My day begins with a quiet snowfall. It's always a White Christmas in Bozeman!
At about 10AM the roads are dry and the sky is gray - it looks like more snow is on the way. But it feels much warmer today, and it is: the gauge in my Toyota Rav4 reads "21". Although I still prefer a Subaru Outback, the Rav4 is a worthy substitute.
Trail Creek road is quiet and lovely as always. A hawk flaps overhead and I see some mulies feeding up near the tree line to the south.
The sun comes out as I reach Yankee Jim Canyon and stays out all the way to Gardiner. I stop to check into the Super 8, learning that Becky and Chloe arrived here last night as planned. We are trying this motel because the Yellowstone Village Inn is not open this year.
At 12:45 I drive through the Arch. There is hardly any snow here and it worries me. But the elk don't seem to mind - I see many small bands on the high slopes to the north as I wind up Gardiner Canyon. I spend some time visiting with the spirit of my friend Allison, gazing up at Kite Hill, where there is some snow, and see some elk up there, too.
Now I proceed east, towards Lamar. I notice lots of tracks in the snow all the way through Blacktail and wonder if they are elk or bison. Then at Lower Hellroaring, I pass Rick and Chloe & Becky heading west so I turn around and follow them to Hellroaring Overlook.
Apparently it's been a slow morning so far mostly due to poor visibility. They saw only one Mollie wolf, far away on Specimen Ridge, from a pullout in Little America. But that luck is about to change.
I set up Layla next to Richard from Utah, and thanks to his helpful directions I find the carcass that he has been watching. A large black wolf is moving away from it - none other than 480M, the alpha male of the Druids. He becomes my first wolf of the day. Poor 480 still sports his unusual "poodle cut" which is how his coat appears due to the mange he has. But I am happy to see him, especially to see him round-bellied.
There are other Druid wolves in the vicinity, but we are not sure this is their carcass. The Lava Creek Pack is also in the area so Rick suggests we keep our eyes peeled for them.
Eventually I see other Druids - the gray female 691F, and a new black male who has been hanging out with the Druid females, but keeping his distance from 480. He is easily distinguished by his healthy coat and full tail, something the rest of the Druids sadly lack at the moment. The "New Black Male" seems full of piss and vinegar, but he strikes me as neither very "smart" or very threatening so most likely he is a young wolf.
A while later I find a black wolf bedded in yellow grass below a conifer which turns out to be Dull Bar, and two more black Druid females (but my notes are not clear on which wolves these other two were).
For a while, there is little activity, but people keep coming and going and we do our best to help any arriving visitor see his or her first wolf. Two of those arrivals are old friends, Brian C and Loon Frank Auwingwalker. Frank has just come from a snowshoe hike. From this high spot we also see bison and elk, as well as a lone coyote and a bald eagle in a tree, waiting for his turn at the carcass.
Then Chloe calls out that she sees a running wolf. This quickly turns into three running wolves, moving quickly to the northeast, above the area where the Druids are. These three are the Lava Creek Group, a recently formed (and named) group of three wolves, consisting of two former Agate females (light-gray 471F, her gray sister/niece called "the 06 female") and a black that was collared in Montana, 147M.
They have been hunting together for many weeks, ranging from Mammoth to Slough Creek. Since they have not yet raised pups together, I am loathe to call them a Pack (and I find it peculiar for the Wolf Project to do so) but for consistency's sake I will refer to them as the Lava Creek Group or LCG.
As I watch 471, I remember seeing her so often while watching the Agate Pack up on Dunraven in years past. She is a very light gray with a nearly white face. The 06 is a gorgeous wolf, too, with more classic gray coloring. She is quite a character - last mating season she was very popular with all the bachelor males in the area. 302 found her quickly, although they did not stay together.
Eventually we lose the Lava Creeks, but then Rick spots the Mollies way over on Specimen. I swing Layla's great eye in that direction and soon I am thrilled to see all 15 of them, on a high, windswept white hill, moving in a line. They are far, far away and mere dots, but are easy to count. Then some of them break the line and begin to romp. It looks to me like the beginning of a chase. There are two groups of elk on the hill above the wolves - one to the north and one the west, and the wolves seem to have a dispute as to which group to target. Then some begin to run downhill toward some trees. Perhaps there are more elk in there?
Next we see them come out again on the bare hill for a rally. They are too far away for us to hear their howls but we do see two especially large black wolves in this group. Rick tells us one of the Mollies weighed in at an amazing 143 pounds, making him the heaviest known wolf in the Park at the moment. He also tells us their alpha female is a gray, and I soon see her, ahead of the others, doing her job, scouting out the elk.
But from this angle, it looks like the Mollies are more interested in playing and romping than hunting. Eventually the alpha female disappears over the ridge heading north and one by one they follow her, in groups of twos and threes.
Chloe, Becky and I decide to drive east while we still have light. We find bison in Yancy's Hole and I catch a glimpse of the brand new bathroom at Tower Junction! But we have reservations for dinner at the Mammoth Dining room so we head back west.
The sun has begun to turn the mountains a gorgeous peach color. As we near Elk Creek we see cars stopped ahead - some people from New Hampshire have gone off the road on the south side. We stop, along with several others and do what we can to help. The people inside are fine, just shocked at how quickly it happened and how embarassed and worried they are. I tell them I know how they feel!
Their car is a four-door sedan, tilted a bit to the passenger side, stuck in about a foot of snow about 3 feet from the pavement. One couple helps them attach chains; another couple in a truck is already getting out a tow rope. I use my snowshoes to shovel snow away from their tires. There is a culvert about 20 feet to the east, which prompts a discussion about whether to tow them toward it (downhill) or away from it (uphill). Downhill wins.
Becky and I are about to suggest that Chloe get behind the wheel but someone else has already volunteered. The rest of us gather behind the sedan to push. I am very skeptical this will work, but it does! We cheer and high-five each other, and especially congratulate the truck guy.
The New Hampshire folk are SO grateful and it nearly makes me weep, seeing how this is Christmas, after all. Once they are safely on their way, the rest of us head west again, and we get some light fog here and there, making pretty landscape views.
In Mammoth we have time to visit the hotel gift shop and then take photos of ourselves in front of the beautiful Christmas Tree. Then I happily run into Loon Mark R at the front desk and we have a quick catch up chat. We have a delicious buffet dinner in the tastefully decorated Dining Room. I find the quality of the food vastly improved over last year.
We then bundle back up and head into the cold for our drive down Gardiner Canyon and into our snug rooms for a well-earned rest. Merry Christmas to all!
Today I saw: bison, 1 coyote, mule deer, a bald eagle, elk, a hawk, 24 wolves in 3 packs (6 Druids including 480M, 691F, Dull Bar, the New Black Male and two other blacks; 3 Lava Creeks including 147M, 471F and the 06F; and 15 Mollies), two Loons and the spirit of Allison