I sweep another couple of inches of snow off the car this morning and it's still falling. A brisk wind blows.
Oh, I can't help but be worried about the Druids, with those other wolves still in the area. I wonder if 480 has it in him to mount an attack on them, or if his pack has the will or the strength to follow his leadership? Rick has told me tales of 480's skill in battle, but he was healthy then, and had an alpha female at his side.
We gather at the Footbridge and find limited visibility yet again. There are signals from the den area, however, just nothing in sight. Then we hear a lone voice howling from the DPH area. It is followed by lone voice from the den area. This back and forth goes on for about a hour but no wolves appear. I am happy anyway, though, because I finally hear wolf howling for the first time on this trip.
Someone spots a grizzly in the rendezvous and several people head west to watch it. I am nervous about leaving the Footbridge area unattended, but the couple from Utah with the camper volunteer to stay. They have a radio and promise to report any sightings.
I stop at HP and find the bear in the rendezvous. I believe this might be the same bear I saw last night. He is roaming in the high grass and sage. I also scope to the south, in case one Druid or another decides to show itself. Rick calls from Confluence to report a second grizzly - this one on a carcass! I head down there. The bear is feeding on something about half-way up the western shoulder of Mt. Norris, above the Cache Creek Trail.
I can see it's back and occasionally its head. After a few minutes the bear begins to cover the carcass, a sign that he is through eating. There are three coyotes sitting on their haunches nearby, and a golden eagle perched in a nearby tree, impatiently waiting their turn. I assume this carcass was taken by 697's group sometime last night or earlier this morning.
As far as I know, no one saw any wolves on it.
The grizzly leaves, heading east towards DP and the coyotes charge in. They squabble a bit and quite a few birds rise in a black cloud, then settle again. I look over at the rendezvous and see the other grizzly, still prowling, looking for scraps, gophers or old bones. Two coyotes trail him, smart critters that they are, happy to feast on whatever the grizzly finds.
The blonde grass is so tall, the grizzly is sometimes completely hidden.
We get a report that Agate signals are coming from the top of Specimen ridge, so I decide to try my wolf luck in the west. The snow had let up for a while, but falls more heavily again. It's not too cold, only 28, but the visibility is dreadful.
Nevertheless, the day is still young. I hook up with Calvin and Colleen at Boulder and learn that the Agate signals have been lost, but that Kira got Blacktail signals in the area of Junction Butte. We laugh that there could be packs of wolves on both sides of us and we'd never know it due to the thick curtain of snow.
Then we hear a choppy call from Footbridge, so we know something is happening back there. We try several ways to get a clear signal, but there are just too many mountains in the way. I volunteer to head back to Lamar Canyon to relay the message and begin to drive east. But Laurie reminds me that her antenna gives her a broader reach so she heads back east and I turn around. But then I hear a second garbled message from Footbridge so I am torn about which way to go.
In the end, I choose to return to Calvin and Colleen at Boulder, and boy was that the right decision!
No sooner do I get here than the snow begins to taper off, then cease altogether. It's as if a curtain was suddenly drawn back on a stage. I see wolves - LOTS of wolves! On the east-facing slope of Junction Butte I see six gorgeous fluffy wolves - 3 black and 3 gray. The Blacktails!
Four of them pose like Rin Tin Tin with their front paws on snow-topped boulders. The other two stand behind them. They look right at us, only about a football field away! I call to Laurie on the radio "come back!" I urge.
And then they howl. A glorious, deep throated, life-is-wonderful group howl that goes on and on and on. I see the gorgeous alphas, Big Brown and beautiful gray 693F, plus Medium Gray (M), Small blaze (M), black-going-gray 692 and still very black 642F.
They continue to pose like Hollywood wolves so I lunge inside my car and grab my camera, only to discover it has frozen up. What a perfect sighting this is, and my camera is useless! Ah well. I just watch them, then! Searing this picture in my memory. Once the howl ends, they move as a group through the sage slightly north toward the river. Then they gather for a high-tailed rally with lots of wagging and nuzzling.
To my great delight, Laurie gets here in time to see them. Then suddenly we hear more howling - and the voices come from further north. Another layer of the snow-curtain lifts to reveal five more wolves - the Blacktail pups! They are perched on the side of the hill, four on their haunches and one standing broadside. Four blacks and a gray, looking awfully full grown to me. They look like they have been placed on the hill by a studio photographer. They raise their muzzles and howl, too, and the higher pitch of their voices makes me smile.
The adults run towards them and drop behind a ridge. Now the pups see them and begin to run, tails raised high in excitement. Oh how I wish I could have seen the reunion but alas I have to imagine it as they all disappear behind a hill. They appear once more for a brief time running towards the northwest around the back of Junction Butte. It's a good bet they will head toward the Buffalo Ford of the Yellowstone.
I can't resist trying for another view of these wolves so I drive towards Wrecker along with several other folk. Wow, there are many, many elk on Junction Butte, all over it. Hundreds of cows and calves and at least three bulls, maybe more. I roll down my window and listen to the bugling.
Although I am still hoping for wolves, I watch the elk behavior. The bulls really keep the cows on the move, no sooner do they get settled than one of the bulls starts pestering them again and soon the whole herd is up and moving. One bull after another does this and the mountainside remains alive with moving elk.
When I hook up with Laurie again I learn that two black wolves have been seen south of Footbridge, both with fluffy tails. I think it's time to get back to the Druids.
As I pass the Institute I hear a report that the Druids are visible north of Footbridge. Druid peak is fogged in but when I arrive at Footbridge the snow has let up again, at least for the time being. I thank Tom and Mary for staying here to report their sightings and then set up Layla in the northeast corner of the lot.
On a rocky knoll, the very same spot where I caught glimpses of the Druid's pups in July, I now find three skinny-tailed wolves; two blacks and one gray. The gray is 691 and she is nuzzling the other two, licking their muzzles and chins repeatedly. When she is not licking them the three wolves stare intently downhill to the east. I am convinced they see other wolves down there, most likely other Druids.
I suppose 691 might be begging food, but to me she looks nervous and seems to be seeking comfort and assurance from her pack mates. Down the hill where the Druids are staring I see another black wolf near the road, looking intently across to the flats to the south. Then someone calls out that a black is running in the flats. I turn my scope south and find a large black wolf running towards the road, having just splashed across the river. It's 480!
Someone else calls that 480 is being chased! My pulse quickens as I scan to the right and see three wolves suddenly run from the treeline - two large blacks and a black-going-gray. Uh oh - it's 697's Group! 480 has a good lead on them so he is not in imminent danger of being caught, but what will happen if those three wolves keep running and cross the road?
But then 697's Group stops at the edge of the river. Whew! They are giving up the chase. 480 reaches the road and crosses to the other side where the other black Druid is waiting. He stops and looks back. 697's Group stands on the low river bank, tails high, looking intently at 480, then they start back for the treeline. I sigh in relief. But 697 changes his mind and suddenly turns again to the north and moves with determination into the river. The other two join him and now all three break into a steady run, tails high as banners.
I quickly glance north to the rocky knoll. 691 is still there, but now only one black is with her. Where did the other one go? Several people begin to walk down the road so they can see around the curve. From this pullout, a good deal of the road and the slope where the Druids like to cross is blocked. It looks like a battle is about to begin so those who want to watch will not see it from here unless they move a ways to the east. There is no mistaking the determination in the gait of the three running wolves. The only thing I can see from here is 480 and one skinny Druid down there, stoically awaiting their fate.
I do NOT go any closer. I don't want to see the beginning of the end of the Druids. 480 and the skinny black now stand on the road itself as the three invaders get closer and closer. Then suddenly I lose track of all of them. In another instant I see wolves running in all directions. Suddenly there are black wolves all over the place. One runs up a hill on the northside to the east, stops and turns to look back. One gallops through the southern flats to the east. One runs straight back south, splashing through the river, heading for Mt. Norris. And I see another wolf running faster than I have ever seen a wolf run, and he's running straight for me!
It's 697 himself, running west with his tail firmly tucked, passing the actual Footbridge and continuing parallel to the river for the entire length of the Footbridge pullout and on toward Hitching Post, never breaking stride or slowing down in the slightest. He runs like the devil is right behind him, although nothing is (!).
I look back toward the curve and see a black come down the hill and join four other blacks in what looks like a victory rally. And here comes 480 loping from the flats on the south side to the north, limping slightly on his front leg. He barely gets across the road when he is joyously mobbed by his family. I can barely believe my eyes. 480 and his Druids have just routed the 697 Group!
I glance up at the knoll. 691 and the black are still there, standing broadside, watching the wolves below with great excitement. I look back south to the flats and find one of the invaders, the uncollared black, slowly climbing the old river bank just below the trees. He stops there and turns, tongue hanging out.
480 now leads his six warriors up the hill towards the knoll. I don't like seeing his limp, but he looks fine otherwise. I can't believe what just happened! The Druids just kicked butt!
The uncollared black howls, calling to his scattered mates. The Druids answer him, in no uncertain terms. The trounced invader howls again, and again the Druids drown him out. Then we hear a lone voice from the east - probably the black that ran towards Soda Butte Cone - is looking for his buddies.
For the next hour there is wonderful howling back and forth. When 480 and his troops reach the rocky knoll I see another enthusiastic rally, all nine Druids jumping on each other in a big dog pile. I am astonished at the outcome, and feel quite a traitor for not believing in the Druids myself.
I recall the stories Rick has told me over the years touting, 480's skills as a general. Well now I've seen them for myself!
We regroup and compare notes, and I get more of the story. No one saw any wolf-to-wolf contact in this skirmish, but when the hidden Druids charged, 697's Group saw their sudden greater numbers and immediately turned tail, scattering in three directions. 480 DID seek out 697 to personally chase and that's why 697 ran so fast and so long! We chuckle because 480 did not actually pursue him very far, yet he set a fear in him that was plain to see!
After about a half hour, 682 appears in the eastern flats and eventually rejoins his uncollared buddy on the hill near the tree line. During all the howling, we never hear a voice from the west so we joke that 697 is half-way to Gardiner and still running.
The Druids finally settle down on the rocky knoll and bed in two groups. It's so nice to see the Druids united again and no longer nervous.
Next someone calls out "grizzly" and sure enough, there is a bear visible to the east in the flats, nosing around, looking for tidbits. It's likely the same bear that was on the shoulder of Mt. Norris this morning.
The two invader wolves stand close together, looking back towards the Druids, as if comforting each other. They continue to howl hoarsely for 697 but he does not answer. While they are within easy scoping range I notice their physical characteristics. 682 is the larger of the two and has a very black body except for his face. His cheeks, chin and throat are white. The uncollared black has some tawny coloring on his sides. But they don't stay in view very long and I watch them turn and disappear into the forest.
The bear wanders closer and closer to the road, then a car drives down and stops (probably for a photo) and the bear spooks and gallops back to the south! Cracks in the overcast appear and the sun struggles to peek out. But I don't think we are finished with snow quite yet.
It's now 4PM and things have calmed down. The Druids have moved to the back of the knoll and only a few are visible. I keep thinking I hear howling to the south. 690 comes out on the knoll and sits by herself on the apex. I still think I hear faint howling behind me.
Then some other visitors arrive and we tell them the events of the day, to their astonishment. People love hearing about it and two local guys say they had no idea wolves fought each other. The bear is still out so there is a lot to see, even if the main excitement is past. I see movement in the flats and find two coyotes.
One stops beneath a tree and waits for the second one to join him. Then they move west together through the flats. One of the visitors mentions to me that he's not yet seen any bighorns and I tell him I've seen some up on Norris on occasion. He turns his scope up there while I go back to watching my coyotes. Then he says "there are two wolves up there!" I swing Layla to the skyline and sure enough I see them too!
Just below skyline on Mt. Norris two black wolves are climbing a snowy slope. It's 682 and the uncollared black. You can actually see them with your naked eye because of the contrast. Eventually they reach the actual skyline and walk along it, silhouetted perfectly against the overcast skydrop, gving everyone in the pullout a thrill. What a wonderful way to see your first wolf!
We watch them move downslope into yellow grass and head further south until they finally go out of sight. It was probably those two who I heard howling as they climbed up to the top. As I scan the skyline for the wolves to re-appear I find a herd of elk. They seem tightly bunched toward the cliff edge - perhaps due to the passing of the two wolves. One bull elk faces east, right at the edge. He lowers his head and looks for all the world as if he is thinking about jumping (!)
Rick and Laurie move down to the Confluence to see if the two blacks go to the carcass on the shoulder of Mt. Norris that he found this AM. If they do, it will be an indication that they made the kill. But they do not show up there.
The light begins to fade and it is very hard to see 690 on her perch atop the knoll. One of the coyotes remains in the flats, mousing. The sky begins to turn pink in a sort of pre-sunset.
I reflect on how the day started, with no wolves and no visibility. Oh boy, that sure turned around!
One by one we begin to call it a night. I stay till about 6:15 then drive east. I'm glad I stayed because I see a moose on my way back, my first of this trip. The moon finds a crack in the overcast and turns the mountain snow to silver. And as I reach Silver Gate, the friendly neighborhood bison decides to cross the road in front of me.
I stop and wave him on.
TODAY I SAW: 2 grizzly bears, many bison, 8 coyotes, 1 golden eagle, many elk, 1 moose, 23 wolves from three separate packs: 11 Blacktails (including Big Brown, Medium Brown, Small Blaze, 692F, 693F and 642F, plus 5 pups; 697's Group (697M, 682M and the uncollared black); 9 Druids, including 480M, 690F, 691F, Triangle Blaze, the Thin Female and 4 other blacks), and the spirit of Allison