DAY ONE - Thursday, July 20

WAPITI WELCOME

I’m happy to say I have made great progress rehabilitating my injured knee, so I’ve decided to return to the Park for some more wolf-watching. This time, though, I’m starting in the southern part of the Park, in Hayden Valley.

I leave Bozeman at 4PM. It’s a warm 91 degrees. I’ve got a full tank of gas and Beatles on the radio. There is a good deal of haze in the sky along I-90 and it continues through Paradise Valley. Fire season has already started. I can make out the shape of Chico Mountain but the rest are in haze.

Mule deer are grazing along the banks of the Yellowstone just past Livingston. At Corwin Springs, I have to slam on the breaks due to three big horn rams on the road. I miss them but all my stuff goes sliding so I stop at the next pullout to re-arrange everything.

Boiling River is jammed and I pass two sets of hitchhikers in the Mammoth area. I have my visit with Alison and then head east.

I notice lots of fireweed all over the Blacktail. Hmm, I don’t remember seeing fireweed in summer before - usually it emerges in fall. Things do seem unusually dry.

The temperature has dropped a bit; it’s 78 at Tower. Roosevelt corral is over-flowing with visitors taking part in the evening chuck wagon outing. It’s high summer and some of the traffic is exceedingly slow. But it allows me to hear meadowlarks!

As I head up to Dunraven pass I see another pair of hitchhikers, a bearded man and toothless lady. Hmm.

Once I’m up top it becomes quite windy and the air seems clearer. Several stubborn patches of snow still remain. On the Canyon side I pass some white-tails near Cascade meadows.

I have heard the Park made many changes to the Canyon cabin area so I drive through to explore. The high loop where I used to like to stay has become employee housing so it’s now off limits. Both the entrance & exit to the cabin area have been totally re-routed, which makes sense to keep visitors from clogging up the employee area. But a lot of the “western cabins” that I liked have been replaced with four motel-style “lodges”, four stories high, and there is now a huge, treeless parking lot between them.

After a visit to the campground office I take a look at my spot so I will be able to find it later in the dark. I plan to just sleep in the back of the car tonight. One of the advantages of being a short person.

So now I’m off to Hayden.

It’s still breezy as I make my way through the bison-gazing traffic in Hayden Valley. It’s a very pleasant 68 degrees and I arrive just before 7:30. Larry & Linda wave a welcome and tell me they have wolves in view.

The real “miracle” is that a French couple in a camper is just backing out as I arrive, so I get their great parking spot. And I meet Susan and George, a very nice couple who also report to Laurie about events in Hayden.

I follow Susan’s excellent directions and soon have pups in view.

They are in a slightly different area than in years’ past. Instead of the “point of trees”, the rendezvous for this litter is a bit further south, almost directly east, in an area called “between the two trees”, which is a sage slope a bit south of the “right sand box”. (There are three “sand boxes” visible at the tree line – they are small forest clearings with white sinter instead of dirt, a background against which a moving animal is more easily seen.)

Between the two trees are a variety of other markers, clumps of deadfall, one with a series of curved branches that resemble a set of antlers. To the right of the right tree is another area watchers have named “the front door”, because both adults and pups are often seen here emerging from the forest. There is quite a bit of deadfall in this area, including one very large fallen log and a bit of a meadow to the right of that.

This litter belongs to 1091F, daughter of 755 and the white alpha female. She is the only pup to survive their first litter (from April 2015). She and a variety of babysitters (mostly yearlings, her younger brothers and sisters from 2016’s litter) have been tending her five pups; she has four gray and one black. The fact that the whole pack is not seen here very often has led to speculation that the alpha female has a second litter someplace else this year, likely west of the road, out of sight.

Tonight, many people get to see wolves; the vast majority for the first time in their lives.

Mama 1091 moves from the 2 trees area over to the front door, with several pups following. They play and jump on her and she is tolerant for a while, then moves into the trees and out of sight. Later, another adult, a gray yearling appears to the left of the 2 trees. The pups greet the yearling, swarming her, begging for food. I count three of the 4 gray pups as well as the black pup.

A little later, mom leads the pups down the hill to the short grass at the edge of the river. This is as close to a perfect sighting as I’ve ever had. Watching pups playing and romping with each other and with the yearling is just wonderful and heartwarming. Then mom splashes across the shallow finger of the river and the pups follow her!

She waits a moment on the little spit of land but then begins to swim the main channel. This is too much for the puppies. They don’t like that deeper water where they can’t feel the mud beneath their paws.

They stay on the spit of land then splash back to the shore where the yearling still sits. When mom reaches the other side, the yearling enters the water and follows her. For a while we have both adults on the road side of the river below us and four pups on the far side. 1091 is on a mission and she continues west, and we hear from others that she has crossed the road safely.

The yearling then re-crosses the river back to the pups. I thought the pups might be anxious that their mother left, but they do not seem bothered. They explore on their own and play with each other close to the bank in very good view but still far enough away for safety. The crowd eats it up. >{? Then one by one they head back up the hill, accompanied by the yearling. They get in a few more romps and eventually disappear through the “front door” into the forest.

After we lose the pups, the yearling comes back down to the river. She seems a bit agitated and howls a bit. She tools around, beds, watches ducks and howls some more. I think she does not want to stay here; she wants to go wherever her big sister went.

My old Loon friend Ballpark Frank is here in the pullout with some buds so we speak briefly. Although the evening is mostly about wolves, when they were out of sight I also watched elk grazing the flats and walking in the river. And I saw the usual set of cranes, geese and a duck with ducklings.

But the light is fading fast so I pack up and head to Canyon.

It’s a perfect night for sleeping out. My fellow campers are appropriately quiet so I leave the windows open a crack for the clear air and lovely night sounds.

Today I saw: bison, cranes, mule deer, white tail deer, ducks, elk, geese, and 6 wolves of the Wapiti pack including 1091, a gray yearling and four of five pups.




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