I am out early today, eager to be back in Lamar. There is a light snow-covering but nothing I can't handle. I'm surprised when I don't find the usual herd of elk in Phantom Lake nor in the Elk Bowl.
At Elk Creek I join Jim and Judy who are already here. They point to wolf tracks all over the area, speculating which packs may have made them. We talk about the chase last Sunday and then they tip me off that the alpha Druids are in Slough Creek. I tell them I am anxious to see them and head off. Just before I reach the Petrified Tree my eye catches something interesting on the left. A wide swath of disturbed snow. Hmm. That sure looks like the work of a herd of running elk. Running from what?
As I make the turn at Tower I see two coyotes on the old Druid kill. First light arrives and bathes Little America in a lavender glow. I pull into Slough and see both Jeff and Rick. Jeff is loading up his camera gear for a jaunt through the snow. Rick heads up Dave's Hill to do telemetry. Jeff says come on and I trudge out with him along the campground road. There are wolf tracks all over the place. We pass a yellow urine stain in the snow, along with a little blood. Jeff says that's significant because it could mean a female wolf in heat. Perhaps even 42 herself.
We walk out a good distance and stop at the end of a bluff. It affords a decent view of the lowlands around Slough Creek. As we set up Jeff fills me in on what I missed yesterday. There was a fair amount of action but only a lucky few saw it. The Druids have two new kills. One here in Slough that we're about to see and another further west in a place called Junction Lake, behind and to the west of Junction Butte. But the really exciting thing was a chase and a kill right at the Petrified Tree road. My eyes go wide and I tell him about the trampled snow I saw. He nods and says that's where they crossed the road. He says both he and Bob were ready to film it but the chase went beyond them and they both missed it. Cliff, however, got the whole thing!
I comment that it seems as though relations between Cliff and the wolf-monitoring folk have undergone a welcome change. I have noticed respect and friendliness between all parties on this trip, which makes me glad. Jeff agrees. Anyway the mystery is which wolves made that kill? Are they a renegade faction of the Druids or a new pack? This seems to be a developing story that will bear watching.
Jeff finds the carcass and thus the wolves, then gives me only minimal directions so I can practice finding it myself. The carcass is a bull elk; his antlers stick up from behind a hill in a way that looks like the animal is not dead but still standing there. I find 42 and 21 and also a vivacious black wolf who keeps close company with them. I wonder if this is the speedster. Jeff says the rest of the Druids are in the Junction Butte area. I do a subdued Druid Dance in honor of finding the alphas so quickly.
After a while they move off the kill and bed down so I scan the rest of the area. I find a small bison herd and watch a coyote walking among them. A second coyote approaches from the opposite side. We hear yip-howls somewhere in front of us. This goes on for quite a while and sounds very defiant to me. I find the little yippers, three of them, bedded in snow about 50 yards from us, muzzles pointed skywards. I want the Druids to howl back at them but they don't.
I find several bull elk in the area and a bald eagle perched on a snag. Jeff spots a grey wolf coming in from the west. The coyotes seem very aware of this wolf but the Druids do not. The grey walks beside the bison herd, drawing their attention, then skirts the alphas by heading up the hill. Eventually the grey vanishes into the trees up there. Since it has a collar we speculate it may be our pretty elk-chaser from Saturday, 218F.
We watch a minor scuffle between 21 and the black but it's just 21 doing the dominance thing. He stands over the black for several seconds, while the black is on its back, legs in the air, its muzzle seeking assurance. Eventually the black is let up and he/she does a lot of tail wagging. Then the three bed down again.
I overhear on Jeff's radio a woman's clear voice making periodic reports about wolf activity in the Tower area. There seems to be a lot going on. Several groups of wolves over there are on the move and it seems her job is to try to sort out how many blacks and how many greys are where doing what. I haven't heard this voice before so I am curious.
Eventually Jeff is asked to move to another spot so we pack up our metal and head back to the cars. Perfect timing as my feet were just starting to go. We head for the Wrecker Pullout. I like this spot as it is well off the road and somewhat protected from the wind. We have good luck here and find wolves almost immediately. Three of them. I see a collared black, which turns out to be 103, a big grey with creamy sides, and another grey, These three move about the hillside in an exploratory way. We see them cavort downhill, then lose them, then see them come out again, heading west. It starts to snow very lightly. Two women from the Institute pull in, the ones I met on Wednesday evening, and I offer them my scope again. They have been having a great deal of fun and we share stories.
I see a group of very nervous elk on the hill across the Yellowstone River and we watch in anticipation as the three wolves had been heading that way. But nothing materializes. We hear howling. I feel it is coming from a high slope behind me, maybe even Romance Ridge. Then it seems the howling is answered further off. At the same time I hear over the radio the woman's voice say "we have howling".
Well, this is an exciting start to the day! I decide to try a few other spotting areas, west of the bridge and just south of the Picnic Area. Richard and Linda join me for a while. Sadly, today is their last day. We hear howling again and watch some elk and a coyote but see no wolves. We head over to Tower and see several cars parked in the road east of the Roosevelt gate. I pick a spot and set up Layla and listen to the conversations trying to gather info. I see a youngish couple with matching scopes. I hear the woman speak into her radio and realize it is her voice I've been hearing. Then I see the bright blue Durango with Colorado plates and put it all together. These are Charles' friends. I walk over to them. "Are you Mark and Carol"? They both turn and smile. "I'm Wendy" I say, and we greet happily.
They fill me in on Charles' travel woes (he didn't get in till this morning) and assure me he will be in the Park very soon. They tell me about the interesting activity this morning on the Petrified Tree kill. There could be a new pack forming and 103 of the Druids is thought to be among them. As they are telling me this, more howling is heard. What a morning for howling it's been! It's really close and oh, so lovely. The Roosevelt-Tower area is so pretty and woodsy and with the light snow falling it adds up to a very intimate setting. I start scoping to try to find the howler.
Sure enough, I soon see movement. Up on the hill towards Rainy Lake where I often see black bears in spring there is a black wolf, muzzle tilted up. I whisper "black wolf". Carol and Mark turn their scopes as do a few others. Soon more wolves appear in this area. A grey, no, two greys, and two more blacks. One of the blacks has a collar and the raccoon-mask of the Druid family. Over Carol's radio I hear Rick confirm that I'm looking at 103.
This is the "new" group of wolves. It's too soon to call it a pack as that designation is more properly given if and when a den site is chosen, pups are born and they are tended to consistently by the same individuals. But group hunting behavior is one indication that they may be moving in that direction. (If I'm wrong about this, please somebody correct me). The wolves move in and out of cover and every ear flick is commented on and appreciated. There is speculation that they may have a kill up there. They move back and forth quite mysteriously among the trees. We hear more howling from the west, which may be from wolves still on the Petrified Tree kill. I don't know what to make of all this howling. I never knew you could hear so much in the middle of the day. I have only heard it at dawn and dusk. I don't know if this is perfectly normal or not. It could be related to the mating season or it could just be that since there are so many wolves in this area they have all the more to say to each other.
When the activity dies down I take a break and drive back west to admire the snowy forest and various groups of bedded-down elk. I have lunch at Lower Hellroaring and then a short snooze. Later I stop just west of the Yellowstone Bridge. The view of the river from here is winter perfection. I set up my scope and scan the hills to the north. Rick pulls in and asks if I have seen the two greys. No, I admit. He kindly fixes my scope on first one, then the other. How in the world he finds these sleeping animals is beyond me. They are totally camouflaged and NOT moving. But I am grateful. Then Rick surprises me by pulling out his tape recorder and asking me to repeat what I saw on Wednesday when 105 was chased by the alphas, the day I got my car stuck. I tell my tale, trying my best to be precise and brief. Rick draws the T-intersection in the snow with his boot and asks me to point out where I saw 105 cross. I do so. He says "thanks". I smile and go back to my scope and then I am rewarded with the sight of a wolf lifting its head, yawning and flicking its ear!
From here I go on to the Wrecker pullout. Mark and Carol are here already, with scopes set up and guess who else? Charles! I give him a big Loon hug. He tells his tale of delayed travel and we stand four abreast with our scopes in the snow and I catch him up on the events of my trip so far. In no time we get howling. Then we start to see movement. So much that I don't know where to watch. There are several Druid wolves here. I count 7 but I'm told there could be as many as 13 out there. The alphas are still bedded in Slough where I left them this morning.
We watch a series of greetings. Then the two separate greys start to come uphill toward the main group. They both stop at a distance and then a single black wolf ventures downhill toward them. This black submits to the larger grey and then two additional blacks approach the same grey in submissive posture. I kept very poor notes on this sighting and there was SO much to watch I can't begin to sort it out.
There are wolves moving up and down and across this hillside for a half-hour. What makes it even more memorable is that it begins to snow heavily and then the wind kicks up. It takes some doing to keep the flakes and crystals from building up on my lens. My scope has a built-in visor which I pull out but the wind blows flakes inside anyway. I toss a wool shirt over the top of it to keep the moisture off, but still have trouble with clouding. The wolves are about a half-mile away and visibility becomes extremely poor. But it never occurs to any of us to quit!
I see 7 Druids plus the two separate greys (who may have been Druids too). The snow comes down thicker and the action continues in white-out. So we talk and joke, knowing it will eventually let up. After a while we get a report from Slough that the alphas are up and headed west. This gets us excited as they are most likely coming here to rejoin the pack. We have a good chance of seeing the greeting that will surely occur.
While we wait in anticipation of this, we hear Jeff's enthusiastic reporting from Tower, that "his wolves" are also on the move. There is speculation that "Jeff's wolves" (aka the burnt tree group), the ones that made the Petrified Tree kill, are working out their group dynamics. Well, I suppose the wolves themselves understand their group dynamics perfectly already, but Rick and his crew have not yet figured out how to describe it to us yet! There is speculation that two female wolves are vying for the attention of the Big Grey male (whom we all assume is the alpha). One of these we call the "dominant black" and the other is... 103. Jeff is excited to report that there are lots of elk in the area. He's always eager to film a chase.
From our vantage point at the Wrecker pullout we happily witness the arrival of 21 and 42 and the huge greeting pile of furiously wagging tails. However we see it through a thick white veil as the snow falls heavier than ever. The wolves become grey phantoms, fading in and out and I feel as though I am looking through glass at a living museum display, watching a timeless world, wild and wonderful.
The re-united Druids, 11 strong, set off west and all too soon we lose them behind the hills and trees. We dry off our scopes and re-pack them in our cars and head to Tower. I find Jeff in a high state of excitement. Apparently "his wolves" traveled behind the Ranger station up to a hillside above the Petrified Tree, a place I now call Jeff's Hill. He got his chase after all. They came straight down the hillside. The kill itself unfortunately happened behind a rise but he is jazzed by it nonetheless. Everyone is surprised to see a kill so soon after and so close to the one from last night. I listen as he tells me of the chase and points out the location of the kill. I can see the torn-up snow where the elk poured down the slope. And I can see three wolves up there, a grey and two blacks.
I stay and hear other tales from Jeff, that Rick hiked up the Dunraven Road and found a carcass up there, too. He believes one of those wolves, a collared grey, is 113, a Chief Joseph wolf. Rick reported that this grey and another one were last seen heading east. The snow is still falling and the overcast sky brings dusk sooner than usual. We hear more howling from the hilltop and watch some elk moving warily. I watch three wolves crest the hill and disappear down the other side. It will soon be too difficult to see. So I bid Jeff goodnight and head for home.
I stop in at Elk Creek where I find Mark and Carol and Charles about to call it a night, too. They came straight here and eventually witnessed the Druids' arrival at Junction Lake. We have plans for dinner together at Mammoth and soon are on our way.
After showers we have a wonderful meal in the Dining Room. Charles shows me some photos of 224 that he took last year and we talk of the trip when he first met Carol and Mark. I learn a bit about the "real " lives of this bright young couple and Charles and I have fun describing to them the various personalities on the Page. We comment on the amazing amount of wolf activity we saw today, so much that none of us actually got out to Lamar Valley at all.
Even wonderful days come to an end and we finally head for our beds. Sleep is needed and welcome because tomorrow we'll do it all again!
Today I saw: 18 wolves including two separate greys, 103F, 21M and 42F; bison, coyotes, elk, a bald eagle, a golden eagle, magpies and ravens