up in the crowd and I see several arms pointing. Aha! There! I catch a glimpse of something gray moving in the road and there she is, the 06.
She walks out to the bank and stops in almost the exact spot where I first saw 755. But then the similarity ends.
Where he was hesitant, she is bold. She seems only mildly annoyed by the presence of so many people and cars. Her attitude seems to be "this is my carcass and I'm here to eat it." She splashes through the shallow water and stops a moment to look over at 755. He looks at her and they appear to recognize each other.
It's as if she's saying "don't worry, honey, it's only me".
She moves straight to the carcass and begins to tug, rip and pull. The visitors are quietly thrilled, but the photographers are in heaven. She pulls off an ear, chews and chews and chews, and swallows it.
Then suddenly my scope darkens as someone has stepped in front of it. I look up to see a face I've not seen for many years. It's Jake! A long-lost Loon friend and fellow backpacker. Yay! Ballpark Frank told me last week that Jake was in Idaho and now here he is, in the Park, in the same pullout as me. How great to see him.
For those who have not seen him recently, Jake has long golden-brown dreadlocks, but otherwise he looks just the same. He's deeply tanned, which is usual for him. We laugh at how I am bundled in my fleece and he is in flip-flops. Same old Jake!
We have a hug and I introduce him to Laurie. Jake gets his scope out and joins us. For the next two hours we catch up on each other's life while we watch the 06 eat.
He tells me tales of his travels - to New Zealand, South America and various other places in the US, and I relate the history of the wolf we are watching.
I tell him what a notorious flirt she was during the last two breeding seasons - and we watch The 06 open the stomach, spilling its contents into the stream (ewwww! says the crowd). I tell him how she is known for bringing an elk down all by herself, even when pregnant - and The 06 yanks out part of the esophagus and eats it (ewww! says the crowd!). I tell him how she stole her current male pack mates from the poor Druid females - and the 06 lifts up the back end of the carcass, proving, by its white rump patch, that it is an elk, not a moose (aha! says the crowd)
She pauses and looks toward us, her face bloodied and her belly ballooned out considerably. I think Jake has come to admire her.
She seems sated for now, so she meanders back to her mate. 755 stands to greet her, but I confess I am somewhat disappointed at his greeting. It is quite cool, not nearly as affectionate as I've seen from other alpha males. I do sense respect between them, though. Maybe he knows she doesn't care for sentiment. She laps some water, then walks back and beds.
Perhaps she has emboldened him, because 755 makes another attempt to go to the carcass to eat. He stops and starts again, and although there are no loud noises to startle him this time, it is clear he is just not comfortable. He returns to the sand bar and beds about 3 feet from his mate.
Now we have two wolves, a black and a gray, bedded on a sand bar.
We yak some more and I hear how Jake spent time with a volunteer group, re-building homes after an earthquake in South America.
The coyotes return and provide more entertainment. Some folks who stop think the crowd is here due to the coyotes, so we helpfully point out the two bedded wolves and are rewarded with smiles and thanks.
A blue heron shows up, working the river channel behind the wolves, and two bald eagles perch nearby, waiting their turn.
The sun westers and the fading light lends courage to 755. He stands and stretches, and moves all the way to the bones. He tugs and gnaws for about two minutes, then spooks again, back to his mate.
The light is really going now and Jake suggests we head to Cooke for some dinner. I bid goodnight to the wolves and hope 755 can get a decent meal once dark settles in.
As we drive past Pebble Creek, I see two moose in the trees on the north side and later, I pass several mule deer holding forth in their usual place near the Entrance gate.
We try the fancy place, but the line is too long, so we end up at the Miners Saloon and continue our visit. Then Jake heads east to a campground while I roll back to Silver Gate, enjoying the light of the moon.
What a great day!
Today I saw: 2 grizzly bears, bison, 4 coyotes, mule deer, elk, 2 mountain goats, 2 moose, pronghorn, 7 wolves (3 adults and 4 pups of the Lamar Canyon Pack), long lost Loon Jake, and the spirit of Allison