At 5:30 I step out in the dark to find a layer of ice on my windshield. But it scrapes off easily and soon I am heading down the valley, snug and warm in my little car.
There is amazing birdsong at first light and I leave the window down to hear it. In doing so I also hear an animal coughing in the middle distance. I find Round Prairrie swathed in a low-lying cloud.
I stop at the Confluence and speak with a couple who are also parked here, Deb and Bruce. They tell me they saw two wolves around 6:30 last night, a black and a gray, just about the time I left my owl sighting! The wolves headed towards the middle flats along the river bank. Rick arrives and Deb repeats her story for him.
Rick says signals for the Lamar Canyon males are good, so he is going to climb Confluence Hill to try to spot them. I ask if I can join him and he says sure. Deb and Bruce remain in the lot. From our vantage point above we are able to find my first wolf of this trip. Yay! It's the Lamar Canyon alpha, 755M. He is curled up just beyond the willows on the dark gravel, his gray-flecked black coat serving as perfect camoflauge.
We also see numerous elk, bison and pronghorn in the area. We see sandhills, too.
Apparently 755 is here because of an old carcass in the nearby willows. He has probably found a morsel or two, maybe something he cached, enough for a light breakfast. Eventually, 755 gets up and begins to travel east, perhaps heading back to the den area, where we know he has offspring. I watch him trot along the river bank, going in and out of willows and brush, quite visible from the road.
Most likely, 755 will be looking for a place to cross. It's still early but he draws a crowd of admirers, so Rick heads down the hill to help with traffic.
I stay up high with several other visitors, giving Rick radio updates on 755's progress every now and then. While I am up here, Doug reports a sighting from Footbridge. He and other visitors are watching Lamar Canyon wolf 820F, out near the creek. For a while she interacts with a beaver, which delights the crowd. Eventually she crosses to the north, too.
Somehow I miss 755 crossing the road, but I see him again on the north side, heading home. So I figure I'll go further west. At Mid-point I stop to watch a coyote as he sits, grooming himself by the edge of the water. It looks like the Lamar has overflowed its banks and created several spring ponds, that will likely be full of wildflowers later in the summer.
The radio spurts and crackles and I realize something is going to the west, so I leave my pretty coyote and head that way. At Coyote Overlook I meet up with my friend Sian, from England. She is here with her mom, and Richard from Utah is here, too. We all have a great reunion.
I hear that Laurie and Dan are at Slough and just saw the Mollies. It is thought they are heading towards Secret Passage, so the watchers here are hoping to spy them as they come over the top.
We wait and watch but they give us the slip.
Then Laurie calls to say they have lost the Mollies and she is headed west to Hellroaring. I decide to follow her. I bid farewell to my friends and head west. A gorgeous bright blue bird flies across the road ahead of me. Wow, they are so beautiful!
I drive past Slough and on through the flats of Little America, past Tower and up the hills of the Blacktail Plateau. As I pass Floating Island Lake I notice there is no floating island at all, and therefore, no crane nest, either.
I join Laurie, Dan and Becka at Hellroaring. Becka has signals for Big Blaze but none of us can find him. While we are trying, though, Calvin and Lynnette show up and I have a merry meeting with them. They have been here a while and will still be here when I head out.
After about an hour of no wolves we head back towards Lamar. There is a crowd at Long Pullout. Someone has found the Mollies in the area above Secret Passage. It's a long view but I count 13 of them. Better eyes than mine see 16.
They are testing a herd of elk up there, and romping about. So many of the Mollies are yearlings and full of energy. Closer to us are two courting redtails and Dan spots a coyote in the meadow to the south, stalking ground squirrels.
It's now nearly 11AM and it has warmed up a LOT.
The Mollies begin to travel as a group and move across a high patch of snow and into a row of trees. Eventually we lose them. I still find it hard to distinguish individuals in this pack, and the view is so long I won't improve my chances on this sighting!
Someone suggests we might be able to see them from a pullout or two in Lamar so we head east. On my way through Lamar Canyon I see a marmot!
And sure enough, the Mollies are spotted from Hubbard Hill. They are moving east. Hmmm, this is somewhat troubling because of the potential danger it presents to the smaller Lamar Canyon Pack. We know the Lamar Canyon Pack is taxed with protecting its pups, while the Mollies, with no pups to raise, are free to roam. We are glad to see them, but we hope they will keep their distance and let the Lamars alone.
We move to the Institute and find the group again. They are now bedded on a partially wooded slope with a few remaining snow patches. We all gather near the barn and watch the Mollies for the next three hours. Nothing very dramatic happens but we have a great time. Richard lowers his tailgate and we set out various snacks and have a little party.
A few of the yearlings get up now and again, and some begin to move toward a group of elk, but the elk are very healthy and feisty so they easily stay out of harms way. In fact it seems that the Mollies could use a lesson or two from The 06 about how to catch an elk.
A little later, four Mollies set out towards another group of elk, and one wolf heads downhill in what looks like a clever flanking maneuver. Aha, we say, perhaps they DO have a strategy, but the downhill wolf remains stationary and fails to flank, so the elk move past him and get away easily.
The day gets hot and I take off my socks and shoes and slip into my sandals. Off come hats & coats and out comes the sunscreen.
To the south, someone finds a large black bear way up on a slope of Amethyst. Then Bill H. finds two sub-adult grizzlies higher up on Amethyst. We watch the bears while the hunting Mollies re-bed.
Around 5PM a bank of rain clouds move in, preceeded by a gusty wind that really kicks up the dust in the Institute lot. We all dash to our cars to protect our scopes. I discover that I can still watch the Mollies instide my car with my make-shift window mount.
Laurie and Dan decide to check on the Lamar Canyon pack. Several of us volunteer to spread out to help find them. Richard agrees to stay with the Mollies, as we all expect them to move again this evening. I hope they will cross the road and the river and go back over Specimen.
By the time I get to Confluence, Richard calls to say the Mollies are up and heading east.
We take up positions at various pullouts along the valley, all of us apprehensive about what the Mollies will do next, how far east will they go? I see a lot of elk and I find myself wishing that the Mollies will go after the elk; the elk will make a dash for the river and the Mollies will follow.
I join Calvin & Lynette at Picnic pullout. There is a very large crowd with Rick at Trash Can as well. We look northwest and soon see the Mollies, up fairly high, heading this way.
Far above Trash Can hill on a slope of Druid Peak, is a largish herd of elk. They are grazing peacefully. The Mollies come out of a gully between two low ridges and stop to look at them. They are in hunt mode, very serious, unlike earlier today. I watch several in stalk posture, and they seem to be taking up positions above and behind the as-yet-unwary elk.
There's a great deal of tension as it looks like we are going to see a chase. The Mollies begin to move. One elk notices, then another. The chase is on!
The elk begin to run, splitting into several groups. One group heads downhill to the road between the two pullouts. Oh, I hope the wolves will follow them, but they don't. Two leader Mollies race across the hill, following a small group of elk right towards the western end of the ledge trail. No! Not there!
One wolf makes brief contact with an elk but when the elk enter the forest the wolf stops. There are elk above the ledge trail, on it and below it, but the Mollies have broken off the chase. Their noses are down, and I realize they are now smelling the Lamar Canyons, who use the ledge trail all the time.
We get in our cars and head to Hitching Post, filled with apprehension. There's no way these Mollies will ignore their noses and not follow the ledge trail. Those who witnessed the siege of the Slough Creek den by the Unknown Pack in 2005 are the most worried, since this is such a similar set up.
We know The 06 has pups and she is likely in or near her den with them, along with several other pack members. There is a very real possibility that if the Mollies catch them, they could kill them, right in their own territory. Even if the adult wolves escape, the pups cannot defend themselves.
My main concern is about The 06 herself. I know how fierce she is, but she stands no chance against 15 healthy Mollies. Even if her pack rallies around her, they are outnumbered and outsized. And I most fear what could happen if she is trapped in her den.
I don't have an animosity towards the Mollies. They are just wild wolves and although they are responsible for the death of many other wolves this year, their behavior is in line with what The Druids did to other packs in their prime. The original Druids drove the Crystal Creek Pack from this territory way back in the early days of restoration, killing several in the process, and the Mollies are descendants of the Crystal Creek pack.
But I still hope for a good outcome this evening. Harsh as it may sound, I could bear the loss of the Lamar Canyon's pups, but I don't want to lose The 06 and her pack, the wolves I know the best.
At first I set up at Hitching Post, watching the ledge trail, waiting for the Mollies to appear. I see elk in that area, and then there they are! The Mollies are coming, moving in a tight line, noses to the ground, stopping often. They know they are in another pack's territory. It is spooky to watch, and unsettling.
The Mollies move silently, halting often, but intent on following this trail. There is one spot where the trail dips down to a runoff gully, then continues up the other side. I watch them, one by one, trot down the trail, hop across the gully, and trot up the other side, until each disappears behind a ridge. One, by one, by one. Moving towards...confrontation.
There is no sign of the Lamar Canyon pack, although the signals indicate the collared animals are in the den area. As the tension mounts, I realize I do not really want to see wolf on wolf violence right in front of me, so I move to Footbridge, hoping to be helpful if I see wolves escaping that way. Rick will want to try to keep track of what happens tonight.
I join Don who is here already. Just as I set up next to his car, he spots two gray wolves north of us, running east in front of the tree line. I turn to look and see one of the two, running fast!
My guess is they these are Lamar Canyons. I see no wolves ahead of them or behind them, but a little later, a group of people at the eastern end of the pullout starts calling out and pointing. Bob Landis drives by and I rush to the eastern end with my scope. By the time I get there I'm too late, but I'm told that about 6 wolves were seen running after elk on the north side of the road. Then they circled back around and headed west again, toward the den area.
Now we hear barking in and yipping to the east. Over the radio I hear that two other gray wolves streaked down the hill north of Hitching Post in front of a crowd of eager watchers. They crossed the road and leapt into the river bottoms. It takes a while but Laurie is able to ID one of them: The 06. YAY!
The other is her daughter, 820F. These two females stop to catch their breath, looking back towards the den area. After a few minutes, The 06 heads back across the road toward her babies! It's typical 06 but it makes everyone nervous. But then she stops again, and moves back, clearly driven by two warring impulses - save her babies or save herself.
From Footbridge, we are trying to locate the howler. Ah! There! On a sage-hill just east of 480's Crossing I see a gray with a dark necklace. This wolf faces west, bark-howling and yipping. The poor animal sounds so stressed, more like a coyote than a wolf. This turns out to be Middle Gray. Later, Doug finds another gray near the base of Dead Puppy Hill, which turns out to be 776. These were most likely the two grays that Don saw initially running from the den area.
Well, that's four alive I say to myself. But now I am worried about the two males, 755 and 754. If the Mollies ran back toward the den area, I don't want to think why.
I decide to head back to Hitching Post in hopes of seeing the 06, in case it turns out to be my last chance. I'm not too late. When I get set up I find her and 820F sitting on their haunches on a steep, forested slope below the ledge trail. They are panting heavily and The 06 stares toward the den.
Rick checks signals and gets both males to the north. That's hopeful, too.
After the most tense 15 minutes I've ever had as a wolf-watcher, someone spots the Mollies again. They are chasing elk in the diagonal meadow. Another 5-10 minutes pass. Then Laurie sees the Mollies re-appear on the very hills where last year I watched the Lamar Canyon pups take their first adventurous strolls.
Now I watch this gang of wolves retrace its steps, heading down to the gully and up the other side, proceeding along the typical route towards the ledge trail. The 06 and 820 get a whiff of them and bolt away like lightning to the west. I lose them fast.
I follow the Mollies along the ledge trail, trotting along in a business-like manner. As if they had a job to do and did it, and now their done. Laurie notes a few curious things that I miss. Some of their coats are wet, as though they'd been swimming. We know there is at least one lake up in the den area, so maybe they were in the lake? More importantly, though, is what she does NOT see - namely, no blood on any muzzle.
I check with various witnesses, asking what they heard from here. No-one heard any growling, yelping or howling, the type of sounds that would indicate some kind of confrontation. Of course whatever happened back there was unseen by ANY human eyes, so we can only speculate from what we DO observe.
Laurie gets me thinking, though. The business-like manner I observed contained none of the "usual" behavior seen after a fight. I've seen two confrontations between packs in Yellowstone, and both times, the victorious pack had tails raised high in excitement and did lots of "back-slapping" and group howling. These Mollies are doing none of that; they are simply re-tracing their steps.
The light is now nearly gone. At the moment it seems that the Invasion of the Mollies has not been quite the disaster most of us predicted. Several people head west with Rick to follow the Mollies' progress west. Calvin and Lynette stay long enough to see them come down the hill, cross the road and head south toward the river.
I follow Laurie and Dan up to Silver Gate, wondering what we will find in the morning. But it seems that for tonight at least, The 06 has dodged a bullet!
Today I saw: 1 black bear, 2 grizzly bears, coyotes, bison, sandhill cranes, elk, two red-tail hawks, a marmot, 18 wolves, including 5 Lamar Canyons (755, 776, 820, The 06, and Middle Gray) and 16 Mollies, and the spirit of Allison.