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Wolves, the Winds, and a Spotter Plane

I now have zero tolerance for mosquitos, and my annual visits to the Wind River Mountains for the last several years always come after labor day. Almost every September trip I can remember comes with at least one day of snow but not this year. Although a few nights were in the 20s, the days were warm enough for shorts. But along with warm weather came limited visibility from the fires in Montana, (and throughout the West) meant the craggy flanks of the Continental Divide mountains were barely visible.

This year I picked out a small area where I’d never been–Bald Mountain and Chain Lakes. My other choice was Sweetwater Gap, where I went last year with limited time to explore. Bald Mountain has the easier access via a paved eleven mile road outside of Pinedale to the Elkhart Park trailhead. With the easy access, I arrived at 3pm and hiked five miles to Sweeny Lake. Everyone was pouring out from the Labor Day weekend, most probably coming from popular Titcomb Basin. The trail up Elkhart takes you along a wooded ridge for five miles before it splits to either Titcomb or Pole Creek. An otherwise non-descript trek except for the evidence of beetle-kill. Large pockets of whitebark pines dead–a sad scene in one of the last strongholds for these trees in the Greater Yellowstone.

Sweeny and Miller lakes are in a bowl below the ridgeline and add only an extra 1/2 mile, well worth it especially since there’s no water for five miles till Elklund lake–a popular campsite destination. Sweeny is a gem with no one around and some good camping spots. The full moon rose orange from all the smoke and only a bugling elk broke the early morning silence. These lakes have been hit hard with beetle kill.

Sweeny Lake

Sweeny Lake in the Winds

My base camp destination was Chain Lakes, about another seven miles. The trail is rocky but easy, passing through granite knolls till it reaches the crossing at Pole Creek. Before the crossing I sat down for a snack when a deer suddenly burst down the trail headed for the river crossing, obviously spooked by something. When the deer saw me it did a quick 90 degree turn towards the brush. An outfitter appeared with two mules a few moments later, bound for his wall tent camp to pick up supplies. He’d be the last person I’d see for three days.

Setting up camp on a small rise between the larger upper Chain Lake and the lower, I found that no one had camped anywhere in this valley. There were no fire rings. I believe people see it as a pass through while either hiking further south on the highline trail, or venture into the Bald Mountain areas.

Chain Lake Wind River

Upper Chain Lake from my campsite. Smokey mountains in far back

The following morning I had a wonderful, yet strange and confusing experience. While making breakfast, wolves began howling directly across from my campsite, around 200 yards away on a wooded hillside above where the upper and lower lakes converge. A muddy rock hop stream divides the two lakes which I’d noticed was full of elk and wolf tracks. I ate my oatmeal breakfast on a rocky prominence and listened to the wolves singing, signaling an end to their night hunt. I’ve heard wolves in the Winds before, but never so close and their presence made me happy, signaling the return of the wilds in an area of Wilderness.

Pinedale area is right on the border of the Predator Zone (wolves were just delisted this spring) and I wasn’t sure if I was in a Trophy or Predator area, but knew I was borderline close. Hunting is legal in a wilderness area, and hunting for wolves in the predator zones is legal 365/24/7.

Still basking in the glow of ‘true wilderness’ calls, and the fact that I was the solitary human presence in this valley, twenty minutes after hearing the wolves, I hear another sound–a spotter plane coming into the valley, headed directly for the knoll where these wolves were howling. The plane comes closer and closer, finally to tightly circle over six times directly above the tree tops where I’d heard my wolves howling. I know Game and Fish spotter planes as they collar wolves in January in my home valley. This plane was white, unmarked, single engine with long wings. Who were these people then? The pilot was obviously trying to flush the wolves out of the trees, and also he had to have the GPS coordinates of a collared wolf in order to arrive just a few minutes after I’d heard their presence.

Wolf hillside

Small knoll where wolves were howling

After jumping up and down and yelling at that plane, they left after six tight passes only 50′ above the tree tops. Later that day I headed up the knoll to explore. A few nice small meadows indicated good elk food, lots of stock evidence of grazing of outfitter horses and mules, and…a dead mule about a month old, reduced to bones. This confluence of events confused me even more.

That morning, I headed up to the Baldy Lakes that sit directly below Mt. Baldy. What a beautiful high elevation spot. A series of small lakes leads to a waterfall and a high rocky meadow where a feeder trail merges with the Fremont Trail.

Bald Mountain Basin Wind Rivers

Baldy Lakes

Bald Mountain lakes

Another view of Bald Mountain lakes

I saw a black bear print in a muddy creek crossing on the way up here. Elk, wolves, deer, and a bull moose. Never seen so much wildlife in my Wind River visits over twenty years. After spending a few more days at Chain Lakes, every evening and early morning punctuated with wolf howls, I did an early morning hike out in the moonlight. Stopping for sunrise at Photographer’s Point (still smokey so the mountains looked like a Chinese silhouette painting), I realized in that windless moment why these mountains have such a poetic name. Fremont Creek roared deep below, pouring out from the Continental Divide’s numerous lakes. It sounded like a strong wind in the valley, yet the air was still. The Wind Rivers! I love this place like no other.

After my confusing experience with wolves and a plane, I headed to Jackson to the Wyoming Game and Fish where I spoke with Dan Thompson. I was concerned about poaching (even in the predator zone wolves cannot be killed aerially), or spotting (it is illegal to plane spot for game and trophy animals after July 31 in Wyoming). It turns out that Chain Lakes is barely in the Trophy zone and Thompson later emailed me that his pilot was flying ‘locating wolves to demonstrate recovery’. OK, I understand if it’s G&F doing legal flights, but what do you think about planes low flying 50 feet above the ground, circling in Wilderness during prime hiking season? It was incredibly emotionally disturbing, ruined my own ‘wilderness’ experience which I’d just hiked fifteen miles into the back country for, and seemed so intrusive for these wild animals. In twenty years of hiking and camping in wilderness designated areas, the only other time I’ve seen a plane was a search and rescue mission.

Topping my week off, I spent time in Dubois where I bought a fishing license for the reservation and drove up Dinwoody Creek to see some amazing petroglyphs. Here’s a taste.


Dinwoody Canyon is beautiful and off-limits to non-tribal members as it is a sacred area. I’ve been to the top at Goat Flat via the Glacier trail, but it is illegal to hike into the valley. Interestingly, several years ago they found a buffalo jump on the high ridge pass at 11,000 feet and speculated that on occasion, when the buffalo ran there, native peoples would spend the winter at high altitude since they couldn’t carry that much meat to the lower elevations.

Dinwoody Canyon

Looking up Dinwoody Canyon towards Goat flat

The GLORIA project in the Beartooth Mountains

I was in the Pryor Mountains last month on a BioBlitz.  What’s a Bioblitz you might ask?  It’s an appropriate name, because in the span of about 24 hours people group up and find as many species as they can.  I of course signed up for the botany group, but other areas included bats, invertebrates, birds, or mammals. There was even a ‘spider’ category.  In that 24 hours, we hiked and drove from desert to alpine environment, documenting every plant we could find.  Those we were unable to identify in the field, we brought back to camp to identify where a nice shade tent with tables, microscopes, and plant books was provided.  It was a lot of work and a lot of fun.

At the BioBlitz I met Professor Lyman who is the botany teacher at Rocky Mountain College in Billings. She had other projects going which were near the Sunlight area that I offered to help on.  First we met up on Bald Ridge where she had a camera on Shoshonea pulvinata, a rare plant that appears on only a very few sites around the Cody area.  She wanted to discover what the pollinators were for this plant.  I offered to check the camera, but the plant had already finished blooming.  We hiked the ridge and discovered several pockets of this plant, mostly on cliff edges where the scree is thick and the drainage is perfect.

Rare plant at Bald ridge

Shoshonea pulvinata green plant not blooming

Where Shoshonea grows on Bald Ridge

Her next project began last week.  The GLORIA project was to be set up on four high peaks in the Beartooth Mountains.  This is a worldwide project that’s been going on for about 10 years and started over in Europe.  The idea is to monitor climate change by detecting changes in the plant life at these mountain summits.  The set-up is very detailed, pain-staking, and specific.  The peaks must be 50 meters minimum distance from each other and at least 50 meters elevational change from each other.  A formula is used to measure off distance down the slope at 5 and 10 meters North, South, East, and West; then a grid is installed at each bearing.  At the grid-mark, plants are counted and identified.  A heat sensor is installed which will record temperature changes.  Every five years the same exact area is recounted as to the plant material and the percentages of species change.

View from one of the GLORIA summits

The project set-up was a lot of work but very interesting.  One day I helped carry supplies in to the summit and measure off the  grid.

Marking the grid for photographs

Another day after completing a second grid area, we hiked the afternoon looking for another appropriate summit.  The top of the Beartooths is a beautiful location to spend the day, especially with the heat down lower.  One afternoon we got run off the mountain by fast moving thunderstorms.  The highest bare summit is no place to be in a lightening storm.

Counting plant material within the grid

One day in surveying the summit, which is treeless and fairly shrubless, we actually found a bird’s nest with chicks in it.  I would guess there are few predators up there.

Bird nest on summit with chicks

A possible summit

The Beartooths contain some of the oldest rock in the world.  Professor Lyman’s husband is a geologist and he pointed out some pure quartz veins to me.  Here’s a giant that I wished I could haul home (the rock not the dog!).

Quartz on the summit

Domestic sheep were run on these mountains until the early 2000’s.  Domestic sheep, when they intermingle with Big Horn Sheep, cause our natives to develop diseases like pneumonia  to which the native sheep have no resistance.  These old sheep allotments have been retired–a good thing.  But I suspect these summit cairns are left-overs from sheep herders.

Sheep herder cairn on a summit with quartz

On the way home one evening, right near the Top of the World store, a fox was in the road chowing down on a road-killed ground squirrel.  Oddly, he didn’t move for the traffic and I got some good photos.  Even when this motorcyclist was right bye him, he continued to eat for a long time.  Fox are considered predators in Wyoming and can be shot on sight at any time of the year.  Good thing none of these motorists were on that kind of a mission, just a sightseeing mission.

The Tipping Point

Everything is up for grabs now relative to climate.   Climatic tipping point talk is abuzz about the scientific community.  All our efforts to save species have a large ‘unknown’ given rapid ecosystem changes due to climate instability.  The tipping point, researchers say, may be within just the next 10 years.

For the last several years, I’ve taken to setting up my trail camera all summer in the little forest by my house.  The forest is home to 7 springs that emerge from the limestone underground rivulets hidden deep within the abutting mountain.  These springs flow into private lands, much of which is soggy and marshy.  The forest also is a lively travel corridor.

Spring area, one spring

In previous summers I’d pick up my trail camera chip every few weeks.  Mostly I’d see deer, a few coyotes, and an occasional black bear.  By fall, the grizzly activity increased.  But this summer–the hottest on record and with an even hotter heat index making almost every day unbearable–activity has increased dramatically, and of course, always at night.  I’ve had scores of black bears, cougar, a boar grizzly, and even a moose a few weeks ago.  Given that moose go into heat stress at temperatures above 57 degrees, and anything above 80 degrees is unsuitable for them without refugia, I wondered how this poor moose was coping. (notice the temp and time!)

These animals would normally be higher up this time of year.  But my theory is that the constant heat and drought has forced them lower.  Of course, this is not the case across the board or we’d be seeing a lot of wildlife in the irrigated areas.  But I take this as a sign of the future–as we use diminishing precious water to irrigate pasture or grow crops, we’ll see more wildlife seeking refuge closer to us.  As prey move in, so do predators.  As forests die and meadows dry, animals will seek food and water wherever they can find it.

Couple that with the sad state of food for grizzly bears.  Today I took a long hike up the back side of Windy Mountain, once a stronghold for Whitebark pine nut food.  The trail begins around 8,400′ and heads up to 9400′.  I can say with confidence that 99% of all the mature Whitebark Pines are dead throughout that ecosystem.

Dead Whitebark Pine forest

The only good news is that there are young seedlings in many areas, especially on the north-west slope in a large burn area.  But these trees won’t bear for at least another 30 years–if they survive the dramatic shifts in climate.

A friend told me not long ago that all the still affordable lands are high up in mountainous territory.  These are the areas, he said, no one wants to live in because the climate is too harsh.  Real estate in places like Oregon, Washington, the Southwest, and California is beyond pocketbook reach anymore.  But evidence points to humans heading into the mountains in the Altithermal, a period of drought and dryness after the glaciers melted.  Animals, as well as people, may be heading higher up sooner than later.


For Gaia lovers

For all you Global Warming non-believers, environmentalists, politicians, city dwellers, pet lovers, gas guzzlers, consumers, cheese eaters, gardeners, youngsters, oldsters, or hipsters, I only have one recommendation for todays’ post:  Read James Lovelock’s new book The Vanishing Face of Gaia.  A Final Warning. Too little, too late, a new hot world is coming, sooner than we think, and we can’t solar or wind-proof our way out of it.  Lovelock says to prepare the lifeboats and come to agreement who will be in them, if that is even possible.  There will be islands of refuge, tiny places, where only at best 100 million of us can survive.

Lovelock’s point is, of course, Gaia; that we’ve failed to take her into account.  That our scientists measure and analyze her like she’s just a predictable rock, rather than a living force that fights back.  That Gaia needs her forests and entire biosphere to keep her running and healthy, and that as humans, our main fault has been overpopulation and therefore overuse.  It’s not that fossil fuels themselves are bad, its that we burn more than She can make.  He makes the point that between all the humans, their pets and livestock, and the engine it takes to feed us, that’s almost half of all the CO2 produced!  We are the sorcerer’s apprentice unable to solve the spell of technology and overpopulation we’ve unleashed.

Lovelock himself is an optimist by nature.  So he looks for hope in the new world we might create while we live in a hotter place, with far less people.

I hope that all he says does not come true, that his calculations are off, that we’ll be able to come together to reduce our numbers, that breakthroughs will occur in practical science to help us.  But his book strangely echoes the words from over 10 years ago of biology teachers  I had.  And it is quite obvious to those who see, that our small gestures of recycling, green goods, wind farms, ‘sustainable living’, or our grand conferences with promises for future reductions in 2050 cannot steer us much off course, if at all.  Lovelock’s metaphor:  “but are these, however well meant, any more than the posturing of tribal animals bravely wielding symbols against the menace of an ineluctable force they do not understand?”

Not a book for the fainthearted.