I head out from Bozeman at 8:45. It's a warmish 38 degrees right now, but I'm sure it will soon get colder!
There is a thick cloud cover above but it's high enough that I can see most of the mountain tops. The only wildlife I've seen so far has been ravens & ducks.
The main roads are clear of snow, but rural routes are still covered. More importantly, since daytime temps have risen over 40 in the last two days, that snow, while still deep, has become soft and slushy and then refreezes at night. And more snow is coming, they say. So I feel compelled to forego my favored route along Trail Creek for the drier and safer highway over Bozeman Pass.
Many of the hills on both sides of the Pass look scoured of snow - both by sun-melt and incessant wind. There is a pullout with a Lewis & Clark display that I have always wanted to see so I stop this time to check it out. I am delighted to find so much detail, including a good deal of information about the Native tribes in the area, as well as the well-known accomplishments of the Corps of Discovery.
Now I'm heading south on 89, with its welcome views of the Yellowstone River. I find it rimmed with ice, but running swift and clear in the center. There is snow all over, but some of the lower hills have melted-out patches.
I see lots of elk near the road to Tom Miner Basin and on the far side of Yankee Jim Canyon I find a lot more snow. I am through the Arch at 10:15, my fastest time ever! Once inside the gate, I pull into the Rescue Creek lot and glass the hills, seeing elk, bighorn, mule deer and bison.
I have a nice visit with Allison and then head to the gift shop. While packing up I discovered I could not find the polartec "turtle" which I bought last year. It works so well against the cold I didn't want to be without it so I was glad to find another one in the shop.
The clerk and I got to chatting and he told me he saw a black wolf on the old Gardiner road yesterday afternoon. I am delighted with this news and remember that some of the Quadrants have been seen in this area the last few days.
But I am eager to see the Lamar to I head east, hoping to run into some of my wolfer friends on my way there. But instead I discover that Calvin and Lynette are behind me...on the Jardine Road in Gardiner. Hmmm, the last time I was up there was in 2001 with Doug, during my very first trip to the Park in winter.
I remember how Doug handled those icy turns with his old black Jeep, happy that I was not the one behind the wheel! But Calvin assures me the road is driveable so I turn around at the high bridge and head his way.
I find the first big pullout covered in a sheet of ice, with three parked vehicles and four scopes. I greet my friends and Lynette wastes no time showing me where the wolves are. They had two packs in sight this morning, but the Blacktails have already disappeared.
My scope is trained to the south, on the north-facing slopes of Sepulchur Mountain, about half-way up, on a pretty straight line right above the Arch.
There, on a snow-covered rock outcrop near a patch of conifers, are three bedded wolves of the Quadrant pack: two blacks and a very light gray (in fact, we call her "white"). The larger black is the alpha male and the smaller black is the alpha female. The "white" wolf is the former alpha female, who has been bumped from her position but still allowed stay with the pack. I find this an unusual but admirable arrangement; more evidence of how wild wolves don't necessarily follow "the rules" of wolf behavior, some of which were established by watching captive packs.
I am delighted to have wolves in sight so quickly upon arrival. They are bedded and thus not doing much, but I am rewarded now and again by seeing each one lift its head or get up to stretch. I keep grinning because I have never seen wolves on this hill before. I can't help but wonder how long they have been roaming here without my knowing.
There are more Quadrants in the neighborhood, most likely bedded out of sight behind the rocky knoll. There are three yearling females in this pack; Calvin and Lynette saw two of them earlier.
I ask Lynette about the Blacktails. They had the whole pack - 14 strong - on the north slope above the Yellowstone. They were last seen heading east, chasing elk about two hours ago.
Then up the road comes a familiar Subaru. It's Laurie and Dan! They have made their way here from the Lamar and are glad to find the Quadrants still visible. We have a good reunion and catch up.
Laurie & Dan had some brief activity with the Lamar Canyon pack near the confluence much earlier today. I help them find the Quadrants and we chat about them.
I also meet Becca, on of the wolf researchers. She tells us that there is a Native American hunt going on in Jardine, on National Forest land just over the hill north of us. Various local tribes are chosen by lottery to shoot bison that move out of the Park at this time of year.
I notice a golden eagle flying overhead and wonder if it has been drawn, like other birds and scavengers, by the remnants of this hunt. I wonder if it has drawn the wolves?
We see elk and mule deer all over the slopes, including some quite near us. It looks like they are smart to seek out the wind-swept and partially-melted slopes. We search and search but never find the Blacktail wolves. I am intrigued by a story from Kip and Joyce, about wolves they saw yesterday on a carcass below the ski trail on Bunsen Peak. It is generally thought that those wolves were the Quadrants, but when Calvin and Lynnette look at their photos, they develop a competing theory - that those wolves might be from the Canyon Pack.
Calvin and Lynnette know the Canyons well and the color count fits the Canyons as well as the Quadrants. Becca takes signals and confirms the Canyons are in the Bunsen area, which means they could still be near that carcass. So Calvin leads the way back into the Park to see if we can catch a glimpse of those elusive wolves.
I decide to follow them, as do Laurie & Dan. As I carefully wind down the snowy road, just as I reach the last turn, a snowshoe hare hops into the road ahead and dashes into a Gardiner back-yard.
Back into the Park I go, and we head up toward the Terraces. I tend to neglect many areas of the Park when I am here in winter, since my luck in the northern range is usually pretty good. So I really enjoy these "unusual" views, especially when these tourist-friendly areas are so empty.
We stop at several vantage points and find absolutely beautiful views. Try as we might, though, we don't find any wolves. After a while, Laurie and Dan head east but I linger, exploring the views.
I find an excellent lookout spot right near the Mammoth Corrals. I climb a packed snow hill from which I can see a good part of McMinn Bench to the west, as well as the rolling hills area below me, leading to the high bridge. If the Canyons are out there, moving, I think I would see them. Instead I see numerous elk and bison and several bighorns near the cliffs.
After a while I bid adier to Calvin and Lynette and head east, only to slam on my brakes as a gray squirrel dashes across the road. I stop so suddenly that everything on my front seat ends up on the floor!
For most of the drive east, I find the roads well-packed and easily passable, but I do encounter a bit of drifting snow in various places.
When I get to the open area below the S-Curves, the snow levels are VERY pronounced. All around me is evidence of extensive drifting. I imagine the plows have to break through these drifts each morning, and have smooshed them into enormous piles on both sides of the road. Those who know the area are used to the expansive views both right and left. But today, the high berms on each side block the views, leaving me with the feeling of driving through a tunnel!
One of my favorite sights in this area is a long low pile of jumbled, tumbled rocks, a bit east of the Children's Fire trail. When I get to this spot, I see the snow fall topping these rocks makes them look like a pile of gigantic marshmallows!
At Phantom Lake several bison and elk paw and scrape through the snow to get at the vegetation below. Across from Lower Hellroaring I see a herd of mule deer.
In Little America I stop to check out Specimen Ridge in hopes of a glimpse of Agate wolves. Instead, though, I see numerous groups of bighorn grazing up there, along with a few elk and bison.
On my way through Lamar Canyon I slow down to admire a large bull elk just below one of the pullouts on the right. Hmmm, I wonder if The 06 knows he is here?
The Lamar River is not visible at all visible in the Canyon. All I see are snow-covered boulders, with far more snow than I have ever seen. But nothing can prepare me for my first glimpse of the Lamar Valley in winter 2011.
I stop at Fishermans just to drink in the unusual view. Instead of the familar cliff of jumbled rocks there is white. The trees that line the cliff are there, and they are covered with a whole lotta snow. But there is no cliff to be seen. No jumbled lava rocks. Just white. All snow.
Even the channel of the Lamar River itself is a mere guess, just the barest suggestion of itself. Wow. What a winter!
And the weirdest thing of all is what a trick this does to your eyes and mind. With no exposed sagebrush or rocks to see, the immensity of whiteness creates a difficulty in knowing where one hill ends and the other begins. As I head east, the sun is swallowed by snowclouds over Specimen, making the light dim and nearly useless.
The edge of the road blurs with the snow on the road and I just don't know where my lane is. The straighter the road is, the harder this is to discern.
My only recourse is to slow down, which I do, and of course, I can appreciate the stark landscape all the more this way. With so few vehicles on the road, I am also not holding anyone up.
I make it to the confluence and pull over to try to find the old carcass Laurie told me about. I see three bull elk and numerous bison on the middle flats, and a few ducks in the narrow strip of open water. It starts to snow.
With the help of a single coyote, I find what I think is the old carcass. Even he is barely interested in it, so there must not be much left.
I continue east, amazed at the snow-smothered landscape. I stop at Round Prairie and listen to the astonishing quiet. The loudest sound is the falling snow! The temperature has dropped to 27.
The tops of the mountains are being swallowed in snow-mist and the light is waning fast. I reach Silver Gate at 5:45 and head towards the welcoming home fire of my friends.
Today I saw: bison, mule deer, ducks, a golden eagle, elk, a snowshoe hare, bighorn sheep. 3 wolves (all from the Quadrant Pack, including 695M, the alpha female and 469F) and the spirit of Allison.