I leave Gardiner at 6:20. Itís 37 degrees and I am anticipating some bad weather.
Sure enough, icy snow starts falling as I drive up the Canyon. Itís also quite windy. By the time I reach Mammoth the snow is falling thickly with wild and frequent gusty winds.
I follow on set of tire tracks as I head east. But itís easy enough driving, even though the wind makes it kind of hard to see at times.
There is some drifting on the S curves, as usual but then I start to see evidence of downed branches, and then whole trees. One tall pine leans at a precarious angle across my lane so I use the other and zip past it.
At Geode I find the plow, stopped. A huge tree has fallen across the road but the plow has just finished moving it out of the way. I recognize the tree as one that has provided welcome shade to that small pullout for years.
I am sorry to lose it, but thank you, Mr. Snowplow!
The weather gets progressively worse, so I slow down to about 20 mph.
At Hellroaring there is no visibility, and the wind is downright nasty, so I continue. At the Elk Creek curve I see Bob L, three other photogs and 2 intrepid scopers all out of their cars, braving the inclement weather. Given such fierce wind and blowing snow, itís obvious they are seeing something other than coyotes. I pull in to the Ski Lot next to Susan & Reve.
At first I wonder if the Junctions might have discovered this old bison carcass? We all pull into the big ski lot. I step out of my car into the insane wind, grasping my binocs. I am immediately pelted with icy snow in the face. But I can see wolves.
The Wapitis are back!
At first I huddle next to my car, using it to block the wind but it does not offer enough protection. I get back inside, leaving the heater and wipers on. There are only a few people nutty enough to be out in this so we carefully re-position our cars in order to watch the Wapitis between wiper swipes.
I see three of them; 1203F, the feisty gray pup and one cocoa pup. The blowing snow makes them appear ghostly as they move in and out of it.
After about 15 minutes, I decide to continue east to check on Junction.
Visibility remains bad but the road itself poses no problem. I find the Crew at Wrecker again and ask for an update.
They know about the Wapitiís return. They have not seen the Junctions yet, but believe they are somewhere between here and Junction Lake, most likely low, in the Yellowstone River corridor. They seem a bit discouraged. I tell them not to worry, they should be glad they have an excuse to stay in the car with the weather like this!
I thank them and get back in my car.
As I turn onto the road from Wrecker, a herd of 8 mule deer runs past me, spooked by something, pronging across the road to the south.
I drive back to the ski lot, which is still mostly empty. I position my car just right. Snow is still falling, and the wind remains fierce but I am snug and warm inside.
There are periodic squalls of thick snow but the wind keeps blowing it off my windshield, which means I can leave my wipers off and enjoy my private drive-in wolf-watching.
For the next hour and a half I watch Wapiti wolves in the middle of a mini-blizzard. I have my breakfast and coffee in comfort. All six are now visible, the same ones I saw here Saturday, the same ones that trotted south up the Tower road Saturday night, making us believe they were headed back home to Hayden.
Apparently, they like it here.
Four are bedded on a hilltop: the two cocoa pups, the uncollared gray male and the beautiful black male. The feisty female pup is sitting to the right of these four, gnawing on a leg bone. The sixth wolf, gray 1203F, is feeding on the carcass. She tugs hard, grabbing a morsel. Eventually she comes back up the hill to join the others.
The feisty gray leaves the bone, which is quickly taken over by one of the cocoa pups. All three grays are now bedded close to each other.
A little later, the 2nd cocoa pup gets up and roams around a bit, then returns to the carcass for another bite, making sure to first clear the area of ravens.
After about 45 minutes, the snow lessens and then stops. I begin to see glimpses of blue sky to the west. But the wind remains, and many times a sharp gust will send wild sprays of snow into the air.
The first cocoa pup starts to tug fiercely, moving whatís left of the carcass. The gray male joins him, tugging on a leg. The second cocoa pup bounds down to the carcass, tries to grab the morsel his sibling found and is sharply snapped at. He settles for the scapula which the other discarded.
All through this sighting, the wolves have seemed impervious to the weather. Their gorgeous thick fur is constantly ruffled and snow lands on their heads and backs but they seem completely content.
All three wolves leave the carcass, each carrying a piece back to the hilltop and sit down to gnaw a while. Because their tugging moved the carcass a bit, I can now see the ribcage and notice there are still many pink spots.
Their bellies are bulging but, still one of the cocoa pups needs a bit more. He heads back down again.
Around 10:00 I decide to drive back east. The sky is beginning to clear, at least to the northwest, and the day gets considerably brighter. The Park looks great in its fresh cloak of white.
The crew is no longer at Wrecker so I begin to wonder where they are. I stop at Curve to send Laurie a mini report. Rick passes me and I join him at Boulder, scoping from here for a while. He says the Junctions have not yet been found.
I tell Rick I left my iPad at Laurieís house, but I neglected to bring my key this trip so I hope he has a spare. He does and we arrange to meet later in Silver Gate so I can retrieve it.
I scope from Slough and then from Lamar Canyon West but still no luck. I continue east into Lamar.
The sun comes out and everything looks beautiful. The wind is not finished, though, so driving is still a bit tricky. Conditions vary along the way, as all the low spots vulnerable to the wicked wind that carries new snow over the pavement, sometimes in drifts a foot high. Other stretches are clear and dry, and some are covered with a thin coating of ice. The temperature has dropped to 19.
Twice I have to come to a dead stop when the wind creates a total white out. I turn on my flashers and wait a half minute for it to clear, once near the ranch and once near Picnic. Thankfully, there is almost no traffic at all.
Once Iím past Pebble, where the trees are thick and close to the road, things get much better. But then I start to see blow downs, just as I did through the Blacktail.
In many, many places, the road is strewn with needles, sticks and small branches blown from elsewhere. And I see where trees fell across the road and have been dragged away. Boy, the Rangers and maintenance people have been busy today!
I meet Rick and retrieve my iPad, then make sure Laurieís house is locked up tight.
On my drive back I count the blow downs I see within two feet of the road (There are many more deeper into the forests). Between Silver Gate and Pebble Creek my high count is 17. Three of those had fresh chain saw marks. I glad I didnít drive in from Silver Gate this morning!
My drive back through Lamar is much easier. There are still a few ground blizzards but no white outs. I see geese at Confluence and a coyote to the north as I pass Boulder Pond.
I find the Crew at Wrecker grade and join them a while, looking into Pleasant Valley and other spots visible from here. But they give us the slip.
I drive back to Gardiner in order to attend a pre-arranged zoom meeting. After a rest I head back in with fingers crossed for more wolf luck.
I find the Crewís car parked near the Garnet Hill Loop trail head. I suspect they have climbed Vader Hill. Hmmm.
I have been up there a few times in the past, but I donít think I want to climb it by myself at this moment.
Instead, I drive over to Rickís pullout and scan from here. I locate the Crew on Vader Hill and can tell they are looking down into the Yellowstone corridor. This is an area that cannot be seen from anywhere on the road, so I suspect they have finally found their wolves.
So back I go to the big ski lot, where I content myself with another hour or twoís observance of the six Wapitis. There are more people here now than there were this morning but there is still plenty of room.
1203F is chowing down on the carcass at the moment. It looks like they moved it a bit more and she is clearly in view as she feeds. After her snack she goes on a bit of a walkabout. She gets very close to the people at one point and I begin to wonder if she might want to cross the road? Itís a natural crossing spot, except for all the people. She seems to change her mind and turns uphill.
She arrives on the hilltop where the others are bedded. A cocoa pup gets up and heads to the carcass for yet another bite. His tummy is the size of a beach ball!
Next the feisty gray female joins the cocoa pup at the carcass. 1203 goes on another walkabout, this time south of the hill where most of them are bedded. I think she is restless and wants to move on.
She returns to the hill and nuzzles the bedded black male, then beds down between him and the other cocoa pup.
The feisty gray brings part of a bison leg up the hill. She sits in a new place and starts to gnaw on it.
The cocoa pup lifts his head, resting it over 1203ís back for a bit. Aww, thatís so sweet! The black stretches his front leg and paws at 1203 in what looks like an affectionate gesture.
1203 gets up again and heads once more in the direction of the carcass but continues past it. She beds in the snow in front of a perfect little Christmas tree. It looks like she is deliberately posing for photogs.
The feisty gray grapples with her leg assembly, which includes a flexible joint. She twists and torques it, trying to separate the two attached bones. She continually changes position, trying to get leverage, chewing and chewing. 1203 gets up and returns to the group. She nuzzles the cocoa pup. The feisty pup bounds over as if to ask for some affection for herself.
The drab gray rolls on his back, prompting both 1203 and the feisty pup to sniff his underside. He gets up, followed by a cocoa pup and they head down for yet another carcass visit. This time, 1203 follows them.
I now have 3 wolves tugging on the carcass.
A raven lands where the feisty pup left her bone. The raven seems to find several bite-sized bits that flaked off during the pupís efforts.
1203 returns again to the bedding spot. This time she sits on her haunches and scratches under her collar . Boy, that must feel good.
A little later, one cocoa pup remains on the carcass while the others are bedded on the hill. Suddenly all five heads lift up, looking right at me. Well, no, not at me. They see a coyote in front of me.
I see only the coyoteís ears and tail as he sneaks past the pullout just below the edge. The wolf heads follow his progress. Then suddenly I am aware of a dozen people rushing past my car, cameras in hand. They look like paparazzi after Princess Diana. They belatedly noticed the coyote and are hoping for a close shot.
The five wolves lower their heads. The cocoa pup continues to tug on the bones. The ribs and spinal column are getting bare. This carcass looks pretty spent.
Around 6PM I catch movement out my left window. A gorgeous fox is crossing the lot heading to the carcass. I donít give it away and the pretty canid moves between my car and the next one. None of the photogs see it at all.
At 6:15 I decide to call it a day Ė a very good day - and drive back to Gardiner.
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, elk, a fox, geese, ravens, 6 Wapiti wolves (including 1203, beautiful black,
cocoa pups, drab gray and feisty gray) and the spirits of Allison and Richard.