It's 31 degrees as we start out for the day. Becky & Chloe have given me an FRS radio so we can keep in touch as we caravan out. A bright full moon lights our way for a while, then is swallowed in cloud.
There is a nice half-inch of new snow covering the road. We see no tracks in the westbound lane and only a few on our east bound side. Becky & Chloe see two bunnies below Mammoth. New snow begins to fall around Undine, and there is a bit of drifting on the S curves. We have two coytoes in the road at the Elk Bowl and some elk at Floating Island and in various spots where I have often seen them in winters past.
It's still dark when we get to Tower so we go on towards Lamar. We hear no info on the radio so we begin to suspect the Druid show is playing extra performances. But I didn't expect to find them at Footbridge! Ah, me it is like old times. First I see just three wolves wandering east on the snowy hillside across the Soda Butte to the left of Dead Puppy Hill. Then the alphas emerge from a gully and soon there are wolves all over the hillside.
They make a half-hearted run at three bull elk but the elk are healthy and strong and easily trot away from them. Then the Druids split in to two groups - the alpha group of 7 and a second group of playful, easily distracted youngsters, a group of 8. They now travel west along the base of Dead Puppy Hill and emerge along the crest of the old riverbank to the right.
I notice 569 stop, staring at something to the west. She begins to stalk. I scan to the right and see five elk far across the flats who seem quite aware of the wolves but the angle is wrong for them to be what has caught her interest. She is looking at something much closer. Suddenly she begins to run and the several wolves race ahead of her. I scan again and now I see what it likely her target - a black wolf. Actually it's not her so much as the gray wolf beyond her. Aha! It's the "other" suitor wolf - this one is called the Dark Gray Suitor. He has taken off at a dead run and now the full pack is in pursuit, tails high with excitement. The black wolf is apparently one of the Druid female yearlings.
The pack catches up with the black and I see a rambunctious but friendly greeting. Several pack members continue after the gray and I lose them behind a hill.
I hear over the radio that the gray has crossed the river and the road and is headed up the hill around 21's Crossing. The black female follows him while the pack stays on the south side of the river. Snow begins to fall and quickly becomes thick and blizzardy.
Just as I am thinking of moving to Hitching Post the main pack comes back into view, regrouping above the old riverbank. They move west again and we see birds fly out of a gully. Aha, again! Looks like there is a carcass down there. Perhaps the black female and her gray suitor were feeding on it? One by one the Druids begin to disappear into the gully while several pups remain on a snowbank to the right.
Now we move to Hitching Post. When we arrive we walk out to Brian's nob and from here we watch various pups on the bank above the gully. Behind us on the hill across the road we can see the gray. The gray stands and howls. Apparently the black female has crossed back to her family. She is ID'd as Dull Bar, one of the yearlings, who is particularly un-bothered by the road. They howl non-stop to each other and I notice that this Dark Gray Suitor has a particularly deep, sore-throated howl. Of course, I don't know if this is his "normal" howl, or related to what he is "saying" or some other factor.
The pups are enormously entertaining to watch. They jump on top of each other, roll and slide, tobagganing down the slope, tumbling sometimes on their sides. One reaches up and bites some snow from an overhanging cornice. The thicker the snow the more they seem to love it.
After a while, the snow increases and begins blowing straight into our faces, so we decide to pack it in and see what else is on tap for the day. We had heard a report that a pack of wolves had visited the carcass in Little America where Becky & Chloe had seen the Agates. But when we get to that spot the blizzard is so fierce that we can barely see the bottom of the hill. Still, we all feel if there had been even a single black wolf, we would have seen it, and we didn't.
The road is filling up with snow so quickly that the single snowplow cannot keep up. I suppose since it is Christmas Eve there is only one guy on duty.
We head on to Tower and scope there a while, then go further west to Elk Creek. The snow comes in even more thickly! However we do have an amusing encounter with a coyote in the road. He trots past me up to Chloe & Becky's car. Chloe rolls down her window down and he spooks! Up the road he trots, then stops, squats, and poops. I guess that says it all! 8~)
We turn around and head back east. Since the snow is preventing us from seeing far, we will look for what we might find closer - namely otter. We stop at the Lamar Bridge in Little America and find coyote tracks and a raven, but no otter. We head to Lamar Canyon. Again, no otters but we do find five coyotes drawn by a frozen carcass near the river. They howl a lot and squabble a bit, making us believe we are seeing members of at least two groups. One coyote wisely beds on a snowy ledge to wait until things cool down between factions.
While we watch the coyotes we also observe strange human behavior by a young couple. They stop their two-door car in the road, on a slope, straddling the yellow line, and abandon it to take photos of the coyotes, despite the fact that there is plenty of room in the plowed pullout where we are, and a second plowed pullout above us. We keep wondering what will happen if the snowplow comes by but they are lucky and get back in before any other car comes. Then they spend a minute or two spinning their wheels on the ice, trying to move forward on the hill. We are about to go over to offer assistance when the wheels catch and off they go.
All this time, the snow continues to fall, gorgeous and soft and powdery. There is no better place to enjoy a snowstorm than the Northern Range.
We head further east and stop at Picnic. Chloe and I walk to the river's edge but still find no otters. As the blizzard increases we abandon our plans to check the confluence and start for home. We all feel it is better not to find ourselves in the dark in these conditions.
As we caravan west we encounter near white-out conditions but then after a few miles it starts to look clearer. Then after another mile the snow descends again. As we pass Aspen I see a beautiful sight - a dozen or so bison with snow on their backs walking in stately single-file past the aspen trunks.
At Tower, the snow clears enough for me to watch a gorgeous bull elk walk majestically up the hill west of the Ranger Station, through very deep snow. What a beauty!
Around Hellroaring the snow becomes icy and begins to build up on the wipers. We stop and Chloe brings out a spray de-icer that works really well. The beauty around us is astonishing. All the trees are covered in snow, flocked - they line both sides of the road and close in on you like stately columns in a cathedral. It has the same serenity and awe-inducing feeling as a church.
At Lava Creek we stop for a bit while a tow truck and a lights-flashing ranger help out a great big Suburban which has run off the road. Nobody hurt, thank goodness.
We finally arrive in Mammoth and find the snow has stopped. We see elk cows and calves foraging in the bowls on the hillsides above the high bridge. It's only 5:15 and our dinner reservations are not until 7:45 so we head down to our motel in Gardiner, where we stop for some mule deer crossing the road.
We end the evening with a nice dinner and even better conversation in the Mammoth Dining room, then head once more down Gardiner Canyon to our beds. Merry Christmas to all!
Today I saw: Bison, 12 coyotes, mule deer, elk, magpies and ravens, 17 wolves (including 16 Druids plus the Dark Gray Suitor) 2 Loons and the spirit of Allison.