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       Day 2 October 8th, 2015

Thursday, Oct 8, 2015
Mammoth Hot Springs, Montana

   Walking from the cabins to the hotel, an employee flags me and warns about a big bull elk on the other side of the road. I cross behind parked vehicles and hurry into the hotel lounge where coffee is waiting, neatly arranged in a wood paneled corner. It's pitch dark at 6:40 a.m. Stars shine in the black sky and elk bed down in the common area of the cabins as we pull out. We pass through Swan Lake Flats and are stopped briefly by construction crews where the road curves past Indian Creek, then once again at Obsidian Creek where we wait for 20 minutes while construction workers text and chat. Still we reach Gibbon Meadows right on time. Our friend Annie is already there, as well as wolf spotters Calvin and Lynnette. By the time we walk over to Annie's Subaru Forester, 712M and two other wolves from the Canyon Pack emerge from the trees on the east side of the road. There is a carcass in the deadfall that was dragged away from the road; the wolves fed on it yesterday and today they are back for more.
   712M, the alpha male, looks so much like 755M. A Mollie originally, as his coat fades from black to grey his face retains a striking dark mask. Powerful when he stares straight out. The other two wolves, a grey and a black, must be his pups from two years ago when we watched the alpha female carry them to the rendezvous. Handsome wolves, both are large, healthy looking, akin to their Mollie heritage. The grey has rich, deep markings on its saddle. The subadults stare directly at us, then disappear into the trees all too soon. Yesterday the alpha female was here also; she is almost pure white now. Just like her mother.
   We wait a little longer before continuing to Cascade Meadows to look for the Wapiti Lake Pack and another carcass we've heard about. The carcass is gone now and so are the wolves that were on it. Six trumpeter swans swim in the Yellowstone River across from Mary Mountain Trail. Hayden Valley appears empty from Grizzly Overlook - miles of sage and grass, a bison here and there, geese in the bends of the river, but no Wapiti Lake Pack. We have not seen 755M, the alpha male, in a long, long time and we would really like to see him with his new alpha female, the daughter of the Canyon Pack alpha pair, and his four new pups.
   Curving past Mary and Sedge Bays we search the forest along the road and tree covered hillsides. A large, dark grizzly guards a bull elk carcass on the north side of the road. The bear tears at the carcass and covers it with his huge body. We watch for a while and then drive towards the East Entrance as far as Cub Creek where wolves from Wyoming's Pahaska Pack were seen recently. In May, snow lined the creek and ice covered Sylvan Lake while today visitors picnic across the road enjoying the sunny day. We walk through the trees looking for tracks before turning back. When we return to Mary Bay the bear is still on the carcass and he has company: a coyote.
   Back at Cascade Meadows cars fill the turnouts. Deep in the meadow, perched in the middle of a dying Douglass fir is a juvenile great horned owl. As large as an adult, he is mostly white with dark brown markings. A raven, almost the size of the owl, harasses the poor young owl. The raven squawks, hopping from branch to branch up and down the pine tree. The argument presses on for a long while, the young owl pecking back.
   Hiking the Howard Eaton Trail from the Chittenton Bridge parking lot, we hope there will be a better view of the Wapiti Pack. I've always liked this hike, but it's often closed in spring because of bear or wolf activity. We're not far down the trail before noticing a dark spot in the tall, yellow grass - a grizzly. We hike off trail to avoid the bear, keeping him within sight. A little farther down the trail we run into another obstacle: three bison bulls lounging. Blocking our route, they watch us with concern, sending us off trail again around a marshy pond. At the edge of the woods, two bull elk try to keep their harems under control. We circumvent the trail once more and climb the forested hills, resting in a thick stand of trees. Even though we are a couple of miles away from the Wapiti's rendezvous site, we have a grand view of Hayden Valley and the Yellowstone River.
   Grey clouds hang over us and daylight is fading. The bear and bison have moved off the trail; the elk, far back in the trees, ignore us. Hoping to avoid a shower and get back to Mammoth before dark, we quicken our pace and hurry back to the car.

Author - Christine Baleshta
Photography - Tim Springer

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