"Dead Puppy Hill?" The words were softly
spoken. "Hes taking you up there?" I tried to read the flicker in my
ranger friends eyes as I told him of our destination and couldnt quite.
Its true the name is grim but apt. Some
say coyotes were responsible; others say wolves. Everybody agrees that a dead coyote pup
was found there in what is now Druid territory.
The wolves take their name from Druid Peak, which
dominates the northern skyline in the packs den area. The slope rises toward the den
in waves a landslide congealed formed as the most recent glaciers retreated
and the weaker sediments slumped away from the steep, ice-gouged walls of the valley.
Tucked behind these rollers a small lake lies hidden, and a marsh, and a thousand places
for a gray wolf to disappear.
Across the road to the south, Soda Butte Creek,
wafting sulfur from hot springs just upstream, courses to meet the Lamar River. Beyond the
level bench of the flood plain the land rolls upward to Dead Puppy Hill. Ive watched
a person make his way out across the open area, disappear into the trees and then emerge
high on the slope, only to vanish, wolf-like, into the landscape.
To climb and vanish that would be our goal, too
to become the unwatched watchers.
Dark clouds hugged the horizon off to the west as we
traced our way along the narrow footpath, single-file, shouldering spotting scopes and
tripods. We were fifteen, each come to this common path by different roads seeking
what can be found in a howl and the ripple of movement that is a wild wolf.
The "he" referred to by my friend was Nathan Varley, our instructor and guide, as much a
product of Yellowstone as this years pups. I once heard him accept a bed in Cooke
City on a winter night, not wanting to miss the opportunity to drive through the Lamar
Valley in daylight a road hed traveled hundreds of times.
It was early evening and the light would hold until
nearly ten. A few bison grazed at a comfortable distance and the smell of sulfur from the
creek was replaced by the pungency of sage. A narrow band of Engelmann spruce dug into the
steep slope up from the bench. Roots jutted out into the path and the earth was powdery
and loose underfoot. I filed a mental note that coming back down would be interesting.
Gaining the open slope, we pushed higher. As we
crested a knob I turned and saw the valley open below, sharing some of its secret places.
Rick McIntyre was there already and my ranger friend, Bill. Ricks a virtual
fixture. His job with the Park Service is a combination of research, interpretation and
crowd control. Ive heard hes recorded seventeen hundred pages of observation
notes and, if not a record, then a near-record number of consecutive days of wolf
sightings. You can guess where to find him on his days off.
Telemetry indicated that two wolves were nearby.
Keeping low, our voices in whispers, we set up our scopes to wait. To the west, the clouds
blackened and advanced. No one spoke. I heard the low rumble of thunder and watched
lightning fork to distant peaks. We stuck to our scopes, slapped at mosquitoes. The clouds
slid east and north. Warily, I tried to gauge their progress, willing them north. I
glanced around. All eyes were glued to scopes and not a flicker of motion in the field.
From not too far below, the sound of laughter drifted up.
And then Ricks voice. "Okay, Ive got
Number 21." The big, bold alpha male was headed out.
The storm was headed in. I watched it drop like a
curtain across the valley and felt the first splatters of rain. Lightning struck the
not-so-distant ridge lines. Personally, I found sitting on an exposed hillside full of
metal somewhat alarming. Rick calmly put up his umbrella. Uneasily, like some planetary
object held in orbit by opposing forces, I turned my eyes back to the scope.
The crack of thunder pulsed through me like a shock
wave, and sent us scattering. Collapsing my tripod and grabbing my Crazy Creek chair, I
wavered for a moment Should I wait for the others? I headed for the trees,
my own personal lightning rod over my shoulder. I could hear footsteps behind me, matching
my pace, but I didnt look back once. I didnt want to see the face of the storm
at my shoulder.
I didnt run and, in retrospect, I wouldnt
call what I was feeling fear more a heightened sense of predicament and of action
to be taken. But as I reached the edge of the tree line, where the slope began to fall
away and exposed roots grasped for soil, I was brought up short. In front of me, blocking
my flight, a human chain had formed. Elderly folks that laughter from below
hands reaching for hands slowly and patiently helping each other down that hill.
"Go right!" the voice belonging to the
And then I was down, adrenaline lending agility to my
descent. Out on the flats, away from the trees, a pile of scopes and tripods grew until it
began to resemble a metallic pyre, an offering to the storm. Nearby, a few from our group
chose to kneel on the ground, lashed by the rain, recoiling with each sky-splitting bolt.
I cast my lot within the dark shelter of trunks and
branches where the earth was soft and the mood was light. There were jokes and
laughter and the company of friends and strangers. Nathan told stories of his mountain
goat studies, of finding himself trapped on a rocky cliff with the atmosphere so charged
with electricity his hair stood on end. Dan Stahler
was there, too a wildlife graduate student and Vermonter like me. And Lynn Weston, a poet whod found his voice in Lamar. I
dont have a sense of how much time passed, but at some point Rick appeared in our
midst, having just surrendered his position on the hillside. What were our plans, he
wanted to know. "Okay," he said. "I guess Ill head on back." And
he strode out into the storm, tripod over his shoulder.
Later, after the weather had plowed its way up towards
Cooke City and the light dimmed past dusk, we lingered listening for a howl.
Instead, the night filled with the sound of courting snipes, the air softly whistling over
their wings as they danced the skies.
I havent been able to stop thinking about that
night. What I found wasnt what I thought Id been looking for. Dan had guided
the elderly group that night and we chatted later. I picture them handing each other down
the slope and Im struck by the thought that they knew something that I am still
learning. There was no loss of dignity or grace in that supporting chain of hands
only acknowledged vulnerability and the bond of help offered and accepted.
"By the way," said Dan, "did you see
the wolf up behind you on Dead Puppy Hill?" I felt a twinge of disappointment. Nathan
Kenlan has been a member of four expeditions evaluating the impact of wolf
reintroduction on Yellowstone National Park. In 1998 she organized a group of
Vermont students who traveled to Yellowstone to participate in this research. She
teaches mathematics at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont.
Photographs by Nathan Varley