Where Foxes Play

After a six week hiatus, I saw one of “our” foxes Monday night!

The day had been a joy anyway, as the hummingbirds were busy at the feeder. There are at least two, as two had their territory war briefly. Good grief! There are two big bowls of sugar water that they never finish! Sharesies, hummies, sharesies!!

At perhaps 15 minutes away from full dark, I reflexively looked at the birdfeeder. Sometimes a beautiful cardinal is cheep-chomping on the seed. This time, nobody. But at the base, burnished copper catches my eye. One of the foxes is cleaning up the peanuts and seed. Sleek, red, black-stockinged, and just-so white-tipped tail. Gorgeous.

I stare and ooh and ahh to myself. I even manage one picture … but through the window with the screen, and then forget to save the second picture through the clear window because I am so excited.

A street noise startles the fox, and it dance glides across the tips of the grass blades, like a floating pennant. Everyone should get to see a red fox blow away across emerald green grass-sky. 🙂

Quite a gift on August 23, 2021.

You know you’re in Montana when …

… it looks like a straight shot on the map from Gardiner to Great Falls via US 89 … and .. you misread those contours and misread the actual vertical experience of the trip! 

Travel from Gardiner to Livingston was as much a delight on the way out, as the way in — elk, osprey, eagles, and horses.

Take a right for seven miles on I-90 with the luxury of a divided highway.

Exit for the northern route on a full lane, full-shouldered, center & side-rumble stripped road to White Sulphur Springs — simply a delight of a road.

And then Lewis & Clark National Forest.  This is where my “plan” met God’s Creation and the humility of budgets, engineering, and elevations. Oofah.  My first miscalculation was thinking the trip would be similar to my childhood ones to Red Lodge Ski Resort and Bridger Bowl. Note to self: jettison the childhood passenger experience and misty-eyed lens memory view. I have to be the driver now!

The road at base level through the National Forest was well-used but peaceful; the slow-down of weaves and curves on a broken road a brilliant idea. Like many, I consider a less smooth road a good thing in a set-aside area keeping everyone a bit slower on the road than they might be otherwise.

Then the road, without any improvements, ascends up and up and up to an eventual pass of 7400 feet, the highest elevation maintained and kept open year round in Montana. Showdown Ski Resort and its 8,000 foot peak to the west and then a 9,000 foot peak to the east of the road. 

The change is gradual at first with more and deeper turns. You barely notice the rise until on turns, Sheep Creek then Belt Creek now seem mighty far below. Looking at the map again, it felt much curvier than it looks on paper!

Glad no one was behind me with my top speed of 45mph. This was not my favorite drive with the curves at these elevations, tilting road at times, okay asphalt, barely-a-shoulder shoulder, and what felt like nothing on the edges (the guardrails seemed sparse and somewhat akin to Wyle E Coyote’s ineffectual umbrellas). To be clear, this isn’t a declaration of engineering shoddiness. It is about the magnificence and untameability of God’s Creation in these parts! The engineers and construction crews that design and build these roads allow goods and people to move in a manner unheard of even 100 years ago. No budget or engineer could build a lowland road of pastoral driving through a Rocky Mountain pass. (Even Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, a work of art and gorgeous views, is for the passengers, not the drivers!) Grateful to be in Dad & Jo’s Honda Element — not the best for wind, but a really good vehicle.

The spring mountain snow blizzard (rain or nothing at the valley floor) capped the experience for me. The Montana experience of my youth caught me — how this was just one too many obstacles, and I wanted to quit. There was nobody else on the road, this was all too much, etc. but at that moment, God’s Montana lifts you up, too.

Mom was at the other end of this road, waiting in her apartment, and for my sake had encouraged me to take the days off time with her to go to Yellowstone. As the world was overwhelmed with the big fluffy snowflakes, the boy soprano in Handel’s Messiah sings “And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and as the coro bursts forth “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.” In that moment, the beauty of God’s Creation on earth, in weather, and in voice, transformed what might have been spring snow that broke this little camel’s back to the encouragement of a multitude of the heavenly host proclaiming the good news that we, including me!, are loved beyond what we will ever know in the moments or sum of our lifetimes. And God’s beauty carried me out of my fears.

But this segment of the trip in particular reminded me how acclimated I’ve become to my beloved Great Lakes region and how different being a passenger is to driving these roads. My childhood was filled with trips through the mountain passes of Montana, but Dad and his lifetime in these parts were at the wheel or my Mom and her fierce devotion to her children. Clearing King’s Hill pass and realizing I was heading back down to the valley floor was a heady celebratory moment. The road crews had ensured there was plenty of sand on the road to prevent slipping.

On reflection after a couple months, I realized the stress of the situation actuated all my trauma specific points — without any of the usual triggers. It was somehow wildly liberating to meet these experiences and pass through with the acknowledgement that this is where and how my body expresses stress … and I do not have to respond to it.

One friend consoled me that the view must have been magnificent. Even at a too slow for normal traffic 45 mph, I daren’t take my eyes off the double yellow in the center or lift a single finger from the double-clenched grasp of the steering wheel. Snow, yellow double stripe, and shrimpy guardrail filled my vision for an hour. 🙂

My descent was downshifted and glad the Forest Service had laid down a hearty layer of sand on the road.  Sooooo happy to be on the base of the valley by the creek with little to no precipitation!  Then one more elevated pass until finally level ground and easy-peasy into Great Falls.  One river has jumped its bed in its meander.  There is a huge riverbed bone dry near Belt Creek.

White Wolf!

I craning my neck to catch every angle as the time in Wonderland is coming to a close. Time feels precious, even though I’ll be in Montana again and a generous invitation from Bob.

Then a white wolf (not the same but an example) cresting near the top of the ridge near/past Blacktail, maybe before the Gardner River?  Beautiful!!  She was just sitting.  I bark out “White Wolf!  White Wolf!  Stop the car!”  We back up the car and she trots roughly 50’ east at the base of a rock formation at the top of the ridge, then she rounds up and away.

THAT WAS SO STINKING COOL!!!

So!  About all these wonderfully colored wolves.  The Eastern Gray Wolf is only gray – that would be Minnesota and further east.  But about 10,000 years ago, the Western gray wolf had a back-breeding with wild dogs strayed from the Tribes, and black and white fur was reintroduced.  So Yellowstone has had three introductions — two Canadian in the mid-90s (with one white one, 39F, from British Columbia) and the third of some Northwestern Montana one year after.  Now about 5% of the YNP wolf population is white.  A few of the females are really big white wolves; they are born a light grey and then fade to near white as they age. (You can also see how famous Wolf 21, jet-black, aged to gray as he entered his senior years.)  There are about 100 wolves in YNP so about 5 have the possibility of aging to mostly white.

(Another white alpha-female suffered severe wounds in a poaching crime committed inside the park in 2017.  She and her in utero five pups had to be euthanized.  She was 12 years old and had had 20 offspring.)

So a white wolf is a rare occurrence, and rarer to see one.  One site indicates there is only one white wolf in Yellowstone at the moment, the alpha-female of the Wapiti Lake pack – now venturing further north, as Bob mentioned. 

A poem is coming out of this white wolf experience because narrative will never capture what it felt like to see her!

An Exhausted Mom

Back to Slough Creek from the moose and osprey

… nada from the restroom/dumpster area either out to the carcass or out to the den.  But then we walk up to pre-Bob’s Nob, a gravelly uneven but roaded hike for “only” one-quarter mile or so.  Bob carries his 50 lbs of camera equipment & tripod, I carry the scope and tripod.  Pretty amazing because Bob is 80-ish with two hip surgeries, one knee surgery, and one ankle surgery.  … Viewing and conversation with others pretty much confirms wolf activity at the kill / carcass on the south side of road is done. (Even the crows and ravens are not picking at it, and so wolves are even more unlikely to be there.) 

Then we focus on the den … bison & elk are milling around it! … we wait ½ hour so in the cold, and the female comes out.  We can only see her with the scope … when she’s in movement.  A grey-ish black female with reddish accents.  Beautiful.  She looks as tired as you would expect a mom to be who is basically spending 24/7 with her 5 to 8 kids!!

She walks about a bit, and then she flops all the way down to rest and becomes barely visible.  Nobody is quite sure, but the elk and bison probably feel safe around an active den site since the wolves would not want a large carcass near the den, which might attract another predator that could kill their pups. 

Someone hiking up Slough Creek Trail the day before came across a Grizzly on a carcass at the first meadow lake.  It was running away from him at 25 yards.  He would not have been ready for it, if it had charged him.  NPS closed off the trail. But the news of a carcass inland from the road and den, made folks think the best theory for the absence of wolves visible from the road (save the den wolf) was that the wolves would have gone further up and in to feast on the fresher carcass.

While we’re driving back, bison … mule deer and white tail.  This is when Bob rattles off the names of a lot of the birds at the Blacktail ponds/lakes.  I can’t keep up with the names!  🙂  We drive on out … finishing up for the morning and my time in Yellowstone …

Moose and Birds

So we drive on down the Northeast Entrance Road further into the Lamar Valley, as someone (John) says they’ve seen Moose past Conjunction Flow, I think along Soda Butte Creek.  We see four, though the others say there are 8 moose out there.  Get them in the field glasses … and immediately think of Ruk & Tuk  from BROTHER BEAR.  Ach.  I’ve reduced Wonderland to Disneyland.

On the way back redeyed grebe in a tiny roadside pool and goldeneyed and/or mergansers in the river below.  The redeyed grebes dive for food, but when we pull up in the car they almost simultaneously submerge.  They are so tiny, it seems – but they’re not.  Love their post-submerge head shake of the very cute crest of feathers on their heads.

Then an osprey nest – I think still on the Soda Butte Creek portion because the creek’s canyon is very steep on both sides … road goes to the steep north bank of the creek and then south bank of the creek back up a steep incline.  On the south incline is a dying tree, trunk still with some growth but a blown out crown on which the osprey are nesting.  We see both male and female osprey leave the nest for sticks to keep building.  Bob thinks they kinda look like they’re presenting to each other for mating.

The Wolf Clan

Friday, April 23, 2021

At breakfast, I talk with Scott a bit more.  His wife, the healthiest eater he knows, makes some awesome protein bars, which we all devour.  Scott leaves by 5:45AM … Bob and I are out the door around 6:15AM.

Snow!  Cloud fog …  Really grateful Bob is driving.  He drives these 25 miles almost every single day.  A very different 25 mile commute than A2 to Detroit!!!  His Toyota Prius is a champ.

Bison are less visible, most are still bedded down.  They are a bit camouflaged with the light snow accumulating on their coats!  Snow misting ..  The bison we saw swimming last night must have got him/herself out of Blacktail Ponds/Lakes because there is no carcass in the water.

Bob sees Rick McIntyre (and Wendy?) and pulls over.  !! So I get to meet Rick McIntyre whose books got me started on this wonderful immersion during the pandemic.  !!  He is very much a wolf mission person.  He is really nice but very focused on the wolves.  His works reflect a lifetime of details of wolf observation and an understandable humanization of the wolves behavior. Field observation to science creates a different voice than science to field observation. I think Bob mentioned that Rick had the unofficial record of 1,000 days (?) straight of wolf sightings in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Discipline and devotion underscore the Park Service and the excellence of the resident field artists like Bob.

Rick McIntyre has a newer model mini-SUV now, but back in the day he had an orange X-Terra.  Eventually the wolf-watching tip among visitors was to “follow the guy in the orange X-Terra.”  Rick seems to be the kind of guy who didn’t mind people following him so long as the focus was learning about and loving the wolves. Bob mentions the wolf biologist Jeremy Sunder-Raj who is part of the Wolf Project now.  They met when Jeremy was ten and proclaimed then that he was going to be a wolf scientist.  Ended up going to UMontana for their wildlife biology program, a couple internships with the NPS in the park, and now with the Wolf Project.  He has faced the extra burden of “when will you be doing something that makes money?” rather than affirmation for his great character & personality, brilliance, dedication, and love of what he’s doing.  Even as a young professional, he knows the lineage of the packs and the wolves, all the history, on top of their biology and behavior! 

He had radioed to someone who Bob spoke with this morning that all his (Jeremy’s) signals this morning were weak, which is one more fact that fits the theory discussed in the coming entry that the wolves were further up the Slough Creek on a carcass.  The Wolf Project keeps the radio scans of the signals for each of the collared wolves.

We head to Slough Creek, and nobody is seeing any wolves both for visibility reasons, and there just don’t seem to be any wolves out and about visible from the road. But, it’s fun to see and hear and ride along with the Wolf Clan this morning.

Odds and Ends of a YNP Outing

Finishing up, April 22, 2021

On we go … with some obscure tips —

The Park has one-holer restrooms … and Purell dispensers.  Bob’s wisdom from decades of field work is, if you see a restroom use it.  You don’t know where the next one might be or how long you might be in an observation area looking or filming.

Lotsa bison on the way out. It is odd how quickly having these huge animals around you and visible becomes “normal.” We follow the parade of twenty or more across a bridge!  If a NPS vehicle is leading the way through the bison, which we are fortunate enough to have, follow the lead vehicle or the one in front of you closely. By creating a “bumper-to-bumper” herd of cars, everyone gets through. Otherwise, the bison fill in between the cars and/or stop.  Our short caravan has gaps, as the car in front of us has clearly not received this tip and has left a too large gap between itself and the NPS vehicle.  One bison strikes out with its hind leg at the vehicle ahead of us.  It is a half-hearted aim (phew!), but a hearty kick.  It sure feels like the car ahead would have rocked if the kick had landed.

Further down the road at Blacktail Pond one bison is furiously swimming, trying to get out of the pond.  It’s so spongy, Bob notes, they may not be able to get up on the shore because the “shore” is such a murky spongy boundary … and this is how they get stuck or exhausted and drown. But some, even an extraordinary calf, do manage to get out.

Heading out as twilight is leaving us for nighttime.  Poor Bob … kept him up past his usual 8:30 bedtime!  When we arrive at Casa de Bob, I get a chance to meet Scott, another researcher.

So … 4-ish hours in Yellowstone National Park proper and coming up on 7 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Pretty cool.  It is hard to scale this place … you enter this realm of Wonder, and it all becomes so ordinary, but it really is extraordinary.  A really great Earth Day.  Thank you, God, for your Creation.

Slough Creek / Junction Butte Pack

We arrive near Junction Butte at the pullout with restroom … the Junction Butte pack’s den is on a slope north of the road facing south (steep hill, former coyote den, squared by four sets of evergreens) and a kill on the south side of the road where we saw two blacks and maybe one gray last night.  The south side of the road is where the pack has been feeding on a kill/carcass below Specimen Ridge about 1 ½ mile(?) away.  When ravens had fun with them, that’s when the wolves would poke their heads up either for a break or taking a snap at the ravens.  I could see them with Bob’s good glasses and could really see them with the Swarovski scope he rented / was lent.  Whoa … just checked out the tag price at $2500!  (I think these were members of the Junction Butte pack.)

Glad there are black and white wolves, grey wolves are almost impossible to see!  They are like ghosts against the landscape this time of year.  We also saw their den via Bob’s knowledge of where it was and the Swarovski scope.  The mom poked her gray head out a few times, but nobody was really coming out.

Bob was telling me about the folks who have changed their lives to include a month or more of wolves.  (Bob, for one! But Wendy, Rick McIntyre obviously, a couple from San Diego, and so many more.)  This was also the first time Bob had a scope and thus had more time to share the scope and what he knows with those around him.  Filming and the photography equipment doesn’t lend itself to the same dynamic with people.

Phantom Lake

Further down the northern road on the April 22 evening visit, lotsa bison and people on either side!  People parked and waited for a two year old bear in either Phantom Lake or the next one (the next one, I think) to come out.  It had been denning under the road somehow … can’t remember if it was using a culvert.  Apparently the bears have their clan of observers, too, like the wolf clan!

Phantom Lake fills with run off and looks like a spring fed lake, but it isn’t, so no fish.  It looks so convincingly like a natural lake that people regularly fish in it.  Sorry, Charlie!  It’s one of those ethical moments for the locals when they see folks fishing — the truth? or let the moment of enjoyment stand on its own? Usually the latter.

Somewhere along here we saw mule deer (no surprise) and then whitetail … not quite an invasive species, but it tends to out compete the mule deer.  Yellowstone National Park is considered the Serengeti of the northern hemisphere, as there is no other larger concentration of large mammals.  It has an incredible array of what otherwise can be top predators in their own right – wolves, grizzly bear, American black bears, cougars, coyotes, red fox, Canada lynx, bobcats, wolverines, and badgers, river otters, and weasels.  Someone thought they saw a young cougar in a chase/road crossing.  There are also major ungulates:  bison, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and whitetail deer.  In ten hours in the park, we saw all but the mountain goats of the ungulates.

First Visit: Black Wolf Running

After an early dinner on April 22, we started from Gardiner/Roosevelt Arch then on to Mammoth Hot Springs and then along the northern route, which is comprised of the Grand Loop Road until Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance Road further east. We saw lotsa elk and bison (one calf), a few bighorn sheep, and ground squirrels.

Up around the Blacktail Lakes ridge I saw a black wolf!! 

This video has nothing to do with what I saw, but you can see the range of colors of wolves, and is probably the Wapiti pack. The first video captures very unusual pack behavior (taking on a griz) and a plethora of “ya’ll”s on the audio. Grizzly Bear will kill and eat wolf pups, so the pack will defend the den and the pups. That’s a bit of behavioral background not audible in the video.

So! I saw two running elk and a lone black wolf chasing them, maybe 30 seconds or less behind.  We drove further on but never saw them emerge from the other side.  I did see a few ground squirrels and a yellow ground flower – five petal radial, puffy center … maybe a sagebrush buttercup?

Even this first encounter introduced me to the notion of how much waiting and patience and respect goes into the photography and filming of wildlife. 400 hours of wait time may yield minutes of relevant wildlife behavior captured on film (let alone if the film survives all the technical difficulties and processing).

Further down the road, the Blacktail Lakes is this swampy, pondy area attracting everyone – mammals, water fowl, and thus humans.  Last week (okay … that would have been around April 15th) the National Park Service had to pull out seven bison who got stuck because otherwise the road fills up with people watching, and if the bison die .. then carcasses attract predators and more stopped traffic! 

The bison have to swim hard to stay upright … once they lose the vertical line of balance through unbalanced swimming or sheer exhaustion they tip to one side and begin to drown.  (They can’t do the side stroke.)  There are all kinds of birds in this area – sandhill cranes and every kind of water fowl.  On Friday, Bob called out mallard, pintail (pretty rare), teal, mergansers, and more.