I get a bit of a late start today. It seems quite a bit warmer. The temp gauge reads 22 at 6:30.
By the time I reach the Blacktail, snow is coming down heavily. And itís colder of course. At Hellroaring itís 14 and bad visibility so I donít stop.
I continue towards Lamar. Driving becomes a bit treacherous. There is so much snow-fog. But more than that, the light is flat, which prevents me from discerning distance or dimension. The snow plow has not come through yet, and it is nearly impossible to recognize the edge of the road Ė which is why so many people end up off the road in winter here. And there is no way to guess where the center line is, either. The one thing that saves me is the lack of oncoming traffic.
As I get closer to Lamar I hear enough crackles over the radio to convince that wolves are in view. Sometimes reception on my radio through the Blacktail is quite bad. Anyway, I heard talk yesterday that the Lamars ran a bull elk into the river and left it there. Itís possible they have gotten it overnight.
I see Laurie at Mid-point so I pull in and join her. The Lamars were first seen to the north by their old carcass, but when cars started arriving they moved further uphill to an area now obscured by snow-fog. I get a quick peek at them through Laurieís scope (thank you!). The snow is still coming down but I see three shapes that I take on faith are wolves. 8~)
We spend most of the time here staring into thick fog, seeing nothing. I am introduced me to a tall, good looking man in the lot who is a photographer for National Geographic, named Ronin (Ronan?). He has been granted some extra access by the Park Service and not everyone sees that as a good thing. But I find him to be dedicated, hard-working and pleasant.
From time to time I turn around to look at the bull elk in the river. You can see him from here, standing there like a statue, and I can see a dark spot on his hind leg. I wonder why he doesnít leave the river and head south for the forest, now that the wolves are to the north?
Laurie tells me that after I left last night someone saw 14 wolves cross the road in Little America Ė most likely the Prospects. So pretty soon Rick goes to Slough, as does Laurie.
I am just starting to pack up to follow Laurie when Ronin calls out ďblack wolfĒ. Sure enough, I see it, too, up on the rocky knob. Eventually more wolves emerge - three blacks and a gray. Below them are two elk, a cow and a spike bull. They are in precarious defensive positions on the cliff. For a while the wolf shapes go in and out of the snow-fog. I see them moving higher on the hill and then lose them completely.
Some people are scoping from YES or the Institute and have better views than here. They say the whole Lamar family is there, all 8 (925, 926 and the six pups).
Kara joins us and we scope together. We are just about to go west when she finds them again, on skyline. Five ghostly shapes in flat light. Very little definition through the thickly falling snow. Itís a cool thing to see.
The snow lets up a bit and we can more clearly see two wolves bedded on skyline. The rest of the family appears in various spots below that. I follow the gray pup as he walks down the slope in thick snow. He meets some other wolves bedded under wide-spreading tree and they greet. Next I see 925 and 926. I pick out the big black pup and the other four black pups. Thatís all of them.
After some friendly greetings, they bed again. 926F is by herself and seems quite persnickety about tamping down the snow before she sits. The snow comes in thick again, hiding them from view.
Now I head west. Parking at Slough is impossible so I keep going and end up at Longs with Steve, Kara and Kira. Becky and Chloe join us shortly thereafter.
Itís pretty bad visibility here, too. Kara finds the Prospects, to the north, up high. I see bedded shapes and one gray walking around.
Visibility is pretty bad here, too, but we have a report that 870F is in the area to the north, on her own again, somewhere near Peregrine.
We move down to Boulder hill and Chloe makes an amazing spot. 870 is roaming the lower slope of the western Peregrine. We think she had been bedded there until a hiker pushed her west. Then we learn that the hiker is Ronin! He is contacted by radio and hikes back to the road. He didnít know she was out there.
We watch 870 a while, cocking her ears left and right, mousing. She beds a while, then moves off toward the Buffalo Ford. Some animals are just amazing. This wolf has had a difficult life, rising to the top only to be injured, losing her position, surviving on her own, then regaining her position again, only to lose it a second time. And yet, she doesn't just curl up by the river in despair. She lives on, feeding herself, keeping out of trouble She's quite amazing.
Once she disappears, I drive back to Slough where there is now room to park. The snow has let up a bit. I see a total of 7 Prospect wolves, bedded in pretty much the same place as I saw them from Longs.
Around 2PM I drive back to Lamar and stop at mid-point again. Story and her dad, Dave, are here. Itís great to see them again and we catch up. They tell me theyíve seen all 8 Lamars up there above the cliff, in basically the same place. Chloe & Becky join us. I can see the spike bull, below the top of the cliff, but the cow elk seems to have escaped.
The spike knows the wolves are there and seems to feel he is sufficiently protected in this precarious place. The cliff is pretty steep, with just a few flat spots that are mostly covered in snow with ice beneath. It seems to me that the wolves are biding their time, but have bad intentions towards this spike.
The scene is set and the drama is about to begin. Around out 3:45 Big Gray gets up, as does 926. They have a sweet moment of greeting as he comes down hill to her. Then mama heads uphill and rallies the troops. This is a lesson for the pups, and some of them are quite eager, especially the big black collared pup and the largish gray pup (probably both males)
We dub another of the black pups ďrugĒ because he/she seems more interested in sleeping up at skyline than a lesson in elk ambush. But there comes a moment when the wolves move with a purpose and the purpose is to dislodge the spike bull and have him for supper. Down the hill they come heading for the rocky knob. The spike knows they are coming; we can see him get nervous. Good lord, what must go through the mind of an elk at a moment like this? Itís terrifying and exciting at the same time.
One by one the wolves appear on the slope above him. Then some of them take unseen routes lower, suddenly emerging in places on the cliff closer to the elk. Suddenly a black wolf is right behind the elk, on the same level. Itís the big black collared pup (I forget his number).
Big Gray suddenly appears below the elk, as does 926. They begin a series of independent, cautious lunges towards him. The elk kicks, and the lunging wolf backs off. Suddenly there are five wolves around the elk and we see him slip and go down on his side.
By some miracle, he gets back up kicking furiously, making the wolves back off again. I am impressed by the resilience of the elk and how cautious the wolves are Ė the terrain is insanely dangerous and the elk seems to know inherently that at least one side of him is protected by the cliff itself. As long as he can stay standing and still kick, he has a chance. The wolves seem to be waiting for him to make a mistake, like that fall, but now that he is up again they are back to square one.
We watch, breathless, our hearts in our throats. I see three additional serious attempts by the wolves that result in quick contact with the elk but donít go further. The elk kicks fiercely each time and the wolves have to back off or risk being kicked over the cliff.
Then the elk bolts and the wolf behind him gives chase. But the elk is only moving to a new, even more precarious spot on the cliff. He cannot turn around, but from this spot he only has to defend from behind. The wolves seem well versed with the danger in an elkís sharp hooves. And we are at stalemate again.
The wolves seem to know they cannot risk pressing their attack from here and they never make contact again. After another few minutes, they give up and move uphill. The pups who were not among the five hunters, sit on top of the cliff, looking down at the elk, which is kind of comical. Big Gray is the last to leave. When he gets up top he beds.
We compare notes and agree that when the elk went down that one time 925 got kicked in the face and it looked like one of the blacks got momentarily trampled. But now that we see them moving up hill, it looks like none is the worse for the encounter, except perhaps 925. He seems to be nursing a bit of hurt, rubbing his nose in snow.
Eventually 926 and the pups head a bit downslope and disappear into some trees.
Story and I joke that they are headed east and will likely cross the road and go for the elk in the river. We keep checking the hillside but never see them reappear. The bull elk IS still in the river so we wonder what his fate might be overnight.
Things calm down and we get to yakking. Debi Dixon gets in her car to leave - I don't know if she neglected to ask one of us to spot for her or if her spotter gave her poor advice, but as she backs into the road, a red suburban is coming from the east. The suburban is driving way too fast for the icy road and a congested area. The suburban sees a car in its path, hits the brakes and swerves to the right to avoid a collision. It plunges off the road to the north into deep snow.
The good news is, the driver's action saved all our lives. If he had hit Debi's car, it would likely have smashed into the next, and the next and the next, catching any scopers between cars. Debi pulls back in to her spot, shaken and horrified.
Rick and those closest go to the suburban to make sure everyone is ok. The driver is a Chinese guy who has five women passengers, only one of whom speaks any English. They are all ok, but shaken up. I think we all felt responsible because this happened due to the actions of one of us wolf watcherís. I know I did.
Rick tells the people we will help them get out and not to call a tow. Everybody does their part (except Debi, she is too shaken). I offer my mats and people get their shovels and start digging. Story's dad Dave gets his pick-up ready and attaches a rope to the suburbanís hitch.
We get the people out of the car and those of us no good at shoveling help keep the shivering visitors warm in our 10 degree weather with hats and blankets and gloves, or just let them sit in our cars with the heater going. I am nervous that we will run out of light. Someone goes west to slow or stop traffic and someone else goes east. Luckily there is not much to worry about. It takes a lot of shoveling and several tries but with 12 guys pushing, the pick-up finally drags him out.
The suburban seems to be fine to drive, with no appreciable damage that anyone can see.
We beg the girl who speaks English to tell the driver to please SLOW DOWN and she nods yes. My mats are trashed, full of icy snow. But Iím tickled that they seem to be helpful to some degree.
Itís now nearly dark. The drive home is insane, with thick, blowing snow the whole way. I donít think I go much over 20mph the whole way. Even in Mammoth, where you can usually count on a weather improvement, there are ground blizzards obscuring the road edges. Sheesh!
But I get to the Super 8 safe and sound.
Today I saw: bison, elk, coyotes, 16 wolves from three packs (8 Lamars, 7 Prospect and 870F of the Junction Buttes) and the spirit of Allison.