Sunday, September 24, 2017
We got a late start this morning, but considering we traveled all day yesterday, we felt entitled. It’s 27º when we leave Canyon around 8:30 a.m. There are no ravens on the carcass in the meadow and we look for a bear or wolves or coyotes, but the landscape is empty of predators, so we drive on to Hayden Valley under a blue sky.
Grizzly Overlook is jammed with vehicles and visitors peering over guardrails or bent over spotting scopes. They are all pointing toward the Wapiti Lake Pack’s rendezvous site across the bends in the Yellowstone River. This is where the pack brings its pups when they are old enough, and the Canyon Pack before it, and the Hayden Pack before that. The Hayden alphas, 540F and 541M, were the great grandparents of these new pups. When I think of it this way, I’m taken back by the history of all the wolves I’ve seen in this spot for so many years. I remember watching the Haydens hunt elk here, following them down the Yellowstone River. So many memories. The alpha female of the Wapitis, uncollared and unnumbered, is almost pure white, just like her mother, the Canyon Pack alpha female. She is the last wolf to carry this gene. Watching the gray and black yearlings and pups, now mixed with Mollie blood, I wonder if there will be another white wolf someday.
There are no wolves visible at the rendezvous at the moment, so we cross the road and climb the hill opposite Grizzly Overlook where a group of people point their spotting scopes west. The climb uphill is slippery. We step carefully, trying to find dry areas in between patches of ice and crunchy snow. This is where the Wapiti wolves are – well, six of them anyway: 3 blacks, 2 grays and the alpha female. Most likely hunting, they cross the white fields at the edge of the trees, group together with wagging tails, and march on led by a large black wolf.
I don’t know much about this pack and haven’t seen them much. The last time we saw them was fall 2016, just after Mollie wolves moved in and displaced 755M, and then it was only a single pup. Today we are lucky and right on time.
The rest of Hayden Valley and Lake is quiet. We stop to watch a bull elk herd his harem near a thermal. He whistles, the sound sending a bolt through the crisp morning. There is nothing like that call. The gentle waves of Yellowstone Lake barely brush the shore as morning sun glistens on the water. The hills surrounding Mary Bay and Sedge Bay and the meadows near Indian Pond are blanketed with snow while the road to Pelican Valley trailhead is a ribbon of white. We drive as far as Lake Butte Overlook and turn around, deciding to head north.
Dunraven Pass is open, though it’s markedly colder here, the snow at least a foot deep in places. Icey roads and turnouts are everywhere. Still, hikers climb the trail and the snow-covered hills surrounding Mt. Washburn. On the other side of the pass patches of snow and mesquite spread across the valley below Mt. Washburn. Elk graze high on a mountain slope across the river. Wolf watchers congregate in the turnouts overlooking Antelope Creek searching for the Junction Butte Pack who often travel over Specimen Ridge.
Friday’s snow has already melted in Little America and Lamar Valley, leaving only patches of white here and there and on the mountain tops. Bison spread out along the Lamar River. Almost all of this year’s calves have traded red-orange fur for rich brown coats with only a few little “red dogs” running around.
Under an overcast sky we begin the hike up Yellowstone Picnic trail. The trail is muddy and slick in some places from snowmelt, but not too bad. The smell of sulfur drifts up from the river, mixing with the clean scent of sage. Small tracks that look like a black bear cub’s are imprinted in the soft earth. A bighorn sheep ewe grazes in the flats next to the trail while across the river a black bear sow and her cub climb the rocky slopes above the blue green water. Up here, gazing down at the Yellowstone and out across the flat of Little America, time stands still. By sunset we are back in Hayden Valley and the Wapitis are back on the other side of the road.
– Christine Baleshta