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Stomping Grounds


Nathan Varley




Mt. Everts looms over the tiny community of Mammoth Hot Springs           by Nathan Varley

Just north of my family’s home in Mammoth Hot Springs there is a hill upon which, after an arduous ascent, the landscape opens up- becoming a vast plain of grass and sage known as Elk Plaza. It is a city-center, as a plaza often is, but for elk within a vast metropolis for their kind. The grass was beaten down and everywhere could be found the tell-tale droppings of great concentrations of wapiti. Walking across Elk Plaza I pause briefly to photograph a herd of bedded pronghorn, another of the residents commonly found here. By the time I had come to the narrow draws of the Beaver Ponds basin I am fully off-trail and climbing another hill, the steep, rocky bugger at the northwest shoulder of the largest beaver pond. Beyond a series of false summits I see the rocky formations typical of this area’s geologic history clustered near the true top. Despite having been in Mammoth Hot Springs for over 20 years, and spending a good chunk of spare time in the last 10 making these hills my stomping grounds, I had yet to take in the view from the top of this particular hill. Collapsing at the top among the rock formations, I pause for breath. My pace had been rigorous to this point, and for no reason of which I am conscious, my intent to reach this point had been with determination.


A rainy squall moved in from the near the top of Sepulcher Mountain, named for many remarkable rock formations (similar to those surrounding me on the hill) that at one time had reminded a map-maker of grave markers. I took cover in the trees on the east face of the hill to wait out the squall.


The rain passed I felt fully refreshed and able to move on if that was my intent, but in truth, I aimed only for this hill. So I found a bumpy seat upon which I would contemplate my surroundings. The jutting summit of Sepulcher, barely visible over the forested ridge between us looked close, temptingly close. After the squall, though, nightfall seemed closer at hand, and some of the clouds had gathered a tinge of pink and purple. It was a warning for me not to go further, but rather toward home. The massive headstone of Sepulcher Mountain near its summit loomed in the distance. I had climbed that rock once. After several aborted attempts to reach the top, I one day did stand triumphantly on its manhole cover-sized apex staring several thousand feet below me to the town of Gardiner. The bold, young adventurer I was then would move on from this hill now.


I looked around at the collection of massive sepulchers that graced this lower summit, and with binoculars I gained the distance my feet might have taken me. A mountain goat picked its way through the cliffs that composed the east-face of the mountain. The goat fed along narrow ledges, traversing the petrifyingly steep ramparts with the innate skill instilled in these climbers by the millenniums. Some park officials would be chagrinned at this sighting—mountain goats are supposedly an exotic species in Yellowstone. Very happy to see one 30 minutes away from my back door, I was not about to pass on to officials this particular sighting information.


Much lower in elevation, I spotted five rounded figures bedded all in a line on the ridge-top meadow of the opposite slope. Their color was right; their shape was even more convincing. But before I decided what exactly I was seeing I had ruled out a pack of wolves. At this time packs were in this area on an irregular basis at best. It may be said that this wolf territory is vacant.


Occasionally Number 16 and her Sheep Mountain Pack would pass through here, or sometimes the Leopold Pack would drop down from their lofty plateau and hunt in the elk-filled draws.  Perhaps the Chief Joseph Pack would be led by traveler-extraordinaire Number 34 on one of his far-flung missions away from the Gallatin.


Number 34 of the Chief Joseph Pack

by Joel Sartore

These possibilities flashed through my mind leaving me eager for movement in this line of forms.   Supposing the possibility of wolves passing through was not enough to make these forms come alive, I saw that they were not going to, staying still as night. If resident wolves had taken up in the area, well that would certainly animate these forms—one would raise its head, look around, and see its home spreading out in all directions. Stillness, only stillness as I watched.


Once there had been a resident pack here led by the legendary Number 17. At the time she was paired with Number 34, the before-mentioned traveler and alpha male of the Chief Joseph Pack. The pair lived among the wooded hills and aspen stands of this bench for several seasons seeming to be inclined to settle here for a lifetime, as I, myself, had decided of this region years ago. The pair denned at the rocky base of the mighty Sepulcher, possibly using a cavity beneath one of the many rock formations.  Before the pups were raised, however, 17 impaled herself on a sharp stick hiding in the grass, only minutes (for a wolf) from this hill. After Number 17’s death, 34 led the pups to the Gallatins and a new home.


These forms dotted in the meadow—they are not wolves, but ghosts. Contemplating my backyard wildlife, I remembered Number 17 and what she had meant. A wolf pack in Yellowstone had been a milestone shared with all of Yellowstone’s supporters. A wolf pack in my stomping grounds had been an altogether more personal milestone in the ecology of my being.


I am not haunted by these ghosts, though, and the tragic death of 17. A realization accompanied a young black bear which came suddenly ambling through the meadow. There will be another resident pack, at some time in the future. The wild qualities of the area guaranteed me that. Until then, it was not incomplete, merely ready, ready to receive the offspring of Chief Joseph, Leopold, or possibly other distant relatives of the founder, Number 17.

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A black bear passes through the stomping grounds

by Nathan Varley

The bear passed by the rocks in the meadow without a sideward glance. What if these rocks had been wolves? I could only imagine. The bear continued on its way traversing the slope, turning over rocks and opening rotten logs. I watched it for the better half of the day’s final 20 minutes.

Without going a step beyond this hill, I found I was nevertheless looking at a dark descent and a healthy pace to get home. I had little time to cross the rolling stretch between Elk Plaza and me, and the Plaza was filling with herds of grazing elk. As night fell, I was among the herds considering this land and its community. Attracted by a perfect set of cliffs, the pioneering mountain goat came from faraway peaks to be here. Supported by lush bogs and upland vegetation, the stately black bear appeared to be enjoying a healthy existence. This land was rife with charismatic residents and always will be. Someday soon or someday distant a wolf or two will come to settle here, finding it as accommodating as two animal predecessors, one black and one white, had found. I felt assured of this. Under the cover of darkness, I slipped quietly among bands of feeding elk, their munching audible in the still night air, until I arrived home.

by Nathan Varley