It feels extra cold this morning as I brush another inch of snow off the hood and windows. The snow has stopped for now and the sky above is clear, but when I turn on the car I see my face is right - it's minus 5 degrees!
By the time I reach Pebble Creek the temperature has dipped to minus 14 and I can see that fog will be a factor this morning.
The dense floating cloud seems to thicken as I continue west, overlapping the road wherever the river is close.
Just past the confluence, as the road curves away from the river, the fog clears and reveals a gorgeous sight: a huge full moon hangs above Specimen Ridge, suspended between the upper cloud ceiling and the lower fog blanket.
A little later I join the regulars at Dorothy's. The valley is invisible and the upper half of Jasper Bench seems to float above it. I eagerly scan the area for movement.
First I see the elk.
There are about a dozen elk cows and calves bunched around the trunk of a Douglas fir growing slightly separate from the other trees on the front slope of the Bench. They are about half-way down from the flat top and just visible above the low-lying cloud.
To the right of them are several members of the Lamar Canyon pack, staring at the elk with barely constrained excitement.
The elk seem smart enough to know that this spot is their best defense. The snow under the tree is trampled down, which affords them good footing. Here they can, perhaps, wait out the wolves, as long as no one panics.
We count seven wolves, which means the little lost girl finally came across the road last night and has rejoined her family.
As I watch them more closely, I see the adults hang back; it's the pups who are the most excited, which is, of course, to be expected. But the elk around the tree seem to have the upper hand this morning and eventually the wolves give up. The 06 and the adult males head uphill through the deep snow to the top of Jasper Bench.
The adults bed at the top but the pups can't sit still. Several of them venture out to the east, onto the open slope which eventually connects to Amethyst Drainage.
They stop on a rounded, wind-swept hilltop and look down on the elk from there. Soon after they arrive there, the late-rising sun thrusts out her beams to warm the land.
The wolves turn golden-rimmed and they seem to pose on the slope quite beautifully. Then the play begins and they bounce and pounce on each other.
I am intrigued by the behavior of both elk and wolves. On my way here I heard radio mention of a carcass. I presume the carcass is near the river and thus not visible, but with the arrival of the sun, the fog begins to lift, and it reveals a morning puzzle rather than a story.
At first we can see bird activity; black birds flying up and landing again out of sight in an area where the river channel ought to be. There are two bald eagles perched in nearby trees, cooly observing the situation.
And we can see an emerging story in the tracks now visible on the slope, leading to the area where the birds are. But there is a confusing absence of blood anywhere. No blood on the slope, none near the river where the birds are and, most importantly, no blood on the muzzles of the wolves.
Laurie begins to speculate that perhaps in the hours before we arrived, the wolves brought down one of the elk right at the partially river, but perhaps the current pulled the carcass under the ice and wedged it mostly out of reach?
Perhaps they have not yet had a chance to feed? This scenario would explain the lack of blood and the fact that the surviving elk only made it as far away as the tree, since the wolves were not distracted long enough for them to escape any further.
It would also explain the continued interest of the wolves in the bunched elk.
Well, it can't be proved without hiking out to the river to check, but I think Laurie's idea is sound. I trust the 06 will end up getting one of the elk around that tree sometime later today or tomorrow.
And if not, the elk under ice will likely remain frozen for a good long time, and will eventually provide a welcome feast for whomever finds it first.
The pups are now romping back to the adults so I watch for the likely greeting event. A very nice dogpile greeting ensues with lots of wagging tails and body-slamming. Then they rally and howl which brings smiles to all those in the pullout.
After the rally they settle down a bit. But not for long.
We see a gray wolf head downhill on a diagonal towards the spot where the birds are gathered. It's the 06. She follows an already-broken snow trail.
I watch her as she switches back and forth down the slope, but before she reaches the river my attention is drawn by other action.
Two of the pups have also come down the slope but they take a different path - one that leads them close to the elk. They two pups stand about 30 feet away, staring at the elk. One takes cautious baby-steps toward the nervous ungulates.
Suddenly a cow elk charges from the group right at the wolves! The pups are as shocked as I am and quickly turn tail and lunge for their lives up the slope, away from this crazy cow!
The elk stops and stamps as the pups keep moving away. Then she turns, with head held high, and moves quickly back to the safety of her group.
Whoa! Good for her! I do love seeing brave females.
A short while later, another gray pup (or perhaps one of the earlier two) comes down the hill, drawn irrisistably by the nervous elk. It stands and stares, fascinated, as any youngster would be. You can just see the fantasies the pup's mind is creating,
Again, quite suddenly, a cow charges from the group (perhaps even the same one?) with astonishing ferocity.
This time the pup foolishly heads downhill to escape. The pup immediately flounders in the snow, stumbling. The larger elk has the momentary advantage and runs right over the unfortunate pup. But the elk is too smart to push its luck - she retreats back to the group around the tree.
The pup seems unhurt and moves through the snow in a wide circle, eventually heading back uphill - far to the west of the elk! It moves all the way up to the top of the bench and immediately seeks reassurance from its family.
The pup is greeted by the others and all seems right with the world again. However because of this I miss what the 06 did on her little jaunt towards the carcass. Apparently she did not stay at the river for long and I see her now, heading back up to the bench only a little bit behind her youngster.
The arrival of the 06 calls for yet another greeting/rally and then they finally relax for a mid-day nap.
The elk seem resigned to their fate for the moment and will, perhaps, wait to sneak across the valley once the wolf famliy falls asleep.
This break in the action gives me the chance to say my "so long" to Laurie and Dan - they are heading back to San Diego a little later today to visit their grandchild. And I am heading to Tower to meet Ballpark Frank for a snowshoe hike.
It's now around 10:30 and I'm sitting at Tower with Ballpark, discussing our various options. I had not considered hiking in weather this cold, but after all it has warmed up from 14 below to all of 2 degrees ABOVE zero!
Our two top destination ideas are Fairies Fall in Lamar (in the Amethyst drainage) from the Institute, or the bison ford (of the Lamar) in Little America from the Boulder pullout. When I tell Frank of the wolf activity this morning, he agrees we should rule out the first option. Unlike some people we know, we do not want to knowingly disrupt the activity of wildlife we know are nearby nor do we wish to disrupt visitors' enjoyment of those animals, if we can help it. So we choose the Little America hike.
As we head back to Little America, I admit that I will be warmer snowshoeing than I would be standing still in a pullout!
We have a comical time getting into our gear. Frank is using different snowshoes and his straps are frozen. There is no way he can adjust them himself, so I have to literally get down on my hands and knees in the pullout to maneuver the straps into a locked position for him. Once I've done this, I am toasy warm!
My interest in seeing the bison ford up close grew out of simple curiosity from having watched so many wolves come and go from that area from a distance while scoping atop Boulder Hill. Over the years I have watched Slough Creek wolves chase elk out there; I've seen Mollies out there, Lava Creek wolves, Agates and Geodes and Blacktails. And most memorably, the last views I had of the poor mange-ridden Druid females was in that area at Christmas 2009.
One cannot actually see the river from Boulder Hill and I want to know what the actual riverbed looks like. I assume there is a spot out there somewhere that overlooks the ford. We figure it's a mile or so, but we know distances can be deceptive and in such deep snow, who knows how long it might take us?
Finally, at about 11:30, we set out, with Frank breaking trail. I follow behind his deliberate steps, and almost immediately, it begins to snow.
It takes me a while to master the rhythm of walking in such conditions and my eagerness gets the better of me sometimes. The snow averages a good two to three feet deep, but it is far deeper than that in some spots, which I prove by sinking my pole all the way up to the handle.
I fall numerous times, but each time into a thick snow cushion so no harm is done, and just from my own carelessness. A couple times my snowshoes get wedged under a tough branch of sagebrush. After several attempts to move either forward or backwards I finally get out by rolling to one side. Luckily, all my clothing is waterproof, so I just brush myself off and begin again.
It's great fun and I love being out in it.
After about an hour, the snow is coming down so thickly we can barely make out Specimen Ridge behind us! There is little wind and the snow falls softly and beautifully all around us.
As usual on a hike in Yellowstone, I am amazed at how the country opens up all around, even in areas still so close to the road. We pass many depressions that we believe could be ponds, and we take care to stay on the high side of them. Although it's tempting to just walk across them, we wouldn't want to discover thin ice under the snow!
We find only a few tracks - at least one coyote passed by here and a few ungulates, probably elk. I notice the "back side" of Junction Butte is far more tree-covered than I knew, and there is a substantial lava rock fall on one side, as well.
We climb several low ridges that we thought were the "lookout ridge" before finally reaching the real one. At last I stand at my destination, looking down on the frozen, snow-covered Lamar River.
Right away we see elk on the far slope, in a small meadow bordered by trees and I recognize a stand of aspen that can be seen from Boulder Hill. The elk notice us first, and although they don't run, they do move back toward the trees.
I enjoy this close-up view of the area we call "the marsh" in spring time and also recognize a sloping hillside north of Junction Butte where I watched a group of "mystery wolves" one afternoon in April that Laurie's friend Geoff spotted.
I leave my pack and poles on a large boulder and take some photos. My poor camera is too cold! I have to warm it up inside my jacket for a minute or two before it is willing to work!
The topography to the west looks pretty much as expected, but the land to the east is a surprise. There are two canyons that merge just east of the ford area. One is the Lamar (I think the southern one) and the other is, perhaps, a seasonal creek for water coming down Mom's Ridge. We can't see enough from this angle to tell for sure, but I would love to come out here during spring melt to hear the roar of those creeks crashing through those narrow gorges.
It's also possible that what we are looking at is a rock island in the Lamar. I will have to get on Google or check my topo map to be sure.
The ford itself is not quite as dramatic as I had imagined, but I thoroughly enjoy having this closer look. Since the river frozen with snow on top, it's somewhat hard to tell how high the banks are in warmer weather, although given the canyons on either side, it really is the only logical crossing spot for miles.
As we stand looking and taking photos, we notice the wind has picked up a bit and my face begins to complain. So soon we pack back up and turn south for the hike back to the road.
Having an established track to follow makes it far easier, although the steadily-falling snow has already begun to fill in our steps.
It takes less than half the time to get back as it did to get out. All in all, this trek is a good workout for me and I'm really glad we went.
Once we are out of our extra-large shoes and on the road again, I can't help but be eager for some more wolf action. I know the snow will limit the views, but given the recent reports, we have more than a decent chance to see wolves in the western end of the Park.
At the Blacktail Ponds we watch a coyote for a bit, then glass the hillsides on the far side of the high bridge for a while. Eventually we end up on the Jardine Road, joining Calvin and Lynette.
Apparently there was a bit of an altercation today between the 8 Mile Pack and the Quadrants. The 8 Mile pack lives outside the Park most of the time. Initially it was thought that the Quadrant alpha male had been killed, but a later report confirms he survived the encounter.
Later I learn that the 3 yearling females of the Quadrant Pack became enamoured of some of the males in the 8 Mile Pack and have gone off with them. Ah! L'Amour!
We do not see any wolves from this icy pullout but I do convince Calvin and Lynnette to join Frank and me for dinner at the new Cowboy Grill in Gardiner. And we invite Gerry, too. We have a great time, and although I much prefer the food elsewhere, the price is right and the atmosphere is friendly.
And allow me to note, that, at this dinner, Frank announces that he and Jane have become engaged! We all toast him and wish him well. I just adore Jane and besides, I'm thrilled to have another accomplished woman in the Bozeman area to call a friend. Mazeltov to Frank and Jane!
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, 2 bald eagles, elk, bighorn sheep, 7 wolves (all from the Lamar Canyon Pack, including the 06, 754M, 755M and 776F) and the spirit of Allison