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A chorus of unlikely carolers sings a sweet, soothing serenade outside my tent.  Clinging to the edge of my comfort zone in a zero degree mummy bag, I bolt awake.  It’s 3:30 a.m. Thirty-seven wolves are scheming under the stars and I’m eavesdropping on them. 

Maybe they have made a kill or are planning to drop into the valley to hunt.  Maybe they are talking about their visitors.  Their proximity sends adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Once the least visited part of Yellowstone National Park, the Lamar Valley has become center stage for the wolf reintroduction program.  The Druid Peak Pack, the most observable of Yellowstone’s wolves, calls this valley home.  The hope of seeing a wolf first drew me here in 1998.  Now, the secret is out.  A circus-like atmosphere prevails from June through August as wolf paparazzi line the valley.  The Druids, seemingly unfazed by all the commotion, rarely disappoint.  But this is not for me.  I want a private encounter and I’m willing to pay the price, which, I discover, is not measured in currency.

Late each summer when the pups are old enough to travel, the famous Druids leave the valley floor and head for their rendezvous site in the high country of the Mirror Plateau where they put the pups through basic training while keeping them safe, corralled, and well fed.  The pack had a banner year with twelve new pups, following on last year’s bumper crop of twenty-two, twenty-one of whom survived their first year.  For the five adults, that many teenagers and pups have to be a challenge.

The Mirror Plateau is wild, grizzly country accessible only on foot or on horseback.  In past years, the wolves have frequented a drainage called Opal Creek.  Five miles as the crow flies and 2200 feet straight up off the valley bottom, it’s not suitable for a solo venture...Wilderness Pack Trips to the rescue.  “Travel high above the valley floor to the Mirror Plateau, off trail near the Druids’ annual rendezvous site,” reads the brochure.  “No previous riding experience necessary.”  That’s a good thing.  And while there are no guarantees about actually seeing wolves, in my wolf-driven mind, it’s worth a shot.

At the trailhead, I was assigned Dunny, a seven-year-old school horse on summer break.  He gave me a skeptical glare, which I tried not to take as a bad omen.  I have a healthy respect for horses.  They can get you where you couldn’t or wouldn’t go on foot, but are powerful, headstrong animals.  Packed among my gear were a tripod, spotting scope, binoculars, video camera, and tape recorder.  While the express purpose of this trip was to observe wolves in a backcountry setting, others seemed much less intrigued by that than I, perhaps fitting better into their summer plans rather than a wolf pilgrimage.  Notable among the other ten members of our expedition was Dr. Mark Johnson, the attending wildlife veterinarian during the capture and transport of the wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park.  He knows these wolves, or at least their ancestors, and rode along to share his expertise.

After six hours in the saddle, fording two rivers, climbing over deadfall, and bumping off trail for seven miles, I discovered bones I never knew I had.  They seemed to contact my saddle no matter how I positioned myself.  The high plateaus of Yellowstone are volcanic flows that weather into angular, unstable rocks, treacherous footing for the boot clad.  Even the surefooted horses stepped carefully around the sharp volcanic clinkers.

We arrived at our destination in the late afternoon.  Because the area is environmentally sensitive, this campsite can only be occupied for 14 nights each season.  We had the good fortune to have three of them.  I set my tent up about 20 yards from Opal Creek looking northeast across the Lamar Valley towards Mt. Norris – an extraordinary view.  Had I known the action would be behind me, I would have opted for further up the slope with my back to the geology which, while dynamic, was unlikely to change much over the course of the next few days.

Voices coming from the edge of camp alerted me that my companions had spotted something in the grass.  Maybe it’s a bear, I hear.  Grabbing my scope and tripod, I dashed to join them.  It was a black speck.  I focused.  A black wolf looked right back at me as I locked my tripod in place.  My heart was pounding, not so much from the sprint, as from the realization that we had in fact happened upon the Druids’ summer home.

Our wolf friend stood and with great theatrics sauntered disinterestedly a few yards towards the fringe of trees that borders the meadow.  He threw himself down like a lazy hound but positioned himself so he could study us.  Several other wolves suddenly emerged, a large gray sporting a collar, a black with silver markings around his collared neck, and two smaller blacks who, by the lightness of their step and the wagging of their tails, seemed younger…yearlings.  They greeted each other, lay together for a time, then faded slowly back into the timber, leaving the lone sentry.  Our dinner call went out and hunger took me back to the cook tent for spaghetti.  There was no campfire.  It was a dry season and a park-wide fire ban was in place.  After watching a few stars come out, we called it a night.  Clear skies meant the temperature would fall quickly and the only hope of warmth was to bury in sleeping bags.

I awoke this first night to their serenade.  The sound caressed the night air swirling up and down hillsides, settling on dewdrops and river mists.  There were many more voices than the five or six individuals we had seen that afternoon, maybe the entire pack.  Their song was a concert of tones and rhythm unfamiliar to me but pleasing.  Their chords were visceral and earthy, ripe with the potential energy of generations of Canis lupus who return their spirit voices to this valley.  Back and forth across the hillside, two distinct groups, the hunters and the puppy sitters, discussed early morning plans.

I paid the price for lingering in my sleeping bag after the 6 a.m. howling session.  Those more energetic in our group observed several wolves move through and around our camp.  It was obvious that they used the drainage as a route from rendezvous to the valley.  While inquisitive, they seemed unperturbed by our presence.  The day started out dreary but turned distinctly rainy and we opted not to leave on a day ride.  Since I was here for the wolves, the decision suited me just fine.

While some of our party decided to take an exploratory hike up around the back of our camp, I decided to stay put.  To my delight, Mark and his companion chose to stay behind as well.  Positioned on a log that had conveniently fallen at the edge of camp, we could comfortably watch the wolves. Mark more than made up for the missed campfire.  A wonderful storyteller to begin with, he recalled his experiences with the first Yellowstone wolves.

“I think this behavior is typical of wild wolves,” he offered.  “They are not fearful, curious yes, but tolerant. They have no experience that tells them humans will harm them.”

This is the sixth generation of wolves in Yellowstone.  The Druids especially have had contact with humans in the Lamar Valley and while they could have moved off, they have chosen to stay.  Followed by aircraft, darted, collared, and handled from time to time, they remain close to populated areas and aren’t aggressive towards Park Service personnel or tourists.  Is this how they behaved when Lewis and Clark passed through their territory?  I wondered who took the first shot at them and why.

Reverently, we sat for an hour, maybe longer.  Several wolves appeared from the timber to join the sentry wolf in a greeting display of face licking, tail wagging, and sniffing. The tall grass hid them as they settled down for a nap, an ear or a tail sometimes the only visible wolf part. After a short rest, all but one rose and sauntered back into the forest, leaving a new sentry.  We had witnessed the changing of the guard.

A cracking noise and rustling turned our attention to our left, just on the other side of the drainage.  We anticipated another wolf or wolves would emerge from cover and they would be very close.  Wanting to be prepared, I reached for my video camera. As I glanced up from my fumbling, I saw a bear, a grizzly bear, loping down the hill towards us.  We rose, partly in awe, but also to make sure he saw us. He continued to approach.  My video camera was dead.  “Do you have your bear spray?”  Mark asked.  “No.  It’s in my tent.”  I said in disbelief.  Our bear stopped and sat up, lifted his nose, and looked in our direction.  We were downwind.  Mark is a wildlife vet I reminded myself.  He isn’t panicked, just cautious.  “This is an amiable bear,” he observed.  “He’s seeking information.”  He was beautiful, a chestnut brown color with a ring of blond around his neck that looked almost like a collar.  Down on all fours, he continued towards us.  My pulse quickened as a wave of fear came over me.

“He’s an adolescent, maybe 200 or 220 pounds.”  Mark observed with the detachment of a scientist, but his words were wrapped in wonder.

I fought the urge to run the fifty yards or so to my tent to get my bear spray.  “Never run and don’t make eye contact,” my internal voice recited.  I stood looking straight at him thinking of the possible outcomes, ones that could occur in just seconds.  My camera had failed me and there was no need for binoculars.  I could see him just fine with my own two eyes.

The bear paused again and looked at us as if to say “Oh, humans, I’m outta here”.  Turning on his heels, he headed up towards the wolves, stopping to sniff and inspect a rock where earlier we had observed pack members scent marking.  My heart rate returned to normal and I lifted my binoculars to get a good look at his rump.

The wolves had been watching him too, and here came three of them towards him at a determined pace.  Wolves and bears coexist, but bears have been known to kill wolf pups and to take over kill sites from wolves.  This adolescent bear clearly didn’t know what he was up against.  The Druids were about to inform him that he was not welcome.  Playing aloof, he tried to ignore them, but they pushed him to the edge of the meadow.  His pace quickened as they started at a full run behind him.  He would likely move on, away from them and us.  I knew he meant us no harm, but that’s about as close as I’d ever like to come to a grizzly encounter.

The evening brought us together over a meal of pork chops and couscous.  Our cook kept a scrupulous kitchen not just because the Park Service requires it, but also because it’s the responsible thing to do to protect wildlife and us.  Not a scrap of food on the ground, dishes, pots, and pans were washed, dried, and locked away.  Every food and cosmetic item went into a duffel bag hoisted ten feet up the bear pole, a log secured between two trees conveniently provided by the Park Service.  I crawled into my tent and sleeping bag and was lulled to sleep by occasional short howling sessions.  The wolves were tucking in the pups, maybe, or planning an invasion, a reconnaissance mission.  That’s my guess.

The next morning, one of the wranglers came in from saddling the horses, carrying an assortment of objects. “We had visitors,” he reported. “Lucky none of the horses was wearing this last night!” he added, producing a leather hobble snapped in half, puncture marks along the strap. The wolves had investigated our tack area, pulled a few delectable items out from under the canvas cover, and carried them several hundred yards up behind camp.

The activities around camp were different our last morning on Opal Creek.  Up earlier, we were busier, noisier, and paid less attention to the wolves than the previous two mornings.  The wolves noticed.  Six or seven of them came and stayed together watching us.  Saddled up, ready for a long day, sixteen miles mostly off trail through the park’s interior, we were reluctant to leave. As we climbed up and over the knoll where we had seen the wolves come and go, we felt many eyes upon us.  Mollie’s Pack frequents the area near where we would camp the next two nights, but I knew that we would not see or hear wolves as we had here.  At the head of the drainage to the east, we found an elk carcass, a recent kill.  Maybe this was what had caused all the commotion that first night.

I consider every wolf encounter a privilege.  This one had been extraordinary.  We tried in our imperfect human wisdom to be with them but not to change them.  They graciously allowed us to experience their wildness.  Surely there is some truth, some insight that one can take away from sitting on a log, watching wolves watching back.  However briefly, I let go of civilization, heard the quiet whisper of the evening breeze, felt the sting of cold and tired, and drank in the aroma of sage and cool earth blended with summer rain.  For a treasured moment, I had opened my spirit to the wilderness – the better to see you with.


Better to See You With

Story By Barbara O’Grady

February 2002




Wolf Silhouette by  Joel Sartore

Grizzly Bear by Jane Fink

Wolf by  Diane Sakamoto


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