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When I heard Wolf 40 and Wolf 163 had died this past winter, I felt an almost personal loss. I'd been to Lamar Valley twice: once in the summer of '98 and again the following February when I spent four days getting to know the Druid Peak pack. It wasn't a lot of time, but it was enough for me to experience the pull of those mountains.

From a bookshelf, I reached for the journal that held my memories.  Pages spilled past me as I scanned for mention of the pack.  Images came in pieces, but I craved the whole story.  So I stopped skimming and turned back to revisit my winter with the wolves.

I see them. On a ridge above the Lamar Valley, the Druid pack makes their entrance.  I watch them without the spotting scope, and there, against the backdrop of dawn, they walk single file as if they are aware of how captivated they hold their audience below.  When they descend the far side of the ridge and are gone from sight, I am not disappointed. Somewhere in those mountains, I know the wolves have found their place.  And I know I'll see them again. Loading up the spotting scopes, my friends and I start back toward Tower Junction to check for any activity in the other packs.   On the road, each of us watches for movement.  I didn't think I would find the park as beautiful in winter as I had the previous summer.  It is more so.  I spot coyotes. There are two of them, making their way along a riverbed.  A group of elk ignores their progress as they meander up the bank onto a sloping rise.  Now we notice a third coyote, alone, heading toward the two. The middle part of his tail has no hair on it at all, only a puff at the very tip. We nickname him 'Poodle Tail'.

Not knowing who belongs to what pack, we watch the two move toward Poodle Tail.   He seems bothered by their approach and begins charging at the pair, mouth agape, tail curled closely to his body.  Each takes its turn running in, trying to antagonize Poodle Tail, but he stands his ground. After a few tense moments, the two seem to grow bored with him and begin tumbling over one another in play. Poodle Tail continues on, alone.

Finding nothing else near Tower Junction, we journey back east into the valley and find a group of coyotes from the Bison Peak pack near a riverbed.  They stare intently into the water, pacing its banks. We stare just as intently. After a few moments, a river otter hops out onto the snow, sees the coyotes and narrowly escapes a pounce. The otter continues this game, getting away each time.  Defeated, some of the coyotes wander away from water's edge, but there are two that stubbornly won't leave.  When I spot the otter emerging from the river about fifty yards downstream, I smile.

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"a river otter hops out onto the snow"

We see no more wolves today, but our travel out of the park brings many fox sightings. We watch one trot along and then halt, its head cocking to one side, ears tuning to sound...up in the air it leaps, body curled, and muzzle becomes missile targeting prey beneath the snow. When the fox comes up chewing, we cheer.

The second day is one of feasting.  Arriving at the Buffalo Ranch just after sunrise, I jump from the truck, eyes on the valley. An elk herd is bunched, moving quickly away from wolves. The Druid pack is back, and much closer. Less than a mile away, they are split into two groups, each surrounding a fresh kill. I am riveted.  While they eat, Wolf 163, the youngest member, tosses a leg bone into the air, catches it and runs in circles.  He jumps on the others, trying to initiate play, and when they don't join him, chases ravens instead.

One thing this park has taught me is to be sure to turn around once in a while. And when I do, I am rewarded: a lone bison is close by. His massive head plows from side to side, clearing snow from slumbering grasses. He looks up, white draping his face, observing me as I watch him and I can't help but wonder if he is one I'd spent my summer with.

I turn back to the wolves.

After feeding, the pack wanders a slight distance away from their kills and I pay close attention to the motions of Wolf 21 - the alpha male.  He had been seen recently with Wolf 40, the alpha female. But now I see Wolf 21 approach another female, Wolf 103, with Wolf 42, the beta female, not far behind. Wolf 40 watches the three of them, but then something else catches her attention.  Coyotes.  Moving toward one of the kill sites, where a bald eagle has now joined the ravens, are seven coyotes. And, judging from their behavior, they're not all from the Bison Peak pack. We watch Wolf 40 watch the coyotes.  She has the reputation for initiating hunts and having a low tolerance for intruders.  Her rapt attention has stopped the other wolves and they turn to face the coyotes.  Wary now, the coyotes continue their approach, weaving back and forth. And then, from the tree line, Poodle Tail stumbles into this stand off. I can feel my heart. I see Wolf 40 stand and raise her muzzle, testing the air.  I see the other members of the Druid pack follow her lead.  The coyotes keep coming. I cringe as Poodle Tail moves closer and wonder if this meal is worth the price he may have to pay.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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Laurie Thurston is the author of several short stories and articles including two articles that will soon appear in Backpacker magazine.  She teaches high school biology and English in Rochester, New York.  A frequent visitor to Yellowstone, Thurston has participated in wildlife studies on coyotes and wolves, and plans to return in spring, 2001.

otter image by Nathan Varley