Rabbit Valley and McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Colorado, Day 2 – March 17, 2019

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Shadow self with shadow shepherd above McDonald Creek in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area

The overnight temperatures had been a bit chilly, but then I recalled that it was mid-March still, technically astronomical Winter and no cloud cover had rolled over to keep the warmth in like a blanket.  I rose at daybreak and cooked a quick, hot breakfast.  To beat the heat that would surely oppress the shepherds later in the day we left for a quick start on our hike.  I walked the dogs down the main road, the middle route that stays above McDonald Creek, towards Castle Rocks.  There was some kind of unofficial but well worn cattle trail that directly parallels the road so I kept us on that “fourth” route as it made for easier tread on the pups’ paws and avoided the vehicular traffic.

At Castle Rocks there is a small campground and just a bit further down the road is the McDonald Creek Trailhead.  From this point downstream only equestrian and pedestrian traffic is allowed.  McDonald Creek cuts through the sandstone beds like most such waterways in this area.  There are some cliffs and alcoves to be seen, but what I like about this hike is the riparian habitat expressed by the presence of cottonwood and willow.  As I had hoped, there were a few pools of water here and there thus keeping the canines hydrated.  Just below the junction with the unmarked Jouflas Trail, McDonald Creek flows over a pour-off that has created an odd rent in a resistant sandstone layer.  To get below it the dogs and I utilized an obvious scramble down loose rock before picking up the trail below.

I found an early season flower but not much had really greened up this early in the year.  Almost by accident I found a small pictograph panel and was reminded that people have been visiting this location for many a year.  Reaching the end of the trail, where McDonald Creek debouches into Ruby Canyon, I found the mainline railroad tracks that run from Denver to Salt Lake City.  I have ridden these rails many times on Amtrak so it was an interesting and novel perspective to have hiked to this location.  I had hoped to have access to the Colorado River, but was denied by vegetation and deep quicksand.  The pups and I returned the way we came and hiked upstream to a relatively large meadow dotted with large cottonwood where we could sit and enjoy the moment.

Leaving behind our cottonwood paradise, we hiked back up to the pour-off.  We went right up to where the water, if any should be running, would create a small falls.  It was an odd sensation to have so much rock overhead with the jagged gap acting like a skylight.  On a hot day it would be tempting to sit here in the shade.  We retraced our steps to the upper layer and then made a small side trip on the Jouflas Trail.  I had thought about using this (much) longer route as a loop hike but when I realized that there would be no water but plenty of hot rocks burning the dogs’ paws I decided to return via the route that we had descended.  The only difference being that we hiked back up to camp via Trail 2, as we did the day before.  We met some mountain bikers, a couple of hikers and some folks on dirt bikes, but overall it was a bit quieter than the road and allowed more scenic views.

We reached camp by noon or shortly thereafter.  Draco and Leah seemed content enough to mostly lie around camp, either in a shady place outside or in the Shepherd Cabin itself.  Their bouts of static were occasionally broken by a trip to the dog watering station.  I sat mostly in the Sun, reading and watching the world go by.  This was, after all, a sort of vacation.  When I had too much Sun I would go lie down in the tent and otherwise take it easy.  As sunset approached both the dogs and I regained a bit of vigor and we hiked down to the north end of the Jouflas Trail.  We didn’t go terribly far, but just enough to gain another perspective of Rabbit Valley.

Once the Sun went behind the western ridge I started up a fire and made a hot dinner for myself.  The dogs munched their kibble and chewed on rawhide.  As the darkness approached I could begin to make out the lights from traffic on distant Interstate 70.  Only faintly could I make out a roar of an passing semi.  As the flames shot up from my fire the shadows danced on the nearby sandstone.  I watched the stars above and named from rote what constellations I could.  I had thoughtfully brought along my star-gazers guide book and looked up what I didn’t know.  From time to time I would watch the flow of travelers on the highway, and wonder at their motion while enjoying my vantage point.  Although I am no fan of road noise, especially when close by, there is a part of me that enjoys being the removed observer.

After the flames had died down into a bed of coals I made ready for bed.  Jouflas Campground in Rabbit Valley was again quiet, excepting the usual innocuous noises found in any such developed site.  The Sun having long ago exited the scene the night’s chill had begun to set in.  I warmed my hands one last time over the glowing cinders.  I felt thankful for having chosen this place to visit and spend some time stretching out in the desert climate.  It is not by any stretch of imagination wilderness, but despite some abuse there is much backcountry to be reveled in.

Rabbit Valley and McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Colorado, Day 1 – March 16, 2019

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Overlooking Rabbit Valley from the Jouflas Campground, an anticline revealed in all its glory

So much has happened, or more to the point changed, since I made this three-day trip to Rabbit Valley about thirteen months ago.  Obviously, this year with the CORVID-19 pandemic I am not making any trips to the desert or any other place.  However, what strikes me most about scanning through my snapshots is how much my two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, have aged in the last year.  I wouldn’t take them on this trip now, simply because I don’t believe either of them could make these hikes in comfort.  That Leah is more frail I am not surprised but I am sad to see that Draco has deteriorated as well.

Regardless, the Ides of March had found me furiously cooking away at my job in a commercial kitchen.  I ticked down the hours until my shift was over and then went home to pack.  I had just bought a new tent, specifically to help house the dogs.  Although still technically Winter, I knew that the lower elevations would be relatively warm and pleasant.  Packing the car in the morning I had a challenge finding space for all the gear plus the shepherds.  Somewhere around noon I was finally able to leave home and drove west out of Gunnison on U.S. 50, following that highway as it skirts the Black Canyon of the Gunnison up and over Blue Mesa and Cerro Summits.

The highway I followed through Montrose, Delta and onto Grand Junction.  There, I followed the highway as it merged with Interstate 70 and I continued westbound as if I were headed for Utah.  Instead, I exited the four-lane road at Exit 2 and headed south into the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.  Managed by the Bureau of Land Management this large area contains both designated wilderness and motorized trails.  Only a couple miles, or maybe three or four, from the interstate lies the Jouflas Campground, a small eight site unit that is free of charge – a rarity these days, and I believe plans are afoot to begin charging for these sites.  I had been worried that I might not find an open site but I needn’t have worried.  Most people choose to go the more famous parks in Utah and pass this small gem with nary a second thought.

I have slept at this campground before, but only as an overnight stop on my way elsewhere.  According to the map I possess there ought to be some good hiking in the area and despite the motorized recreation aspect of the area there was plenty of quietude.  Plus, from my campsite I could enjoy the vast vistas of the distant snow clad La Sal Mountains towering over the Uncompahgre Plateau.  Arriving around two-thirty I quickly set up camp as the shepherds explored the nearby area.  Settling in, I noted other hikers, some mountain bikers, gearheads and folks passing through for the night.  Camp made ready, there remained plenty of time to get out and explore one of the myriad trails.  First, though, I took a simple walk around the campground simply to admire the views.

Heading down one of the off-road vehicle roads, I noted that if so desired I could have stayed at one of the myriad backcountry sites located throughout.  However, to use those sites it is required to have a portable toilet as well as a fire pan.  It is my understanding that the BLM wants to phase out these sites but I kind of think that would be a shame.  I had decided to walk down to Castle Rocks, about two miles away down McDonald Creek.  It turns out that there are three parallel tracks in this area.  One is the main road, so to speak.  Another is a twisty road that follows the creek, and this route is how the dogs and I walked down.  The third is called Trail 2 and is more suited to dirt bikes, mountain bikes and hikers.  Walking down along the creek was a nice cool experience in the heat of the day.  After a long Winter in the Gunnison Country temperatures in the sixties felt positively scorching.

Walking down the creek made me wonder why what seems to be a spurious road exists.  Water is so precious in the desert that it seems unwise to allow motorized recreation where the liquid flows on the surface especially since alternate routes run nearby on parallel routes.  There wasn’t much of anyone there that day, but I did see a few people and despite our different methods of travel cordiality prevailed.  The dogs especially enjoyed the cool respite from the Sun, and I suppose having domesticated canines in the water might harm this fragile resource, too.  But I think closing the route off to machinery would be the first step.

Reaching the Castle Rocks I noted the small campground.  These rocks are some of the interesting and odd-shaped rocks found throughout the Colorado Plateau.  I led the shepherds off the road and found a place to sit.  We didn’t stay long and soon we started back up towards the campground.  I had noted a trail named Trail 2 on our way down and seeing the same sign I chose to follow that route back up.  The most prominent geologic feature in Rabbit Valley, beyond the world-renown fossil beds nearby, is the large anticline visible from much of the area.  The various colored beds of sedimentary strata show distinctly on the cliff face about a mile to a mile and half away.  The trail presented a fine view of this banding as I walked back.  The curvature of the anticline made it look like nothing so much as a jumbo-sized jelly roll, but say the top half only.

Having returned from the hike I set about to make the evening as comfortable as possible.  The dogs chose to relax in the comfort of the Shepherd Cabin, which is what I came to christen the new tent.  I made a fire and dinner, fed the pups their kibble and gave them something to gnaw on.  I had learned that even on backpacking trips to bring “the ball” so that these active-minded dogs would have something to occupy their time with.  In the meantime I sat in my comfy chair and put my feet up.  The air that had been so warm in sunlight quickly chilled once the Sun went down.  I moved closer to the fire, and as the dusk turned to night I noted the various stars and constellations in the night’s sky.

There were people out in their vehicles here and there, some late arrivals, and some who had simply extended their recreation until nightfall.  I had chosen this front-country location more for the dogs’ comfort, although I would have preferred more back-country solitude.  Still, I took comfort in the generally peaceful location away from most artificial light.  At least the people out here where here on purpose enjoying whatever it is that makes them tick.  Of course, as time went by fewer vehicles could be seen or heard, and after mulling over the meaning of it all for a while I finally wobbled over to the tent.  Naturally, I found Leah sprawled out over my sleeping bag instead of on the dog bed that I had so thoughtfully brought along.  I shoved her aside as gently as  I could but she still gut up with a huff and plopped herself down on the other bed.  At least my sleeping bag was preheated.

Skiing on Willow Creek – March 10, 2019

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Bobcat tracks through a drift on Willow Creek

A second day in a row skiing before work and the kind days of late Winter were in full bloom.  Not yet muddy April, with its windblown but warm days, nor the past January with temperatures that persist somewhere below where most people set their freezers.  But like a certain well known fable, conditions, in my opinion, were just right.  A thin skiff of snow over a solid pack made for fantastic skiing, and the dogs were happy, too.  They could amble about wherever they wanted to roam and not sink belly-deep in loose snow.  I chose this relatively easy ski for time’s sake and also because of the severe avalanche danger that had existed region wide.  The terrain on Willow Creek mostly excludes snowslides so I feel more comfortable here than elsewhere.  Having worked late the previous night I slept in a bit and had a relaxing morning.  I began skiing at half past nine, fully loaded on coffee and a hot breakfast.

The highlight of the day was finding bobcat tracks up and down the drainage.  I had never seen such an extensive networks of tracks from this animal on this creek.  Under an overhanging log I found the remains of a rabbit or hare.  The predated bunny’s tracks led to the sight but did not leave.  Naught remained but a small stain of blood, a heap of fur and few pellets of scat.  I wonder how many rabbits the cat had to have chased before finally finding success.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, were unsurprisingly fascinated with the tracks of the bobcat and sniffed intensively at every opportunity.  We crossed the tracks repeatedly as we progressed up the creek.  I was particularly fond of one track in particular where the snow around the imprint had blown away, leaving the print in relief.

This ski having been planned as a quick out and back, I skied up to my minimum distance where East Willow Creek enters the main stream.  This particular distance is about a mile and a half, and thus no great feat of strength nor endurance is needed to reach it.  That’s alright, as I didn’t want to tire myself out completely before my shift.  Rather, I find that my mind is healed by the salvation bestowed by the natural grace of the wild world.  Just getting out to see the landscape, I can often feel the living and breathing totality of the ecosystem.  The bobcat tracks were a special treat, reminding myself of the dynamic interaction between predator and prey.  But I can also revel in the dead ponderosa snag that sits lonely atop the hillside above my turnaround point.  This snag and I have become fast friends over the years, and although dead I believe this snag yet alive in the sense that so many other organisms thrive throughout its skeleton.  Hawks perch here, and I have seen many of my favorite Spring birds stop here on their rounds.  It may sound silly, but I will mourn the day this snags falls, should I live so long, although I know that the dead bole will remain as a provider of nutrients for a century or more.

After our respite the dogs and I made our way back down Willow Creek, stopping to investigate further the bobcat tracks we had espied on the way up.  Another fine day on our public lands, these administered by Gunnison National Forest.  I’m happy to know that wildlife has these expanses to live, but I can’t help but feel that more lands need protecting.  Predators are especially vulnerable to exploitation, and I believe they need more places with protections in place to restrict taking them.  I can feel the ghosts of the wolves and grizzly bears that were extirpated from this landscape, and can only be thankful that the killing campaign didn’t eradicate the population of bobcats, black bears and mountain lions that survived the carnage.  Some of these trees are old enough to remember the howl of the wolf, and although its the most tenuous of threads that might connect me with wolves in Colorado, I cling tightly to it.  This Fall I will vote for Initiative 107, calling for the restoration of wolves to our state, restoring the balance to my mountain home.

Another Late Winter Ski on Gold Creek – March 09, 2019

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Draco and Leah on Gold Creek

During the Winter of Twenty-Nineteen I went out twice a week to go skiing, or hiking if the conditions warranted.  However, during this snowy year I kept the skis on although by this point in the season I was also choosing my terrain somewhat conservatively.  We’d had a pretty good snow year in the upper Gunnison River basin but the weather really took off towards the end of Winter.  Snow piled up, avalanches were common place and people were dying – so I relegated myself to extremely safe terrain where snowslides are a physical impossibility.  Thus, after yet another heavy storm, I found myself out with my two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, cruising up Gold Creek.

Gold Creek is one of my favorite standard ski treks.  From the Winter trailhead to the Gold Creek Campground (where we made a brief, customary stop) is approximately one and a half miles.  That is my minimum distance, meaning that if I utilize this trailhead I will go at least that far.  Sometimes I will go much further but on this day I ventured up to the campground and then on past the Lamphier Lake Trailhead, perhaps adding another three-quarters of a mile to my journey along the drainage.  The pups enjoyed the deep snow, somewhere in addition to a half a foot.  Fortunately, the base was solid enough to keep the shepherds from wallowing and the only reason I didn’t extend the adventure was due to my concern about one slope.

It was unlikely to slide, this one slope.  But if it was going to slide these would be the conditions where it would.  The snowpack was extremely unstable at this time, and across the state those in charge of such things rated the situation as extremely hazardous.  So, I felt no regret at turning back.  I had enjoyed the beautiful blue day and know that it is tempting to disregard hazards when the conditions are salubrious.  The warm sunlight filtered through the lodgepole pines, and no sounds reached me other than those created by the sigh of the wind through the conifers.  Especially with the dogs in tow I knew I was unlikely to see any forest denizens but I thought of how precious this mountain home is to so much diverse wildlife.

This ski is always a treat for me.  And on this day, when I would have to go to work later that evening, it was good for my mental state to get out and experience first hand the soothing affect that the natural world has on body and mind.  Protecting our public lands, in this case the Gunnison National Forest, that belong to us all is paramount – both for us as human beings and for the wildlife that call the forest home.  The land itself can’t vote nor can the inhabitants, therefore it is up to us, the concerned citizens of the United States, to let our elected and governing officials know that protecting these ecosystems has more value than ruination at the hands of the usual extractive industries.  We all want the good life but that good life should include access to places where nature holds sway.

In Search of Wolves, Day 8 (Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range & Junction Butte Pack; Montana, Wyoming & Colorado) – March 12, 2020

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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.

In Search of Wolves, Day 7 (Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range & the Junction Butte Pack; Montana & Wyoming) – March 11, 2020

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The Junction Butte Pack on the move, Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park

I almost had to force myself to stay in bed until five, or close to it.  Despite the relatively late night that I’d had the night before, and the relative lack of sleep I’d been enjoying the last few nights, I was excited to once again begin my day in Gardiner, Montana.  Leaving the Absoraka Lodge at about quarter past five in the morning, I drove into the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.  Once again the darkness was broken only by the moonbeams that shot down through the clouds, giving the snow clad landscape a dark blue hue.  Stopping here and there to listen for howls I heard nothing but the wind.  The temperature felt relatively warm but the wind’s chill bit deeply.  Another beautiful Winter’s day was at hand, and I felt elated to be going out into the field to possibly see wild wolves in the premier place to do so.

I had made it to Lamar Valley and met up with other wolf watchers when word came over the radio that Slough Creek was the place to be.  There was no real need to hurry as the Junction Butte Pack had bedded down in the open along Slough Creek.  A contingent of people had already set up their scopes and more were walking out to enjoy the view of sleeping wolves.  Although slumbering canines might not be the most dynamic sighting I nonetheless found the sight satisfying.  So often regarded by people who fear the affects of wolves on ungulate populations as almost supernatural killers moments like this remind me that wolves are simply another mammal attempting to go about making a living.  And while there seems to be a certain joy had in being a wolf, repeatedly attacking animals that weigh more than five times their body weight eventually takes a toll.  Necropsies performed on wild wolves demonstrate a pattern of broken bones and teeth.  Wild ungulates are far from defenseless and often use their hooves to injure predators, sometimes to lethal effect.  Predators spend huge amounts of energy to capture their prey, and its no wonder to frequently find them asleep.

Wolves are often heralded as a symbol of the wild.  Often our focus is on seeing a particular animal but I often finding myself listening to what the natural  world around me is saying.  Thus, hearing wolves howl in the wild is an experience to be relished.  Fifteen Junction Butte wolves had formed a loose circle of sleeping wolves with one other wolf asleep alone as an outlier.  Here I didn’t take detailed notes and therefore don’t remember who initiated what, but after watching the pack sleep for a half an hour, or an hour or so, punctuated by an occasional wolf getting up to turn around or meander slowly to a new bedding area, various pack members began to show a bit more vigor.  Watching through the scope I knew what it meant when some of the muzzles pointed up towards the sky.  There was some delay due to the distance involved, but I was soon grinning at the aural spectacle.

There had been some quiet chatter among the wolf watchers as the pack had slept, but with wolf noses pointed high and ears flattened the group became silent as the valley filled with the warbling sounds of multiple wolves singing their song.  I lack the musical vocabulary to describe howls, but they are beautiful and for me enthralling.  Rick McIntyre once said something to the effect that wolf howls are often filled with emotion in the same way that music might stir emotions in humans.  Thus, in some ways I consider wolf-song to be the most sublime of concerts. Often, one or two wolves will begin the howl until all join in and a crescendo of lupine voices will reverberate across the landscape.  When I hear this I know I am in a wild place, and that is often enough to fill me with gratitude.  One part of that gratitude is that twenty-five years ago the American people, acting through their government, had the foresight to restore this native predator to its home in the northern Rocky Mountains.  That act stands as one of the most significant wildlife restoration efforts in modern times, that we as a society decided our past actions to extirpate this native species was misguided and something needed to be done to rectify the situation.

After their bout of howling and some socializing the pack began to move slowly out to the south before disappearing along what I was told is a well-worn trail.  Along the way two or three wolves stopped to nip at a resting buffalo.  This bison had to merely stand up and flag its tail as proof of its fitness.  The wolves quickly lost interest and joined their packmates in loping down to the Buffalo Ford on the Lamar River.  As the last wolves went out of sight people began to hike back to the parking lot and drive off towards Little America.  Watching the pack rally I was able to observe the three gray-colored wolves in the pack and discern the difference between them.  The black wolves are usually a bit trickier due to the lack of differentiation between the individuals.  The most idiosyncratic identifier is often the white patch seen on the chests, but at this distance it is hard to make out.  Sometimes, an older black-phased wolf can be individually identified by the grey tints of fur that accumulate as the animal ages, similar in effect to how a person’s hair might grey over time.  Thus, I could identify the alpha male, 1047, by the combination of collar and tint but the other blacks I couldn’t really tell the difference.

Once set up at Little America the combined group could see a few individual wolves at a time.  Down near Buffalo Ford members of the pack walked slowly up through a vale of dispersed mature aspens on a course that took them to the northwest.  In years gone by when I was part of the den study I used to walk through that same vale on my way to and from an observation post on Mom’s Ridge.  I had hiked the area mostly during mid to late Spring, when all was verdant and strewn with wildflowers.  Filled with small lakes dotted with waterfowl, fed my many small rivulets, I always found that part of the park to be one of my favorites.  Once when hiking back from my stint of observing the crew and I had crossed paths with one of the Rose Creek wolves.  Such chance encounters always made me tingle.  How amazing to be part of a landscape filled with native predators.  At the same observation post, on another trip, I recall watching a grizzly bear wander from a half mile away only to come closer and closer before passing right beneath us using the same trail that we did.  Now, this vale was filled with snow and the aspen were bare of leaves.  Much different in Winter from that Spring over two decades ago but just as wild and beautiful as ever.

Compared to many of the people who follow the wolves routinely I am a rank amateur.  Most of the folks in the wolf watching group knew exactly where to go to get the next good view of the pack as they continued their peregrinations.  After it had been concluded that the final wolf had moved out of sight most everyone drove further to the west and packed up at the large parking lot adjacent to the filling station at Tower Junction.  From this point we had a good if not exceptional view of the pack.  They were about two to two and a half miles away (I wasn’t sure I could pinpoint their location on the topographic map).  For the remainder of the day we could see an occasional wolf moseying from one sub-group to another.  Some of the pack was completely out of sight and another sub-group was bedded out on a dry patch were we could see them clearly.

The wind continued unabated during the day.  While never gusting outrageously, the wind never let up either.  Thus, I never cooked breakfast or any other hot meal because I don’t like operating my cookstove when the winds are steady.  Still, with the Sun only partly hidden the warmth made life pleasant.  Groups of people came driving by and upon seeing all the spotting scopes out would stop and inevitably ask what was being seen.  I felt gratified to help people who had never before seen a wolf accomplish that goal.  Some folks had literally only a day passing through from one place to another to stop in Yellowstone for a few short hours.  It made me happy to see the smile cross people’s faces at the moment they could make out the wolves heaped on the bare patch miles distant.  For some, it might very well be a once in a lifetime event and that highlight they will take with them for years to come.  We all choose different paths in this life, and a view of that which defines wild might provide positive inspiration for a person in time of trouble.  I know from my own experiences as a cook in a high-pressure kitchen that the mere thought of a wild wolf can change my attitude for the better.

Why is it that wolves inspire so much appreciation on one hand and loathing on the other?  The answer lies in our own individual values, but I also believe that wolves’ sociability comes into play.  What inspires some might terrify others whose beliefs are founded in negative myth.  I enjoy watching wolves socialize and maintain pack harmony yet some would declare that the bared teeth and loud growls are sure signs of evil intent.  Twenty-five years ago people claimed that wolves would wipe out the elk.  They didn’t, but were part of a combination of factors that helped to bring the population under control.  There were people who claimed that wolves would attack people.  Some even refused to let children wait for the school bus unattended based on the perceived threat from wild canines.  Yet after two and a half decades of wolves living in Yellowstone National Park, where people and wolves often cross paths in close proximity to each other, millions upon millions of people have walked around freely without once being injured by a wolf.

Once again I was appreciative of the fact that I had dressed warmly,  for even in the Sun the wind’s bite cut deep.  Still, I found the experience being outside surrounded by people happy to be where they were enough to numb any discomfort caused by the wind.  As the day progressed into afternoon and evening the wolves remained as inert as could be.  The time I had between pressing my eye to the scope and talking to others I used in observing the natural world and thinking about the strange twists of fate that had brought me to this point in time and space.  Starting off from wolves, I could make connections with the natural world all around me.  That might mean the song birds, or the herd of elk a half mile distant, or the conifer forest that blankets the Absoraka Range to finally the forces that created that range.  I had had a good day, and finally around seven o’clock in the evening I decided to return back to Gardiner.  I stopped in at the Wonderland Cafe to enjoy conversation with another group of old friends.  Later on four of us gathered at the newly constructed home that Nathan and Linda had built for themselves.  I wouldn’t conclude this day until nearly midnight, but what a day it had been.

In Search of Wolves, Day 6 (Yellowstone National Park & the Junction Butte Pack; Montana & Wyoming) – March 10, 2020

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Wolves! There are at least three in this view. On the second slope two are fairly visible just below the ridge; one to the right and one to the left. They are the heavier dark spots.  The third is on the ridge just left of center, and is difficult to see without zooming in.

Having turned in early I awoke before my five o’clock alarm went off.  I may have been just a bit excited for my second full day searching for wolves and the other wildlife of Yellowstone National Park.  I left fifteen minutes earlier than the day before.  Thus by quarter after five I was driving away from my temporary residence at the Absoraka Lodge in Gardiner, Montana.  I drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs in the dark, enjoying what I could see by moonlight.  Because of the sighting the day before and knowing the proximate location of the Junction Butte Pack I decided to drive out to Lamar Valley before stopping to listen for howls.  I heard nothing at the west end of the valley, nor at the pullout for the Soda Butte Trailhead (3K1) which is better known colloquially as Footbridge pullout because of the nearby footbridge which the Lamar River Trail uses to cross Soda Butte Creek.

I decided to continue up to Round Prairie if for no other reason than I had not seen it for a number of years.  Besides, sometimes the pack would travel this far up valley.  Hearing nothing, I nonetheless enjoyed the silence of this mountain meadow and the moonlight shining off the surrounding snow-clad Absoraka Range.  I always appreciate the quietude of mountainous settings, anyhow.  A light skiff of snow crunched under my feet.  My reverie was broken by a contingent of vehicles moving down the road.  That was also my cue – only wolf watchers are out this early, especially in Winter.  I followed behind going westbound back towards Lamar Valley when it became abundantly clear by the mass of automobiles parked at the Footbridge lot that that was the place to be.  Numerous people were talking in excited but subdued voices.  I pulled over, shut the engine off and quietly exited my vehicle, making sure not to slam the door shut.  Any undue noise can cause nearby wildlife to alter their behavior, so conscientious silence is appreciated by all.

Upon climbing a snowbank I set up my scope and asked nearby people for a head’s up.  They pointed out where the wolves were bedded down, just a little over half a mile away, maybe closer to three-quarters of a mile.  Regardless, they were visible to the naked eye if you knew what to look for.  Setting up the scope I could clearly make out the lupine forms.  They were doing what wolves frequently do – sleep.  What made this view exciting for all of us was that we could count all seventeen members of this pack.  There are only three gray wolves in this pack, the others colored black.  Some of the younger wolves were gnawing on and tossing around some old bones, but otherwise the pack was stationary.

After the brief sighting the previous day, with only avian scavengers implying the pack’s presence, this sighting out in the open sagebrush invigorated us all.  Seeing the pack all grouped together like this reminded me of why I enjoy seeing these social beings.  Wolves seem to enjoy the presence of their packmates, and to me this is evident even when asleep.  This situation went on for an hour and some, giving me ample chance to begin the process of learning who’s who.  The three gray wolves were the obvious place to start, so I made inquiries and was told about some of the history of the pack.  Because the lack of action made any sort of identification problematic I couldn’t do much but enjoy the spectacle of the pack together as one large unit.

At some point, the wolves began to get a little restless, and there was some rallying between packmates.  By rallying, I mean a social interaction where one wolf might greet another and this would lead to one or another wolf joining in on the action.  It was fairly low-key – some wagging tails, snuffling muzzles and meandering around by one or two wolves while the others slept.  I don’t remember who initiated the action, whether it was the alpha leaders or other junior ranking adults, or even restless pups.  Slowly, singles and pairs of wolves began to trickle away from the pack and off into a shallow gully where they couldn’t be seen only to re-emerge moments later on a ridge that leads up to Mount Norris.  This continued for fifteen to thirty minutes (I didn’t make detailed notes) until finally the last wolf got up to follow the others whom we had watched make the climb beforehand.

Around eight the last wolves moved out of sight up and behind the snowy ridge just to the east.  Some of the wolf watchers began to leave the Footbridge lot to drive further west hoping to get a view.  This would put spotters an additional two miles or so away, but the reward would be if the wolves could be spotted moving some elk around.  However, it was not to be.  Whatever the wolves were up to would remain a secret for the time being.  The research plane flew overhead and word quickly got around that it wasn’t likely we would be seeing the pack anytime soon.  Still, it was always possible they would come back this way hot on the trail of their prey.  It had been known to happen, so many people stuck around just in case while others left to pursue others things.

I stuck around long enough to make myself some breakfast, having subsisted on strong black coffee and a single chewy breakfast bar.  Around eleven I decided to make my way back to Gardiner.  I had made previous plans to meet up with my friend Nathan to help him move some furniture.  He and his wife Linda run Yellowstone Wolf Trackers, a wildlife guiding service.  I always enjoy spending time with the both of them as they thoroughly enjoy the park’s wildlife.  Once back at the motel I had some time to myself to reminisce and think about past adventures, all the while sunning myself on the patio that overlooks the Yellowstone River.  It was a fine late Winter day, warm sunlight streaming through the partially cloudy sky.

I had worked for Linda during her den studies and had met Nathan through that.  One of my Yellowstone highlights was arriving late in the day one Autumn just prior to Winter Study.  Nathan had suggested a hike up to Terrace Mountain so we left the employee area above Mammoth and followed the applicable trails until we had come around to the west side of the low mountain.  We walked up through sagebrush until we were near the summit and found a good place to sit.  Here we had sat, enjoying a quick repast and just simply reveling in the wild.  There was a group of about thirty to forty elk, cows and calves, just a quarter mile to the east.  The cows were calling their calves to them, although at the moment I didn’t think much about it.  I was chewing on some bit of food when Nathan spoke up and said “Hey, look… wolves!” and sure enough there were four or five gray wolves marshaling the elk we had been watching the past thirty minutes.  Most likely members of the then extant Swan Lake Pack (they were all gray, no blacks), they soon moved out of sight but it was exciting to see them so close and so unexpectedly.  We soon left, too, as night was about to fall.  We made our way down towards the Fawn Lake Trail through some dense lodgepole pine.  Having come up the Snow Pass Trail we thought walking down by The Hoodoos would make a nice loop.  We could hear the wolves howling intermittently as we hiked.  Below the hoodoos the light gave out and we finished our hike in darkness.  It seemed that we were shadowing the wolves because their howls were never far away.  Finally, when we were only about a quarter a mile away from the residence the pack went off – by that I mean they had a howling session that had to be within a hundred yards of our location.  It was loud.  I had worked with captive wolves and knew when I was close by to a group of howling canines.  It was mesmerizing.  Neither one of us could believe our good luck.  We paused to listen to the wild song.  I couldn’t see Nathan’s face but I’m pretty sure his grin was as large as mine.  Once the howling abated we continued on our way, only to have the song commence once again.  That was how the hike finished, us by the door listening to the wild wolves filling the night sky with their voice.  I’ve seldom had a better hike.

Once Nathan arrived at the motel, we caught up on all the recent goings-on in our respective lives.  I filled him in on all revelations that had come to me in the recent months, and some hours passed before we actually got around to moving furniture around.  Nice light work, the time flew by easily with good conversation.  Soon, the Sun was beginning to slide down behind Electric Peak.  Calling it a day, we bought some adult beverages and went north a few miles from Gardiner to find a bit of solitude along the Yellowstone River.  The mighty river was running low, as would be expected this time of year just prior to Spring melt, but I could still feel its power.  We found a good place to sit, swapped more stories and enjoyed the majestic scenery that abuts the park.  Once the Sun completely slid out of sight the air turned cold and both of our thoughts turned towards dinner.  Nathan bought me dinner for helping him out, a very generous recompense, and we enjoyed our meal at Wonderland Cafe.  This restaurant does not hide the fact that they are pro park and pro wildlife.  I don’t care to spend my money with people who don’t value the park as much as I do, so I felt good about eating out here.  Numerous fine photographs of the wild inhabitants of Yellowstone National Park hang about the walls enriching the dining experience.  Having had another full day, I made my way back to the motel afterwards and promptly fell asleep.  Who knew what the daybreak would bring!

Note:  I don’t have the best camera.  It’s twelve years old and has only a ten power optical zoom and seven megapixels.  The view through a decent spotting scope is much better.

In Search of Wolves, Day 5 (Yellowstone National Park; Junction Butte Pack; Ski to Tower Falls) – March 09, 2020

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Looking east on Soda Butte Creek

Morning found me prone in Gardiner, Montana, asleep at the Absoraka Lodge.  The alarm had been set for five and upon its chime I dutifully rose.  The reason for my being here, seeing wild wolves, meant an early start for the best chance to see the crepuscular beasts.  I began the process of readying myself for a day in the field.  Coffee first thing on my mind, I brewed a cup.  As the caffeinated beverage made ready I donned my base layers and began loading the car with the day’s necessities.  I took out victuals for the day, ample water, extra gear, the optics and sundry other small but vital items.  After double checking the car, I felt comfortable that I had what I needed and dressed up in my outer layers.  I stopped at the gas station for fuel and to buy a thermos of coffee.  I then drove through town and into Yellowstone National Park via the North Entrance.  There was no real hint of twilight so I could only imagine the scenery as I drove by.  Having gotten an early enough start I was in no real hurry.  The speed limits may seem low but I really don’t want to collide with one of the wild inhabitants of the park so I enjoyed the pace and took it easy.

I drove across bridge over the Gardiner River up past Lava Creek and stopped briefly at Blacktail Ponds.  The buffalo carcass in the water seemed deserted for the moment so I moved on to the parking lot at South Butte.  There I cut the engine and hopped up onto a snowbank.  Overcast and windy, but not overly cold, the near full Moon cast enough light through the cloud cover to illuminate the Blacktail Deer Plateau in a dim dark blue haze.  Ostensibly I had stopped to listen for wolves howling but I also thought about my past experiences in the park regarding this same landscape.  Thoughts that crossed my mind included recollections of the Leopold Pack’s various escapades that I had been witness to.  I have a vivid memory of the pack attempting to prey upon a bull elk who was vigorously defending himself.  Rooting for neither, the parry between the two species no matter the outcome is what fascinates me.  The bull used an outcropping of rock as a defensive backstop, reducing the points of attack by fifty percent and eventually the wolves moved off to find more vulnerable prey.  The wind’s ceaseless whine brought my mind back to the present and I thought of the Eight-Mile Pack that now inhabits this realm.  I know very little about this pack  beyond that they exist.  These thoughts in my mind I returned to the car and drove off to the east.

I made further stops at Hellroaring, Elk Creek and Little America.  Listened for howls, reminisced about past experiences, made merry at the moonlight and pondered the goodness of an intact natural ecosystem.  Here in Yellowstone National Park exists one of the rarest of all natural phenomena – a relatively unexploited population of wolves that is also easily visible.  It is true that since the wolf’s removal from the endangered species list this population has lost animals to legal hunts, yet for the most part people are able to see them acting like wolves.  While I am no fan of predator hunting in general I am especially disturbed by hunting of wolves.  Part of my outlook is derived from why I think that wolves are more interesting than most other animals, and that is due to their sociability and the cooperative family unit that is the pack.  Removing a key member of the pack can have serious consequences for the group.  Besides, it’s my strong personal belief that social animals ought not to be subject to trophy hunting.

I pulled over at Slough Creek and saw two researchers going out with telemetry.  Guessing that they knew where the wolves were, based on the telemetry they were carrying, I nonetheless didn’t tag along to set up own optics.  I well remember the days as a technician myself when I wouldn’t necessarily want to perform the duties of an interpretive ranger.  As it was still dark I decided to drive into Lamar Valley.  I pulled over at the west end and then further on at Footbridge and Soda Butte Cone.  At the latter the daylight had become illuminating enough so that I could finally take a snapshot of the surrounding mountains.  Not finding a group of people with spotting scopes all clustered on some obvious high point I decided to drive back west to Slough Creek.  There I found a cluster of cars that indicated something was up.  I walked out a short distance to find the contingent of wolf watchers eagerly anticipating a sighting of the Junction Butte Pack.

The community of wolf watchers is a diverse group of people who all share an enthusiasm for Canis lupus.  Some, like myself, only visit irregularly while others have centered their lives around being able to view wolves on a near daily basis.  Folks’ background are nearly as diverse and the different backgrounds or viewpoints all get mingled in this strange brew of humanity.  The one thing that so distinguishes this group is the overall positivity that emanates from the various human personalities.  Nearly everyone feels blessed to be here and fortunate that circumstances have led them to this point in space and time.  All are eager to share knowledge and resources.  Compared to my usual venue in a commercial kitchen this is a refreshing change of attitude.

There is a certain amount of etiquette to be observed – quietude is expected if the wolves or other wildlife are near, especially if the former are howling, for example – and as I tend to fear obeisance to societal rules the entire scene can make me nervous should I dwell on that aspect alone.  But that is really just what some people would call a hangup, and most rules are obvious enough commonsense to follow, anyhow.  Besides, if there is any question about about what is proper or not most anyone will happily answer.  For now, as there were no wolves in sight the chatter was vibrant about a number of subjects.  I scanned the area without any real hope of finding the wolves, but one never knew.  Besides, there were plenty of bison and waterfowl to see.  And I simply enjoyed observing the landscape, reliving some of the vivid memories I retain of yesteryear.  In June of Nineteen Ninety-Six I visited the park with a friend and we saw the Rose Creek Pack from a nearby vantage point – what was my first sighting of the fabled 8, maybe 9 and most likely 21, plus many of the other yearlings from the storied first litter.  I remember wading Slough Creek itself during this same time of year to perform a necropsy on an elk, and later seeing one of my subjects with my naked eye just loping along.  My reverie ended when the research plane flew over and later called in by radio that the pack had moved to the east.  That is exactly what the group did collectively – pack up and move.  In both senses.

Once settled in opposite the Buffalo Ranch and Lamar Valley Ranger Station I barely had time to pick up my binoculars and catch a quick glimpse of about eight or nine wolves moving across an open slope above Rose Creek.  Perhaps just over half a mile away, they soon moved into the trees and out of sight.  By the time I had set up my spotting scope I only saw 1229, a young female, running after the pack.  I could see her tongue out as she more ran than loped.  My impression was that she was joyfully expectant.  The wolves remained static, and the ravens and suggestive glimpses of white feathers through dense forest suggested that 1229 might have had something to be excited about, after all.  I could well imagine that the pack had aggregated around a carcass.  In the larger pantheon of wolf sightings this one was fairly routine but for me it was magnificent.  Even from a distance, and briefly, the sighting reminded me of why I enjoy the spectacle of wolves so much.  Every critter is well worth watching, but wolves express a certain joy in living that I don’t see much elsewhere.

There was a possibility that the Junction Butte Pack would continue their movement to the east, up and over a high ridge.  This route had been used by them many times before, or so attested the experienced wolf watchers.  Yet no such movement occurred so I went over to say hello to Rick McIntyre, whom I had worked with as a biological technician decades before.  Rick has seen more wolves than any person in the history of the world and enjoys talking about them.  He was kind enough to explain some of the history and current status of the Junctions, and introduced me to a number of people who had been on the scene for many years.  I shacked up in the snow and finally got around to making a late breakfast.  I had been so excited to get out in the field that I had subsisted on black coffee alone.  As I prepared my hot breakfast over my cook stove, I talked with a number of other folks who I had recently made acquaintance.  Barely ten in the morning, and already I had had a fine day.

My snow perch proved good protection from the biting wind that wails across Lamar Valley with undying frequency.  It helped that the Sun would occasionally poke out from behind a bevy of fast paced clouds.  The warmth is always most welcome.  Despite my precautions I was soon reminded of just how cold a person could become from sitting in one place.  Generally, I remained comfortable but could feel the cold seeping in.  Finally, some time around quarter past eleven I decided to retreat back to Tower Junction and go for a ski.  It seemed likely that the wolves wouldn’t move any great distance.  The National Park Service grooms the road to Tower Fall and beyond so that people can walk or ski out to see the sights in Winter.  I don’t believe that I had ever skied up there so I thought it a fine idea.  I swapped out gear and began the ski up to the falls.  Although cold sitting in Lamar, I now found myself a bit warmer than I would have liked and had to stop to doff my jacket.

Skiing up the familiar road was a treat compared to driving.  The adjoining lodgepole pine woods were quiet and peaceful.  Ahead of me I saw a coyote mousing along the side of the road.  The trickster would leap up, forelegs bent at the wrists such that the paws were horizontal, and then plunge into the drift head first.  The mid-sized omnivore left an imprint in the snow that showed muzzle, head and ears.  Along the route are numerous overlooks that allow a view of the Yellowstone River.  I stopped and took it all in before proceeding on my way to the fall themselves.  Eschewing the hike to the bottom I remained on the observation deck and listened more than looked.  Sheathed in ice, the frothing white water could be seen but the sound was more impressive.  Returning to the car I passed under a large cliff of igneous rock, and here the road feels particularly squeezed in between overhanging rock and a plunging declivity.  Stopping at the Calcite Springs overlook I found myself again stunned by the view of the river and the Absaroka Range to the north.

Once back at the car I changed gear once again and then drove back out to Lamar Valley and the contingent of remaining wolf watchers.  The biologists were still on scene, as part of their data set is to keep track of the wolves position and activity as completely as possible.  Remembering my own past experiences I know that tedium can grow when sitting waiting for something to happen.  There are creative ways to keep the boredom at bay, but I was happy enough at this moment that I could come and go as I pleased.  Somewhat predictably, nothing of note had happened during my absence and I settled in for the next few hours more or less soaking up what sunlight reached me.  I met numerous people who were staying at the Yellowstone Institute.  Somehow, some of that group were under the impression that I was one of their guides and were somewhat disquieted when I had to admit that I was merely on vacation!  I stayed on scene until after five sometime when I decided to call it a day.  I returned to Gardiner.  I don’t really remember eating dinner but I must have… somewhere.  My feeling of elation is what I recall.  Knowing that another day awaited, and that it would again be early, I turned into bed by nine still feeling a bit giddy from the long, exciting day.

 

 

In Search of Wolves, Day4 (Craig, Colorado, to Gardiner, Montana; Yellowstone National Park) – March 08, 2020

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The Roosevelt Arch adjacent to Gardiner, Montana; at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park

I woke early, taking into account the beginning of daylight savings time.  What had been four in the morning was now five, so I would lose an hour of drive time keeping to the old schedule.  I kept the alarm set at four.  The Trav-O-Tel Motel in Craig, Colorado, had served me well, and as I stumbled around early in the morning – packing, brewing coffee – I again admired the compact but neat room.  Nice tile work in the bathroom, exposed wood beams, attractive western themed artwork hung throughout… I had wanted to car camp, but felt lucky to find this place nonetheless.  In the morning darkness I made the car ready and closely examined the pavement below the engine so as to detect any drips from the coolant system.  Hitting the deer the previous evening had nearly put an end to this trip, and I was ready to turn back home should I find any sign, no matter how slight, of a defect in the cooling system.

I considered turning back, regardless.  As I explained in my previous post, I had never learned to trust people thus hindering my emotional growth.  Self doubt created in me a hesitancy even now.  After I realized that the only path forward would be to reckon with my emotional state, I devised the plans for this trip.  Exploring northwestern Colorado and searching for the nascent wolf pack there had been challenging and rewarding in its own way, but it had also been fairly easy for me emotionally.  Most of my explorations are similar in feel.  That is, I’m generally alone, or most likely with my two German shepherds.  I was motivated to see wolves in the wild, however, and from my previous experience as a biological technician on the Wolf Project in Yellowstone National Park I knew where I could do that.  Wolves are easy.  For me, its the humans that cause me trepidation, though through no fault of the people themselves.  Yes, I wanted to see wolves.  Did I really want to confront my emotional state?  Yes… and no.  Thus me examining my feelings as I drove west on U.S. 40 a few blocks before turning north on Colorado 13 towards Wyoming.  Southbound would lead me home, to safety, really.

It occurred to me that I had not seen Craig at all during the daylight hours.  I also thought of how I had contributed about two hundred and fifty dollars to the local economy.  That’s not much in the overall outlook, but still….Moffat County is generally opposed to Initiative 107, the proposal to reintroduce wolves to Colorado.  This new pack that I had attempted to find, that I have begun calling the Centennial Pack, is often cited by those opposed to the initiative as a cause celebre that suggests that since wolves are already here then there is no reason for further reintroduction.  Of course, no mention is made of whether or not this pack actually reproduces.  Or whether it will wander across the state line and into Wyoming or Utah.  Or that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has a minimum criteria that needs to be met to define a population.  I’m not sure off-hand what that is but I’m sure it’s more than one pack that hasn’t even shown definitive reproductive success.  I’m for reintroduction and plan to vote for Initiative 107 this Fall.

I took it easy north of Craig as I was somewhat wary after the previous evening’s collision.  There were many fewer deer this way and those that I did see seemed a bit more calm.  Traffic was light, consisting of a few passenger vehicles, work trucks and the occasional semi.  A flurry of signage indicated the state line and the highway was now denominated Wyoming 789.  I stopped north of the state line  and bought a tank of gas in Baggs.  All else was quiet but the pumps murmur.  Darkness prevailed and I could only see what the headlights lit up.  From the few times I have seen this country in daylight I could barely discern what lay beyond the car’s illumination.  Reaching Interstate 80 the situation changed suddenly.  The clouds, rain and snow combined to delay the onset of dawn and thus the long line of illuminated superhighway I could see for miles at a time.  Considering the time of day I thought that traffic was fairly heavy.  Headlights shining clear, red tail lights, and amber clearance lights on the larger vehicles, huge fueling depots combined with large convenience marts, eighty miles an hour speed limit….Suddenly I found myself in the mainstream of American commerce.  Nothing to do but go along with the flow and count down the mileage until I could exit at Rawlins and head north.  “Windshield wipers slapping time…”  Yeah, it was drizzling, too.

I was happy to exit the interstate and begin the route north again.  I’ve driven this stretch of U.S. 287/Wyoming 789 numerous times over the years, and in the darkness I missed seeing the familiar landmarks along the way.  I entered the Great Divide Basin and then when exiting noted that daylight had made discernible the various nearby hills.  I love the topography of this area but it is also more or less horribly chewed up by extractive industry.  The interruption of biological diversity and wanton disregard for life hinder my want to explore the basin itself although the mountains nearby are often protected.  It isn’t lost on me that driving my car consumes the very product I now deride, thus one of many contradictions to be found in our modern life.  Petroleum products gave us a good start but it seems time to move away from polluting energy into something greener.  If in the process we can’t exactly heal the wounds we create, then perhaps we could at least bandage them.  In the end, disrupt the function of the ecosystem, a function that provides us with clean water and air among a host of benefits, as minimally as possible.

Traffic had thinned considerably once on the two-lane road north of Rawlins.  As dawn approached I relaxed considerably, now able to see the roadside more visibly.  The precipitation had also ceased by the time I made it to Muddy Gap Junction, where I turned left towards the west, although still northbound on U.S. 287 /Wyoming 789.  There yanked on my mind the thought that I should turn back.  Try as I might I couldn’t shake the mental reproach that I had imposed on myself. Yet the open road soothes, and as the miles fly by some of my angst is shed in the rearview to be replaced by a clarity of purpose.  With a tinge of red on the horizon I decided to pull over at the Split Rock Interpretive Site.  Split Rock was a major way point on the Oregon and associated Trails.  I also find inspiration from the Granite Mountains themselves and the Sweetwater River.  Wide open, vast, replete with scattered outcroppings of weathered granite… this area exudes that which I love about the Western landscape.  Windy, too.  I abandoned my plans to cook a quick breakfast and drove on, content to snack and fill up on convenience store coffee.  I pulled over at the Ice Slough, so named because of the preponderance of ice found here even in July.  The ice doesn’t form any more due to environmental degradation, but it is an interesting story.

At Sweetwater Station I turned north on Wyoming 135 and drove up to the summit of the Beaver Divide, which parts water between the Missouri and Platte River systems.  I pulled over and took in the immensity of the Big Horn Basin.  I used this pullout numerous times in the past, as I enjoy the long view of the Wind River Range especially.  There was too much snow to drive out, so I parked and walked a bit to get the view I so enjoy.  Continuing onward I drove down into Riverton where I rejoined Wyoming 789, now co-signed with U.S. 26 and then U.S. 20, and followed that through the Wind River Canyon.  Near the Wedding of the Waters, I pulled over and cooked breakfast but became a bit sloppy about documenting what I was seeing.  I drove through Thermopolis, site of many fond memories, and turned onto Wyoming 120.  I sailed along without stopping as I had explored much of this landscape.  There are some fascinating archaeological sites in the vicinity, but I wanted to see wildlife so…onward.

North of Cody I finally stopped at a Clark’s Fork fishing access.  I didn’t walk around but just admired the wildness of the view.  The sagebrush steppe, the river flowing through it, the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains shrouded in low clouds… a sublime scene.  As much as I wanted to stop and explore, the drive was eating up more time than I had anticipated.  So, I rolled on into Montana and drove up to Bear Creek and over to Red Lodge.  From there I cut across on Montana 78 to Columbus and Interstate 90.  The rolling foothills surrounding the two-lane highway where covered in new snowfall, about three or four inches deep.  But by the time  I stopped at Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus the snow had melted.  I stopped here to stretch my legs and walk the banks of the mighty Yellowstone River.  The moist air smelled good, filled with the fragrance of the organic compounds shed by the nearby vegetation.

Rested and desiring to make time, I flew along at eighty on Interstate 90 as it paralleled the Yellowstone.  I scarcely had time to think of Lewis and Clark, not to mention the diverse natural history of the area.  I had eaten at a Subway in Red Lodge after filling up, so once exited in Livingston I stopped only as long as traffic dictated.  Some miles south on U.S. 89 brought me to the northern end of Paradise Valley.  I could see the Yellowstone River wind its way through the long, broad expanse, the Gallatin Range rising on the west and the Absoraka Range on the east.  The closer I got to Gardiner the more wildlife I began to see.  I saw numerous bands of elk grazing in meadows along the highway.  Cloudy and windy, the mountains clad in snow, it was a Winter sight that I had not witnessed first hand in nineteen years.

South of Gardiner I pulled over at an overlook that directs the visitor’s attention to The Devil’s Slide.  A mass of upturned sedimentary strata, the cutaway view does resemble a large slide.  I admired the river and gazed up at dark, forested Sepulcher Mountain, knowing that I was looking at Yellowstone National Park itself.  Only ten minutes or so from the hotel I was happy to stretch my legs a bit after the long drive.  The stop allowed me to gather my wits as well.  I finished the drive and pulled into the Absoraka Lodge, checked in without a hitch and began to unload the car of superfluous luggage.

At that point I realized that there were still two or three hours of daylight left, and I could make a foray into the park.  So, I dressed appropriately, putting on my field gear, and brought along the essentials.  I drove up to Roosevelt Arch, just to remind myself where I was and how special the world’s first national park is to me and so many others.  From there I drove up the familiar road to Mammoth Hot Springs and then on out to Blacktail Ponds.  There a mass of vehicles had pulled over, and I did the same.  A buffalo had ended up in the pond, turning itself into a carcass.  People were interested in seeing what scavengers might show up to feast on the provident meal.  A long coyote guarded the hulk, but due to the location of the carcass couldn’t really get out onto it.  Some ravens flew in and fruitlessly pecked away at the hide.  Two more coyotes came trotting along, and all three engaged in some interesting social conduct.  Coyotes talk to each other in a most engaging way, and it was wonderful to see them interact.  The two late-comers left and as the Sun set the initial coyote curled back up into a ball and slept.

I had seen an old friend there, and we talked about the current status of wolves and wildlife in general and how it had changed since the old days.  I would have quite a bit of catching up to do if I were to understand the current landscape.  I drove a short distance east, up to the South Butte parking lot.  From here I could gaze over the vast country that makes up the Blacktail Deer Plateau.  During my stint working in the park I had watched the Leopold Pack during Den Study and Winter Study.  There were more bison now relative to elk than then, but the landscape was how I remembered it.  I felt the wind blow in my face as I stood over the landscape, admiring the park not just in landscape but in spirit… that this place is protected.  No cattle, no barbed-wire, no mining, no logging… one of the few places where nature is left to its own device, and where the human spirit can interact with that wildness.  I was happy to have made it, that my journey hadn’t ended out in the steppe of northwestern Colorado.

I returned to the motel and unpacked for the night.  I made myself ready for the next day as much as I could… laying out clothing, setting up food, readying the coffee maker, setting the alarm for five in the morning and otherwise organizing for my first day seeking the wolves of Yellowstone.  Weary after a long day, I finally crawled into bed after sending out a few texts letting people know that I had arrived in town safely.  While making up the texts I had stepped out onto the balcony that overlooks the Yellowstone River.  It was night but the bright moon illuminated the landscape such that I could make out Mount Everts and Sepulcher Mountain.  I thought of the past and how it shaped the present, and wondered what the future held.  Dawn would tell.

In Search of Wolves, Day 3 (Craig, Colorado, Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge, Cold Spring Mountain; Hiking Limestone Ridge) – March 07, 2020

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Looking at the top side of Irish Canyon; Vermilion Bluffs to the left

Having had time in the previous evening to analyze my attempt to find wolves in northwestern Colorado I was nonetheless not sure what plans I should make for this day.  I could repeat my search in the same area.  Or I could go north, south, east or west.  It was very possible that I was searching fifty miles or more away from where I would have any hope of finding the slightest sign.  I thought the Sand Wash Wild Horse Management Area a good place to look, east of Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge, but was wary of the muddy conditions that could quite literally bog me down miles from anywhere.  South seemed good, but I didn’t know my way around.  West into Utah would just add yet more miles to my early morning drive.  I chose north in the end if for no other reason that I could explore a portion of Cold Spring Mountain that I have been curious about for reasons other than wolves.  I could see some habitat, and maybe accomplish two tasks – find wolves, explore landscape – simultaneously.

Again I rose at four and brewed a pot of coffee.  I had brought along my go-cup and a large thermos.  The latter proved especially useful considering that my energy level was so high that I easily ignored hunger pangs in my pursuit of wild canines.  Black coffee alone kept me going.  Once again I left town in darkness and exited Craig, Colorado, via U.S. 40 towards the west.  Thirty miles of highway led me to Maybell, where I bought a half a tank of gasoline – the country I was about to enter being so remote that I filled up anytime the tank capacity became less than half – and drove again down narrow Colorado 318.  I decided not to stop to listen for howls at Sand Wash and CR 67 but I did stop at Moffat CR 46 to make a listen.  Nothing.  Except that I was treated to an orange moon-set.  I had thought the day before that the orange clouds I had seen on the western horizon were due to streetlamps in Vernal, Utah.  Now I realized that I had seen the Moon dipped below the horizon and those clouds had been  moonlit.  It was now five-thirty in the morning, and the eastern horizon was barely lit from the encroaching Sun.

Why I was out in Moffat County in the first place is a long story, one that I have begun exploring in other blog posts.  The first part I wrote about in my post that also included a ski with the shepherds on March 04, 2019.  There I wrote about the wolf issue finding me here in the Gunnison Country, although I had essentially been keeping it at bay for the last decade and a half.  In my post for March 05, 2020, I described my amazement at finding myself indexed in Rick McIntyre’s book The Rise of Wolf 8.  Rick’s book brought about in me a better understanding of how individual wolves can shape not only a pack’s future but the regional population.  My stint studying wolves was in retrospect fairly short and while I had recognized wolves as individuals I had never seen the bigger picture.  I am grateful for this new-to-me perspective.

I continued west on Colorado 318 until I reached the turnoff for Moffat County 10N.  This road is more or less a highway that connects Craig, Colorado, to Rock Spring, Wyoming, and I have seen some fairly heavy truck traffic along this route.  I drove north until at some point about a mile or so south of a small archaeological site I pulled over to again shut off the engine and listen for the presence of a pack.  Hearing nothing but the easy sigh of the morning breeze I continued north towards the southern entrance to Irish Canyon.  Thirty-five minutes later found me atop a high point just north of Irish Canyon.  In the two-mile diameter meadow between my observation post and the north entrance to Irish Canyon I espied a small band of fourteen cow elk.  They were a bit too far away to determine how many of them might have been the previous year’s calves.  They seemed to be grazing easily without too much concern; had wolves preyed on this small herd the predation would have been a while back.  I noted that this was the same place from where I had taken a hike down into Vermilion Creek the previous October.  At that time some other people had made a inconclusive but convincing video of two wolves in the pack that I now sought sign of.

Rick’s book fascinated me but I also knew that I was part of a queue of interested people who were all waiting their turn.  So after one read I dutifully returned the book to the library.  Almost by happenstance I looked over the small section in the stacks where books on wolves are kept.  I saw Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf on the shelf and after looking it over decided to check it out.  I suspected that this story would be revealing but I wasn’t honestly prepared for the emotional fall out that would follow.  The book to me is essentially a biography of a wolf and the story of that wolf’s influence on other wolves and the humans beings whose lives all intertwined.  If Rick’s book had been the primer then American Wolf was the fuse; the two combined to detonate the load of emotional dynamite that I had laid aside some decade and a half prior, almost forgotten.

I watched the elk graze for about fifteen minutes.  After that I decided to drive up to CR 72 and follow it west as far as I could.  This road would allow me to view the north side and much of the higher country of Cold Spring Mountain.  The first thing I noticed was the numerous pump-jacks that indicated the presence of an extant oil field.  Then I saw the numerous small herds of pronghorn that dotted the sagebrush strewn expanse of G Flats.  There were well over a hundred, if not hundreds.  I drove slowly by and startled only a few that were fairly close to the road.  I couldn’t help but smell the noxious fumes emitted from the industrialized landscape.  Honestly, I thought something was wrong with my car.  It might not be too far-fetched to say that this is the result of recent deregulation of industry on the public lands. This pollution of an otherwise clean air-shed should not be allowed to occur to such an extent.

A decade and a half doesn’t tell the whole story.  That is merely the time since I let my passion fade.  Last year I had a bout of sciatica that left me nearly debilitated.  Fortunately, I was able to work with the trainer at the gym and he helped me recover fairly quickly.  This was accomplished by exercising and stretching under his tutelage.  At one point, though, I could see a slight frown in his countenance as he studied my motion and he then said something akin to “it’s like you’ve been holding something in for forty years”.  I don’t know if he realized how close to the mark he hit.  I took note, though, and it caused me to review the events in my childhood that had left me emotionally crippled as an adult.

I drove up about four miles on CR 72 before a large snowdrift prevented any further progress – not that someone hadn’t tried.  I turned around and drove back down a half a mile before parking the car.  From there I hiked up a small ridge that allowed me to look down into Talamantes Creek and at the northern face of Cold Spring Mountain.  I didn’t see anything that suggested that elk had been in the area.  I saw some intriguing tracks from a distance but due to the snow condition and issues with property boundaries I decided not to pursue my investigations.  Besides, what I had intended as a slight easy meander up to a high point turned into a two mile hike without water or any other gear.  So I returned to the car and found other similar intriguing track sets that were fairly easy to visit from the road.  These were either deer or pronghorn, and not canine related.  Most likely the others were produced by an ungulate as well I concluded.

It frustrates me to say the least.  That my mind could produce in me a passion that could motivate and yet simultaneously place in me a debilitating emotional block.  After a decade and change were my driving motive sent me into the world of wolves I had pulled back.  Now, all this time later I found myself examining why.  Why I had never developed the emotional capability to trust other people.  Ultimately, I left the world of wolves not because I was bored with the animal itself but rather because I could not find the strength to break down the emotional barriers that I had erected.  When friends tried to reach out and understand why I had abandoned my love for wolves I would give as excuse some legitimate reason that told only part of the story.  Those would have been surface details.  I never had the courage to show what was underneath.  To be sure, I never lied but did obfuscate. To protect myself.

Not finding wolves or any sign did not surprise me, but I was hoping to find more elk.  I had thought of this area as being elk-rich but was having trouble finding them.  Either I was had overestimated the elk population or their presence was eluding me.  I suspect the latter.  Big country best describes this area and it gives me pause to think how little I saw of it during two days.  The wolves could have been anywhere, as could the elk, and I wouldn’t be the wiser.  After my exploration of the north face of Cold Spring Mountain I decided to return to my first high point.  The elk had departed and not much moved except some ravens as I cooked my breakfast.  To my west sat Limestone Ridge and a sub-bench that sits between the ridge and the meadow below.  To my east lay Vermilion Creek.  I had hiked down to the stream the previous October.  So, after contemplation during my repast I decided to hike up to the sub-bench.  There appeared to be a two-track that led off from the meadow and up a ridge to reach the sub-bench.  I drove down to its intersection and parked the car.

I was familiar with the details of the story told in American Wolf – I had heard the general specifics, and I remember one morning hearing my former supervisor on the radio talking about these events as I prepared for work – but they had seemed abstract to me.   I had placed most of my value for wild wolves on the population, although I could clearly see that wolves posses individuality.  What I had missed after I left Yellowstone makes me shake my head.  I’m sorry that I didn’t see some of it myself.  From the start I realized that this book would affect me more that I would perhaps like to admit.  I quickly read through the first half in a couple of days.  When I realized that the fuse had been lit I abruptly snuffed it out, so to speak, and put the book down for four days more as I let work life consume my time.  I wasn’t sure I could bear to finish the story – to let the charge detonate.

The wind had been blowing most of the day, so a hike uphill seemed like a great idea to keep the cold off if nothing else.   Leaving the car behind I walked along the two-track as it crossed the grassy meadow.  My path led fairly quickly to a forest of pinyon and juniper.  Here sat exposed numerous outcroppings of the various sedimentary layers that had over millions of years been uplifted and contorted.  Relatively hard sandstone.  Softer shale.  The differing erosion rates of these types of rock create some of the drama seen in the western landscape.  At one point I saw some elk tracks that at first I could imagine to be wolf tracks.  There was plenty of sign of elk but nothing for wolves.  Some coyote sign, too.  Reaching the base of the steep ascent up to the sub-bench I hiked along slowly but without interruption until I had gained a fine view of the world around me.

Finishing American Wolf, when I finally got around to it, set off the charge.  My mind had been blown wide open.  The story told could affect anyone.  That the story of one wolf could contain such a mix of joy and rapture, tragedy and pathos hadn’t been lost on numerous people.  That this story now affected me to the point were I was openly crying I’m not embarrassed to admit.  It was beautiful, and it was sad.  What this story did in addition, especially when combined with my new perspective gained from reading The Rise of Wolf 8, was to create in me a realization of just what it was that I had missed because of my underlying emotional state.  More challenging was the near instant realization that if any of this had any real meaning then I would need to have a concomitant emotional reckoning as well.

That this somewhat harsh landscape could bear so much life made a strong impact on me.  My hike had led northwest but once atop the bench I turned back south and walked an additional mile.  I found a nice place to sit and admired the up-close view of Limestone Ridge as well as the distant Vermilion Bluffs.  To the north lay a huge expanse of rolling mesas that stretched out to the horizon.  When I scanned the world around me with my binoculars I found what I believe where the same group of elk I had seen earlier.  They were bedded high up above me, about a half a mile away, only a hundred feet or so below the ridgeline.  I ate the lunch I had packed and took in the scenery.  That same scenery which the past October hadn’t looked to me much more than a template for wildness now gave me reason to believe that wildness had returned.  That tingle that said wolf.  Just the thought of it.

What can I say? I was distraught that I had missed so much.  Could I possibly move forward?  Could it be that my passion for and interest in wolves could remain extant after all this time?  I had to mull it over.  How could I give an account of myself without addressing all the emotions that I had internalized and inhibited over such a long time.  Twenty-twenty had started off with a proverbial bang.  Besides this sudden revitalization of my interest in the world of wolves I had also had contact with a couple of individuals whom I hadn’t seen in a decade.  One was a former cook who stopped by just because he wanted to tell me how much he had admired my outlook on life and how that outlook had positively impacted him.  That about floored me.  Another old friend from high school had reached out, and his story of woe that rivaled my own helped me gain aspect into the human condition.  I’m constantly amazed at how many people who seem so confidant are yet racked with self-doubt and insecurity.

Returning by the same trace that I had ascended, my return to the car was a bit more swift.  On my way uphill I had occasionally turned my head to see the new view.  Now downhill, I could take in the view continuously excepting an occasional glance at the two-track lest I should stumble over some unanticipated bramble.  Once I had concluded the hike my hunger made itself known to me.  I decided to drive down through Irish Canyon and visit Crook Campground.  This is where I had originally intended to car-camp.  Seeing the placid and serene setting of cottonwoods, mostly snow free albeit a bit muddy, I somewhat regretted my decision to get a motel.  Still, things worked out well enough.  I found a picnic table the setting of which seemed especially salubrious.  Here I made a quick camp-style dinner.  There wasn’t as much wildlife to watch as the previous evening’s dining locale but it was quiet and out of the wind.  As the Sun set and the light shone through the limbs of the large trees I thought of the last two days, and how these adventures had made for a nice segue into the next part of my journey.

Just why wolves matter to me is difficult to explain.  There are many aspects of wolves that I appreciate, including the biological services they provide keeping their prey healthy.  But in the end I would have to say it’s their sociability that really fires my interest.  Now, with my emotional life put into stark relief I wondered if I could transcend my usual state of ennui.  Somehow, I doubted it.  My life these last many years had been one of diminished expectations and I saw no reason why that would change.  Yet my passion for wolves had been rekindled.  With a new outlook on life I thought about what I wanted to do next.  The first step would be to put aside the political wolf for a moment and focus on the real wolf.  Go out an explore my joy.  Having set aside a block of time to visit Utah I quickly changed course and decided instead to visit Yellowstone National Park during Winter for the first time in nineteen years.  I was anxious to see what it was that I had been missing for so long.  I also knew that if I wanted to I could have an emotional reckoning, and for the first time in my life attempt to explain my outlook on the world to my friends.

Finishing supper I drove up to Colorado 318 and began the drive back to Craig.  There was still plenty of light to see the deer that were still flinging themselves recklessly across the highway.  The posted limit was sixty but I drove well under that.  When the speed limit decreased to forty-five I slowed down even more.  I’m glad I did, because last year’s fawn jumped out in front of me from behind a grove of especially large sagebrush such that there was no possible way to avoid a collision.  I slowed as much as I could but nonetheless knocked the fawn off its feet and sent it skidding across the opposite lane.  Hitting the shoulder, its hooves dug in and sent a spray of mud that landed on my hood and windshield as I rolled by.  The fawn rolled down the embankment as an explosion of fur lingered in the air.  I drove up about two-hundred feet to where I could safely make a U-turn and pulled over before I went back to look at the poor crushed sub-adult.  I expected the worst, and thought that my trip to Yellowstone had come to a sudden end.  Instead, I found the most minimal exterior damage and a solid cooling system.  I had expected to find coolant leaking at a prodigious rate.  Returning to the scene within a minute I was further overjoyed to find that the “crushed” deer had run off to join its parent.  It definitely looked a bit shaken up, and could have been next on the wolves’ menu due to sustained injuries, but for the moment the poor little beast seemed as well as could be.  I drove on, a bit more paranoid especially when what little light remaining fell into darkness.  I was happy to reach Craig safely and after winding down a bit soon fell into slumber.  I knew the next day would be long, as had been the last three, so I wanted to rest well and make an early exit.  Many thoughts were crossing my mind…