Day 7 and 8 May 19-20, 2015
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Cooke City, Montana
Blue Sky peeks between the clouds as we drive through the northeast entrance, but by the time we approach Lamar Valley a thin fog hovers over the valley and Round Prairie. A bull moose, his antlers just starting to grow, nibbles grass at the edge of Soda Butte Creek. Bison step out into the road - they seem braver, even arrogant, this year. Calves twirl around in the flats, chase each other.
Wolves are at Wraith Falls, the location we've been checking for the past two days. The turnouts are full when we arrive, so we squeeze into a spot along the road and climb a low hill. As soon as we set up the scope a black wolf is in view; there have been at least 5 in view on and off. A carcass lies high on the slope on the north side of the road. A black wolf suddenly chases another black wolf away, then beds in the sage.
Curiously, the wolf being chased is a Lamar Canyon yearling female while the others are from the Prospect Peak Pack (the same pack that attacked her father 925M). We watch for two hours as they chase her over the hill and move to and from the carcass. One wolf, a collared light gray that appeared to have mange, was very submissive to a black wolf. We learn later that it was a yearling male, 964M, with very unusual coloring and not mange at all. This is the first time we have seen this pack, so we don't recognize any of the individual wolves, but we know that 965M, 821F, the alpha female and two other black wolves are there.
From Wraith Falls we drive to Mammoth for hot coffee and cocoa. The temperature is in the mid 40s, but feels much colder. I was shivering standing on the hill watching the wolves and had to sit in the car to warm up. Mammoth is bustling with tourists - the General Store is the only store open for a long way. Elk, graceful and sweet looking, graze around the General Store and hotel.
At Swan Lake a grizzly is feeding on a carcass set back from the skyline. The bear nibbles on it, disappearing behind the horizon and then popping up again. Another grizzly is in the sage flats, moving up the slopes. Two coyotes also feed on the carcass also, their heads popping up above the skyline. It's nice to see something happening at Swan Lake Flats. After the Swan Lake Pack dispersed we rarely saw a bear or wolf in this area. The Eight-Mile Pack sometimes visits Swan Lake Flats, but we have never been lucky enough to see them.
Back at Mammoth we tour the renovated Albright Visitors Center. Nice! Good animal exhibits and displays. (I especially liked the video of bison attacking tourists.) Great horned owls are still nesting in a huge conifer near the Visitors Center. They are large, impressive birds. The male perches on a branch of a large pine tree with a clear view of the nest while the female is in the nest with two chicks who sit next to each other, occasionally turning their heads. The nest itself is huge and must weight a ton.
No black bears today, but we have seen a lot of bears this trip - and a lot of sows with cubs. We try to take in as much of the Park as we can, driving up and down Tower Road, visiting the peregrine falcon, hiking into Little America and waiting at Slough Creek where we hear there was howling at Hitching Post.
We wait for hours at Hitching Post for 926F and /or Twin and Mottled to show up. Their melodious howls fill the air enveloping us in mystery. And they give us the slip, crossing the road near Soda Butte Cone. One black wolf is still milling about in the flats east of Soda Butte Cone - a big wolf with different shades of dark gray and black in its coat. As the light fades, the wolf blurs in the evening shadows.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Chief Joseph Highway is fine when we leave early in the morning. Wet with rain, but fine. Slowly conditions worsen as fog descends on the sharp curving highway. Soon we are driving through a cloud - literally - and the white knuckle drive begins. Snow and ice coat the highway. Fortunately, other vehicles have plowed before us creating ruts to follow, but visibility is only about 10 feet and the Toyota struggles to clear the snow. Four does leap across the snowy road. It's a long drive.
By the time we reach the Forest Service Station conditions have improved, and at Two Dot Ranch we are out of the fog. The road turns north toward Bridger and Red Lodge and Billings. The sky opens up, blue, going on forever. Fluffy white clouds. It's going to be a beautiful day in this part of Montana.
We pass ranches with horses and sheep, a heron rookery, casinos, and the Yellowstone River, muddy, curving. Before checking in at the airport we relax at Zimmerman Park, high on the hills overlooking Billings. Signs state "Rattlesnakes Inhabit this Park. Watch where you step. Keep your dog safe - and close." I think of my dog, Kodi.
A wide dirt trail winds on top of the cliffs overlooking Billings. Ponderosa Pine are everywhere, growing out of rocks, pinecones sprouting. A chipmunk with a long tail zigzags across the rocks. The view of Billings, mountains in the distance, creates a feeling of peace, contentment. A little space of wild in the middle of a city surrounded by ranches.
Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer