“It’s still snowing!” Cold and damp, a little frustrated by the weather, we make our way down the path through the flats. The trail is muddy and wet in places, and large patches of snow are everywhere. We’re getting tired of being cold and navigating snow drifts and don’t want to get caught in a storm.
It’s Monday. Since we arrived Saturday in the late afternoon the weather in Yellowstone has been gray with snow showers, the sun breaking through intermittently. Yesterday we hiked in Hayden Valley for a while and gave up trying to negotiate the snow covered trail, marshy areas and deadfall. It started to snow as we hiked sideways up the slopes. Big, round snow flakes settled on top of my backpack while we hiked up the trail to Mary Mountain. I have never seen snow like that before — snowflakes like tiny snowballs disintegrating at a touch.
Wildlife viewing is the priority on my trips so I try to plan my time carefully to be in the right place at the right time to see at least one wolf, somewhere. Stepping into the park holds no guarantees for success. My expectation is that I will see that wolf, and I don’t like to admit that I would consider this week a disappointment if I was unlucky. The two previous mornings I arrived before 7:00 a.m. only to be told something like, “They went that way.” Out of sight and a bad way to start the day. A no-show on a below freezing morning can be pretty discouraging, shadowing the week ahead.
Today the sun comes out and the sky turns blue as we head toward the pass. Miles of snowy meadows and rolling hills studded with pine trees stretch before us. We stop frequently and scan the hills, looking through the trees. We’ve run into grizzly bears twice on this trail, fast becoming my favorite in Yellowstone, so we are particularly cautious in all our travels in the park. We know a bear can dart out from the heavy camouflage of trees any time. Our first hike here, the grizzly was the turn-around point. This time we hope to get much farther.
As we pass the place where we saw the bear last year we notice tracks forming a narrow loop in the snow. A closer look reveals wolf tracks surrounding some bones scattered in the center of the loop. I try to imagine what went on here. A group of wolves, maybe four or five, out hunting or going back to the den, stumble upon some winter kill, or what’s left of it. They sniff and try to figure out who has been here and left these bones. Wolves have extraordinary senses. They can identify other animals by scent and determine how long ago they were in the area. We can only guess and stare at the bones, writing their stories in our minds.
The tracks go back along the trail and we follow them between the steep slopes of the hillsides. They lead up and then down through foot-deep snow. We notice a track on the surface of a drift we can’t identify. A solitary track and not a pair, it’s definitely not a rabbit. A martin, maybe? A question that still remains unanswered. This part of the trail is heavily wooded, narrowly winding through forest so we move forward slowly, carefully, talking, and making noise. The last thing we want to do is surprise a sleeping bear.
I wonder if this is the same wolf we saw that evening. I also wonder if he is considering dispersing from the Druids. A member of a pack of unprecedented size, is he beginning to feel like he’s losing his place? That his pack is too big? I was projecting again. I try to refrain from applying my perspective in a situation where it simply is not objective. This is difficult and I see and hear others on the hill making the same mistake – using human reasoning and emotions to understand wilderness. It may provide us with a sense of familiarity, but that does not make it accurate.
The trail becomes very steep, as it leads up the mountain through the trees. The short distance seems like miles, and takes forever, but once on top, the plateau becomes a beautiful mountain meadow covered by grass, sage, some wildflowers and – snow. Suddenly, the steep climb is forgotten as we look down over the Gardiner River and Mammoth. The meadow is a perfect rendezvous site for a wolf pack. We believe it’s likely wolves have been here having seen their tracks, but right now we are alone except for several blue birds. They are tiny creatures and such a clear, perfect blue. We have seen them all over Yellowstone in spring, particularly in high meadows like this, flying low and perching in the brush.
Now, sitting on this hill in the middle of the afternoon, I am savoring the last hours of this adventure, enjoying solitude and as a change of weather slowly moves in. There is no sound but the wind and an occasional passing car; I feel like I’m the only one in the park. Not expecting anything, I decided to hike to the top of the hill just to see if anything was out here. Scanning the valley and the rendezvous site, I focus on one black spot. It grows ears and a tail and soon rises on long black legs. The solitary wolf I suspect. He faces me, appearing to stare and I allow myself to believe he knows I’m here. Wolves have a powerful sense of smell and the black wolf is downwind from me at a considerable distance. I feel rewarded by his unexpected presence. He continually gets up and walks around, looking toward me, and then lies down again. The dance goes on for maybe 30 minutes, over and over, slowly zigzagging towards the trees until he is out of my sight, perhaps tired of being observed, yet leaving me with a special experience.
The plateau is bordered by trees on the southeast and scattered with rocks, sagebrush and rocks. We walk around, our eyes drifting back to the trees, always wary of bears, hoping to see one of the wolves who left tracks. We rest for a while near some boulders, but soon it’s time to head back as it’s getting late in the afternoon. We decide to take a different way back, a shortcut of sorts, half sliding down the steep trail towards the tracks in the snow that lead us in. As we connect with the trail we hiked in on, we continue to stop frequently and scan the hills. I look back toward the mountains and find a black bear foraging in between the trees on the mountainside. He’s pretty far away, at least 300 yards. We watch for a while. I feel a strange satisfaction when I spot a bear or some other animal following its daily routine. It takes diligence and patience to find an animal that far away. Over the years our sightings have improved and now we look harder, longer, maybe because we’ve learned that sometimes you just have to wait until something shows up. We were sure we would see a wolf somewhere along this trail, but so far no luck. We’re disappointed but at the same time pretty happy about the bear.
We climb up a hill to rest, look around, and enjoy the beginning sunset. I sit on a rock to tie my hiking boots and Tim says “Wolf!” He points toward the hiking trail, exactly where we’re headed and there it is, trotting on the path straight towards us, a gray wolf, about 100 yards away. It must be a member of the Swan Lake pack, the pack known to frequent this area. They are called the “clones” because they all look alike – gray fading into light gray and white, the classic wolf.
We lie down in the tall grass on our stomachs, hiding behind sage and rocks, our eyes fixed on the wolf headed towards us. The wolf stops several times and sniffs the trail. It looks in our direction with that not seeing but seeing gaze. Slowly, carefully he proceeds, walking along the trail, stopping again, sniffing the trail, looking in our direction. It knows we’re there – somewhere – even if it can’t see us yet. For Tim and me it’s too good to be true. Most of the wolves we’ve seen in Yellowstone are a couple of hundred yards away and now one is about to pass right in front of us.
The wolf sees us. We’re on our knees now, Tim, camera in hand. The wolf stops and looks us over while we remain as quiet as possible, totally awed by what we’re looking at. It’s a good sized wolf and healthy looking, about 100 lbs, with a medium gray coat, white markings around the eyes, and a long, gray nose. Long body, long legs, long tail. It doesn’t seem surprised, but rather annoyed and inconvenienced by our presence. It makes no sound. We never hear the wolf, not even footsteps. It looks straight at us, holding its gaze for a minute and then continues trotting down the trail, looking back, making sure we are still there and not following.
We look at each other amazed. We’ve just seen a wolf about 40 feet in front of us! We watch it trot down the trail and around the bend through our binoculars as long as possible. This is about as lucky as anyone can get. Wolves are very shy animals and staying out human sight has enabled them to survive. If we got too close, that could cause them to abandon the area and go deeper into the park to find another territory where they are not visible.
Later in the week we watched the Druid Peak pack go back and forth to their den site, tending to the alpha female and the newly born members of the pack. We saw newborn bison calves learning how to walk, and a cinnamon colored black bear cub amble down the road and past our car. We watched an enormous grizzly tear at a carcass with long ivory claws and two otters chase a coyote away from their pond. But the experience of looking into a wolf’s face made our trip early on.