I hear their honking before I see them dark
specks like iron filings drawn across the sky by an unseen magnet. For weeks they pass,
funneling themselves into the long valley between the Adirondack and Green Mountains. I
cannot hear their voices without dropping everything stopping mid-sentence,
hurrying to the door, throwing open the window.
And so I stepped out one night, heeding their calls
to conjure an image to catch their long-necked silhouettes crossing the face
of the full moon more than half believing that my desire would make it so. Their
voices filled the air, my eyes pierced the darkness, but their forms remained hidden
against the blackdrop of space. The countenance of the moon remained clear. I see,
I thought, sometimes the answer is no. But as I stared into the night, I heard the
quiet whistling of air slipping over beating wings and a whisper there is
always an offering.
Two thousand miles away, as the goose flies, The
Lamar Valley, in February, is nearly the end of the line. Go a little further and you get
to Silver Gate, Montana winter population of about six. Three more miles and you
come to Cooke City, where from November to April, the road stops in a wall of snow.
A one-room schoolhouse sits on a back lane of this
one-time mining town. Eight grades, eight students, a computer, and a wish list. Moose
Drool is on tap at the Miners Saloon and if you stop in at the Pine Tree at 6:30 in
the morning, theyll fix you a cup of coffee even though theyre not officially
open yet. Snowmobiles appear in the parking spaces that line the main street. One morning,
an aluminum canoe materializes in their midst. The Soda Butte Lodge posts a sign in the
lobby requesting that car keys be left at the desk to facilitate snow removal and a
waitress can be overheard helping a shocky-looking snowmobiler with a dislocated shoulder.
I used to be a vet tech and thats the best youre going to be able to do for
To this human setting, I came in the winter of 1998 to
spend a week working and learning with a group of researchers studying the impact of wolf
reintroduction on the ecosystem. It was here that the dark hours were spent.
But daylight drew us into the deep snows and vast
silences of the Lamar Valley to the foraging herds of elk and bison and the
predators that stalk them. To the intricate and intimate cycles of life and death and
Armed with telemetry equipment, handheld computers,
topographic maps and compasses, spotting scopes, binoculars and snowshoes, wed spend
our days crouched on a hillside observing and documenting the numbers and behaviors of the
scavengers feasting on a newly-killed bull elk coyote, golden eagle, bald eagle,
magpie, and raven. Or hiking a steep slope to examine and retrieve the remains of an
earlier kill, or following and recording the behaviors of a single coyote.
|...following and recording
the behaviors of a single coyote...
photo by Isaac Babcock
But wed all come to see the wolves. They
proved elusive. Sometimes the answer is no.
The morning of our last day in the field, I stand outside
our tiny cabin at 5:00 A.M. in my night shirt, boots and parka trees cracking like
rifle shots, the star-shot sky dark and deep. In Lamar, steam rises from the open waters
of the river. The sun catches the crystalline face of fresh snow, and the day is born of a
million diamonds. The slope rises before us, brushing the sky, a massive expanse of height
and white a clean slate and ours the only tracks.
I want to climb up and up in this thin air to lose
myself in the silence to shrink to a tiny speck against the shoulder of this
Wooded now. A distant, solitary howl. Coyote, someone
says. My bones feel wolf.
Then down through fir and lodgepole pine, back to open
meadow, to find our earlier trail crossed and recrossed an intricate maze. Our
paths interwoven. My hand, full-stretched, just spans one print. I pick one set of tracks
my new companion and follow down the curving slope. Paired in space, but not
in time. A wolf has walked in my footsteps.
Its been a year and a half since Ive been back to
Lamar. It calls me, still. But just the other night my husband and I were out walking the
dogs. The full moon had risen over the mountains to the east and the air was still and
cold. We heard the honking of the geese overhead and the beating of their wings. With each
passing flock, Id stop and crane my neck, peering into the darkness, daring again to
call the image. And suddenly I realized that this night my timing was right. In a whisper
of air and black silhouettes, a perfect formation of geese crossed in front of the moon.
There is always an offering and sometimes
the answer is yes.
Kristin Kenlan has been
a member of three research 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.