An Experience That Will Last a Lifetime: Wolf Week Turns Strangers Into Friends (Laura’s Take)
It was cold, dark, and early when I picked up the mixed group for day one of four we would have together. People in this group came from all over: a couple people from the Midwest; England was represented along with Canada; and someone even traveled all the way from Australia! They were strangers—soon to become friends—joined together by their love of nature, preservation, and the burning hope to see a wolf in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park.
The excitement and anticipation were palpable in the vehicle as the foggy windows further obscured the still-dark landscape. Everyone was wondering, “Are we going to see any wolves today?”
Truthfully, I, as the guide, did not know the answer to this question. With a population of around 100 wolves in a 2.2-million-acre landscape, spotting them can be tricky. Wolves are wild animals that roam around patrolling territory, looking for food, and—during winter—searching for mates. This meant they could be anywhere. Spread out. Alone.
This meant we would have to search. We made several stops in pullouts along the dark and somewhat icy road where we stood in a single-file line or a semi-circle and attempted silence. The group made best attempts at stopping coats from swishing, snow from crunching underfoot, throats from clearing and noses from sniffling just to listen.
Silence. No howling.
The sun began to emerge from the east, from behind the Absaroka mountains bracketing the northern region of Yellowstone Park, and my heartbeat quickened. Dawn. Thus began the magic hours for wolf watching and where timing can be everything. We kept moving.
Into Little America we went, looking for animals as we neared Lamar Valley. It was quiet, with very few people scoping on the roadside, and fewer cars on the road. This is one of the true gems of visiting Yellowstone in winter; it can truly feel as if the park is yours and yours alone to wander and discover.
For me, this also meant we were going to be mostly on our own in finding wolves, with less eyes scoping the vast landscape. We encountered another large group searching the area and, after a brief confab, we split directions; they returned west and we continued east. Another heartrate escalation as I debated internally: “Did I make the right choice?”
We ventured deeper, through Lamar River Canyon and toward a sunrise providing muted pinks and purples over the hilly, river-cut Lamar Valley with mountain ranges as a backdrop. We entered the territory of the Junction Butte wolf pack in areas we’ve stood and watched wolves many times before. But where were they this particular day?
We discussed wolf pack structures and how wolves patrol territory, sometimes howling, and sometimes roaming the extensive boundaries using urine and feces as olfactory markers to keep rival packs at bay.
I pointed out different travel routes and places for people to keep their eyes focused when I spotted a quick glimpse. Definitely canid—gray—and I felt hesitant to shout ”Wolf” for fear it might actually be a coyote.
I felt a quick surge of adrenaline as the animal made its way from the south side of the road to the north and it became monumentally clear from the size, gait, and face shape we had an uncollared gray wolf right in front of us!
We were the only people around, no cars on the road. I stopped in a pullout and quickly and ever so quietly got out our scopes and set them up as the gray wolf slowly weaved and winded its way up the base of the mountainside where several bison were located. Still silent along the roadside and within the park, it felt as though we collectively held our breath. Was this actually happening?
The gray wolf stared at us intermittently as it loped up to the bison and casually strolled right past them. Some of the bison munched on dormant grass while others snoozed away and didn’t even budge when the wolf came within fur-to-fur distance. We had about two beautiful minutes together with this scene until the gray wolf completely vanished into some tall sage and out of sight into a gulley.
Who knows where it was going. Was it headed back to fellow members of the pack? Was it on a quest for a partner in a vast and expansive wilderness? Was it just on a morning stroll to stretch its legs and get a pace for the day? And what did the animal make of us as we stood in awe?
These are the questions and scenarios we were able to ponder for the remainder of the morning as we reveled in the magic we just experienced. No longer strangers, we all became deeply connected in this moment we had just experienced–an experience that will last a lifetime.
Text and video courtesy of Yellowstone Wild Guide Laura L. Top picture courtesy of Yellowstone Wild Owner/Operator Emil McCain.