DAY EIGHT - Monday, December 31 - NEW YEAR'S EVE

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

This morning is another cold one, with 9 degrees and a thin layer of frost on my windshield. But the moon is bright in a clear sky as we drive east.

The temperature reads minus 1 when we reach Lamar Valley.

I start the day, same as yesterday, at Picnic. The three Lamar wolves are bedded on the north side, slightly west of where they were yesterday, keeping an eye on their bison carcass. They probably fed on it overnight.

After an hour or so, they rouse themselves and begin to howl. I want so badly to hear a response, hoping against hope that the pups and yearlings are somewhere in the valley. But we hear nothing.

Then 755 is up and heading downhill, as if going to the carcass. But, just like yesterday, he passes the carcass and continues west. The females hesitate and then begin to follow.

Across the road they go and into the flats. They cross the frozen channel and continue on through the sage. They visit the August 1st carcass again. But then, instead of entering the forest, they climb Amethyst Bench, heading further west. This time 755 is clearly in the lead.

I move to Dorothy's for a better angle. 755 seems to be scent-trailing something. But who? I notice a small herd of elk on the other side of Jasper, reacting to the wolves, bunching and moving quickly further west. But 755 doesn't seem to care. His nose is often to the ground. I remember there was a report of two "mystery" grays seen on the bench a few days ago. Maybe he smells them?

A lone coyote appears on the western side of the bench. He seems mixed up because he is moving slowly towards the wolves. But then he stops, and turns, moving downhill fast, aiming for the river. 755 ignores this, too.

He is now far ahead of the two females, already to the middle of Jasper. He really seems to be on some kind of mission today, a mission that does not really interest the females. They are still following his route, but lagging further and further behind.

The sisters cross Amethyst creek and continue a bit further west, but then suddenly, 820F turns around. She runs playfully toward 776. 776 returns her playful behavior and they romp and play a bit, which is delightful to see.

But then 776 seems to make a decision. She heads sharply downhill. She begins run - not chasing anything, just running. 820F follows her and the two of them reach the riverbank in no time.

Up on the bench, 755 notices, too. He stops and watches his daughters, looking quite perplexed. I can almost hear him wondering aloud " looks as if he is wondering "aren't you supposed to follow me?".

It's kind of sad. He sees they do not want to follow him, but he doesn't really want to turn back, either.

What's an eligible male who's lost the driving force of his life to do?

Poor 755 eventually gives in and reluctantly heads downhill. His daughters are already striking out across the flats, aiming for the road, looking like all they want to do is get back to their bison carcass.

I head back to Picnic and watch them approach the road. The females dawdle a bit by the frozen river, allowing 755 to save face and catch up to them. There is a lovely greeting ritual and then they head to the road, all three together.

Once across they make straight for the bison carcass and are lost to my view for a while. Next I see them heading uphill above the gully. 755 carries a piece of meat in his mouth, and drops it near 776. I'm not sure he meant to do that or not, but we have seen him bring such presents to 06 in the past.

However, 776 ignores it, so 820 picks it up and carries uphill, then she stops to sit and chews on it a while. 755 and 776 continue uphill to the slope with the three trees. They each pick a bedding spot and settle down.

820 makes a submissive gesture to 776 before moving a few feet away to bed down near the third tree. There is something enormously sad about these three for me today. I guess what I mean is that perhaps it is dawning on me that their futures are no longer together. They now have different agendas, and will need to pursue them, apart. Their leader, the one who kept them unifed of purpose, is gone.

Once they are bedded down and quiet again, I take a break and head to Slough, in hopes of locating the elusive Junction Butte pack. It looks like all my wolf watcher friends have had the same idea, because we end up converging at Slough, and set up an impromptu luncheon. Kirsty and Alan offer their delicious cider and we each contribute what we have, baked goods or fruit or snacks. It's fun to share and sample each other's treats. We take group photos and toast to our departed favorite wolves.

But we do not find the Junction Butte pack, no matter how hard we try. Finally someone suggests we head back to Lamar. But before we get there, we are stopped by a big jam in Lamar Canyon.

This can mean only one thing....otters!

There are four of the delightful critters, far below on the bank of the icy river. Oh, man, there is nothing so fun to watch as otters. They dive and swim and clamber about on the snow-covered ice, leaving unique tracks.

The charming animals have drawn a huge, happy crowd, gazing from the pullouts, or walking up and down the road, looking for the best vantage point. The otters often look up at us as we watch them. At one point all four are out of the river and waddling around on the snow. One looks a tad larger than the other three so I figure this is a mom with three grown kits.

Some photographers, of course, have to get closer, so they scramble downslope for a "better shot". They succeed in driving the otters further downriver and mostly out of sight for the rest of us.

Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

I rejoin B & C at Picnic. The three Lamar wolves are still bedded near their tree trunks. There is not much action, just the usual stand up and turn around routine, every once in a while adding a yawn or a bit of scratching. But they are quite visible and I am happy to show other visitors who stop to look.

Around 3PM 755 rouses himself and begins to howl. The other two join him, on and off, and this continues for the next hour and a half. In all that time I never once hear any response. Are they howling for the missing pups or to let potential mates know they are here?

820 gets up and walks over to 776. She sort of flops down in the snow next to her sister and rolls over. It strikes me as odd to see this, because for the last year, 820 behaved like an independent, tough-cookie kind of wolf, very like her mother. Today and yesterday she seems very needy and overly submissive. I wonder if she just misses the constant attention she usually gets from all her siblings?

776, on the other hand, does a very good impersonation of her mother, aloof and confident.

Well, alas, the light is waning and it's time to head back west. Tonight we are all going to a wolf-watcher's gathering at the home of our friends Colleen and Des, so we leave a little earlier than usual.

As we cross the Lamar Bridge, Chloe spots a fox, hunting near the willows of Crystal Creek, so we all have a three-dog day!

Colleen's party is a lot of fun - good food, great friends and as cheery an atmosphere as we can make it. We do not wait for midnight, though - we turn the clock back 3 hours and celebrate midnight at 9PM. Happy New Year!

TODAY I SAW: bison, coyotes, a mule deer, bald eagles, elk, a fox, bighorn sheep, 4 otters, 3 wolves from the Lamar Canyon pack (755M, 776F and 820F) and the spirit of Allison.




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