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Chapter 5 New Camp

By Kevin Honness

The sun was high, intense and making the snow soft enough to stick to the bottoms of our skis. Where an hour earlier this had been a hindrance to progress, now it was a welcomed asset as we were trying to attain the lofty summit of the observation point, or OP. At the top I was told by Dan we would find "Camp Crystal", the likes of which I had never seen in a backcountry winter setting. At this point in our journey I was concentrating on each additional step of my skis and trying not to feel the burning from the lactic acid in my legs. Dan was up ahead zigzagging across the face of the steep slope and having a tough time with his sled which the merciless gravity wanted to pull back to the bottom. We probably should have unloaded half the supplies and made two trips but the long ski in had taken its toll and neither of us wanted to tackle this hill twice. This meant the 120 pound, top-heavy sleds skidded along at an angle rather than tracking nicely behind us and occasionally toppled over altogether forcing the skier to stop and right it before trudging onward and upward. After the better part of two hours since gaining the bottom of the hill we arrived at camp. Dug into the lee side of the hill, "Camp Crystal" held an eastern exposure, and more importantly, protection from the biting wind that scoured the valley below. The relief of unhooking our yokes and burdens was heaven and for long minutes neither of us had the energy to speak. Dan finally broke the ice. "Well homes, this is it, la casa for the next seven days." I could only nod.

My journey up that hill had begun several days earlier in Southern Colorado at a favorite place of mine; a sanctuary for captive wolves who had begun life as pets for the uninitiated or unsuspecting and who now find space to live out their days in the comfort of other wolves. Unfortunately they are confined to cages and none will ever know the freedom to roam and make a living as the wild wolves of Yellowstone do. Before leaving I silently promised my captive friends that I would extend their greetings to their wild cousins and set out for a trip to heart of Yellowstone; a trip that would have me travel in a myriad of transportation forms including car, plane, train, taxi, snowmobile and finally backcountry skis. Now that I was finally here, far from the simulated mountain peaks of the Denver International Airport's main terminal, the stress of modern civilization began to erode and peel away exposing my being to the lessons of Pelican Valley, wild free-living wolves and their hearty prey; the American bison.

We had come to Pelican to learn what we could of the complex interactions that occur between wolves and their prey. Although each of us had been witness to many kills involving wolves and elk on the Park's Northern Range, even some unsuccessful attempts on Lamar Valley bison, neither of us had been privileged enough to be on hand to observe the killing of an adult bison. In fact, in the recorded history of the park, no one had ever described such an event. At best, Yellowstone researchers could piece together events such as wolves feeding on bison carcasses, chase tracks in the snow and wolves occasionally testing herds. None had actually witnessed first-hand what it took for a wolf pack to bring down such a large animal. What we knew of such events came to us from Canada and reports from respected researchers like Dr. Ludwig Carbyn, biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service. His research in Canada's Woods Bison National Park and elsewhere in Canada revealed a struggle for survival that could last for days and cover miles, many times only to have the target escape death for one reason or another. Because of the similar situation that existed here in Pelican, Dan, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, hoped to be able to glimpse some of the behaviors that existed between these dynamic and important species. My role in the expedition was that of photographer/ videographer if we should get lucky and actually witness what we hoped for. I also had a second goal of observing Yellowstone's largest predator, the Grizzly. Since it was mid-March and time for the large males to venture out of hibernation, my hope was to see and document any interactions that would take place at a carcass should there be one. Little is known of the impact wolves and grizzly bears are having on one another's populations and by directly observing their interactions I hoped to add a few pieces to a puzzle of my own. Dan's was the long-shot, I thought. If his happened, mine was surely a given.

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The OP - a camp with a view   (by N.V.)

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Although the pack was still out of the valley and traveling farther east, we had decided to come in anyway and set up camp. We could wait for their return to the valley from the OP or sitting back in the comfortable confines of the Lake ranger station. A no-brainer. The aerial reconnaissance report was bad, however. The wolves had traveled up Timothy Creek and had dropped over into the Lamar, settling in the Chalcedony Creek drainage. This was the Druid Peak Pack territory and our thoughts wandered around the possibility of a replay of the 1996 confrontation between the two packs. Ending in the loss of the Crystal alpha male, Number 4, the battle also caused the loss of the pack's home turf to the usurpers, the newly released Druid Peak Pack. Perhaps 104, a young ex-Druid wolf who was thought by some to have taken over the vacated alpha position, was in fact leading this pack. It wouldn't be unthinkable for a wolf originally from a neighboring pack to reconnoiter its old haunts. The larger question that we tried not to dwell on was whether Crystal would return to the valley before our allotted time ran out. As with the first half of the expedition, our time here was limited.

The weather continued to be a mixed blessing. On one hand the sunny days and 50-degree temperatures made for comfortable camping. On the other, exposed to intense rays of the sun at 7,000 feet in elevation and surrounded by fiercely reflective snow we were slowly being roasted and our supply of sunscreen was essential to our long-term happiness. The sun also meant that the snow was slowly and surely deteriorating, forming a hard crust on top of the meter's depth laid down over the winter. This could be an advantage to the wolves, allowing them to travel across the surface of the snow while the sharper-hoofed and heavier bison would break through. Fueled by this last realization we eagerly anticipated the pack's return.

Our second day on the OP Dan came up with an idea that would take advantage of both the weather and the missing pack. We decided to use our time and construct a more livable structure for our camp, a quinsy. Basically a quick and dirty method of building an igloo. We fixed ourselves several rounds of strong cowboy coffee and set about our task. Our plan was to dig out a large circular trench, piling the snow in the center. Physics told us that heat released during the process of breaking down the crystalline structure of the snowpack would work to melt and re-fuse the structure back together again later that night. Digging into the stable mound of snow we could then hollow out a nice room insulated from the near zero temperatures of the Pelican night.

By noon we had our mound and a couple of tired backs to show for it. Our trench had ended up at roughly 15 feet in diameter and our "igloo" was ten feet tall. A veritable wilderness condo in the rough. We spent the remainder of the day up on top amongst the old, wind-sculpted pines scanning the valley and searching for a view of the Astringent Creek kill along with any bears that might be coming or going from it. Later in the afternoon we strapped on skis and tried to gain a better view of the kill site but soon found ourselves above a small drainage that appeared a perfect corridor for Ursine travelers and decided it best to leave it to the bears. Although we were able to make out eagles and ravens roosting in the branches of the distant trees, our attempt at seeing the carcass was a bust. We turned back to the OP arriving just in time for a spectacular sunset over the western rim of the ancient Yellowstone cauldera.

The next morning's report from the plane brought continued bad news; the wolves had moved to the backside of Mount Norris, still no closer to the valley. Again, fortified with a hearty breakfast of bagels, Snickers bars and strong cups of coffee we began to hollow out our quinsy. By taking turns at digging while the other hauled the excavated snow out of the way with a sled, we made quick work of our task. We were styling. Sitting in our new digs, dubbed "New Camp", we could look out over the east end of Pelican and pick out scattered groups of bison foraging in the bare thermal areas and along the south-facing and windswept slopes above the winding creek. Generally comprised of adults, we were surprised at the large number of calves that had been able to survive the winter in such a harsh locale as Pelican Valley.

John Lounsbury, the Lake District Ranger, had informed us that these Pelican Valley bison were considered to be descendants of the last few dozen free ranging bison, Bison bison athabascae, miraculously surviving from the days of market hunting when millions of the native animals across the west were reduced to just a few hundred. Later in 1902, Yellowstone's remant herd was augmented with animals from several surviving captive herds: the Goodnight herd in Texas and the Pablo-Allard herd in Montana. A different sub-species called the Plains bison, Bison bison bison, were released into the Northern Range of the Park where they were intensively managed and subjected to a variety of ranching and husbandry practices.  Today the two sub-species have mixed and interbred.

Lounsbury also related the story of one of the last notorious poachers of the era, a man named Howell, who was eventually caught near the base of our OP at the mouth of Astringent Creek. Apparently this fellow had long eluded the military authorities in charge of the park's protection at the time. Engrossed in the process of skinning out several large adult bison he had just killed, a small army patrol was able to creep from downwind and get the jump on the rapacious rapscallion. His only request of those that arrested him was to shoot the dogs that had betrayed him and allowed his capture. Interestingly, it was this incident which eventually led to the passage of the Lacey Act of 1894 prohibiting the interstate commerce of wildlife parts. This important act not only forms the cornerstone of our current American wildlife laws, including the Endangered Species Act, but was also proved invaluable as a tool for early Park rangers to successfully prosecute poachers bent on destroying the last of the great beasts. Had it not been for the outrage that this incident stirred up back in the east, its likely we could have lost forever the original Yellowstone bison. Looking out over the area where this incident was reported to have taken place, we could realize why it had taken the authorities as long as it had to bring this poacher to justice. Pelican Valley is huge and wild. The perfect place to preserve Nature at her very best.

Sitting around was beginning to have an affect on Dan. For as long as I've known him, he has never been one to take life passively; if it's not coming fast enough, its better to go out and meet it--head on and at full speed. A look at our watches told us that we still had the better part of the day ahead of us and if the wolves were not coming to us we would have to go find them. To do this would require us to get on top of some high promontory, a peak where we could get signals from the radio collars. The 10,000-foot Pelican Cone would work perfectly. And best of all, it was just a short five mile trip. From up on the "Cone" we would have a commanding view of most of Yellowstone, which is why one of the Park's oldest fire lookouts is perched on its summit. From there we would be able to see into the Lamar Valley and hoped to telemetrically pinpoint Crystal's location for ourselves and not be reliant on the aircrew for our information. It wasn't that we didn't believe the aerial reports. Pilot Roger Stradley is the very best when it comes to anything involving airplanes and Yellowstone National Park and his flight crew of Doug Smith, Kerry Murphy or Deb Guernsey are all equally as sharp. No, this was about self-sufficiency and self-determination; life just doesn't taste the same when dished out by others.

Pelican Valley Expedition  Leader

Dan MacNulty

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To make this happen we were going to have to go light and fast and so only the bare essentials for gear were quickly thrown into backpacks - sleds would be too cumbersome for moving up through the trees. Bivy sacs instead of tents; Snickers and granola bars instead of food; water instead of coffee. This was a mission, lean and mean. There was no room for the weak or faint of heart.

By 4:00 PM we had covered the five miles and 3,000 feet in elevation which made the trip more like a long five miles. The wind had picked up as well, no longer blowing at the usual 25 to 30 miles per hour. On top of the Cone it was blowing hard enough to knock you down if you weren't careful. In the leeward shelter of a fire lookout we took refuge from the wind and blasting snow. The big disappointment came when Dan pieced the telemetry gear together and tried a signal. There was nothing. Silence. No wolves. Zip. We looked at each other and started laughing. It was classic. The wolves had an agenda of their own which had nothing to do with ours. Thinking we would easily pick up signals and maybe even catch some visuals, we were humbled again, for what was probably the millionth time.

With night falling all around us we picked our way down off the windy summit. The crust was so smooth that even with skins on our skis it was a hairball ordeal staying upright and dodging the few wind-stunted pines. Once down in the trees we further hollowed out a camp under a misshapen old Douglas Fir and settled in under a tarp. It was going to be a long night huddled beneath our old tree and we berated ourselves for not bringing more gear. A stove would have been nice for hot tea or chocolate. Even one of the many Lipton rice meals left behind in our testosterone-induced haste would have been considered a luxury item right then. Yeah, we were lean and mean all right. Like a pack of hungry wolves that had chased its quarry only to find it too strong, too fast and not ready to give up its precious life just then. Like wolves forced to curl up hungry, waiting for tomorrow and another chance, we hunkered down, tails over our noses, and tried to make the best of it. Surely, we thought, we would pick them up tomorrow.

The winds intensified during the night and at times we thought the old tree would finally succumb to its sculptor and blow over completely. If we had been sorry for not bringing the stove with us the night previous, we were triply sorry when we attempted to squeeze our already cold toes into frozen boots. It got worse. After Dan bravely dug out to take signals, I heard him start cursing and yelling to come quickly. The wolves were back in Pelican and he had caught a brief glimpse of them as they were approaching a herd of bison in a thermal area right below our OP. While we had had to seek shelter during the cold, blowing night, the wolves had opted for traveling, passing almost literally under our noses and now were testing the herd for their breakfast--a hot one, at that. Dan was back at the tree as I was crawling out. " We have to move, fast." he said, practically throwing his pack over his shoulder as he threw his gear inside. Within minutes we were making tracks, Dan leading the way with his curses.

I was doing my best to keep up with him as we made our way off the Cone. Taking the quickest, most direct route meant passing through a large burned-over area from the fires of 1998. Here the sun had worked its magic as well and we decided it prudent to leave the skins on since not doing so would essentially turn the burnt forest into a long, steep and deadly slalom course. Even with skins my abilities were stretched to their limits and I was grateful when we finally broke from the forest and started skirting along the tree line towards the OP. We were trying to move quickly so as not to miss any action but we were also forced to keep a more-that-wary eye open for any bears who might be using the narrow Pelican drainage for travel as well. At the base of the OP we cut a set of wolf tracks. A lone individual meandering between the forests edge and interior and we theorized it to be one of the pups who generally wander behind the adults as they travel, exploring life for themselves. We didn't need to veer too much off course to follow the tracks since they were headed uphill and directly towards our camp.

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Slipping past the observers, the Crystal Creek Pack make their way to Pelican Valley

This could be a problem. If our camp was detected, the OP might be compromised as the premier-viewing platform it was. Halfway up the tracks turned downhill and away from camp and breathing a little less laboriously, despite climbing the steep hill, we continued on. Upon arriving Dan quickly hurried up the  Grand Staircase to take signals. I quickly hurried to where the food bags were hung. I was a bear and I smelled food.

Crystal was not in the valley but had continued on, traveling up Astringent Creek probably to check out the old bison kill from days earlier. This was the best sign we had had in the last several days. If the pack had been testing bison upon their return to the valley, and failing, they had gone back to an old kill to see what was left, then chances were good, even great, that they hadn't made a kill since leaving Pelican and were hungry. Lean and mean. We could get lucky after all.

Setting up our scopes on top of the OP, we tried to penetrate the trees for a glimpse of wolf or bear, anything that would betray the location of the kill. However, since the wind was still blowing hard, at least 70 miles per hour, this amounted to an exercise in futility. I tried recreating one of my favorite photos out of an old Patagonia gear catalog where this guy was using his jacket as an airfoil and was literally suspended in mid-air out over a cliff. It must have been blowing a lot harder than 70 miles per hour where he was because the only way I could lose touch with terra firma was by jumping. Guessing the wolves would be at the kill for the rest of the day, we bailed to the comfort of our snug, wind-free quinsy and began grazing through our stock of calories like bears in November.

Periodic telemetry signals throughout the day confirmed that the wolves were indeed staying put somewhere up Astringent. We also stayed put in our quinsy, listening to the standing-dead lodgepole pines occasionally blowing down around us and discussing various theories about what the wolves would do tomorrow. You'd think we would have learned by this point.

Of course, our favorite prediction was that the pack would return to the valley and find a vulnerable calf or weakened old cow. In anticipation I dug out the batteries for my cameras and brought them into the sleeping bag to keep warm and charged. Everything was ready.

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To Be Continued...

Chapter 6 

The Deadly Chess Match


Pelican Valley Expedition

By Kevin Honness

Photos by Kevin Honness except where noted

See all previous chapters


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