Daybreak at Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park
Energized at the thought of seeing wolves one last time I was able to awake easily to my alarm at five in the morning. I had stayed up till midnight but nonetheless felt fresh, and after brewing a cup of coffee I found myself driving away from Gardiner, Montana and into Yellowstone National Park. This, my fourth early morning in a row, was like the others in that it was dark but moonlit, fairly warm but cloudy with concomitant gusty wind. Knowing where the Junction Butte wolf pack had been last sighted I eschewed stopping at Blacktail Deer Plateau or any other location until I reached Hellroaring overlook. Here I stopped to listen for howls and hearing none conversed with another wolf watcher who also happened to be up early.
Moving down to one of the Elk Creek overlooks the faintest of coyote howls could be heard. One of the Wolf Project crew members had predicted the day before that the pack might make a kill overnight since they hadn’t eaten in some days. With that on my mind, when I heard a couple of groups of coyotes howling in the distance I thought that they might be announcing the presence of a new carcass on the landscape. Still, no wolf howls were audible. So, I moved on to Tower Junction and repeated the process to no avail. Moving on to Little America, the light seeping through the cloud cover had brightened enough to warrant the use of optics. Scanning the area where the wolves had approximately been the previous day I saw nothing lupine-like moving around although some ungulates where out and about. Breaking the morning silence rose one single howl. The deep familiar tone announced that the issuer was a wolf; perhaps a pup trailing the main pack, although it would be impossible for me to say. Regardless, I was instantly reminded why visiting a wild, diverse landscape is such a rewarding experience. The myth that wolves howl at the Moon has been long ago dispelled, but from my human perspective I enjoyed the song as it played out in the moonlit dawn.
After a few plaintive howls the silence resumed and soon afterwards the radio crackled with the suggestion that all interested should venture to Tower Junction. As it turned out, in the darkness we had failed to detect the presence of the pack about a half a mile away. The Wolf Project crew member’s prediction had proven correct and indeed two to three wolf pups from the Junction Butte Pack could clearly be seen devouring an elk calf. Other pack members could be seen atop a ridge, presumably already sated from feeding earlier in the darkness. Near the upper group of wolves a patch of bloody snow could be seen, indicating the point where the beast had been taken down. The wolves had subsequently dragged the carcass down to its current location, as clearly indicated by the path created through the snow. Some cow elk were standing not too far away, clearly perturbed. Perhaps the calf had belonged to one of them. They may have been wary due to predation risk, as well.
What really matters is that due to wolf predation Yellowstone National Park is now an ecosystem restored. Once the wolves had been reintroduced the balance between predator and prey had been restored to the landscape. What makes the park exceptional is that there is a full suite of predators exerting their influence on the full suite of ungulates that inhabit the Northern Range. There is a certain wildness that can be felt here that is lacking in places without their carnivores. Where I live in Colorado the elk do not have wolves to move them around, and the land itself feels different as a consequence – somehow it is not as much as it could be. Colorado, having had its predators extirpated at the behest of the livestock industry, is haunted by this absence; her rivers and hillsides, her mesas and trees are but templates for the wild that awaits.
Thus did dawn find me, watching members of the Junction Butte Pack going about the ancient act of predation. The Sun rose with spectacular color, adding a poignant exclamation point to the day’s beginning. At about this point, it became apparent that other viewpoints might present better viewing opportunities for the remainder of the pack. Thus, I began to pack up for a move to one of the Elk Creek overlooks. As I did so I was simultaneously engaged in conversation with one of the regular wolf watchers. At this moment, an old friend walked by and recognized my voice. I hadn’t seen Shauna Baron in a number of years. In the meantime, she had become well versed in the world of wolves and is now the co-author, with James Halfpenny and Leo Leckie, of Charting Yellowstone Wolves 25th Anniversary, a detailed history of the park’s individual wolves as well as the packs. I’ve just started to peruse it, but so far it has me grinning from ear to ear.
Moving up to Elk Creek, a view of another eight or nine wolves could be had. The carcass couldn’t be seen from this view, thus creating a situation where some folks wanted to shuttle between the two observation points. While I set up my scope I was able to further converse with Rick about a number of subjects, including the current status of the Junction Butte Pack. Rick pointed out the alpha male, 1047, who is relatively easy to identify for a black wolf due to his graying highlights. He approached 907, a former alpha female who has been deposed and may be a sort of emeritus breeder. There is evidence that a wolf pack has a better chance at winning an engagement with a neighboring pack if that pack has older, and presumably wiser, members as part of its makeup. These two elders seemed comfortable with each other, and ambled about in such a way that created in me the impression that they enjoyed each other’s company.
Alas, the time for me to depart came. I said my farewells and began the drive back to Gardiner. It was about ten o’clock and I was supposed to check out at eleven. The Absoraka Lodge hadn’t been crowded so I figured getting an extra hour to check out wouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t want to leave, as I enjoyed watching the wildlife move about on the landscape. Wolves! What can I say? I felt truly blessed to be witness to these beings going about their activities for the past four days. Furthermore, the people who watch animals seem to be happy and it is a pleasurable experience to be in the presence of folks who exude such joy at the daily goings-on of the wild world.
The folks at the Absoraka Lodge were kind enough to indeed extend my checkout until noon and that gave me plenty of time to pack up the car. Double checking the room to make sure nothing got left behind, I turned in my keys and drove over to the Wonderland Cafe. I met Nathan here and we had a fine conversation over a delicious lunch. Again, I was somewhat mesmerized by the numerous photographs of the park’s wildlife mounted on the walls. I was glad to know that I was spending my money in an establishment that appreciates animals for their intrinsic value alive and not dead. Finally, the time came when I needed to make my departure. I took one last gander at the familiar scenery, and thought of the wildlife that makes this place special. With that thought in mind, I pulled out onto U.S. 89 and drove northwards, away from the park and the wolves I had been watching, towards Livingston where I would turn east on Interstate 90.
Although I don’t like to do so, I made a rather perfunctory drive down the Yellowstone River. First, through the Paradise Valley on U.S. 89 all the while I was gazing at the mountains of the Absoraka and Gallatin Ranges. Then, once on the interstate, again watching the Absoraka Range slide by on the south side while the Crazy Mountains rose up majestically to the north. I drove non-stop for nearly three hours until I left the four-lane highway at Columbus, Montana. Here I stopped again at Itch-Kep-Pe Park where I could sit under some cottonwoods and take a break. I took note of the one woodpecker in the cottonwoods but soon found myself behind the wheel, leaving Columbus on Montana Secondary 421. This highway goes east towards U.S. 212, and at this junction I continued eastbound a short distance until I turned south on U.S. 310.
At this point I thought not much else other than to make miles. The CORVID-19 pandemic had begun to break in Colorado and the rest of the nation and I was anxious to get home. Home would mean relative safety, and regardless I was due to pick up the shepherds from canine boarding. Still, rather than making my customary slow drive, eschewing driving while dark so as not to miss the countryside, I drove without pause. Once I left Montana and entered into Wyoming the scenery changed once again. Now in the Bighorn Basin, I could still marvel at the distant mountains flanking the east and west boarders of the huge valley. At one point I did stop, towards sunset, when the light caught some upturned sedimentary strata called Sheep Mountain. Here I had to stop briefly to admire the geology of our marvelous planet. But I soon resumed driving, and as the light faded into dusk and then darkness I continued on. In some ways, with a nearly full Moon to light the way, I enjoyed the night driving. I wasn’t so anxious as much as wired, anyhow, and under the blue light the miles slid by almost effortlessly.
By the time I had reached Thermopolis, all signs of the fading Sun were gone from the sky. I considered checking into a motel, but decided to continue the drive. I continued past Riverton and Lander, not even stopping for a meal but rather snacking on carrots and Fig Newtons. Somewhere on the west side of South Pass I pulled over to take a break from the road. Nothing much, just enough to walk around and look up at the sky. But what a sight! The stars shone incredibly bright and felt close enough to touch. It was a magical sight, out on the expansive sagebrush steppe. The Moon hadn’t risen until after sunset, and thus sitting yet towards the eastern horizon hadn’t blotted out the starscape. I continued on to Rock Springs where I stopped in the middle of the night for gas, snacks and coffee. I was enjoying the moonlit expanses and continued on.
At this point I thought to continue driving until I reached somewhere close by Irish Canyon. I drove south on Wyoming 430 and crossed over into Colorado on Moffat County Road 10N. Where the road enters the drainage that passes through Irish Canyon I pulled over and set out a sleeping bag. I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep, but I only wanted to rest for an hour or two anyhow. I also considered the possibility that I might hear howling the pack of wolves that are supposed to inhabit this region. I did hear some coyotes, but otherwise all was quiet. No traffic rumbled past, but after dozing off the chill got to me and I loaded up. I drove down to Colorado 318, considered stopping again to listen for the wolves but decided to continue onward. Remembering the last time I drove down this highway, and my unfortunate collision with the fawn, I went slowly. However, there were very few deer on the highway and I pondered the significance, if any, of that. Reaching Maybell safely I went east on U.S. 40 a short distance and turned south using back roads to get to Meeker and Colorado 64 and 13. With the Moon lighting the way I enjoyed the scenery as much as I could.
By the time I got to Rifle, daylight had begun to encroach on the eastern horizon. I paused at a grocery store to buy breakfast, fueled up the car and filled the mug up with coffee. I zipped along westbound Interstate 70 without pausing to take snapshots or otherwise stop and explore. Despite the lack of sleep, I was amped up and the miles continued to roll by without effort. At Palisades I left the Interstate to jog over to U.S. 50 for the eastbound trek to Gunnison. Now in what I consider to be my home turf, I enjoyed all the familiar scenery south of Grand Junction. To the east the mighty Grand Mesa rising up several thousand of feet above the road. To the west runs the might Gunnison River and beyond that rises the Uncompahgre Plateau, scene of many fine adventure.
I continued past Delta and Montrose, pausing only enough to fuel up. Finally reaching home in Gunnison, after a routine drive over Cerro and Blue Mesa Summits, I stopped only long enough to unload the car and grab a bite to eat . It was barely nine in the morning. I didn’t have to pick the shepherds up until six that evening, but went ahead a drove up valley after I had rested a bit. I found the community in a state of incipient disarray, as the reality of the pandemic had hit home here. My boss had become one of the first verified cases in the county (and has now developed anti-bodies) and that necessarily lent an unstable air to the restaurant industry. Regardless, I still had the dogs to care for. So, I brought them home and began to unwind from the whirlwind that had been my last week. I already missed seeing the wolves, but was glad to have what time I did.
Upturned strata near Sheep Mountain in Wyoming
The elk calf carcass is at the lower end of the skid trail. The Junction Butte Pack is mostly at the top, some wolf pups are feasting but can’t be readily seen in the low light. North of Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park
Scopes at Tower Junction, looking toward the kill that the Junction Butte Pack had made
The view from the Elk Creek overlook
Bison below Undine Falls
Buffalo below Undine Falls
The Buffalo move along at their own pace
The Roosevelt Arch as seen from the adjacent park, where I ate breakfast
Electric Peak above Gardiner, Montana
The Yellowstone River at Columbus, Montana
A nice late Winter day in Columbus, Montana, on the Yellowstone River
Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus, Montana
Woodpecker in Itch-Kep-Pe Park, Columbus, Montana
Perhaps a downy woodpecker in Columbus, Montana, at Itch-Kep-Pe Park
Good geologic interpretive sign for Sheep Mountain, foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, in Wyoming on U.S. 310
Evening sunlight on Sheep Mountain in Wyoming
The Bighorn Mountains behind Sheep Mountain in Wyoming
Looking south from Sheep Mountain in Wyoming just off U.S. 310
The various upturned sedimentary strata can be seen in this view from the Sheep Mountain overlook in Wyoming
Daybreak at Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park