Despite my late arrival, I wake up early and Iím on the road at 5:20. The moon is up and first light has already begun.
I drive straight to Slough and set up on Dougís hill with many of the faithful. The pups are already in view, well to the east of the den area. I first see them on a slope above the horizontal forest, moving in and out between the tops of those trees.
I see two grays and one black, playing and cavorting. Wow! Theyíve gotten so big! There is a large boulder here that they use to play king of the hill.
They have endless fun and itís great to see them again. I lose them as they run lower on the hill, disappearing behind the trees. To the right of the forest is a zig-zag creek, lined with willows. They eventually show up near these willows, exploring and playing in that area.
At the bottom of the diagonal forest is a small open area with two sets of aspen trees and a large fallen log. It turns out that this is another favorite play area for the Junction pups. I watch five of them (3 blacks, 2 gray) playing here, walking on the log, falling off of it (or being pushed off!) and romping all around.
Dougís hill is full of visitors this morning, all eager to see their first wolf, and we happily share our scopes. A few adult wolves join the pups in the open area for a while. Adults are easier to see for first timers, but most people like seeing the pups best.
Now the pups and the adults begin trekking up the rocky hill past the diagonal forest. One black yearling takes a different route, traversing the rock and then turning around to go back to the bottom. When he gets there, a bunch of pups emerge from the willows and another round of play begins.
I end up seeing all 8 pups as well as all 6 yearlings (4 grays and 2 blacks).
As usual, whenever there is a lull, we check for other critters. Todayís tally includes 2 deer, 4 cranes, pronghorn, and bison.
Our Canadian friend Jeff M is down at the lower lot with Laurie & Dan. I havenít said hello yet, so I pack up and head down there.
We compare notes and visit a bit. There is news from Hayden involving the Wapiti pack, which was formed in 2015 by one of our favorites, 755M, and a Canyon pack female, daughter of the current Canyon alpha female and grand-daughter of the original Hayden Pack pioneers. 755 and his white alpha female raised several pups the first year but only one gray female survived to adulthood. This year they have four new pups, three grays and a black. When I was here in June, we had numerous happy reports of them but I was so enamored of the Junction pups, I never took a drive down south. Now I wish I had, because just recently Rick began getting reports that three black males from the Mollieís pack were being seen in the Wapiti territory. To make a long story short, those three males seem to have taken over 755ís position and kicked him out.
They did not kill him, so perhaps there is a chance they will allow him to stay to raise his own pups, as has been known to (sometimes) happen in other packs. Itís very upsetting and confusing to me, as it is to most wolf watchers. 755 seems to have some kind of curse on him since he lost the 06 female.
So, with the thought that I might not have another chance to see him, I decide to head south.
Weíve heard that 755 was seen early this morning but I donít hold out much hope that he will still be there. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So, over Dunraven I go.
And man, if nothing else, the drive is worth it for its beauty. We are a little past peak wildflower season, but there is still plenty of color to see.
I roll into sunny Hayden Valley and find a place to park across the road from Grizzly Overlook. As I am hauling up my stuff I am delighted to see Laurie & Dan & Jeff M pulling in behind me.
Amazingly, there are wolves in view when we arrive. Not 755, but the new Mollie wolves. I am directed to scan left of the point of trees, to an area of sage and mud flats across the river, against a forest background. I see two black Mollies and the white alpha female bedded there. Both the blacks are collared. They are 1014 & 1015, both three year old males and quite husky. I reflect on the fact that 755 is 8 years old and has always been tall and slender.
After a while, a third Mollie male, the un-collared one, joins the group. And there is the fifth adult, the light gray yearling daughter of 755 from last year. She walks into view from the west. She greets the bedded males and they all get up and move towards the forest. Then, to our delight, two gray pups come bounding out of the trees to greet the female!
They seem bigger than the Junction pups but are just as cute.
The adults bed down closer to the forest. Itís hard to tell the difference between the three Mollies. They are all big and all black. Two have collars and one of those limps a little. They are all gorgeous, healthy wolves. It appears to me that there is an equal amount of interest and friendliness between the females and the males.
But 755 is not around. This turn of events is both upsetting and fascinating. I talk with Laurie and Rick and they help me understand that the females must protect their pups and insure their own survival. These three males are younger and more robust than 755, and he could not win a fight against them.
Perhaps the poor survival rate of last yearís pups is a factor? 755 learned how to hunt from the 06 but something went wrong over the winter. It is sadly normal for packs to lose pups in a variety of ways; rival packs, illness, accident or injury, as well as simply failure to thrive. It is unlikely that 755 fell short in his skill at hunting.
He has proven his ability to adapt and survive, especially given the series of trials that have come his way. For three years, before he became the Wapiti alpha male, he negotiated a solitary life among rival packs, while trying very hard to find a worthy mate with which to settle down. He finally found her, fathered two sets of pups and nowÖheís on the outs again.
The wolves get up and move further west, with some of them moving out of sight. I can still see the alpha female but only one of the males. We move down to the double pullout by Alum Creek.
There are lots of cars and campers in both these pullouts, many angled haphazardly but we manage to find room. The view from here is of a curve in the river and an island of trees on the opposite bank, with the mud and sage flats beyond. The forest backdrop we saw from Grizzly Overlook is now on our left. There are few people scoping in the lot because most of them have followed a worn bison trail to a spot overlooking the water. About 50 visitors, including lots of kids are down there and I see only two or three tripods with scopes. The river is quite wide here, so even though they are closer than they need to be, the animals do not seem bothered.
I see all three blacks; two bedded just above the river bank. The alpha female and a third black are a short distance away, meandering towards the bedded males. In the river itself are lots of waterfowl, mostly geese and ducks but also a few swans and one sleeping pelican.
I donít see any pups but I find the gray yearling nosing around in the flats beyond the others. Eventually I recognize the area in the distance we call the ďpoint of treesĒ. It doesnít look like a point at all from this angle, but I recognize the ďcut bankĒ areas and various twists and turns of Sour Creek which are landmarks we see from Grizzly Overlook.
I turn back to watch the alpha female. She walks to the edge of the river and takes a drink. Now she wades into the water until itís up to her knees. Probably feels good as the day has warmed. She wades for a while, then moves more purposefully to the right, intending to cross a loop of it. Itís shallow enough that she mostly walks, then swims for about three strokes.
One of the blacks follows her into the river. When he enters the water, all the geese take flight! The alpha female is now across and begins to climb a steep sinter slope into the forest. The black crosses in a slightly different spot but ends up basically in the same place.
Now the other two blacks get up and follow. They cross, swimming a bit more than the others, and when they get out they follow the same trail up the sinter slope and disappear into the forest.
For a while we have no wolves in view although we look around for pups. Someone spots the yearling again, further out in the sage. She wanders a bit, looking for scraps I guess. Eventually she comes back towards us and sniffs the places where the others had bedded. Now she walks to the river but she does not enter it.
Instead she investigates the deadfall in the island of trees, then heads back into the sage the way she came. She blends in really well and I quickly lose her.
After a while I check with Laurie & Jeff but they have lost her too. Hmm. We watch water fowl a while, especially the swans. Then Jeff says heís found the yearling again. I look where he is looking and see her WAY out there in the furthest line of sage, just in front of the tree line. I think to myself that she looks big, and it seems weird that she would look bigger when she is a lot further away. The wolf just stands there, broadside, not moving, for quite a long time.
Then the wolf turns and walks slightly south. Something seems off. The wolf appears to move in a way that is somehow different than the yearling had been moving moments ago. I donít voice my thought, though, because the truth hasnít dawned on me yet.
I hear Laurie say in her calm voice ďthatís 755Ē
What? It is? Oh man, that sends a thrill through me. Of course! Thatís why the animal looks bigger. He IS bigger. And thatís why he doesnít move the same way as the yearling we had been watching. Heís a totally different wolf! I keep my eyes glued to my scope, thrilled to be watching my current favorite wolf saunter casually to the south.
Rick is behind us in the pullout, giving a talk to a big group from Cody. Laurie gets his attention, letting him know we have 755 in view. Since he has just been telling the group about the recent changes in the pack, this turn of events plays very well. We share our scopes with the group so they can see 755 too. They are psyched, because they now know a little of his history and how he ended up being ousted from his own pack.
755 stops and looks over his shoulder at the area where I suppose the Mollie males are. Perhaps he had been in the forest with his pups and made his exit as they came in.
Jeff sees one of the black Mollies at the far edge of the island of trees. We judge there to be at least a mile, maybe two, between these rival wolves.
But it looks like 755 considers it a little too close for comfort. He breaks into an easy lope, stops again and looks over his shoulder a second time. He is now right at the point of trees. He turns and heads into those trees and we lose him.
The black closer to us stay in his position. Itís clear that 755 is a savvy wolf, but itís heartbreaking to watch. These are HIS pups! I keep holding on to a fairly unrealistic hope that somehow these younger males might let him remain in the pack.
We consider heading south to Grizzly Overlook to see if we can find him again but itís gotten really hot and crowded, so we decide to go back east.
I have a lot to think about as I drive back over Dunraven. Itís a tough life, being a wild wolf.
I remember when this road was widened Ė there were all these hillsides denuded from construction. Bare dirt and a few rocks lined the hillsides on both sides, and the crews had laid long trunks of trees they had cut across those denuded hillsides in an attempt to stop erosion. I remember thinking how awful it looked in the beginning, but guess what Ė the vegetation has regenerated. Grass, wildflowers, a dozen Lodgepole saplings. It looks SO much better. Nature is resilient. I hope 755 continues to be, too.
I comfort myself with the sight of some really bright red paintbrush. And there are gorgeous hillsides of blue lupine, too, and some yellow mini-sunflowers, too.
The drive back to Lamar is gorgeous but uneventful. When I get close to Hitching Post I have to stop for a bison jam. Actually, itís more a photographer/car jam. The bison are not on the road itself but on both sides of it. People are stopped in both lanes and hanging out of their cars with their cameras or phones. Closest to me is a small group of cows and calves grazing in a wet hollow just west of 21ís crossing. There is a single bull in that group, intent on bothering the cows, getting a jump on the rut.
Up ahead, some bulls are crossing the road between cars. Most of the bison are off the road but really close, so people just cannot resist taking their photos.
There is no room for anyone to weave around the stopped cars, so I just sit back, to watch and wait. Then four or five motorcycles come roaring past Hitching Post from the east. They join the line of west-bound cars, revving their engines and being their overly loud selves. The randy bull freaks out causing panic in the herd. They stampede out of the hollow, rushing up the berm onto the road. The randy bull charges up and sees a solid wall of cars blocking his access to the other side. He puts on the brakes, his hooved feet slipping and scraping the pavement, then he wheels and charges between my car and the one ahead of me. Several other bison scramble out of his way, bumping into cars left and right, jostling every which way.
Finally they run down the south side berm and into the grass. The last members of the herd leave the road and peace returns to the valley. I donít think the people in the stopped cars were expecting THAT! It takes a bit for people to recover but soon cars are moving again. Whew!
I spend several pleasant hours with Laurie up in Silver Gate, then head back down for the evening. We have decided to go straight to Hayden tomorrow. We love seeing pups at Slough but we have seen them plenty. We figure 755 deserves our attention after all heís been through.
In Lamar Canyon there is a black bear jam with people all over the road which makes me crazy so I donít stop but carefully thread my way through. The bear is walking along the edge of the road on the rocky north side; a sweet-looking young adult bear. I mess up a few touristsí photos but I donít bother the bear.
At Slough only a few people are here, and no one I know. I drive down to the first lot and set up.
I scope all over the den area, to the right and to the left, all the places I have ever seen the Junctions. Hmm, none of them seem to be about. There is a bit of wind and some helpful cloud cover but itís hot, and whenever the wind dies down it gets really buggy.
I see two deer in the willows and lots of waterfowl, bison and pronghorn. But no wolfies.
A little after 8 the clouds part and the sun bursts through, making it hard to see, so I pack up to make it an early night.
I have a great sunset going back. By the time I get to Round Prairie, it has cooled off considerably.
Such a beautiful place!
Today I saw: 1 black bear, bison, deer, elk, geese, a pelican, pronghorn, swans, 22 wolves from 2 different packs: 14 Junctions (including 8 pups and 6 adults) and 8 Wapitis (including 3 Mollie males, alpha female and yearling, two pups and dear old 755M) and the spirit of Alison