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A Snowy Day in Silver Gate, Montana

Monday October 9, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

When we got up, it was white-ish, and I opened the front door of the cabin to horizontal snow blowing straight down from the pass west into the park, so we’re sitting here warming up as it gets light. The heater in the back bedroom keeps the whole cabin pretty toasty. Billie is frying turkey sausage, and I think we will take a walk after breakfast and see whether we can get into the park or not.

Our Aerostar is not equipped with a windshield scraper – didn’t Avis know where we were going? – so I head down for the general store, where Henry Finkbeiner and a couple of friendly Labs are at the desk. Though I have only met him a couple of times, Finkbeiner is one of the reasons we like Silver Gate.

“That was the early days,” he says as I tell him we are the people from Boulder who first rented a cabin in Whispering Pines in 2001 and to whom he loaned his spotting scope for our first wolf-watching trip.

A successful Atlanta urban developer who refurbished old buildings into lofts before it became fashionable, Finkbeiner bought a bunch of buildings in Silver Gate in 2000. Wearing several hats – he is an excellent wildlife photographer and also guides camping trips into the park and who knows what else — Finkbeiner has been slowly building an eco-tourist business. He has a long ponytail, and he has lost weight since moving up here. “They could have arrested me for the fire I got going last night” in his sweat lodge over by Soda Butte Creek in Whispering Pines, he says, laughing.

He talks about his plans for turning the Range Rider, a two-story barnlike cabin-style building that has served as lodge, tavern and whorehouse, into a non-profit children’s camp. “Course everything here is non-profit,” he adds with a grin.

He says he’s still working on the Pine Edge cabins, now open year round. He’s trying to get the other old motel next door open as well. Through the efforts of Bob, his manager, they are still renting the romantic and evocative Whispering Pines, the old cabins where we stayed the first couple of trips up here. On a walk we see some guy is working on one of the Whispering Pines buildings. Finkbeiner says they will keep it open at least for the foreseeable future.

Billie has joined us, and she thanks Henry for the gift of five free nights at Pine Edge donated for the Sinapu benefit, which brought $1600. Finkbeiner doesn’t seem to know about it, and says that Bob probably set it up.

Finkbeiner still would like to create a wildlife corridor on the other side of the creek, he admits, which might necessitate the demolition of some or all of the Whispering Pines cabins, leaving the conifer forest where it sits as part of the corridor. He knows that you can’t keep animals out of Silver Gate because “it’s right in the middle of where wildlife live.” But he says he would like to at least try and give animals a place to move through without interference. “It’s part of our commitment,” he said.

He says that the growing season in Silver Gate has increased by six weeks in the six years he has been here, which makes me start wondering how much this might have to do with the re-appearance of beaver and willow bushes in Soda Butte Creek. We generally are attributing that to the return of the wolves, but I’m guessing that the climate might have something to do with it, too.

Finkbeiner’s environmental activities have caught the notice of Montana officials, and not always in positive ways. He asks people not to run snowmachines on his property, “nicely,” he adds, which doesn’t endear him to the Cooke City snowmachine culture. He took down the old Whispering Pines neon sign after the state began bugging him about it, and I notice the Range Rider sign is gone, too. “Violence comes in many different forms,” he says of the hassles.

The weather has cleared enough to drive over to Mammoth Springs after finding no charismatic megafauna in the Lamar Valley or Slough Creek. A couple of bull elk, one with an enormous rack, have their harems feeding in Mammoth Springs. A nice, recently revived fountain on the lower side of the springs has taken out the walkway up to the next level. And we strolled through the acidic burn-out fountains that once flowed and whose beauty lured early visitors to this area.

After we get back, I tromp back down to the general store, where Paul, the photographer friend of Henry’s we have met in years past, is behind the desk. As he writes out the wi-fi password on a piece of paper – yes, we have net access in Silver Gate — he describes the service as “somewhere between dial-up and broadband.” In truth, it is closer to the former than the latter.

Paul also shows me the .pdf layout of a book to which he is contributing about Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The photography is just stunning. Should be out in the spring. If the Net gets shaky and I really need it, he says, bring the computer down to the store and it will work better.

October 9, 2007   No Comments

Driving Through the Clouds Into Yellowstone

Sunday October 8, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We left Thermopolis this morning. On our way to Cody, we saw the Squaw Teats formation for the first time, though just barely, at exactly the spot where our Roadside Geology of Wyoming said it would be. When I typed Squaw Teats into Google, the first entry linked to a 2000 story on stateline.org that says that “more than 1,000 different geographical features had Squaw in them” in the United States. Some states, Maine is mentioned in the story, are working to change all those names. Apparently, this Wyoming rock formation has escaped the wrath of politically correct Native Americans. It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t complained about Teats, too.

Looking at the map, there is serious wilderness on our left. That is the Wind River Range out there, and it contains many of the highest peaks in the state. No major roads for sixty to eighty miles in any direction and hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, it is an important buffer for wildlife coming in and out of Yellowstone from the east and south.

If the state has its way in a protracted struggle with the federal government wolf delisting plan, it would also be a place where a Wyoming citizen could kill wolves, for any reason, a position contrary to the wishes of the federal government, environmentalists or anybody with a lick of sense in their heads. This wilderness is the wolves’ best protection, and Wyoming wants to turn it into a shooting gallery. Assholes would line up twenty deep to kill a wolf.

After we stopped for a couple of forgotten items and lattes in Cody, we head out Wyoming 120 and then Wyoming 72 for Red Lodge, where we pick up Beartooth Pass. After stopping for the sublime banana-cream pie at the Hungry Bear restaurant in Bearcreek, Montana, we head up the steep drive out of Bearcreek valley, above the lovely-in-the-fall town of Red Lodge and onto U.S. Highway 212.

The 70-mile-long Beartooth, opened in 1934, was called “America’s most beautiful highway” by Charles Kuralt, but it still doesn’t bring a wave of tourists into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It crosses from Montana into Wyoming and back again during this part of its route.

There are two passes that lead into the northeast entrance, and we try to use both. This year we are going in over Beartooth and back on Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. Beartooth was closed last year after mud and debris slammed down and damaged the switchbacks in a couple of places. Beartooth is only open about five months max anyway, and it usually closes sometime in October.

The valley west of Red Lodge, heavily reminiscent of German alpine terrain, was socked in a heavy fogbank, which continued more than 4,000 feet through the narrow switchbacks, hairpin and U-curves that lead to the mesa at the top. We pulled out at one spot at about 6,000 feet and were blessed with a view of what we had just driven through, now looking like an overdose of whipped cream lapping at the entire valley.

At this turn-out, I finally solved a personal mystery. We stopped at this same spot on our first trip over this pass in the nineteen eighties, and I remembered the Precambrian rock across the valley looked like the crumbling remnants of ancient civilizations. When we came across two years ago, I couldn’t find this place. And though I couldn’t see ancient Jerusalem this time, I realized that it was the same rocks. The shadows of the early morning sun had given me that moment almost two decades ago.

As we climbed to treeline, snow was blowing across the road and sticking, and the swirling clouds limited our exposure to the twenty peaks of the Beartooth Range that are above 12,000 feet. You never think that you’ll ever reach the top after what seems like hundreds of switchbacks. It was a stirring passage, and the Aerostar performed admirably all the way up to 11,000 feet and back down.

Riding across the mesa at the top, I always like looking back down into the Bighorn Basin from whence we came this morning, but it was far too socked in for those kinds of views, which gave us time to concentrate on the wonders along the side of the road itself — rows of cliffs, scattered rocks and fissures and frigid lakes. The western slopes were blissfully free of snow, and we were in Silver Gate by three. By 4:30, with Anne Whitbeck, our friend and longtime wolf guide onboard with her walkie-talkie, the Aerostar was heading into the park.

Anne caught us up on the latest news about wolves, bears and the Wolf Watchers who keep track of them. The road across Dunraven Pass is closing tonight, and there has been activity up there, both wolves and bears.

And she informs us that Beartooth Pass also closes tonight.

No wonder it was so weird up there at the top of the world this afternoon. We were among the last few to get over before it was closed.

Anne’s unerring senses are on once again, and we spend half an hour with four black bears in the high forest along the newly paved road.

First was a mother and cubs who walked along about fifteen or twenty feet from the road on a shelf about ten feet below us. They were foraging in the snow, mostly oblivious to the 20 people taking snapshots, pointing and shooting – when will these show up on YouTube?

They are in search of pine cones, and the mother gives two lessons: 1) how bears find food and 2) why they tell you not to climb a tree to get away from a black bear. Mom suddenly bolts up this conifer, and in less than a minute she is near the top, about 35 feet, after no real effort whatsoever. When she gets to the top, she begins to break off limbs with pine cones and dropping them for the young ones. (Her move appears to signal that she isn’t concerned about our proximity to the cubs, although I’ll bet she could come back down just as quickly and easily.

About a minute later, one of the cubs climbs an adjacent tree, just like a pro. Black bears learn to climb trees to avoid danger at a young age, and there are good reasons for that. I have seen a black bear treed by a grizzly over in Slough Creek, so if you’re a black bear, it’s a good skill.

But the cubbie, once it gets to the top, doesn’t seem to know what to do and is just swinging back and forth up there in the wind. Soon enough, both of them climb back down just as easily as they ascended, and soon the trio have disappeared down into the shadows of the forest. About a mile farther, we get a pretty good look at a cinnamon black bear beneath Mt. Washburn. It seems to indicate a desire to cross the road at one point but scampers back up in the trees high above the road as the voyeurs gather. Good bear.

It was our first time over the pass on the new road, which was completed again this year, and we stopped at a new pull-off with signage about the activity here – the major eruptions that have taken place here and the magma changes below Lake Yellowstone going on today.

One of the reasons we climbed Mt. Washburn two years ago was to stand at the northern end of that last eruption, and this place offers another good angle on the gap created more than 250,000 years ago. As the sun went down, the snow-capped mountains to the south turned first a fiery orange, gray and, finally, metallic blue.

October 8, 2007   No Comments

Moving Bear Jam

Another journal entry from Yellowstone. Save for Alaska, there is no place we love more than the area around the Lamar Valley, the valley of the wolves. If you have never been there, you owe it to yourself to see this place.

Near Tower Falls, we slow down in a narrow section and pull over. A black bear mother and two black cubs are scrambling above the road along some pretty unsure terrain above us on the left, knocking down little rocks and debris. A tall, friendly ranger, standing in the road, walks over to tell us we’re in a “moving bear jam.”

On the right side of the road, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone looms. On the other, where the bears are scrambling, some tall volcanic tubes and a sheer cliff of ancient volcanism. Anne asks the ranger if it’s the same mother&cubs that frequent this area, with the female cub whose paw was run over and walks with a limp.

The ranger acknowledges as much, but adds that it was the male’s foot that was run over, and he adds that it seems to be healing, almost two weeks after the incident. The male keeps much closer to mom than the smaller, inquisitive female. He doesn’t seem to be favoring it now, but we are all aware that an injury like a wounded foot could easily cost a yearling bear his life.

There are only a few cars and about ten of us humans, and we watch them, first one of the cubs, then the mother and the other cub, tumble down the loose gravel onto the pavement just a few yards behind the car. The mother lets the female, which is the more adventurous of the two, stay back until we are closer to the cub than she. The male is sticking pretty close to mom.

The ranger, assessing the situation, says it’s OK for us to walk along behind the bears up the road along this narrow stretch. Don’t want any cars coming around the corner too fast with the bears walking along the road, he says.

Billie opts to walk them all the way, while Anne and I go back to pick up the car, turn around and catch up. We watch them eating and walking and playing before they all head up into the forest. The mother lets the female forage along the road with us on the other side, seemingly not concerned about any danger.

Another charmed half hour in the company of bears.

– Sept 27 2004

September 23, 2007   No Comments

The Gutpile

Another journal entry from Yellowstone. Save for Alaska, there is no place we love more than the area around the Lamar Valley, the valley of the wolves.

Anne says she thinks there is a gutpile at the west end of the valley that we can check out, so we are in the Lamar by quarter to seven. Lots of clouds and dark, so we sit out at the spot where we left the wolves last night and just listen.

It’s not the finding, it’s the looking, as John the Ranger says.

We are listening for wolf howls, which are usually faint but can echo across the valley when you’re lucky. All we could hear was a bison across the road snoring. Making a real racket, too.

Then it was over to Slough Creek, where we spotted Carl, a friend of Anne’s and a WMD. He’s got a couple of Christian women from Livingston who have paid him a couple hundred bucks each to show them megafauna and take pictures.

With Carl at the helm, it is money well spent; these women have a power stronger than prayer. We drove it yesterday, so we know that Livingston is a good two hours away. It’s seven fifteen a.m., and they beat us here — do the math. Carl is on the gutpile hotline, too.

The carcass is down below us in a valley of dense sage near the river. I know the spot well, having watched bears and coyotes feed on a kill in the sage a couple years ago when a grizz treed a black bear while a mom and cubs chewed down the carcass.

We’re not more than a hundred and fifty yards from a grizzly tearing at a hunk of bison. A shrub conceals the carcass, but at one point you can see him lift the rib cage, pulling for another chop.

Gutpiles are important to lots of critters. Five very healthy looking coyotes, coats shining, are around the carcass, too, skittering around waiting for their chance at scraps. We are downwind, and you begin to notice the change in smell, which quickly brings on nausea even at this distance. Remembering bears’ powerful sense of smell, if it affects me this far away, how far away can bears smell it? Bears and humans are alike in so many aspects, but here we part ways; the more rancid the carcass, the more bears seem to enjoy it.

The coyotes go off on a tear, yipping, yelping, making those strange coyote noises. Since we are so close, we don’t want to disturb the bear, so Anne goes to move the car, Carl heads off for the Lamar with the Christian ladies and Billie and I watch the bear for awhile, scratching and tearing at what’s left of the carcass.

Suddenly, it heads off, and the coyotes take over. In a moment, the bear disappears behind a knoll, and for a few disconcerting moments, I’m trying to figure out if it might be heading in our direction or down where Anne is parking the car.

As it turns out, the bear had already crossed the road by the time I got to Anne. In minutes, he is in the high country and a boulder field hides his path.

- October 13, 2005

September 22, 2007   No Comments

Charismatic Megafauna

Each year since 2001 Billie and I have gone to Yellowstone at this time of year. We went up the first time because we were curious about the reintroduction of the wolves and how the park might have been changed by their presence. As you will see below, we found much more than we bargained for. Now our primary activity in the park is watching wolves, and a few grizzly bears when we’re lucky. We have seen some incredible things, most of them visible from the side of the road.

Due to some scheduling conflicts, we won’t make it this year. So I thought I would post a few of my journal entries from our Yellowstone years during the next few days. Save for Alaska, there is no place I love more than Yellowstone, and especially the Lamar Valley, the valley of the wolves. And it all began on this spring day.

17 June 2001
Silver Gate, Montana

It was just getting light, just before five, when Kim’s knock came at the cabin door. I was already awake, and it didn’t take us ten minutes to throw on some clothes and brush our teeth.

We are off at 5:30, early enough that there isn’t a ranger at Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance just a mile from Silver Gate. We drive in silence, following the pick-up of Bob Crabtree, the park’s chief coyote researcher, sipping our coffee and taking in the natural spectacle of the sun blazing on the rocky peaks, Baronnette on the right and Abiathar and the Thunderer to our left, all three at about 10,000 feet, some three thousand feet vertically above us. All blazing gold in the morning’s first rays.

Elk are grazing several hundred yards from the road as we pass through the Pebble Creek area. We were here at this broad meadow late yesterday morning and spent an hour glassing wolves feeding on what was left of an elk or antelope carcass the pack had killed the night before. It wasn’t more than a quarter mile from the road. The caravan pauses for a minute while a couple of people from our group silently glass the treelines for movement.

We pass the burned-out Soda Butte itself, a formation which names this valley and creek, go around a curve or two, and we are below Druid Peak, at the place where Soda Butte Creek flows into the Lamar River and snakes west through a broad valley.

Billie and I took a walk into the meadow here yesterday afternoon, hardly realizing that it was home turf for the Druid wolf pack, at 26 members the largest in the park since the reintroduction of wolves in 1994-’95 and now one of the most observed packs in the world. Their den is high above the road, several hundred yards away.

We learned on that walk that wildlife is plentiful here. We watched a badger in an area where the landscape was crawling with ground squirrels. An unfortunate squirrel was in the badger’s mouth as it walked the ridge eyeing us before disappearing in the short brush.

And we found a large, heavily eroded wallow next to a creek at an intersection of trails. The bark of the trees had been worn smooth by bear scratching that we recognized as similar to trees bear biologist Charles Jonkel showed us at Pine Butte Ranch in Montana last spring. It’s located at a busy

We don’t know if bears scratch trees to announce their presence, mark territory or for the same reason we love our backs scratched. But the trees at this crossroads were crawling with bear hair, and we weren’t more than a mile and a quarter from the road, though out of sight of vehicular park traffic.

But we never realized that every Druid wolf in the den area could, and no doubt did, watch us walking out and back to our car. Which is pretty cool, when you think about it.

Crabtree, who is near the end of a 12-year study of park coyotes, told us during his campfire talk last night that there might be as many as three litters of wolfpups up there in that den. Wolf packs usually only have one set of pups, that of the alpha female, but it’s just another of the many new things we’re learning about wolves as they repopulate the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Crabtree’s truck pulls over, and we all follow suit, get out and head up a steep trail to a location about 75 to 100 feet above the road that offers a great vantage point right above the spot where Soda Butte Creek runs into the Lamar, which then bends and stretches north and west into an immense, broad valley as it heads downriver toward its rendevous with the Yellowstone River.

As we set up and begin to watch, we can see a scattered herd of bison grazing and patches of antelope dispersed in the short grass.

There’s something else going on out there in the meadow, too. Crabtree comes over and sets the scope onto a carcass several hundred yards away. As our eyes become accustomed to the lenses, seven or eight wolves can be seen in the general area around the kill site.

The animals are exhibiting many of the same types of behaviors we saw yesterday morning at the Pebble Creek site. Individual wolves seem to be in a state of anxiety, eating, tearing at the meat, running around, biting and scratching, communicating with each other.

Some are just sitting or lying around, perhaps in the “meat drunk” state the canids enter after “wolfing down” large quantities of meat, their only real food source. Unlike bears, they are true carnivores.

Others are dispersed as much as a half mile from the kill, on the move, sniffing, urinating, running errands, performing their wolfpack duties. They’re interacting with each other in all kinds of ways. One male is trying, rather unsuccessfully, to mount a female.

But as we angle our glasses westward along the plains, we catch the unmistakable gait of something else moving toward the kill site. It’s a grizzly, the hump immediately and plainly visible. And two smaller versions scampering around it. The trio is perhaps two hundred yards from the carcass. No doubt led by that amazing sense of smell, it is a grizzly sow and her two offspring, from their size probably a year old already, maybe even in their second year. The cubs are playing with each other and bouncing around, and they’re heading in the same general direction as the trio we saw last night.

The situation changes rather quickly and dramatically in a very short time. About the time we spot the bears, the wolves at the kill pick up on them, too. Several head over toward the bears at a very high rate of speed, running in that loping style that’s deceptively fast. Soon they all leave the kill site.

Encountering the trio, they immediately begin circling. While the mother&cubs gather themselves together to evaluate their situation, I glass a couple of the straggler wolves, who are hightailing it to join the circle around the three bears.

Quick count: eight wolves; a female sow grizzly and two yearling cubs. At one point, there are bison and antelope, curiously indifferent to the encounter, as well as the bears and most of the wolves, in the ken of our scopes and glasses.

Can this possibly be happening? This part of Yellowstone has been compared to the Serengeti, the wild game preserve in Tanzania, in the richness of its wildlife and beauty of habitat, and we are in no position to argue.

As this curious life-and-death tango between two top predators begins, I’m thinking the wolves have a serious advantage. My sympathies immediately shift to those cubs and their situation, which doesn’t look promising.

The drama intensifies. The wolves continue to circle and stalk, charging occasionally, darting in and out and then backing off. But this doesn’t smack of the almost paramilitary teamwork often attributed to wolf packs. Sometimes, the wolves seem indifferent, walking away from the action, then just as suddenly charging and nipping.

The mother is tenacious. She charges individual wolves several times when they come in too close, once in a dash long enough to make my heart beat a couple of extra times when the bearlings are seemingly left to the whims of the rest of the pack. And the mother can’t seem to control one of the cubs, which is pretty tenacious itself. Two or three times it charges a wolf on its own, just enough to keep them away before backing off closer to mom.

They are too far away for us to hear, but we know from our McNeil experience that mom is no doubt making those scary popping and chuffing noises with her mouth. The wolves are squealing and barking and howling and snarling and yipping as they move in and out of the circle.

“Who’s benefiting from this encounter,” asks Bob Crabtree. A look over at the kill site, now just 50 yards from the bears and unattended, offers one answer: The ravens and other scavengers are getting an extra half hour at the carcass. Crabtree says you can bet there are coyotes hiding somewhere out there on the plain, keeping their distance from the wolves, hoping for their chance at the last pickings from the carcass, too.

I ask him about what’s going on inside their brains, and Crabtree says, “Give me one second inside there.” That would be something, but ’til then, he adds, we can only guess their intentions, and we’re limited by our own perceptions as humans.

The wolves continue to lose ground as the dance progresses ever-so-slowly toward the kill. I catch one wolf leaving the group, going back to the carcass and coming off with a big leg piece that has a chunk of flank attached. spinning it wildly in its mouth so that it hangs funny and throws the wolf off balance before disappearing into a swale of grass.

Crabtree suggests that the wolves could be yearlings themselves and perhaps learning or practicing their pack skills. They are probably low-level pack members, the last wolves at the kill. The alpha is not present. And many of the wolves, while interacting, have their tails down or between their legs, both which indicate submission. It’s the b-team, the scrubs.

It takes awhile, but the mother grizz moves ever closer to the kill, and then, in one motion, moves to take it over and immediately turns to face any wolf who wants to try and take it back. There are no takers, thank you, and the three bears tear into the remains.

Most of the canids immediately give up and head off after she takes the carcass, though a couple stretch out and settle in to watch the action. Most scatter into the timber or down the draw while the bears munch down.

There isn’t much left. After about twenty minutes, the bears head off upriver again and soon are lost to our sight as they head for the wallow where we found the bear hair yesterday afternoon. Hopefully, they spent some time there scratching and smelling our scents from yesterday and making their own marks over them.

Billie points to her watch. It’s five to eight.

September 20, 2007   No Comments