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"Dead Puppy Hill?" The words were softly spoken. "He’s taking you up there?" I tried to read the flicker in my ranger friend’s eyes as I told him of our destination — and couldn’t quite.

It’s 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 pack’s 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. I’ve 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 year’s 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 he’d 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. Rick’s a virtual fixture. His job with the Park Service is a combination of research, interpretation and crowd control. I’ve heard he’s 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 Rick’s voice. "Okay, I’ve 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.

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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 didn’t look back once. I didn’t want to see the face of the storm at my shoulder.

I didn’t run and, in retrospect, I wouldn’t 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 footsteps urged.

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 who’d found his voice in Lamar. I don’t 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 I’ll 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 haven’t been able to stop thinking about that night. What I found wasn’t what I thought I’d 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 I’m 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 just smiled.


Kristin 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


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