I wake in Gardiner to a clear sky - but I doubt it will stay that way! The gauge reads 26 degrees as I follow Chloe & Becky out of the Super 8. It's still dark at 6:20AM.
The radio reveals that Calvin and Lynette are ahead of us. I grin in hopes that they will find the Canyons for all of us! I see lots of bison in the meadow across from Mammoth campground, some bedded, others standing.
I continue through Mammoth, past the chapel and down the hill, then stop at the big pullout on the right. Calvin is already on one of the hills above the pullout, scoping way. It's barely first light, but he has amazing eyes. Before I can get myself together to join him he heads back to his truck and declares the area a "wolf-free" zone!
We caravan on to the Blacktail Plateau.
It's about 7:10 and the temperature has dropped to 14. Brrr! We stop at the Children's Fire Trail and begin scoping in various directions. Almost immediately, Lynette finds a wolf. It's way out there, and she says it's heading for the carcass that she was watching yesterday.
Lynnette gives us each a quick look to get our bearings. It is FAR AWAY, probably 3-4 miles. Luckily, though, the wolf is black, making her more visible against the snow. We place bets that this is 692F, the once-beta female of the Blacktail Pack, who has been repeatedly pushed away by her alpha sister, 693F. Rick & company have seen 692F "shadowing" her pack for the last couple of months. Most of the pack members are still quite friendly to her, and it is thought that most of the pups (now yearlings) in this pack are hers. But the alpha female has a problem with her and has kept her on the outs.
There are enormous snow banks encircling this pullout, and along both sides of the road. We need to get some height to see over the banks, so we clamber up the frozen mesas, hauling our scopes.
Once I get set up, about 10 feet above the pavement, I have a good, clear view and find 692 fairly easily. She has made it to the carcass and I see her feed there a while. She looks quite nervous; raising her head every couple of seconds, looking and listening every couple of bites.
After about 10 minutes she walks east along a ridge, moving in and out of the bare trunks of trees. The ridge she's on ends in a thick cornice. She stops above it and lifts her muzzle. Although we hear nothing, we are sure she is howling.
And she is answered! Many wolf voices suddenly erupt in song, much closer to us than she is! The howling seems to come from just beyond the next ridge, and slightly to the east of our position. We keep our eyes peeled and I am excitied as it bodes well for seeing more wolves today!
692 reacts as if she has heard their response, because she turns back the way she came, then heads away, further south. Shortly after this, the main pack is spotted, moving across the snow-covered hills. I adjust my scope and find them, 2, 3, 5, 7 wolves on the move! I begin to count. I get 11, while many others get 13.
Rick arrives, along with Laurie & Dan. We have a quick greeting and help them find the wolves. There are now about 25 people up on these high frozen snow banks, which is pretty much everyone who is out on the northern range!
The Blacktail pack travels in a pretty straight line to the carcass, that is to say, a diagonal line from my perspective. I try to make out individuals but I really don't know this pack well enough. I do recognize 693F, the alpha female, and her mate, Big Brown (now collared as 778M). The wolf I really want to see is Big Blaze.
They disappear temporarily into gullies and re-appear on ridges and along the way I see a lot of playful behavior between pack mates, as is typical with yearlings.
When they arrive at the carcass the yearlings go straight to the food, while the adults sniff and sniff in every spot where 692F has been. Once the adults finish their sniffing, they turn towards the carcass and the yearlings turn and rush over to greet them as if they have been parted from each other for a week!
The yearlings continue to play a great deal, digging holes, bouncing on the snow, chasing each other and rushing at ravens. It is a long ways away, but we see a lot of activity.
Four yearlings move away from the main group and bed, while the majority of others bed close to the carcass. Then a snow squall comes in, shrouding them from view. We squint and hope for clearer air, but it's just too far away.
So now, what next? Do we continue east to see if we can find the Lamar Canyons, or go back west to try to find the Quadrants?
Becky & Chloe and I vote for the latter; like them, I am always interested in seeing less familiar packs. Laurie and Dan are into it, too, so we all follow Calvin and Lynette back to Mammoth and up the Jardine Road. Instead of stopping at the hairpin turn pullout, we continue on to another lot, a bit higher up, in the area where Mark Miller has a house.
We brave the wind and scope our hearts out. Besides wolves, the talk is all about the possible government shut down at the end of the week, which could mess up my last day in the Park if it happens. The only previous time such a thing happened was under Bill Clinton, and Park roads were closed to all but law enforcement.
My plans call for me to be in Silver Gate on Friday night. If the crisis is not averted, anyone like me who needs to get to Gardiner will be allowed to drive through the Park once, but no-one will be allowed to stop to watch animals, or to enjoy the Park as a visitor.
While we scope from here it warms up to 38 degrees and we do see numerous elk and bison, but no wolves, nor any sign of them. We try numerous locations in quest of the Quadrants, but to no avail.
I do get to glimpse quite a bit of territory I have never seen before, but it is mostly a strange mix of private/public land that makes me a bit uncomfortable. The land supports a good deal of wildlife, but the there are signs all over that the people who live here seem to treat the wildlife as unwelcome nuisances. Case in point, a large ranch is pointed out to me - a huge tract of fenced land with what is likely a stunning view of Sepulcher Mountain. The owners of this ranch are the people who shot the Cottonwood wolf 716, the Dark Female, during the first legal hunt in fall 2009.
It makes me uncomfortable to be near a place, knowing what happened there.
We also find a good deal of trash scattered here and there, and I keep smelling something dead. Sure enough, someone finds the source of the smell - four frozen mule deer carcasses below the pullout. It is unclear how they died, and we don't make a thorough study, but we do not see any obvious bullet holes. What is clear is that someone chucked the animals over the edge of the road with apparent indifference.
Eventually we head back down and stop for lunch in Gardiner at a sweet little cafe-bookstore combo.
It starts to snow again. Laurie and Dan head back to Silver Gate while Chloe, Becky and I take a drive to the Mammoth Terraces where we join Calvin and Lynnette who are looking for Canyons. When we don't find those wolves, either, we decide there is still enough time to get to the Lamar, so off we go.
At Wraith Falls we wait for two bison to cross the road. The snow lets up again. As we wind past Phantom Lake we see another flock of migrating birds. These are darker than the ones yesterday. Chloe's best guess is that they may be some species of lark.
We scope at Hellroaring a while and find bison & elk on the high slopes. We find many more bison in Little America but when we arrive in Lamar the visibility has again deteriorated. We drive slowly through the most beautiful valley in the world. As we near the confluence, Chloe points out a bald eagle perched in a cottonwood.
There are also numerous ducks in the water.
We stop again at Soda Butte cone to look out at the "sleeping" bison. Today there are only a few birds nearby, looking hungry and disappointed. But Chloe makes a discovery in the snow around the pullout. Wolf tracks!
She thinks she sees several individuals, in fact, as many as six. I am not that good with tracks; I just see a jumble of prints and can't make a story out of it. She and I follow one set of tracks along the side of the road to the east. The park is so empty of visitors, we walk for at least a quarter of a mile without a single car passing us.
We find a spot where at least one wolf came down the hill from the north and stepped from the berm into the road. Hmmm, I wonder if this wolf knows about the bison?
The snow falls more thickly so we decide to head home. It's just shy of 5:30.
Just beyond lower Hellroaring, a driver coming toward us signals to us, warning of some obstruction ahead. We slow down from about 30 to about 20. I figure it's a bison and soon see Chloe's brake lights go on. She stops. Up ahead of her I see a maroon car with California plates stopped in the road, on a slight hill. A man is in the road next to the car. It appears he is putting chains on his tires.
Chloe and I put our hazard lights on and get out to see if we can help. The man explains that he started sliding on the hill and thinks he'd better get his chains on now.
My Montana friends inspect his tires and see they are not well suited to the current snowy/icy conditions. The man is youngish, maybe 35, trying his best to be calm in a worrisome situation. The chains he has are made of bungy-cord and metal links, like wheel-sized versions of the grips people put over their snow boots to help with traction.
Chloe gets right down to business helping him. I tell the man that he is lucky to have run into this particular woman and he grins. I know absolutely nothing about chains so I watch the road for oncoming cars.
There are two passengers in the maroon car, a teenaged daughter and a son, about 10 or 12. Their trunk is packed to the gills with suitcases and outdoor equipment. I ask the kids if they are ok, if they need water or food. They say they are fine. The girl asks if it always snows like this. I say, no, this is very unusual, but that Becky & Chloe live in Montana and are very experienced with this kind of weather. Chloe and the man struggle with their bare hands to get the unruly contraptions attached.
It's a little nerve-wracking since the road is so narrow and curvy, but we are saved by very little traffic. The snow is quite wet and not nearly as dangerous as I've known it to be, but I admire this man doing what he feels is best to protect his kids.
Once the chains are attached and tightened up, they work great. Nevertheless, we tell the family we will follow them to Gardiner, to make sure they have no further mishaps. It means we will have to go very slowly - the instructions that come with the chains say you should not drive faster than 15 mph. No worries! The Park is all the more beautiful at slow speed.
Just to make it interesting, though, we have to pass a herd of bison on the way. The bison seem spooked by the noise of the chains; they buck and bang into each other so we stay far behind them until they reach a meadow and leave the road.
We get to Mammoth without any further trouble, and watch the man turn into the Campground! Oh, boy, they are camping tonight in all this wet snow! Well, at least there are heated bathrooms nearby! We honk and wave goodbye.
As we wind down the lower part of the hill towards Gardiner, the clouds part and the sun peeks out, just in time to set.
We head to Outlaws for pizza and relive the day. Becky and I toast Chloe for knowing what to do and doing it. I gotta say, I am mighty grateful to be travelling with these two!
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, mule deer, ducks, a bald eagle, elk, a hawk, bighorn sheep, 12 wolves of the Blacktail Pack (including 692F) and the spirit of Allison