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.