Chasing Yellowstone Wolves
On a recent trip in Yellowstone National Park we had spent the day viewing herds of bison ranging the planes, a dozen elk forging the high Madison River, unseasonably warm weather brining Big Horn Sheep down to forage on luscious green grass and a lumbering grizzly bear rooting for spring shoots. Friday night we were driving north towards Gardner, MT, for the night when we saw a couple dozen cars pulled to the side of the road. Photographers with lenses worth several months of salary lined the street along the river where an elk carcass sat a mere 10 yards on the other side of the river. Rumor was that a white wolf was heading back to its kill; no more than ten minutes later the white wolf made its appearance at a drainage just above the river. He slowly and cautiously made his way down to the kill site and began gnawing on the hide and some of the connective tissue. With not much besides gnawing happening at the river’s edge, we decided to make our way back to Gardner for dinner before making a quick jaunt back into the park for a soak in the boiling river then back to Gardner for a good night’s rest. The boiling river is one of my (Krista) favorite places in the world, so we decided to wake up at 6:00am on Saturday and head back for another soak before venturing back into the park for the day.
Well, 4:00am came and I was wide awake. I lied in bed until 5:30 when I couldn’t control my inner child any longer and had to wake Beau so we could get back to my favorite place. Just 50 yards downstream from the boiling river parking lot was the kill site from the previous night’s sighting and there were two cars parked along side the road. We pulled over to see if anything was happening when we saw the same white wolf. It was twilight and as our eyes adjusted we saw a second wolf, gray in color. Soon, four more wolves previously hidden in the sagebrush, ranging in color from pure white to pitch black, came into view. Several wolves were chewing on the carcass, but not much remained besides small pieces of hide, joints, connective tissue, and the random scrap hidden beneath the snow white bones.
As time went on and the pack picked off the few remaining morsels from their kill, some of the wolves went up on a nearby terrace and hid in the sagebrush. One white wolf came within 15 yards of us, down to the river for a drink of fresh river water. As we were listening to him gently lap water one of his pack mates began howling for attention. The white wolf turned around and trotted towards the howling black wolf as it too began to howl. Meanwhile, the wolves resting on the terrace, alerted by the howling, began howling themselves, and ran down to the howling black and white wolves. The sound, eerie yet pleasant, filled the air for what seemed to be several minutes until the pack had condensed.
The pack of six simultaneously erupted into a whirling ball of playful howling hounds. Lying on their back, two of the submissive pack members played with the other four wolves as if they were puppies. The mild winter and full bellies presented the successful pack with play time as the sun rose, reminding us that these wild creatures are the not-too-distant relative of our beloved companion, Gus, sitting at attention in the very back of our car. As quickly as the spring sun made its way over the hillside the pack disappeared into the sagebrush, but the memory will never leave the very few who were witness to the intimacy of the Boiling River pack.
This blog post was featured on the National Park Foundation blog in July 2012.