|The Wolves Of Yellowstone
M. Sandra Babcock
© Copyright 2004 by M. Sandra Babcock
The elusive Canis lupis – the Gray Wolf - beckoned me to leave my humble abode, cross over the Clark Fork, through the Continental Divide to the 45th Parallel of Latitude on our third visit to Yellowstone National Park in June 2004.
This quest began as an adventure of sorts. Turning 50, children long since left home on adventures of their own, the born to be wild side spewed forth like Old Faithful. Prior visits had us touring the park in ye old family minivan but this time my husband and I rumbled through the park on a Harley Davidson, decked out in biking leathers and fringe flying in the wind.
It was wild, as wild as the compelling reason Yellowstone was on the vacation agenda. This national park, with its magnificent valleys, rivers, geothermal oddities and wildlife also harbors the object of my imaginings that lurk in its pristine meadows and deep valleys. As we rode through the park, I diligently searched tree lines, scanned mountain tops, squinted at clearings and streams seeking that elusive predator that, at home, peers at us from every wall and has majestically yet quietly sat in corners and curio cabinets for years.
Canis lupis – the Gray Wolf – has long fascinated me. I don’t know why. But this wild, uninhibited ancestor to the domestic canine captured my heart years ago after reading The Outermost House by Henry Beston. Beston wrote:
“In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
When I read those words, brimming with simplicity and raw truth, the wolf appeared in my mind’s eye and has haunted my dreams, graced my walls, and howled in my thoughts ever since. I am a definite admirer and now that the wolf again inhabits Yellowstone, it was time to meet my obsession.
In the winters of 1995 and 1996, 31 gray wolves were reintroduced into the park. The first pack was named the Druid Peak pack. Today, approximately 306 wolves inhabit Yellowstone with some trickling into Grand Teton National Park. My goal was simple - to see the wolf as it should be seen – far from the expensive decorum of western frames, statues, blankets and rugs that inundate my house.
I view wolves as the born to be wild of the animal kingdom. They have a decisive ability, know what must be done and do it. They roam free yet there is purpose in each step. There is a hierarchy, a chain of command that’s strictly enforced and obeyed. Gray areas don’t exist in their world and the inherent governing system, with its sometimes ruthless outcome, ensures pack survival. Loyalty among mates, protection of the young as well as the pack, are the cornerstones in their lives. These characteristics hold strong in my own makeup.
So there I was, surveying the landscape and dodging the ever-changing atmospheric conditions, when frustration set in. After two days and no sightings, I knew if the images of the wolves were to step into reality, I had to get serious.
Maps and stories were sprawled across the bed in our hotel room as I attempted to pinpoint their whereabouts. We prepared to ride the next day to Lamar Valley, home of the Druid pack. At o’dark thirty, or there about, our aging peepers struggled to stay alert as we cautiously viewed the mist that shrouded the Gallatin Range and hovered above Yellowstone’s North entrance. Weather was cool as we layered on clothes, slapped down the visors on our helmets and sped out into the brisk wind.
Darn the luck! The binoculars and water to ward off the dreaded high-altitude dehydration sat stoically by the phone in the hotel room. The morning chill seeped through our clothes and leathers as we returned to the hotel and thoughts that this was not my time began to creep in. My husband, however, was the driving force. “We’re going,” he said, teeth chattering. Our reserves were tested but determination won out.
We rode through the Blacktail Deer Plateau keeping a solid watch for movement particularly a pack of wolves called the Leopold Pack that I read was in this area. Ahead, cars were stopped, cameras rapidly clicking. It definitely was wolf-time.
Funny thing though - the little fellow rummaging through the tundra, oblivious to human intrusion and picking up bits of porridge on the way was none other than the black bear – a favorite critter of my husband’s who also graces our walls, although a paltry second compared to the wolves. This was another creature we had yet to see despite our relentless search. We couldn’t possibly be lucky enough to see both of our favorite animals on this day, could we? It was too much to ask for.
Then, as we rounded a corner down the last stretch to Lamar Valley, a herd of bison decided to mosey across the road. Did I say mosey? I think their hooves were super-glued to the pavement. Once again, with the chill taking its toll and hunger setting in, I began to think this was not my time. It was too much to ask for.
There’s a distinct disadvantage when on a motorcycle and meeting up with determined bison. You’re at eye level with the magnificent beast and with scant protection should this 2,000 pound hunk of sinew and muscle decide to charge, we opted to play it safe and sat motionless, twiddled our thumbs, watched the sun grow brighter as the digital watch inched closer to 7AM. Our chances of seeing the object of my imaginings were slipping by with every munch of grass the bison grazed on.
The biggest, brawniest and last of the bison moved liked molasses across the road. We started the bike and the deep throaty rumble caught his attention. He glared – one of those hard, cold glares that set off caution flares - then turned and ambled off the road, clearing the path. Fifteen minutes felt like eons.
We rounded the bend and saw several cars parked along the roadside. Tripods and massive telephoto lenses were slung over shoulders as people scaled the hills with ease. I stared at my puny binoculars. Whisperings of, “Wolves! See? Right there!” circulated in the wind. They were out there but I couldn’t see them.
We pulled into the Lamar Valley parking area. On a small mound a few feet away about 20 people scanned the valley, some talked into walkie-talkies. I peered into the distance, following the gaze of the fellow wolf watchers, but saw nothing.
It was a valiant effort, I thought as we prepared to leave. It really was too much to ask for, but at least we tried.
An SUV skidded to a halt next to us and a man emerged, his slender face tanned by the Arizona sun.
“The wolves are crossing the river,” he said. “Get over there if you want to see them.” He hustled toward a deserted mound with us in tow, stuck the legs of his tripod that held a wide-angle lens and 35mm camera into the soft dirt.
“The den’s behind us,” he said pointing to the hillside. “They’re heading home,” he whispered as he focused the lens. “And there they are.” Film began shooting in rapid succession.
I slapped the puny binoculars up to my eyes and, although distant, I saw the wolves of my dreams as they moved swiftly across the valley with wary eyes and guarded posture. My heart pounded and a wide smile stretched across my face.
It wasn’t too much to ask for, even though it felt like it was.
They crossed the river, shook the wet from their coats and moved in the direction of the den. Paws padded across the tundra with ease. They traversed the roadway, ignored a grazing bison and moved effortlessly up the hillside out of sight.
“There’s one more in the distance,” our friend said. “But he’s more interested in the four-day-old kill that’s out there.”
Wolf school was in session and over the next half hour we were taught the goings and comings of the Druid pack. Our sun-weathered friend has kept tabs on these wolves and visits the park every year to gauge their progress. We learned that the alpha male, who has guided the pack for nine years, had been missing for two weeks. The two wolves crossing the river were serious contenders in taking over and leading the pack.
“It’ll be a tough battle,” he said. “Right now the pack’s disorganized and their hunts haven’t been too successful. In fact, the bison out there was taken down by the pack but a bear fended them off for two days.” He glanced through the camera lens again. “The other alpha would’ve never put up with that. He was one tough wolf.”
Our guide continued. “There are about ten volunteers who keep daily tabs on the pack’s activities and report to the head of this program,” he said explaining the walkie-talkies chattering around us. “After nine years, you can imagine how much paperwork’s been accumulated.”
And after thirty minutes, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. What began as a series of delays – the cold, forgotten binoculars, hunger and immoveable bison – ended with seeing a foraging bear, observing the crossing of the wolves and learning a history of the pack from a wolf admirer much like myself.
Sometimes fate lends a hand when least expected. Sometimes the delays encountered occur for reasons beyond our understanding. If we careened through the park on that day with nary an obstacle to overcome, our stumbling across the black bear would’ve been overlooked, the solid stare from the mighty bison only a picture in a magazine, the lessons from an informative guide never learned and more importantly, our encounter with the wolves would’ve been missed.
Would I do it again? I have no choice. My wolf appetite
has been whetted. I will return. Wolves will always haunt my dreams, be
a kindred spirit of my soul. No amount of cold, hunger pangs, or testy
bison will keep me from crossing the Clark Fork, over the Continental Divide
to the 45th Parallel of Latitude to see the wolf of my imaginings, moving,
as Beston wrote, “finished and complete,” uninhibited and free, as they
should be seen.
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