DAY SEVEN - Tuesday, March 30

VADER HILL OVERLOOK

I leave a tad earlier today at 6:05. There is no overnight precipitation and Iím happy to see a bright full moon.

There is not enough light to scope from the Nature Trail so I sit and listen for howling. Itís beautifully quiet, which is also nice.

I continue east and find a very large herd of bison grazing in Phantom Lake. I suppose the water there provides some tasty greenery for them.

At lower Elk Creek I find Bob L and 3 other photogs. Bob tells me they only have coyotes on the carcass.

The growing light reveals an overcast sky. Itís much colder than yesterday; only 13 degrees! Brrr.

I find the Crew and Rick at Wrecker Grade. The Junctions are again out of sight. Jeremy says they saw Junctions yesterday from up on Vader Hill, on a fresh bison kill in the Yellowstone River.

They will be walking up again, once they finish their breakfast.

This is my last full day and I am overdue for a physical workout so I say to Rick ďif youíre going up, Iíll go with youĒ. He says yes.

The hike is somewhat steep but not quite as bad (or as far) as Cardiac Hill. There is a lot of bare sage and earth but also plenty of remaining snow. The snow makes it a harder climb because some is quite soft and mushy while other spots are hard, having melted and re-frozen into ice over and over.

After climbing about 2 minutes I trip over a sage-root and crash forward onto my knees and right hand. Luckily my scope is in my backpack so it is not harmed. I go down straight, no twisting, and I donít feel like Iíve injured anything. Iím sure Iíll be sore later but I get back to my feet and keep going.

Once we get to the top there is a flat area and then the hill slopes gently down to a row of trees growing out of the near bank of the river. We set up on the flat. Rick scopes to the left and I scope to the right. Of course, he finds them first.

I move my scope closer to him and find a single black on a low, rocky hill on the far side of the river. Then I see a gray below the black, coming up the hill. We continue to pan and find more and more wolves, some on the hilltop, bedded, and some below it.

They begin to howl. Oh, itís particularly lovely to hear (and see) wolves howling when you are away from the road on a wild hilltop.

After the howling ends I spot another black standing in the middle of a flat, snow-filled meadow extending from the riverís edge to the base of the rocky hill. That black becomes two blacks, one bedded and one standing, both howling.

The bedded black gets up and travels towards the river bank, greeting yet another black that emerges from the treeline to greet it. The emerging black continues across the snowy meadow and greets the standing black, whereupon all three blacks disappear into the trees.

My count is now 9 Junctions!

Rick spots the Crew on their way up. They are aiming for a spot further west than we are. He suggests we move now to join them.

Two other friends, Johnny and Jeff, come up, too and we all assemble at the Crewís lookout spot above the river.

It is a better view, and still far enough away not to disturb the wolves. From here I see pack members that were hidden from my earlier vantage point.

I can see the river itself and the many jumbled rocks along the far bank. The bison carcass is right at the waterís edge, at a spot full of boulders. There are wolves all over those boulders, tugging at the carcass, carrying bits of it up the slope.

I can still see the original rocky hilltop; in fact, I can see wolves bedded there now. Jeremy says all 23 are here but I count only 21. I later learn that the individuals I saw included: both alphas, 907F, 1228F, 1229F, 1272M, 1275M, and 1276F.

The Crew says the carcass is much diminished from yesterday and that it has moved about 12 feet downriver. It seems that the wolves are on the verge of abandoning it; the ones still trying to feed are mostly pups and yearlings.

The bulk of them are already moving up the slope and into the snow-meadow, many carrying tidbits and large bits to cache or gnaw on. 1276F carries a lower leg with hoof attached.

1275M carries a piece that is dark and quite floppy. I canít figure out what it actually is, other than maybe a strip of hide.

The pups and yearlings begin to play, chasing each other across the meadow and back again. They play tug of war with the floppy hide. The item changes hands, erÖmouths, three times.

All in all I spend two hours in this spot, watching the Junctions in a happy mood. As I watch the action in the meadow, I still swing my scope back to the river. Each time there are fewer and fewer wolves left at the carcass.

Then I see none. I turn my scope to the meadow again and see the wolves climbing the rocky hill, moving in that ďtime to travelĒ determined way, heading steadily east.

Which allows me another chance to count. This time I manage to see all 23. Huzzah!

The wolves stop well east of the original rocky top, among a pile of very large boulders. Beyond them is a largish herd of bison. The wolves take bedding spots in the rocks, with a few pups (as usual) still wandering here and there, curious about the bison.

Jeremy recognizes the rocks. He says itís a spot that can be seen from the road. So we begin to pack up for the trek back.

The sun has softened the snow so itís slower going than Iíd hoped. I sink down one time, in snow up to my hip. Itís not easy to get back out but I manage without hurting anything.

We gather again at Rickís pullout, which is now dry gravel, completely free of snow. Of course, Jeremy is right. The boulders on which the pack is sitting are visible from this spot (although the rocky hill is not). The Junctions are clearly in view from here, as is the bison herd.

The day has warmed a bit, to 22, but a light wind makes it feel chillier.

Some of the Junctions have moved a bit further east, and are now bedded on a low, rounded hill with a distinctive triangular boulder on top. Some of the bison deliberately climb this hill, forcing the wolves to move off. I have seen bison make such moves many times. I think itís payback, but the wolves give way and re-bed once they move on.

Sure enough, as the bison continue west, the wolves retake their hill and settle down once more.

I spend another two hours here with the crew, chatting and joking, watching mostly bedded wolves. This is the last day of Winter Study and the crew is eager to be finished and to celebrate. They have over 200 hours of observation under their belts. At 3PM Dan S comes by to release them. Now they can rest and relax.

Around 3:30 I start to feel chilled from the wind so I decide to head back to Gardiner to make sure I did not do any damage to my knees.

As I pass Blacktail ponds, I see the ice here is melting fast. I also notice a large bison herd in the area. It is well known to Yellowstone regulars that bison often fall through the melting ice here in the early spring. So far this year, none have done so, but a week after I left, a record number of bison (7) did just that. The resulting jam up of cars and people waiting for a bear or wolves to find them became so large, unwieldy, and dangerous that the Park Service removed all 7 carcasses, in an operation that was recorded for posterity. Not everyone was happy about it.

Today I saw: bison, coyotes, elk, 23 Junction wolves (including alphas, 907F, 1228F, 1229F, 1272M, 1275M & 1276F plus numerous others) and the spirits of Allison and Richard.

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