Well, I start the day by mistaking the time on my alarm clock and accidentally wake Becky & Choe two hours early! Becky goes back to sleep but Chloe gets up, not wanting me to feel too bad (!)
I offer to cook eggs for breakfast but we settle on toast & muffins. I use the extra time to check and re-check my lists.
It's now 9:30. Chloe and Becky are behind me, as we drive away from Bozeman to the east. They know I prefer Trail Creek over the highway and since they have never taken this route, they ask me to introduce them to it.
And I am happy to do so!
The temperature gauge reads 26. There is a fair amount of snow still on the ground from the 3-4 inches that fell on the morning of 12/21. Cold temperatures since then have kept most of it intact. So the landscape is winter-pretty.
And a good deal of snow remains on the road, which helps smooth out the bumpy parts. Chloe and Becky quickly see why I like this route; the scenery is gorgeous!
The sky is bright above us and we make good time, reaching the Park at 11:30. Fittingly, a few elk cross the road between the Arch and the Gate. And there are more elk near the Rescue Creek lot. They all look quite healthy. Last winter's record snowfall led to a record amount of water, and the park stayed green longer than usual. And this winter has not yet been very taxing on them.
We stop at the big lot opposite Mammoth campground to have my visit with Allison. Becky and Chloe join me: they knew Allison, too.
Although the winter has been mild so far, Mammoth itself seems to have more snow than usual. I find it beautiful, anyway.
We head on towards the Blacktail Plateau, Here we find much lower levels of snow than in past years, but boy is it gorgeous anyway. Just after we pass the Nature Trail pullout, Chloe sees a gray canid going over the hill on the south side of the road. I don't see it myself but she is pretty sure it is a wolf.
We stop and look, hoping it will come back into view but it doesn't.
So we continue eastward. Floating Island Lake is frozen and snow-covered, but unlike the unbroken snowscape I remember from April, its circumference is clearly outlined by dry grass and bisected by several sets of tracks.
The sky is blue above, not the royal blue of summer, but more pale, with a few clouds here and there. Overall, it's a wonderful day.
We remain wolfless all the way through Tower and into Little America. We find Rick M and Kathie L at Crystal pullout so we stop and chat with them. Apparently, the Mollie pack, whose members have been visiting the Lamar Valley for the past several days,were seen on the north side of the road earlier today. But alas for us, they have already moved west into "the trough", an area of sage and hills that is famous for swallowing wolves, hiding them from wolf-watchers' eager eyes. But Rick encourages us to head to the Institute, because the Lamar Canyon Pack is likely still visible from there.
As we pass the Lamar bridge I note that a great deal of progress has been made on the new construction.
We have bison in the road just above Fisherman's pullout and many cars are stopped for photos. I get through them easy-peasy, and chuckle to myself as I remember how afraid of them I used to be. Of course, having a large car this time really helps!
Lamar Valley looks quite beautiful in its light-winter outfit. We see bison in the flats and two coyotes mousing, just past Dorothy's; one of them is large and rough-looking; the other dainty and graceful. We see the lot across from the Institute is full of cars and scoping visitors, so we pull into the driveway and stop next to the barn. And by 1:30PM, I am looking at my first wolf!
At the moment I can only see three wolf backs and a few sets of ears but we know the whole Lamar Canyon pack is here, bedded on the slopes to the northeast, behind the Institute. Kathie and Rick join us and we chat. Soon one of the sets of ears becomes a whole wolf; it's one of the black pups (there are three total at the moment). Oh good, I think to myself, maybe this pup will start to rouse the others.
But the pup simply re-beds. While we wait for these sleeping dogs to finish their rest, we chat and catch up with each other. I tell Rick my concerns about the upcoming movie "The Grey" which features vilainous wolves that behave unlike any we have ever observed. I hand him a copy of the screenplay to read when he has time.
We talk about the Lamars and the Mollies and whether the two groups will be able to avoid each other in the coming days. We all know the 06 is a smart cookie but I can't help being a little worried for her smaller pack. The Mollies are notorious for attacking other wolves. And at 19 strong, they have the advantage over any other pack in the area.
After about an hour or so, some of the pups do get up and start to moving around in that restless way they have. I call one of the pups the "troublemaker" because it is the most rambunctious. This wolf moves downhill to uncle 754 and sidles up to him, rubbing his muzzle and wagging his tail. 754 is not in the mood at the moment. He moves away and re-beds.
A bit more time passes and then I notice two gray pups are up. They begin to play, with one lying on his belly with legs in the air, the other on top of him. One by one they rouse the others and finally we have a full count of 11: five blacks and six grays. Then several of the grays move to the east and slightly downhill. They stop and look to the south rather intently.
Next thing I know the whole pack is on the move, romping downhill towards the road, with the powdery snow spraying here and there. At one moment I have 7 of them in my scope all at once, through gorgous slanted winter light.
It looks to me like they intend to cross the road. We wait a bit for them to get a head start, then pack up and begin to drive east. We see a mob scene up ahead at the YES pullout and a ranger is here already, trying to keep cars from blocking the animals' path. Once they are across, we drive further east. We see Bob L already set up on Hubbard Hill with his camera.
We pull in at Mid Point and haul our scopes up the hill to join him. Also on the hill are Mike and Karen from the UK, whom I last saw in 2009 when the Druids were still alive. They help me find the five adults that crossed. They are on the far bank of the river in the flats below Amethyst Bench, some sniffing around, some bedded. But still on the north side of the road are the five pups and one yearling. We can see them on a hillside east of the crowd in the YES pullout and west of us, with plenty of crossing room in between.
The pup group begins to howl and the adults respond. This goes on, back and forth, for the next hour and it's wonderful to have such music in surround-sound. I especially like it since I heard very little howling on my November trip.
The adults move back west a few hundred yards and the pups move higher on the hill to the north. We lose them for a while but when they begin howling again they are a good bit closer to us. Yet this puts them further from the adults.
The adults seem to give up and turn back south. They begin to climb the steep, snowy hill up to the bench. They follow a switch-back trail through deep snow, starkly visible in an evenly spaced line. They top out and the 06 leads them across the bench to the west.
Mike calls out that he sees a gray in the flats just below us! Aha! One of the "lost children" has crossed the road! We haven't heard any howling for about 10 minutes so we figure the pups were moving downhill instead.
I turn away from the adults and look to the north. And sure enough, I find four pups sneaking down the slope, through the sage, staying mostly out of sight. I catch glimpses of a wolf back or a tail or a set of ears as they move closer and closer to the road. At the moment, there are no cars coming so, I hope they do not lose heart!
Then I see wolves on the road, two, three, four!
And finally I see the last one, a gray, backtracking as if he/she is still hesitant. But I suppose the peer pressure wins in the end and at last this delinquent gray takes a chance and bolts across the pavement!
I switch back to the flats. There is the first gray, far ahead of the others, almost at the river. Behind her are three, four, now five pups, three black and two gray, running very fast, following the leader to the river.
But the adults are already on the bench, trotting in a line to the west. Do they know the pups are coming? Will they be ships passing in the night? The pups are now across the river, noses down, scent trailing their family as fast as they can go.
Suddenly I see the adults turn and rush as a group to the edge of the bench, tails high in excitement. They stare at the animals in the flats!
The adults stop at the very edge of the high slope, some sit on their haunches, some on all fours, staring at the wolves far below them. I expect the adults to behave as human adults might, arms folded, tapping their toes with impatience at their naughty children.
I expect them to wait while the pup group climbs the hill they just climbed. But no. They suddenly go plunging back down, sending the thick snow flying. It's hard to tell whether they are in battle-mode or greeting-mode.
The pups finally see the adults coming towards them. Their tails go up and the two groups rush together.
They meet in a huge pile, 11 wolves in love with one another. They jump, body-slam, lick and nuzzle each other. It is so heart-warming to see. It's looks as if the two groups had been parted for weeks, but in reality it has been only a little over an hour!
Wouldn't it be lovely if humans were always as affectionate?
After several minutes of this lovely bonding ritual, the 06 seems to say to the group: Ok, everybody listening? Good, because NOW we are going hunting!
She heads up the hill she already climbed once, with the full pack behind her in dutiful procession. They move as a unit, up the steep switchback trail. The sun is beginning to wester but we linger a while, watching them move across the wide snow-slope, pausing, sniffing, looking for elk. When they go out of sight we reluctantly pack up our scopes and walk back down the hill to our cars.
What a nice sighting to have on the first day of our visit!
We drive the lovely road to Silver Gate, enjoying the sights and the snowscapes. And we have a lovely Christmas evening in Laurie's snug home, with home-made chili and cookies and tea.
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, deer, elk, 7 wolf-watchers, 11 wolves (including the whole Lamar Canyon Pack) and the spirit of Allison.