Gray Wolf Natural Recovery Area, NW Montana, 1998
We meet in Kalispel, grouped up, and caravaned to a historic Ranger Station in Western Montana. We stopped off to check in with the US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Department. We got deputized as US Fish and Wildlife temporary rangers. Thus we didn’t need permits to access, camp, hike, etc. We were official stewards of this land.
We spent an hour in a lecture about expectations and skipped lunch as we drove to our first campsite. There we set up temporary camp for the night and cooked up some pasta. The group shared food and started to get to know each other. We were beginning out group dynamics. There were 8 woman, another guy & myself. Plus the two leaders.
As the sun set at
an ancient 1906 Ranger cabin a short evening hike away, we saw two deer wander
by in the last rays of the day. On
the way back to camp we saw bear scat. Fresh.
Most of us didn’t know for sure that was what it was.
The camp fire snapped and crackled. It was the only light in the now dark forest. Our class of 8 woman and 2 guys sat in circle listening to Jay. He was our instructor and was giving us our safety briefing the first night. It sounded more like scary campfire stories.
He warned us that north western Montana was remote wilderness. Last year there was a major mountain lion problem. While on routes, students would drive up on the huge North American cats standing in the middle of the road. And they wouldn’t budge. Moose were even worse. They might charge your car and take out the windshield or worse. And they have a hell of a kick. And bears, why, we’d just seen scat only a few feet from our camp.
Everyone huddled closer to the fire. Jay explained that we should try to look large when confronted by a cat, avoid eye contact and look small with a bear. Don’t run from either, that triggers their natural urge to chase. Wolfs and coyotes wouldn’t bother us, but when you first here them, they might scare you to death. Mt lions are silent. You’d feel their teeth before you heard their steps. Bears are clumsy, you might smell or hear them first.
This was the land or cougars or mt lions, black bears, grizzly bears, wild kicking moose, coyotes, and also of wolves. This was the big bad forest.
Firelight reflected fear in everyone’s nervous faces. We looked over each others shoulders at the ring of black forest night surrounding us. Probably somewhere out there were the beasts of our fears and anticipation. Perhaps they too were listening to the stories.
Jay told us to stay calm, think, and act appropriately, and we wouldn’t have a problem. But just in case, please sign these waivers. Seriously.
(find the rest of the story after the photos)
Charlotte, Tim, Amanda, Ross, Kristen, Mary, Karen, Scott
Jim, Jan(laughing), Ganier, Jay (instructor)
click a name to hear them howl -or- listen to our recorded coyotes -or- wolves from Wolf Haven.
Our trip was trough San Francisco State's Wildland Studies Program. They liked my photos so much, they published it on their annual catalog back cover. (and paid me $50.00)
We set up base camp a few hours drive from last night. After everyone had staked out their area, and pitched their tents, we gathered back around the new fire pit. It was mid afternoon. We listened to a tape of what we were to hear in the woods over the next few weeks. Coyote and wolf howls.
We learned the difference between mature animals and pups, wolves and coyotes. When we finally heard the howl of the wolf deep and primal from the tape recorder, Jay’s dog, named Timber, howled along so loud we couldn’t hear the tape. Everyone laughed. It was then Jay explained that canines love to howl. They can’t help themselves. If you howl, they will too. It’s like someone flips a switch. We were going to use involuntary canine howling mechanism in the weeks to come.
Next we got out the maps and a compass. We learned how we were going to plot direction on the map, converting compass bearings to true bearings.
Then we grouped up for around the fire pit to learn how to howl. It was intimidating but one by one, brave souls, Charlotte in the first few, stood up, breathed deep, and howled out. Wolves love to howl so much they don’t care how good we were. Thank goodness, because that first day sounded strange.
That night we marched down the road to practice howling. Also we hooked up our parabolic dishes and recording equipment. Karen let out the test howl next to the creek. Nothing.
Broke camp I drove to next ranger station and meet young field biologist who was on the fence forest service. “many agendas’ jay keeps saying (many agendas by the public in this public place. Logges are public. Left wing enviornmental nuts are public. Hillbilly, yuppies, granolas, hunters, all have the share the land and think, feel, and act differently on and in it.). Filled water and gas in trout creek near Idaho border. Last stop for a week then Tim’s alternator went out. More waiting. Seems a lot of time is spent waiting for the group to finish this or that. We pushed started Tim’s car. Set up camp. Sandwiches at 3:30 not only tastes great is a must to wake me back out of nutrient and energy depletion. I gotta remember to keep eating.
The creek rapid water sounds like the wind off in the distance. It sounds a little like a highway, the shady spot on this side of the road is home to half the camp. While the others and the leaders retire across the way. I hear others swimming the 2nd time in two days. I’m contemplating a shower, but rocking in my thermal longer right now writing, I just feel perfect.
Took my first solar shower after lunch today. Ahhh. It was awesome, I feel great. We started our morning lectures. The first one was on morality and ethics of the treatment of animals. Interesting that it is so separate in this context from society, Hitler, prisoners, general social unjust. We don’t seem to want to mix the holistic picture just yet.
That night was our first route. Mary and I were teamed up to comb about 12 miles of logging road an hour’s drive from camp. We found the road, but finding the beginning of the route was more difficult.
A single flashlight shown the only light in miles and miles and miles of remote wilderness. There we were huddled in the dark moonless night, on a crappy little logging road, hours from the nearest person. Our little light trying to illuminate our map, and next turn. I wondered what was out beyond our tiny circle of light. Out in the dark night. Those rings of forest and mountains and streams and animals. Did a wolf look on as we worked?
Howling with Tim hiked granite creek 8 miles round trip with an hour drive to trail head. We were the last ones back to camp. Snacked on wild raspberries. Saw prints; lots of hoofs, a cat, and maybe wolf prints. It felt good to hike. Some routes are just driven, but I like the hiking ones better.
Too much time in thermal lounger around lecture circle has my muscles soar from under use.
As the rain just poured heavy thick drops, char and I lathered up in our underwear. The rain kept our instantly soaked bodies wet enough but a solar shower got out the last pieces of soap.
Recorded howls in the laptop. I wrote a few paragraphs on the computer and it felt so much more comfortable to type instead of write longhand. But my batteries didn’t have a way to recharge. I guarded them carefully.
Char and Kristen found coyotes. They got an awesome recording. Amanda, Jan and I hiked the panoramic ridge trail. Took some awe-inspiring photos. We talked about al sorts of stuff. Life, college, sex, wolves. Amanda, the youngest at just 17, was great at self-disclosure.
Sitting in camp, sunshine over head this afternoon, is quite different than yesterday. Less than 24 hours ago we were hiding inside the truck from marble size hail that pelted from the sky. Our camp quickly became a snowfield, than minutes later, a mud puddle. We feared holes in our rain flies, water inside our tents, and soaked papers, books, & computers. It was the low point of the first week.
Char and I were depressed. There were no wolves. The biological field survey we thought we had signed up for, quickly had turned into a confusing political science class. We weren’t finding the beasts of our dreams, we were instead seeing the political nightmare and reality of big government and business. Who knew even engendered species were business.
I left San Francisco over a week ago. And 7 days of driving and camping and howling and eating dried food later, I was growing tired. Tired of staying awake until 2am. Tired of saying, “date, time, and location.” Then letting out a huge howl. Clicking on the parabolic tape recorder. Waiting. Waiting. Click. Nothing. I wasn’t hearing a single wolf return the howl.
After day one, we had already resolved to not seeing the elusive carnivore almost never seen by humans. Additionally we had learned from a guest ranger that the 9 wolf packs in Montana have dropped to 5 or 6 since last year. Shot either by ranchers or the US Fish and Wildlife for bad behavior. Either way, they were less wolves in Montana than last year, and certainly none in our valley.
We conducted transect surveys to look for prints or scat during the day.
Transect Surveys are paths straight into the wilderness from a given point. We would all stand around base camp and take a compass bearing. For instance 320 degrees would send us northwest in a straight line. Straight into the woods for an hour. When the hour was over, we would add 180 degrees, take a new bearings and hike back to camp. It was cool how in the thick of the woods, when things start to look strange, how accurate a compass bearing can be.
The point of the hike was to transect the forest looking for prints, markings, and scat. Both of predators and of prey. For if there was no prey, there couldn’t be any predators.
And although we found a few traces of ungulates (deer and elk) and wolf scat from months ago, it seems the valley was void of the canines. Then at night we’d sent out four teams trained in howling, armed with high tech recording devices, in all directions. Night after night after night. We’d get a howl or two from coyotes or owls, but no wolves.
Now on top of all that it was snowing in July. We were tired, dirty, grumpy, and wanted to go home. But instead we went out to eat. We told Jay we needed gas and drove the hour back to civilization. Or in this case, a tiny town with one gas station, one restaurant, and a saloon called Trout Creek.
But the sun was shining on the other side of the valley. And that seemed to make all the difference. We grabbed a hot meal at the small town restaurant, filled up the tank, and headed back into the wet valley. By the time we returned, the rain was gone, and so were the miserable feelings. Char and I were on the same howling team that night for the first time. Additionally Amanda, the student from Jay’s environmental science classes.
Our route was the road into camp. We were quite certain we weren’t going to find wolves, but perhaps a cat. A mountain lion had been spotted near the field at the beginning of the valley by another team.
The same area, a few day’s earlier, Tim spotted a fully intact dead coyote baby on the side of the road. Mary and I drove back by on the way to our first night’s survey only a few hours later. But the baby was gone.
On the road where the baby had been, were fur and guts. We walked into the brush and found the body dragged a few feet away. It had been fed on. We figured a mountain lion had been feeding on the road, then a car scared her. She pulled the body into the grass then fled. Then we walked up.
There I was, knee deep, a vegetarian in a carnivores world. And although we stopped back the next day, and found the carcass had disappeared, my strange feelings lingered. I stood looking down at real case data of survival of the fittest. And I felt strange. Interested for the first time in the carnage.
Quiz today gave everyone the usual academic nervousness. Familiar those feelings of walking into a class situation knowing I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been. How not true in real life. I’m ready to deal in most any room I walk into. I quickly remember why I didn’t enjoy school’s grades / evaluations. Tomorrow is our mid week break. I’m so looking forward to it.
A fresh bag of clean clothes, a real shower, pizza and beer. All less than 24 hours away. And that keeps me going, gives me inspiration, and anticipation. I can’t wait.
Day 8 Day off
Missoula MT. We woke up early on our day off. We wanted to get into town. The drive south to Missoula was scenic down a long valley. We grabbed fast food, washed our clothes, and headed to the hotel. After a long scrubbing shower, we both felt so much better. I plugged in the computer to recharge, and checked my e-mail.
I read e-mail and started to write a bit while char finished her shower. Mid afternoon now, we’re going to grab some pizza and beer tonight. I can’t wait. It feels so good to be clean and full. Civilization is so much sweeter after a week of wilderness.
One week down. One week to go. We’re going to make it. In the hail storm the other day, I didn’t think we would.
The solar shower has been a wonderful creature comfort. It holds enough water for both of us. And the day it rained, we even got Amanda’s hair washed after char and I striped down to our underwear and took a shower in the rain, and then just rinsed our hair with the shower. There was enough left for Amanda.
The thermal loungers have been the envoy of the other campers. Char and I get to sit back and relax in soft air chairs, while the others jockey for positions on logs, crates, and the ground.
My big North Face tent has let us spread out and enjoy our space. Even though we pitched it close to base camp, it’s convenient for the lectures.
Last night I hiked 10 miles. The night before 10 miles. 20 miles in 24 hours left me exhausted last night at 2am. We get back from the howling around 2am, and work hard and eat minimal dried food. The routine is grueling, and I’m so happy to be in the city tonight. A fresh breathe in the middle of the journey.
A typical night usually includes an early meal around 7p.m. We head out from camp in vehicles around 8p.m. We drive to a trail head and hike up for a couple of hours. We usually cover about 5 miles before nightfall. Along the way we look for openings in the woods, or rocks to climb up, or a clearing for clear howlings. We usually mark the area so when we come back down in the dark, it’s easy to find.
Then we wait. We wait for the sun to slip behind the mountains. And then we wait until the bluish twilight of night has arrived. Usually around 10:30 up north.
Then we get ready. Pull out the satellite dish / microphone. Hook it into the tape recorder and test the signal strength. We record date, time, location, and howler. We mark our trail maps, take a bearing, and turn off the headlamps and flashlight. Then, someone howls.
Wolves, Coyotes, and even dogs, love to howl. And in the wild, if one howls within their earshot, they’ll almost always howl back. Sometimes it is a disadvantage as hunters and poachers also know this trick. But our team was here only to document they gray wolves natural recovery (or lack of recovery) in this part of Montana. We were howling for them.
So we’d cup or hands, and let out four howls, one in each direction. Then we wait 2 minutes for a reply. If we don’t’ hear anything, we repeat the 4 howls and the 2 minute wait.
Charlotte has already gotten two different coyote packs to reply with her teams. Mine haven’t gotten any yet. But when the call of the wild comes, we point the directional microphone into the dark and record.
Then we go hike a mile. Or some people who have logging road routes drive the mile, and do it again. And again. On a hike a half dozen times. On a drive route over 10. Night after night. Week after week. We have several teams, all over the valleys, every night howling almost constantly into the dark.
Field Biology Research is boring. Boring, boring, boring. There is a lot of waiting around and finding nothing.
The definition our instructor gave at the beginning of class was, “many long hours and quiet nights, for a tiny amount of return. The lows are lengthy, but the highs are worth it.”
Out of the last 18 classes, only 5 have found wolves. And only 1 team out of 5 in each class actually heard it. No wolves have ever been sighted in the history of this program. Those are grim statistics.
The wolves we see in posters and photos are almost always actors. And almost always the same few captive wolves. There is a photo set near Kalispel MT, where these furry stars live. Actually seeing wolves by humans in the wild is nearly impossible.
We got up at 6:30 am – much too early for my now conditioned night owl clock – we were the first to arrive at the trout creek ranger station an hour early and promptly feel asleep in the car. We slept through the first hour of morning lecture. Continued the 2 hour slow boat accent over the hill and into our 2nd weeks camp. We pitched our tent in a field of wild flowers with little shade, but next to the creek. Much quieter than the first week when we pitched right next the fire circle.
Our caravan pulled off the road on the way to the next camp site. The sign on the building said, trespassers will be eaten. Our class walked in.
Inside were two very dirty, older, native montanas. Their home was a barn that had been converted into a large living space. Around the edges were stuffed deer, elk, moose heads. Some full body taxidermy statues were standing around in fake landscape scenes. A mountain lion was stuffed sitting on the fireplace. A stuffed bison stood in the corner. Stuffed birds hung from the ceiling. It was like the Natural Field Museum in Chicago.
We were hearded into one side of the room and told no matter what we saw, not to scream. That would excite “it.” And if IT got scared, and IT took a swipe at you, that would be bad. We were told to keep anything hanging, camera cords, etc, pulled in tight to our bodies.
We all warmed up our cameras, not knowing what we were about to see.
The woman opened the door and waited. We looked at one another excited and nervous. Then we saw it. IT was a full grown two hundred pound mountain lion named Shasta.
It slinked into the room -- a large & well fed cat. It walked over to the older man and purred. A full grown mountain lion, the kind that killed joggers in California just last year. This huge predator was now an inhabitant of this wildlife refuge. A refuge that was a room, shared by the couple, all living together. A place where wild animals that are destine to die, can instead live out their lives.
This cute lion kitten was an attraction at the Mall of American until it reached 40 pounds. It was a promo for The Lion King. It was de-clawed and caged until it got too big. Then it was to be killed. Ah, the foresight of Disney. But instead, this wildlife refuge took it. Along with black bears that have been altered by man and not able to be released back into the wild.
We meet ‘Teddy’ bear next. A tiny black bear that lived in a pen out back. As we watched him, a wild black bear that had been shot in the foot hobbled up from somewhere in the miles around the house. This poor little guy walked on three legs and came every afternoon for a meal. The refuge never refused a hungry animal. It was sad that mankind had screwed these animals up enough to be banished to this fraction of their natural habitat. But the alternative was death.
Our instructor liked to introduce us to places, and present ideas that had no easy answers. The confusing situations of real life.
We woke up late in the morning to the creek’s gurgle. But sweat poured out of my body in the 90 degrees north face tent oven. I peeled off my sleeping bag, a sweaty second skin, and stumbled into the warm morning disoriented and dehydrated.
I could barely stay awake in the morning heat during our lesson and didn’t feel better until a sandwich and a coke mid afternoon. Next we preformed hot transect surveys along the creek until we jumped in the cool water halfway through. It was refreshing. Then back at camp I took a positively hot solar shower with real soap. Awesome! Now sitting in the cooler shade a gentle breeze keeps the hot day at bay. Screams from the naked girls down at the river break through the wind. They’re swimming in the water holes. Char is showering as I write. Only 4 more nights – thank God. I’m ready to go home to Jen and indoor plumbing.
Our 2nd week camp site was hot. There was little shade and the temperature had been well into the 90’s. The teams spirits’ were muggy and oppressed. Jay decided we needed to head into town for pizza and on the way back we’d stop at a swimming hole.
The swimming hole was deep. And right next to it was a rock at least twenty feet high. It was a long plunge for sure. I stepped up to the edge and looked down at the rapid stream. It looked far, but Scott jumped off yelling the whole way down. Soon I jumped too.
The water was cold and deep and by the time I swam to shore down current a bit, I was gasping and exhausted from the cold. But soon I was warmed back up and back up at the top. Splash. Over and over. I dove, flipped, and jumped off the giant jungle gym. We hiked up the river sides and rode the rapids around a few bends. The swirling and whirling rapids temporally pulled people underwater. It was scary and exciting and refreshing.
Ross and I had been through our first few howling stations the next night. We stopped the car on a straight part of the road near some bushes. We stepped out of the car, and into the pitch black night. We were talking a bit as she set up the microphone and I prepared to howl.
I looked around at the sky and the dark landscape and let out my first howl. Halfway through the long drawn out wail - Smash, crack, crack! Went the bushes. “What the hell was that?!” we both said in unison. Crack, snap, snap. They went again. We inched toward the car. Then I heard loud, deep, excited, breathing. In-out-in-out. Like something was hyperventilating. We both continued toward the car. The noise stayed steady. In-out-in-out.
We knew that was the sound of bear. We must have woke him up from nap with the first howl. He was started. And so were we. We didn’t want to stick around and let him vent on us. We jumped back in the car, and gently slipped down the road. We’re supposed to stop every one mile on the car routes. But just to be safe, we skipped the next two.
I’ve seen bears in the wild from Montana to Alaska. But in the dark, when one can’t see them, only hear their breath, they seem even closer. I think perhaps it was the closest I’d ever been to a bear. And certainly the most scared.
Scott, Gayner, and I were hiking a 6 or 7 mile trail the following night. We had walked passed some great open meadows where we thought wolves might be. We got to the end of the trail and waited for it to get dark before hiking back and howling along the way.
Gainer stepped off the trail to go to the ‘little howlers room’ and came back a little concerned. She said she thought she heard a bear. Scott and I listened hard, but couldn’t tell for sure. We teased her that peeing ‘on a bear’ is not usually a good idea.
We waited another ten minutes then decided to howl. Like the nights before, the first howl will wake up anything in the immediate area. Ganier let out her howls and no bear charged. But a pack of Coyotes howled back. The first one sounded long and low like a wolf. But soon the whole pack joined in and the pups and younger animals were clearly coyotes. We got a good recording.
It was cool listening to the animals that were probably within a quarter mile. We hiked the rest of the way and didn’t hear anything else. But the first time we howled up animals was very exciting.
Stinky wet damp rank stench wafts through the pathfinder as I type. It rained the last few nights, today we woke up under cloudy, drizzling skies.
In less than 24 hours we’ll be packing up to head out of the woods. Back to civilization. We made it. I’m so ready for a real bed and nice long warm shower.
We’re supposed to be studying for our final for the next few hours, but instead I wrote in the pathfinder.
Last night I was on patrol with Mary. We got five howls in before the lightning and thunder that had been threatening since we left camp finally unleashed a furry of thunderstorm rain so passionate and fervent, out visibility turned to near zero. We inched along the washed out dirt road mile after mile. We told stories and talked and then suddenly, barely through the underwater windshield, we saw something in the road.
About 3 years old, the young Bull Moose stood looking down his long nose as us. We stopped just a few feet from him. Our headlights barely making him on in the dark pouring rain. He turned around and stuck out his butt. We thought he was going to walk off, but instead he just stood there. And stood there. The one night I left my camera back at camp! But Mary fumbled around for hers.
As she was looking down to make sure it was on, the moose took a step. He was moving slowly, and I thought she’d have enough time to catch him before he stepped from the road to the woods. Then he took another step, then another quick one. Soon he jumped straight up in the air. Then ran past he car on the driver’s side.
All of sudden we felt how little our car was compared to this huge thing. This moose was taller than a horse. Bigger than a cow. And if you can imagine something that large jumping and sprinting, it seems super natural. And scary. As soon as he got even with the car, I excitedly said to Mary, “Go! go! sneak past him.” But it was too late. He jumped back in front of the car, looking at the headlights, blinded perhaps, scared for sure, and pissed off definitely.
We were freaked out. Supposedly, moose cause more deaths than bears and mountain lions combined in the North American wilderness. And until I saw one bucking around violently like we did, I didn’t really believe it.
It turned and headed straight for the car again. I could just see it ramming the windshield, smashing the glass, and having this forceful rain storm streaming right in our laps. Adrenaline shot through me. It turned, and leaped back in the road and jumped around from side to side. Excitedly, I yelled to marry, “you’re going to have to sneak by him.”
She started to move forward, he bluff charged, then turned, then we move up again, then he charged and ran a bit past, she hit the gas, dirt and mud flying, and we spun past him, just as he turned again. We didn’t look back. We drove as fast as we could a few seconds, but the low visibility forced us to slow down or we might drive right off a cliff.
We tried to look back, but the darkness and rain made it impossible. We drove on a minute or two in silence before we felt like we had gotten far enough away from the moose. Then we started laughing. We talked and joked about our near miss the whole rainy way back to camp.
I told her about a night or two earlier, we saw a baby coyote on the trail. When we turned the lights off it would walk away. Then when I flipped them back on to make sure he was gone, he would turn and walk toward them again. There is something about headlights that draws wild animals. Cute little furry canines are one thing, a crazy moose the size of a cow was another.
Soon we finished our trip. There were some interesting experiences but we didn’t get any wolves. The US fish and wildlife department’s job is to get wolves off the endangered species list. To add packs to the natural recovery area.
When a wolf takes down a cow, that wolf is shot. Either by a rancher or by the fish and wildlife department to exterminate the behavior. Hopefully by shooting bad wolves, the depredating of livestock behavior won’t be passed on. However last year, between hunters and them, the nine packs shrank to five. We were supposed to verify the existence of the fifth.
The second class started the day we quit. Another
two weeks to try and find what was left of the Thompson pack.
If they don’t find them, that number would shrink to four.
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