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Wild Wisdom by Christine Balsheta

Wild Wisdom by Christine Baleshta

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The Lamar Valley is deserted mid-afternoon on a sunny October day. The beginning of Fall in Yellowstone is unusually warm, and I ‘ve needed my token pair of shorts almost every day. A cool wind kicks up from the north, blowing against my back. A front is moving in bringing much colder temperatures and snow flurries tomorrow morning. From my perch high on this hill, I can scan the valley with my binoculars and get a good view of the Druid Pack’s rendezvous site.

Two-thirty in the afternoon is not an optimum time to see wolves - or any other wildlife. Early this morning, before 7 a.m., I stood near this same spot with several other dedicated hopefuls watching members of the Druid Pack play and chase each other, lounge on the rocks and in the sage, and sleep. Each morning we gather about the same time, an unconfirmed appointment with the pack, and hope the wolves will show up, too.

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.

Fortunately, I was rarely so disappointed. The Druid Pack, or at least part of it, consistently made an appearance each morning. This particular morning eleven wolves dotted the sage and rocks, apparently waiting patiently for their pack mates to show up. The rest of the Druids, a pack that grew to the unbelievable size of 37 wolves, were off somewhere, feeding on a kill made during the night.

About 9:00 a.m. someone spots wolves running out of the trees, east of the rendezvous site. First only a few and then a great mass of grey and black bounding over the gently rolling hills, through trees and sage, towards a crowd of very excited wolves. The reunion is a pile of wagging tails and licking faces. This is where spotting scopes really come in handy. It’s a thrilling site. For some, it’s their first glimpse of a wolf; for others, it’s the reason they travel to Yellowstone each year and wait on the hill early in the morning while hands and feet grow numb with cold.

My attention turns from the pack to one black wolf who does not run to meet the rest, but moves slowly through the sage towards the river. He is a considerable distance from the other wolves and I wonder about him and his apparent disinterest. Two days before at dusk we spotted one black wolf in this same area, weaving through grazing bison. He walked toward the road with seeming determination, as though he was aware of his audience. Confident, unafraid, the darkness of evening finally hid him from sight.

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.

I turn my attention back to the pack, still visiting, lounging, playing. Almost three hours have passed. Gradually the watchers on the hill leave - to hike, get breakfast, or return home. I drive to my usual morning stop at a nearby picnic area to make coffee and plan my day. I spend the afternoon exploring closer to the rendezvous site hoping to find tracks or other evidence of the Druids. It’s a pleasant hike along the water, but I have a feeling I’m trespassing. This is wolf territory; how close is too close? This pack is remarkably visible; to preserve accessibility they need to be left alone and visitors need to maintain distance. So, feeling a little guilty about crossing some invisible line, I confine my hike to the creek’s edge while remembering this morning’s events.

Now, sitting on this hill in the middle of the afternoon, I am savoring the last hours of this adventure, enjoying solitude 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.

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Sunset in Yellowstone by Nathan Varley

As I finalized my travel plans this fall in the shadow of September 11, I debated safety and travel issues and tossed them away. There are plenty of potentially dangerous situations throughout the park area - they were there in previous years and they exist now. What bothered me this year was a nagging worry that this trip would somehow be different, that something would go wrong and I would return strangely dissatisfied. But driving through the West Entrance, anxiety melted away while the mist rose from the river and familiar scenes opened before me. The Madison River elk herd was right where I left them last year, as were the bison that share the same river with their Spring calves. Clouds parted after the previous night’s rain as the first week of October promised Indian summer’s clear skies and warm daytime temperatures.

I travel to Yellowstone for many reasons: the wildlife, the solitude, the cold. Maybe this year I was looking for something different. What was it? Perhaps the assurance that in the cycle of nature, some things do not change no matter how badly the rest of the world is handling itself. While the rest of the world worries about what will happen next, elk are in rut, wolves chase elk and coyotes stay out of the way. Bears forage for their last meals before migrating to their winter dens. They all know there is a long, cold winter ahead, but in spring there will be calves and cubs.

I take great comfort in their wild wisdom. Alone, on a hill, staring at one wolf, who is hopefully looking back, I am grateful for no other thoughts but the things that surround me at this moment. There is only me and this wolf, who with his pack mates and the other creatures of the park, lives in the present. I believe he knows that today is the only guarantee we have, a state of being I would like to carry back with me. Each trip to Yellowstone provides new lessons, new memories, new gifts, but the beauty and value of the present is a reminder I experience each year, something to be re-learned with new importance and meaning. Yellowstone is never a disappointment.

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