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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LOOKING AND SEEING

By Christine Baleshta

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Wolf 21 stands over his mate Wolf 40  by Daniel Stahler

The temperature on the first morning of spring is 0 and it looks like it could snow at any minute. This is our last day to rise at 5:00 a.m. and I am finally getting used to it, even enjoying it. I pull on three layers of clothes to protect from the freezing temperatures, then feel surprised at how warm it feels stepping out into the blackness surrounding Buffalo Ranch. The lack of humidity has been a savior in what could be otherwise very bitter weather. I have even become accustomed to walking between the cabins and the main building well after dark, with wet hair, wearing only warm-ups, and feeling perfectly comfortable.

The van takes off at precisely 6:00 a.m., the sun just starting to glow on the horizon. We are driving slowly toward Soda Butte Creek when we spot a bison on a hill, silhouetted against the sun rising behind it. A perfect picture and a good omen—its going to be a really good day–something special is going to happen.

On this final day of a Yellowstone Association Institute wolf class we are hoping for some serious wolf activity. Someone spots a raven flying low as we round the bend, then we spot two wolves, one black and one grey, climbing the ridge in a very determined manner. The grey wolf carries something in its jaws – a bone or piece of meat. We hop out of the van, binoculars in hand, but the wolves disappear over the ridge. We wait, hoping to catch another glimpse of the pair, but they have vanished.

We continue down the road in the same direction, but after no sign of the pair, we backtrack west to discover that we are not the only ones waiting – a crowd of about 15 people, including researchers and two of our own who stayed behind, are poised for a wolf sighting, scopes out, binoculars in hand. Cars and vans line the road parked precariously in pullouts and roadside ditches. Quickly we jump out of the van and set up our gear just in time to catch the pair descending the east slope and calmly lie down on a bare patch of ground beneath an evergreen, like celebrities who know their fans are waiting and watching. The researchers have already identified the pair as the alpha male and female of the Druid Preak pack who made a kill nearby sometime during the night. We are no more than a half-mile east of the Buffalo Ranch where I had spent the night.

Through my scope I see their faces clearly; they are so close they can be seen with the naked eye. Before long a subordinate appears from out of the trees and joins them, greeting the alpha female by licking her face. They lounge for a while, the alpha female, Wolf 40, getting up only to bury her cache. The three wolves are totally aware of the crowd watching them, adding to my personal conclusion that the Druids are like the Hollywood stars of the Yellowstone packs. They keep their distance, but they are exhibitionists at heart, soaking up the attention and admiration of people who wait in freezing weather just to catch sight of them. It seems like Number 40 especially enjoys our adoration—truly expressing the personality of a queen.

The large, black alpha male, Wolf 21, disappears for a short period behind a bench. On the road more observers gather; some are visitors from the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. An ambulance on its way toward Cooke City slows down to take in the excitement. Suddenly Number 21 reappears, marching down the slope. He is very easy to see, black against stark white of the snow. Many of us stand away from our scopes and lower our binoculars to simply watch him without accessory, to take in the experience of seeing a magnificent creature in the wild. A determined looking individual, he is now checking us out.

Perhaps he strays a little two far out of the comfort zone for the other wolves, for Wolf 40 lifts her head gracefully and howls, a clear voice above the whispers, cutting through the cold. The subordinate joins her. Wolf 40 slowly moves down the hill to join her mate, her eyes always on us, and the subordinate follows close behind. The three move west up a hill steadily until they are out of sight once more, and we are left to wonder about what we have seen.

Some members of our group move down the road, while I remain to see if the wolves will return, pacing up and down the road to keep warm. The wolves don’t come back, but a scraggly-looking coyote appears and heads toward the carcass the wolves have left behind. Good timing on its part.

Our group returns to Buffalo Ranch for a final breakfast prepared by the men. The company of strangers is a delightful blessing. We laugh, we make fun of each other, and we welcome each other’s contributions to the class. In a matter of hours, the class will officially end and I reflect on being a part of a group of people with such diverse backgrounds (doctor, computer software engineer, accountant, social worker, legal professional, photographer/journalist), but similar values and interests. It hasn’t been just fun; it’s been an enriching experience.

A few of us stop at the Institute bookstore to browse and decide what other memories to take home with us when we get word that the Rose Creek pack are visible at Slough Creek. In a matter of minutes we are in the van and down the road once more where another large gathering of researchers and visitors are watching about 15 black wolves scattered across the snow-covered mountainside. As they were two days before, they are now about two miles away and appear very small even in the scopes, but we are able to watch them walking, climbing on rocks, lounging and chasing one another. We watch for 20 or thirty minutes until one by one they stop what they are doing, or get up from their resting place, and walk over the ridge. They follow one another in a winding, single line, until they are out of sight. I hope I never take for granted seeing any animal in the wild. This is the gift they give to us, allowing us to be with them in their world.

I pull out of Buffalo Ranch in my rented SUV at about one in the afternoon, the last to take off, I think. I take my time driving to the North entrance, slowly navigating the winding, icy road. At this moment, I am the only one and I breathe in the solitude. I pass the turnout at Hellroaring Overlook and glance toward the mountain, remembering the black wolves of the Rose Creek pack. Down the road, I pull over and get out to gaze at the landscape of snow studded with evergreens. I allow the silence to envelope me and realize this is what I have come for: to be alone and complete in a special place. To feel a part of it, if only for a short time. This is what Yellowstone is and this is what I take back with me.

I stop at a deserted Mammouth Hot Springs to walk around, clinging to the last few moments. In a little while, I will drive through the Roosevelt Arch that welcomed me and the quiet streets of Gardiner, Montana. Instead of saying "goodbye," I think to myself "so long."

It was only my second trip to Yellowstone, but not my last. Each year I make my pilgrimage for an experience that renews and refreshes. I return in autumn for the elk song. I look for the coyote diving for rodents in the meadow. I sit on the bank of the Gardiner River at dusk and wait for the harem of elk to join me. I stare at the sky searching for an eagle, scan the horizon for sight of a grizzly, park and wait to visit Rosie and her little black bear cubs. Each of these has taught me the simplicity and complexity of life in Yellowstone. I have learned to appreciate its beauty like learning the difference between looking and seeing. For those of us who are privilege to the experience, it is a place that within ourselves we call "home" and return to year after year.

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Christine Baleshta visited Yellowstone National Park in March of 1999.  While taking a wildlife watching course with instructor Gene Ball at the Yellowstone Association Institute, she saw a wide diversity of wildlife species exhibit their natural behavior, resulting in her first piece for YWT, Life Gives Life.  She currently lives in Austin, Texas.

 

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