I wake up refreshed and feeling free of the bug I had, fully ready for today's adventure.
When I get outside I find about three inches of heavy snow on my car. So everything is toasty warm inside by the time I finish brushing it all off.
Laurie pulls out ahead of me, making tracks for me to follow, and Rick M radios that beyond the entrance gate the road is fully plowed.
It's 32 degrees at Round Prairrie and still snowing. It's also still dark, but the road is fine.
We stop at Footbridge but there is limited visability. I can see the line of the river but the hills beyond are shrouded in fog. And there are no signals here anyway.
My next stop is at Dorothy's. Apparently there are Mollie signals coming from the Amethyst area. Visibility is not good and won't be for a while yet.
I hear Calvin's voice over the radio. He and Lynnette are west of the Tower ranger station. They have the Junction Pack in view at Junction Lake. I decide to head that way while Rick & Laurie remain at Dorothy's.
I see a few bison and elk on my way and find a spot to park. How nice to see my old friends again! Lynette shows me the spot and soon I am looking at several wolves through my scope.
Annie W is here, too, as well as my friend Sian from England and a couple I met last year at Laurie's, Joyce and Kim. We are careful to leave room for others to park because it looks like this sighting may last a while.
I see 7 wolves, 4 black and 3 gray. One of the grays is very light. The pack has a carcass, but as usual, it is out of sight in a gully. They are on the southwest end of Junction Lake, which looks frozen over to me.
There is a good deal of bird activity and I see the familiar head-down tugging activity that tells me they are feeding on something. The pack behaves as though they are quite happy and well-bonded. To my delight, they soon begin to howl!
Oh, what a lovely sound, especially on a chilly morning.
Several members of this pack suffer from mange. Two pups, one black and one gray, have it so bad that their tails are bare, like pencils, like the poor Druid females did in 2009. Another larger black wolf has lost its hair in various spots, making it look a little like a poorly trimmed poodle. I am reminded of how Druid alpha 480 looked with mange when I last saw him.
This black wolf is being called "Patch".
Several other pack members seem mange-free and healthy. There is one beautiful black with a full, rich coat. And then, there is the alpha male, Puff - who is a mange survivor. He seems healthy and well-furred now, although he does still scratch.
It is still a mystery to me that some wolves manage to overcome the mite, while others succumb. What is being observed in Yellowstone, however is that stress is a major contributor. If a wolf with mange lives with an otherwise healthy pack and is able to feed regularly, it tends to survive.
Given the facts, I am delighted to see that this pack is so playful with each other. It's encouraging to see them romp and play tag.
Laurie and Rick arrive and we show them the spot. Laurie says the fog finally lifted and they saw four Mollie wolves way up on Amethyst, including 824M, a big gray, and 758M, a big black. She thinks they may be out looking for females, in preparation for mating season.
We see many elk in the Junction Lake area, and lots of bison, too. The snow has finally let up and we even manage a brief moment of sun. It's so pleasant to spend time with such a nice, friendly group of regular wolf-watchers. And we make sure any passing visitors willing to stop get to see the New Pack.
Once the wolves bed down, some of us climb the hill to see if we can find the Blacktails, which should be in the area. Not long ago, the Blacktails were a large and aggressive pack, defending territory from Slough Creek to Mammoth. But those days are over as the Blacktails have dwindled this past year.
I decide to try scoping further west, and end up at Hellroaring Overlook, where I run into Betsy. We catch up and she tells me about her latest project. It's about the work of the Civilian's Conservation Corp in the west, a New Deal project created by Franklin Roosevelt in the late 30's. I tell her my father worked for that agency in Ohio in his 20's before he joined the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I look forward to seeing her results.
We scope the gorgeous landscape and find elk and bison and a golden eagle, but no wolves.
Around noon I head back to the spot where I saw the New Pack, and I get there just in time! The wolves begin to get up and then they have a rally, followed by another lovely group howl. It always makes me smile to hear the very high voices of pups.
My count has risen to 11. Laurie does her best to help me figure out which individuals I am seeing. The alpha female has a short tail and the gray with the collar is 823F.
First the pack heads west, but then I see they are only circling around Junction Lake and will eventually head to the east. This is a normal route that they take toward the Little America/Slough area. Once the last straggler disappears behind a hill, Calvin says "buffalo ford", so we pack up and head east.
I stop again at Curve lot. Calvin has already found them! I set up quickly and see 8 of the 11 trotting through the bison ford area. Most have their noses to the gound, sniffing a good deal.
They continue east and are soon out of sight. Most likely they will stay in the Lamar River corridor, where there are few spots to see them from the road, even from Boulder Hill.
My next stop is Slough. Several of us haul our scopes out to Bob's Knob and sure enough, we find them again, just above the river flats.
I see a gray stopped near the trunk of a round tree, digging in the dirt below. Boy it is really flying! Near the gray are two blacks and another gray. At first these three move towards the flats, playing a bit and exploring, then they all head back south.
A little later, Sian and Calvin take up positions at Crystal and Aspen, while I join Rick and Laurie near the road in front of the Slough Pullout. It looks like the Junction Pack wants to cross the road to the south.
And sure enough they do. I miss the alphas but see several of the followers, fairly spread out, climbing up west of the Crystal drainage.
Of couse one of them gets stuck on the north side of the road and begins to howl! (this happens a lot!)
A visitor stops by to tell Rick he saw two black wolves in the Lamar a short while ago. Rick's patient questioning eventually establishes that they were somewhat east of the Institute.
Next, our photographer friend, Peter, radios some pertinent information that he noticed a new carcasss in a channel of the Lamar River near Hubbard Hill. I volunteer to head back to Lamar to see what I can see.
I park at Mid Point and walk back to Hubbard Hill. I quickly find that carcass but then Peter tells me of a second carcass further upstream opposite Exclosure hill.
Neither of us really knows if these are new or just uncovered old ones. But they are obvious spots to watch for portential wolf activity.
Peter and his friend climb a hill to the north, giving us each a different angle. I cannot see the far carcass but I do see birds. The near carcass is easier to watch - a wide rib cage is visible but I can't see its head or legs, so I can't guess whether it is elk, bison or deer. I do see abundant pink meat still on the ribs and the birds are pecking away, so it can't be too old, in my opinion.
There could be more meat underneath, in the water, but I can't tell it from here.
So I start to think to myself where are the wolves seen by the visitor earlier today? I start to scan the area, looking for a any likely spot where I've ever seen a wolf before. I notice a bison herd in the old Druid rendezvous, so I scan them, looking for any sign from them that a wolf might be nearby.
In doing so, I notice two black dots in the flats that seem much too small for bison.
I radio Peter and ask him to check out those two dots from his angle. Just as he does, one of the black dots stands up. It's a wolf! They're both wolves! Woo hoo!
At first I think they might be the two black yearlings of the Lamar pack, but when one of them walk a bit to the south, I see it is a large wolf, too large to be one of the yearlings. Its coat is also too black to be either 754 or 755. One of the two has a collar. So I immediately suspect they are Mollies - perhaps the ones Laurie saw this morning on Amethyst.
Peter and I radio our news to Rick. Soon he and Laurie, and several others are headed this way.
It's so much fun to be the one who finds a wolf!
Pretty soon Trash Can hill is full of scopers. Rick confirms they are Mollie wolves and tells me the Junction Pack has bedded out of sight above Crystal. I watch both these wolves get up and walk slowly to the treeline, sniffing and scent marking areas that Laurie is sure the 06 and 755 marked a few days earlier.
Rick tells me that the collared black is 758M, the Mollie that briefly became the alpha male of the Mary Mountain Pack this spring, but later returned to the Mollies. He is very handsome.
I see them moving in between the trunks of the trees but alas, they soon are lost to sight.
So Calvin and Lynette and I scope the carcass from Hubbard Hill, trying to figure out what kind of animal it is. When some ravens fly in, the relative size of the rib cage suggests elk to us. Then two coyotes appear in the flats, and we wonder if they are attracted by a smell, or are just clever enough to recoginize our posture as "carcass watching".
In no time at all, the coyotes arrive and begin to tug and pull at their free meal. They do have to share it with two golden eagles, as well as numerous ravens and magpies.
Next I hear a report that the Junction Pack is up again, moving towards skyline. So I follow Calvin and Lynnette to Lamar Canyon West.
We immediately see a bison herd high on the slope, and I notice that they are all looking intently downhill. Hmmm. I follow their line of their sight and...there are the wolves!
I only see three, two blacks and a gray. They warily skirt the bison herd, and seem not to entertain any dark ideas. I lose them fairly quickly and this angle is fairly narrow, so I follow Calvin again to Crystal.
But we do not find them again.
Calvin and Lynette call it a day and head west while I say goodbye to them and head back east. I pass a lovely silvery coyote on the road just east of Dorothy's. I slow down and he/she graciously leaves the road for me - then once I am past, the coyote moves right back on the road!
I stop again at Trash Can and scan the rendezvous, but see no sign of the Mollies, so I head east at 5:15.
A light rain begins as I head east.
In the straightaway between Moose Meadow and Baronette I slow down, anticipating a sighting of the fox that I often see in this area, but instead I see a little golden-mantled ground squirrel - one of the items on the fox's menu, I bet!
When I get to Laurie's I learn that she saw Mollie wolf 824M as he emerged from a gully opposite Exclosure hill, having likely just fed on that carcass.
During dinner we have the TV on. It looks like Superstorm Sandy is for real and that New York is in for a rough time. I send texts of good wishes to my sister and my office staff, but it's hard not to worry.
Today I saw: bison, 3 coyotes, a bald eagle, 2 golden eagles, elk, a golden-mantled ground squirrel, 13 wolves from two packs (two from the Mollie Pack including 758M) and 11 from the Junction Pack (including Puff, the alpha female, and 823F), and the spirit of Allison.