Since my great gray nests were officially over, I was eager to get up into the Beartooths. I had been there a few times this year, but always mid morning or evenings. To really experience the place one has to be there at dawn.
So here I am heading out in the pre-dawn, full of anticipation. Would this be the morning I would come across a wolverine? A lynx? Maybe a wolf. It all seemed possible. All last year I drove this highway at dawn working on my book, Stranded, and while I saw some cool things I saw no wolverine, no lynx, no wolves. Why would today be different?
As I drove through the quiet streets of Cooke City, a fox trotted by on its morning hunt. On over Cooke Pass, down to Fox Creek, by the old beaver pond and on to where I had spent the spring with the great gray owl family. I slowed to see if the male was hunting near the road. Didn't see him.
I continued the steep climb. Past the work camp and the road to the fire tower. The slopes here were painted yellow with arnica. Bluebells spilled out of the roadside ditches. I stopped to glass the steep walls of Beartooth Canyon. Last year I routinely found a billy, nanny and kid. This morning I spotted a lone billy goat.
On my way again I passed by Beartooth Falls, still gushing with run off from snow melt. At Beartooth Lake I stopped for a reflection photo of Beartooth Butte. I was really thirty minutes late for a still water reflection. On past Top of the World store, still closed at this hour. Little Bear Lake, then Long Lake shimmered to my left. Finally, I passed through the 17 mile gate.
Now the landscape changed to stunted spruce and scattered boulders. I was just approaching the first switchback when a dark silhouette drifted across the highway. My mind went blank for an instant, then quickly restarted. A wolf!! A couple seconds and it vanished behind a rock wall to my left. I gunned the car forward and swung my lens out the window. The same moment I spotted the wolf, the sun exploded over the cliffs above me, blinding me momentarily. I fought to find the wolf in my view finder, centered on it and fired the shutter a half a dozen times before she turned and loped away. My eyes working again I searched the slope. Nothing. Then there she was again peering over a rocky rise. A moment more of curiosity and she was gone.
I searched for another half hour, even climbing a hill higher up on the mountain that offered a wider view but the wolf was gone. Who was she? I say she because thats what it appeared to be. It was collared and I would guess to be about two years old. Because of where I was I'd assume it to be from the Beartooth Pack. Although it could also be a Hoo-Doo.
Reluctantly, I moved on.
Marmonts climbed up the rocks to greet the morning sun. A golden mantled ground squirrel scurried across the highway. Over West Summit, then on to East Summit. Just below the ski lift, I spotted a mountain goat nanny with twins. A yearling grazed nearby.
From a high point, I glassed the distant cliffs. I soon located a billy on a grassy ledge. The buttercups were in full bloom up here, as were forget-me-nots and phlox. A pica popped out of the rocks, ten feet away. "Do you remember me?" I asked. He bleated then moved even closer.
It was almost 8:30. Time to start for home. On my way back over West Summit, I spotted my friend Drew setting up camera traps to photograph pika. I climbed down to say hi, when a baby weasel appeared to our left carrying a baby pika! I ran back to my car for a camera but when I returned he had already stached his catch into the rocks. He gave me a quick look then disappeared.
Farther down, I stopped near a stream to search for elephant heads. It took some searching but I finally found a few stalks. Laying out on the grass, I was getting some nice shots when I realized I was covered with mosquitoes. Time to go!
Over all it had been a good return. With the wolf being the highlight, but for me the pika and goats were just as special.