Iím out the door at 7:20. Itís a tolerable 20 degrees. There is new snow on the car, perhaps 2 inches.
The plow has been through and my chocolate Subaru bunny is warmed up nicely.
Snow begins falling again at the High Bridge and continues through the Blacktail. The temp drops to 14. There is a yellow tour bus stopped just past Blacktail Ponds on a curve. Not so smart. I think they are looking at snow-covered bison. I wish they had picked a safer place to stop!
I put on my flashers and back up a little to give any approaching cars behind me a chance to stop rather than crash into me.
At Childrenís Fire trail there is poor visibility so instead of stopping to scope I keep going.
There is a familiar car parked at Geode. Itís Taylor, hiking out with her clients.
At Hellroaring I see several cars so I stop. Rick and Jeremy and Maddie are all here. J has weak signals for Junction and weak for Phantom. Hmm.
I tell Jeremy that my ďWendy luckĒ will bring the wolves into view. He looks rightfully skeptical.
Visibility is not great. It is snowing lightly, but apparently there is nothing going on anywhere else, so I stick around. Rick and I talk about the Oscars. Maddie finds a moose bedded under a tree. Nice! I donít think Iíve ever seen a moose from here!
The snow finally stops. J checks signals again and suddenly looks interested. In another 5 minutes heís found wolves! Itís the Junctions, moving across a snow-slope between the basalt cliff and HR Creek.
The view from here is not ideal because of many close-growing trees. And today we have additional blockages due to super-high snow berms from past plowing attempts. I partially solve this by climbing up the berm a little ways, wedging my scope into the thick snow. This helps and I am able to spot them, sitting on their haunches all lined up in a row, looking downhill. A few of them start to move downhill and the rest soon follow. Helpfully, they remain in a line for a while, making them easy to count. I get 15 with 2 grays. But neither of these grays is the big beautiful 2 year old male. We suspect he is away from the pack, seeking a mate.
The wolves continue moving downhill and slightly west. They stop near a big boulder, and most of them bed a short while. Then they are up again, continuing downhill. Some begin to bound down through deep snow, causing snow spray to fly (these are possibly pups). I see a black with a high tail (the AF) and a collared gray close to the front (907).
They head west below the basalt cliff, aiming for the tornado drainage. Some bison are in that area, surrounded by disturbed snow. The wolves see the bison, stop & start a few times. They begin testing them. Some bison challenge them right away. One black wolf gets scared and runs up the slope to safety (likely a pup). It stops and looks back, watching its pack mates from a distance.
Several wolves are quite persistent. They surround two adult bison, who raise their tails high. A couple of wolves affect play bows and the bison face them, undaunted. Itís hard to tell if the wolves are serious or not but the bison stand their ground and nothing develops.
The wolves give up on this group and continue further west. The scared black on the hillside continues to watch them, staying out of the fray.
Eventually the pack stretches out in a single line, easy to count. Again, I get 15 with two grays. Then one by one they disappear behind a rocky ridge.
Jeremy tells me the story of the Phantoms, his current favorite pack; how they started as an offshoot of Eight Mile females and a Wapiti male, then he adds the story of 1200M from the Cougar Pack. He says not all the collars in this pack work. He also says that many individuals have gone missing, and I suggest one explanation is that hunters have killed many more wolves than they report.
After a while with no wolves in view, most people head east, including me. But I stop when I see people at Lower HR. They had been watching the same wolves we had from up above. From this angle they had them in sight a little longer but they are gone now.
I continue driving east. At confluence, I find bighorn again Ė this time they are low on the hill, REALLY close to the pullout. I take a video with my phone to show my friends back at work.
Just past Footbridge I notice movement at the edge of the woods to the south. There is no one behind me so I stop in the road and lift my binocs.
Itís a moose! Hah. I watch it a few minutes, checking my mirror for oncoming cars. Itís a beautiful young bull. He proceeds slowly, lifting each long leg through the deep snow, heading towards the creek. Then he stops a moment, as if considering a change in plan. To my surprise he turns around and heads back the way he came. Hmm, why did he do that, I wonder?
I drive on and see Unit 187 at the Soda Cone. He waves me over. I join him, thinking he too, saw the moose, but no, he has a wolf! He points south and I see the animal through my binocs! Itís a big gray, un-collared, directly south of us. Heís crossing the snowy berm above the river. Wow, heís a good-looking wolf.
We call Unit 1 but he doesnít answer. I bet this is the same mystery gray that I missed seeing twice when I was here at Christmastime. Melba has a nice video of him which I saw. Unit 187 confirms my thought, saying heís heard of sporadic sightings of a lone gray in this area over the last 2 weeks.
Handsome Gray walks across the crest of two low hills, directly south of us, moving slowly west. He stops and stares right at the spot where the moose had been. Then he turns away from the river and heads into the trees. In another moment or two, alas, heís gone.
We move to Footbridge, but do not find him again. What we DO find, though, is the reason both moose and wolf headed back into the trees. People. A young couple has walked out in the deep snow south of Footbridge. They are on the far side of the creek, playing around in the deep powder, taking selfies. Well, now we understand things.
Both the moose and the wolf saw these humans, which prompted each of them to retreat to the safety of the forest. I doubt the couple ever saw either animal, nor knew they had been somewhat close.
Itís not illegal to do what this couple is doing, but it still leaves me a bit perturbed. Animals have far fewer choices than humans. Perhaps the moose was looking for specific sustenance in the creek corridor? Perhaps the wolf was following his nose to another old carcass?
I just wish visitors to Yellowstone would have greater respect for the lives of the wild creatures here, and the limited choices they have to survive a Yellowstone winter. Selfies can be taken closer to the road and still look great.
Itís now 1:30 and a snow squall comes in, bringing a gusty wind. I head to Round Prairie but in a few minutes I am in white-out. This storm seems to be coming from the east, not the west, which is very odd. I see blue sky to the west so I am hoping it will clear up soon.
I head back west through the squall, slowly and cautiously. It finally stops around Tower. By the time I get to Lower HR, conditions are good again. I scope the area where I last saw the Junctions but donít find them. There are a few other people in the lot. One of them, a tall, rugged man who looks vaguely familiar, walks over to me.
He introduces himself, saying he recognizes my voice from ďour movieĒ. Heís Tom Murphy, the celebrated photographer! The movie he means is the ďChristmas in YellowstoneĒ TV film on PBS shot by Shane Moore and narrated by Linda Hunt. It usually runs once or twice each December. Becky & Chloe and I appear briefly in a segment filmed while we were watching wolves at Tower.
Tom has a larger part; he is filmed confidently skiing and camping in deep winter without a tent (!) and his footage of a mousing fox on a snowy slope is phenomenal.
We talk about the film and I compliment him on his photographs and his chutzpah, overnighting in the cold as he does, carrying all that heavy equipment! We talk about hiking in Yellowstone and I tell him where Iíve been. He goes to his truck and comes back with one of his calendars as a present!
What a nice guy. He says he is planning a horse pack trip in September to the Thorofare, sponsored by Yellowstone Forever. That sounds fun to me. I wonder if Barb & Janet & Sue might be interested.
Then someone finds a pigmy owl in a tree. Cool!
There are such nice people here, and itís so pleasant to meet them and chat about the things we mutually love.
Well, the light is waning so itís time for me to head back west.
As I am winding up the road from the high bridge, I see what think are elk calves sparring, but then I realize itís a pair of mule deer. Silly Wendy.
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, 2 sparring mule deer bucks, many elk, 2 moose, bighorn sheep, 16 wolves (including 15 Junctions plus 1 mystery gray) and the spirits of Allison and Richard