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Wish List

by Nathan Varley

We were down to the top of the "wish list." The wolf film being compiled by cinematographer Bob Landis for National Geographic had every sequence we could possibly expect at this point. Almost every sequence we could dream of filming had, however, not been filmed. That list was lengthy and included such rare encounters as bears and wolves tangling, or wolves and wolves tangling. Late this fall as leaves of green turned to gold, Bob and I set out to find our gold in the form of film exposed with the images of those rare encounters.

Our hikes had averaged 6-10 miles a day. We had to get away from the road; no participants of the kind of activity in which we were interested would be comfortable performing for a big crowd. It had to be them and us. We carried the big tripods and heavy lenses up and down the dusty trails. Bob’s back was killing him. My job was as a porter as much as anything, which meant hard work.

That’s a lot of miles for a mere fleeting glimpse of the Rose Creek Pack—several members slipping effortlessly through the tall grass like sleek shadows in the autumn sun. Days passed rapidly while the prospects grew progressively slim, or so it seemed. At least we were giving ourselves the chance to film the elk rut and on a few occasions saw some big bulls go at it.

Then the discovery of a bison carcass in a remote river valley limited our search. Two ravens sitting atop a dusty brown mound gave it away. "Should I go see if it’s a carcass?" I asked Bob as we struggled to see upon what exactly the ravens were perched. "Oh, yes. We have to know. This could be big."

Certainly it was a carcass, a massive bull that apparently succumbed to the many years of a long, hearty existence. It hadn’t even been opened when I found it, just slowly expanding as the stomach gases continued fermenting. Some gas was escaping, shortening my examination of the site. Putrefying odor notwithstanding, we had just the right thing to attract carnivores. Their noses would welcome those smells, rarely known to be wafting in the fall, a season of good condition for most grazers.

The next four days saw our return to the site only to find ravens patiently perching as they had before. Something needed to open up the carcass and finally something did. The local coyotes had been hesitant, but once the first hole was dug the entire carcass began to be consumed at a steady rate. The ravens, magpies, and coyotes had become commonplace when one morning, a little after first light, I peered over the hill to see a single gray wolf nosing over the site.

"Bob, there’s a wolf on the carcass," I whispered excitedly. We gathered our gear and set up among some trees with a view of the scene. By the time we were ready to shoot, the wolf was gone—mysteriously vanishing among the sage near the river. I did not know the identity of that gray wolf but after checking with Doug Smith, who had just done a tracking flight, we concluded that it was a member of the Leopold Pack. They had been located nearby, a ten-count, one day earlier.

The following day the whole pack was there. At first we saw just two who left the carcass when we arrived, retreating to the north. We thought we may have spooked them and were cursing our luck and ourselves. To have them there just to spook them away, it was cruel. After reaching the top of a hill, the wolves’ agitation roused the rest of the pack who were hidden in the sage. Infused by the other wolves’ energy but not alerted to our presence, the bulk of the pack ran down to the carcass and began feeding. I saw several yearlings and at least 3 pups of the year, as well as the esteemed Number 2, my old favorite from the year of the Crystal Pack in Lamar. He was mobbed after leaving the carcass and forced to regurgitate for several solicitous pups. It must taste better when it comes from Dad…

The pack hung around leisurely until mid-morning then collectively got up, stretched, and trotted up the river. The next morning they were not at the site but I found them nonetheless. After scoping the many undulating slopes I noticed a uniform line of stones on a distant ridge. Those were no stones. It was the pack and again they were feeding. A 50-meter path of blood stained grass led down a steep hill from the where an elk calf was killed to where its few remains, a jumble of hide and bone, were twisted into the brush. One wolf continued to tear at the flesh, another sat and watched nearby. Most, including Number 2 and his gorgeous mate Number 7, were lying on their sides in the sun and breeze.

Again they retreated to the north, further up the river and away from us. We hoped they would return to the bison and they did sometime that night. By the next morning the pack was wandering away from the carcass which appeared to have finally been dismantled with many parts picked over, consumed, or otherwise strewn about. Scavenging birds danced around the site, that at this stage looked very much like a war zone. Coyotes moved back in once the wolves were a safe distance away. I pursued the pack for the rest of the morning, only to get a final glimpse as they entered a forest some distance away. They were half-heartedly chasing a herd of elk as they disappeared.

When I returned to the carcass site, Dale, Bob’s replacement at the camera (that soar back getting the best of Bob), asked if I had seen the grizzly. I had not. "How close was I to him?" Not very. Apparently the grizzly bear had come through, but had not gotten interested by the carcass. Perhaps he failed to detect it, but it seemed improbable with a nose like that. We lamented the timing of our bear and wolves—only an hour or so separated them from an encounter.

The following day the Leopold wolves had moved south quite a distance and for all practical purposes were leaving our "arena." I continued to search and was stunned to find stretched across a distant ridge the familiar forms of the Chief Joseph Pack, or at least some of them. It was old Number 34 trailing his sons with a slight limp. His mate, Number 33, and some of the pups were not among them, just him and the boys. Maybe they were on a foray of some kind, but it did not appear they were going to veer our way.

The remains of the carcass went fast through the remainder of the week. As we watched the final scraps go, we waited expectantly for the timely return of any of the big players: the wolves, the bear. They were all in the "arena" at one time or another, but chance would have it that none occurred at the same time—at least, not at the same time as us! It would seem not very lucky I suppose, but strangely I did feel lucky in having seen what we did. The reality is that everything has to come together at once and it all too rarely does. We had been close, closer than I had really expected to be. That’s why those rare, precious moments are found not on film, but where they tend to stay for a very long time: on the "wish list."  N.V.


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