Monday, August 25, 2008
After two days of having relatively fixed schedules, the students had the choice of getting up at 5am to go on "poop patrol" - driving the roads looking for fresh tracks and scat as well as live sightings - or sleeping in till 6. I think those of us who got up early (about half the camp) were not disappointed.
As I lay in my sleeping bag waiting the last couple of minutes before it was time to get up, I heard a strange noise. It was a low sustained tone, not quite like anything I'd heard before. It reminded me more of a canine howl than anything else I could think of, though it crossed my mind that it could be somebody's stupid idea of a wakeup call. Whatever it was it got me up out of my sleeping bag quick. I went down to the gathering area where I joined a couple of people discussing it in hushed tones as it continued. From there it was easier to tell that the sound was coming from across the meadow, probably up the hill across from our camp. The noise continued for 5 or 10 minutes, with occasional changes in tone and breaks. A couple of times in the distance behind it we could hear what sounded even more like wolves howling in apparent response.
I had never heard a wolf howl in the wild before, and this sound didn't exactly match what I have heard in the movies, but I couldn't think of anything more likely. Elk and owls were suggested as possibilities, but just didn't seem right to me. Plus I really wanted it to be a wolf.
The poop patrol was relatively uneventful, I think we saw some elk and fresh coyote tracks, but not much we hadn't already been seeing. After finishing the patrol circuit we had a little breakfast than split up into our groups for the day. My group started by driving down the side road across from camp where we quickly stopped when Dave saw wolf tracks going down the road.
We had seen a few sets of wolf tracks earlier in the week, but they had been somewhat old when we found them. Often when tracks are fresh they will be a different color than the surrounding dirt, this effect lasts a bit longer in the early morning, but the color difference quickly fades as the sun comes up. These tracks had color in them and were probably no more than a couple of hours old, and were coming right down from the area we heard the noise. Meaning that quite possibly we had heard this wolf howling up on the hill two hours previous.
I imagine that everyone was pretty excited, but it is hard for me to tell because I was so excited myself and was very taken with following the tracks. Several of us started trailing it forward and another group started following its back-trail. It wasn't long before we lost its forward trail in the woods so Mallory and I took the van to cut for the trail along the main road in the direction it had been headed. It took us a little while, but we eventually picked up the trail again, got out and started trailing it some more. This road was more exposed to the sun and the color was fading quickly. Unfortunately we couldn't both just keep on the trail, the rest of the group needed to be picked up. I decided to let Mallory stay on it. After checking in with the group on the radio I jogged back to the van and drove back to the intersection of the roads thinking they would be there soon. I was mistaken.
It was several minutes before they even came into sight down the road. It was a delicious agony having to wait, with the excitement and potential of a live trail bursting in my mind. I paced, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until they got there. Eventually we got back to where we picked up the trail and again started trailing. We followed it much further this time, but again it disappeared into the woods. After cutting for the trail along another side road, most of the group decided to go back and further investigate the trail before we lost it and look around more for it in the woods. A few of us decided to continue down the main road looking for tracks though, and probably a mile or two down the road found a few more prints that were probably part of the same trail. It was getting late in the day though, and between the sun and traffic we didn't have much success in staying on it. After a bit the rest of the group picked us up and we drove down to a river and had a relaxed afternoon exploring that area.
We were a little late getting back to camp that afternoon, but the other group was not back either. When they did get there they also seemed to have had an exciting day. They were coy though, having decided not to share their story until the whole group gathered in the evening. And so I guess I will wait till next time to go into their day...