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We are all holding our breath: a part of me wants him to get his meal while another part wants to see a chase and I am surprised at myself.  Poodle Tail is now just a few feet away from one of the kills, while the wolves watch him.  The other coyotes move in, blurring the scene of feeding eagles and ravens. And, this time, there is peace.  Perhaps too full for a fight, the Druid pack settles itself in the snow nearby.  I watch all of these creatures survive, thrive, side by side and truly understand the significance of the return of the wolf.  Yellowstone is again the way it was meant to be.

 


A heavy snowfall greets us on the third day.  The Druid pack can barely be seen: they are shadows almost, bedded down near their kills from yesterday.  The snow is in layers and makes sound do different things.  I have heard the coyotes every day.   The songs are different and each voice shares space with the others and together they move like water. I decide these mountains are different in the winter because the snow reflects more than light, something happens to how you
perceive distance and depth.  And that perception changes as quickly as the sky.   Nothing is static here, especially at sunrise and sunset.  So much is changing, and, although it seems imperceptible, if you looked away for a moment you'd be unable to remember what you just saw and maybe you could recall the details if you closed your eyes, but you don't dare for fear of all that you might miss.  So to escape the storm, we spend our day where we spent our summer.  The snow is not falling here east of the Valley near Silver Gate and I marvel at the drifts that loom higher than my imagination.  In snowshoes, we hike Woody Creek in the Absaroka Range and pass beneath a fir tree in which claw marks from a bear are etched high above our heads.  I am surrounded by the rhythm of the woods and hope that tomorrow I will hear wolves.

 

The predawn sky is shattered with stars.  The air is so cold, our steps in the snow make no sound, our eyelashes are laced with ice.  I know today will offer something remarkable; it is my last day in the park. I see foxes again.  There is a light colored one that I see hunting close to another whose red and black markings starkly contrast. We had watched them hunt in proximity on our way back from yesterday's hike and now, in the same place, they are here again.  And I wonder if perhaps they are a mating pair and if, in the spring, their young will be raised nearby. The temperature reading at the Buffalo Ranch tells us what we feel: 15 degrees below zero.  The sky is so blue it is tangible and a mist has settled over the mountains, shrouding the aspens. Sagebrush blooms with ice crystals and it seems as if the stars we'd seen before daybreak have fallen and shattered the valley with light.

 

For each of the previous three days, I have seen the members of the Druid pack.   I am amazed at how complete everything feels, how happy I am that I have returned as I had promised myself.   For three days, I have watched the wolves; but today, I would not see them.

 

I would hear them. Further down Lamar, photographing sagebrush shuddering under the weight of frost, I hear the coyotes' song begin.  I pull back my hood, stand and close my eyes to hear.  When the beginning ends, I walk toward the road, as if moving would encourage them to continue.  And the song does begin again, but with a new voice.  This time, the coyotes do not begin the song, a wolf does.  It is not long, but I can hear it in my memory.  And, though I've heard a captive wolf howl, heard them on television, there is no comparison in your heart when you hear a wolf in the wild. A wolf that is free.  Soon after starting, it stops, its voice replaced by coyotes - what sounds like hundreds of them.  And I feel their voices swell and move up the Valley, beyond the ridge to which I am turned, eyes closed, not breathing, so I can hear, so I can feel, so I can remember this sound forever. And I will.

 

The wolf started it and the coyotes continued it, mountains carried it and the sky reflected it while I was in their center, captivated by sound, transported from myself. As I drive beneath the arch, I imagine Poodle Tail and the coyotes of Bison Peak were in that chorus and hope it was one of the Druid pack that began this last day song.

 

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"To be a part of that...was why I went there that first summer and why I stood beneath the arch again two winters ago. And it's why I'll go back."

 

I wonder how a place becomes part of your soul.  This is the power of Yellowstone: it is an ongoing story with ever-changing characters.  My visits here are chapters, in the park's history and in my own, that mix for the briefest of moments.   And that is why I will return again.  Like a book that you love, you savor it, read it over again, hoping to glimpse a bit of yourself so that you can remember it forever.


After this last entry, I added a chapter to my journal about the loss of Wolf 40 and Wolf 163. I am saddened by their loss, but can feel hope because their deaths were not at the hands of humans.   Their lives and deaths were shaped by the park. I can't help but acknowledge the need to be an occasional witness to the drama that is occurring in Yellowstone every moment of every day.  To be a part of that, just for a while, was why I went there that first summer and why I stood beneath the arch again two winters ago. And it's why I'll go back.


The pups will be born soon.  Spring must be a sight to
see in Lamar Valley.

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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.

 

 

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