DAY SEVEN - Saturday, December 31


COUNTING CANYONS

We wake up to colder temperatures and another inch or two of snow overnight.

As we drive towards the gate, some mulies cross the road ahead of us.

Unlike yesterday, the sky seems quite light this morning. Which bodes well. However, there is a layer of ice under the snow, from last night's rain. I find it a bit slippery in spots.

Yes, it is MUCH colder today; my car temp reads 16. When we make the turn just before the Mammoth hotel we find the west bound land not yet plowed. And the snow is deeper here - about 3-4 inches of powder, with ice underneath.

But Chloe is good at breaking trail, so we just take our time. The usual group gathers at the Nature Trail as we wait for daylight: Calvin and Lynette, Richard, Steve and Marilyn, Chloe & Becky and me.

Again the wind is blowing fiercely. But we do not suffer long. Lynette gets a call from Laurie, who has heard from Bob L. The Canyons have a carcass not 30 feet from the road.

Well, we must have missed it in the dark!

We head back. Becky finds a lone coyote crossing the flats as we pass Blacktail Lakes. With only one lane plowed, it's a little tricky to drive so I slow down and fall behind. But I do arrive in time to see them. The carcass is in the area called "Chinese Gardens" which is just west of the Boiling River lot.

It's right at the far side of the river, fully visible from the road. Lucky for us, there are flat pullouts on both sides of the road and plenty of room.

There is a stretch of open flats between the river and a jumble of willows at the base of the hillside.

I see several wolves already bedded on the wind-swept snowy hill to the south. While I'm here I can ID six individuals, three blacks and three grays.

The blacks are alpha male 712 (looking a bit grayer than I saw him last), a female yearling and a pup. the three grays are the distinctive white alpha female, a gray yearling and a gray pup.

The carcass looks to be an adult elk. There are four coyotes near it, interacting with each other. One is big and scruffy, two very small and delicate, and one seems "normal" sized. They seem familiar with each other, but not 100% friendly. The normal-sized one adopts the open-mouthed, hunched-back posture of aggression towards one of the others.

I also see a bald eagle in a tree, and dozens of ravens, crows and magpies.

When I first get here, 712, a gray pup and a black pup are still climbing the hill to join the others. I see the white alpha female and the gray yearling interacting in a very affectionate way up on the hill. She rubs her muzzle is the snow, cleaning off the blood.

After about 15 minutes, the wolves get up and meander to the left, out of sight. Shortly after this, Laurie tells me Kathie has found a place where they can still be seen, so I follow her.

Our group re-assembles in a large pullout about a quarter mile west. From here we have a great view of the Canyon pack on a hilltop, higher than the one where we first saw them.

Although there is little action, it is a very nice way to study the individuals, which we love to do. I notice that the alpha female does have some mange. She scratches a good deal, but all in all it doesn't look too bad.

We witness an unexpected moment when both pups (one black and one gray) come up to her and solicit a meal, licking her muzzle. She surprises us by accomodating them, she lowers her head and regurgitates a bit of food for them. The pups are 8-9 months old! But she's a caring mom and I guess she just can't help herself!

Later in the day, when most of the wolves are asleep we are surprised to see a coyote trot past them on the hill. Perhaps the perspective makes him look closer than he is, but he keeps going and doesn't dawdle. We also hear a gray jay calling in the tree and finally find it just across the river.

As happy as we are to see the Canyons so close, we are troubled that we only see one black pup and one gray yearling. There should be two of each. It's possible the yearling chose to disperse, but the pup should still be with the pack. We know the Blacktails and the Canyons were close to each other recently. It's possible they killed the other black pup.

When the black yearling and the pup are near each other, the differences between the two are striking. We call the pup Big Dot and the yearling Little Dot. The pup is built like a tank, compact and sturdy, with a thick ruff on its neck and shorter legs, while the yearling is long and lean.

I also learn by watching them that the gray pup is a female and the gray yearling is a male. I get a kick out of remembering the first time I saw these pups in Hayden Valley in July. I watched one black and this gray take a half-hour walkabout in the sage away from their rendezvous area. That was a brave thing to do for a female pup, so it makes me all the more tickled to see her.

Today is Becky & Chloe's last full day in the park so once the wolves have bedded again, we go back east for a last drive. The plow has been through and the sun is out, making everything look spectacular. The sunlight on North Butte is particularly gorgeous.

As we near the S curves, we see two people running in the road with cameras. On the hill above them I see a canid. I think a coyote but, with no one behind me, I stop. I raise my binocs and confirm it's a wolf. A gray.

Chloe and I think it is the same gray male yearling that was so submissive to Big Blaze the other day. He moves across the slope, looking back every once in a while, then disappears to the southeast.

We stop at the Nature Trail to try to find him again, then back to S curves. But we do not see him again. We head on east through the beauty.

The flocked trees are so gorgeous. Druid Peak looms ahead like a beacon. The gorgeous high hills in Lamar are freshly covered with snow, sporting so many textures and shadows.

It's just so beautiful!

Just yesterday I drove through here in cold, driving rain, so it is a real treat to see it so lovely. The river is golden in the westering sun, with dippers here and there. We still find no otters, though, and turn around at the Footbridge.

As we drive back east, the flanks of Druid Peak offer a stunning last view. Two high ridges, one behind the other, are lined with conifers, jutting up above the skyline. Those conifers are covered with rime-frost and the sun lights them from behind, tipping them irridescent white against the slate-gray sky.

We get a few bison in the road, including a fat little calf and his mom.

We all hate to leave, it's so gorgeous.

When we get back to Chinese Gardens, we learn that the alpha female came down to feed again, despite the presence of so many cars and people. She did not stay long before retreating to the willows. Then 712 and the two yearlings came down. They hung out in the willows a while, then made it just to the water's edge but turned back.

The whole group has gone back up the hill. We arrive in time for a glimpse of 712 and the gray yearling as they head over the top.

There is a special treat for many of us tonight. Colleen and Des have invited a group of us to her home outside Gardiner for an early New Year's Eve party. Becky & Chloe and I stop to freshen up at our motel and then I hop in their car for the drive out.

Their home is large and accomodating. Calvin treats us to his great photos of the Canyons today on the big screen TV. So we don't feel like we missed them at all!

We have lively conversation and good food. Then Chloe and Lynette conspire by moving the clock from 8:45 to 11:45 so we can have a count-down and a champagne toast to the New Year.

Back at the motel I say my farewell to Becky & Chloe. It was so great to be able to travel together and see so many wolves together. We promise to do it again, and soon!

Safe driving and happy trails!

Today I saw: bison, coyotes, mule deer, dippers, elk, 7 wolves (6 Canyons and 1 Blacktail), 17 wolf watchers, and the spirit of Allison




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