By Charlotte Carter
The first day we’re up at 5:00 a.m., on the road by six. An hour later we pull off the road in Lamar Valley for coffee and a pick up breakfast. Behind us the nearly full moon is still visible. To the east the sun turns the sky pink beyond a ridge.
That’s when we hear the Blacktail wolf pack’s howl floating across the landscape – ooooOOOOoooo - a low, throaty sound, primitive and seductive, sending a chill of excitement down my spine. A minute later more wolves join in the chorus to welcome the new day.
In late September the grass in Yellowstone has gone golden dry, the aspen and cottonwoods are a bright yellow against a morning sky streaked with orange.
This is the mating season for elk. A substantial herd remains in permanent residence around Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and park headquarters, where they graze on well-kept lawns. The bull elks with their huge antler racks are the (potentially dangerous) clowns of the herd as they trumpet a challenge to other males and try to keep track of their harem of cows. The mating of bull and cow is brief and apparently not thrilling for the cow as she darts off quickly after the deed is done.
Park rangers frantically try to keep the elks and tourists at a safe distance, but tourists can be an unruly breed.
Our vehicle slows for a bull buffalo strolling alongside the road, his shoulders and head massive. We have far more interest in him than he does in us.
Another day a mother herd of buffalo and their calves rest in a grassy clearing. Junior tires of the taste of grass and butts his mother’s udder. Startled, she jumps then remains steady as he drinks his fill.
A coyote tiptoes through the dry grass, his ears cocked. He pounces and comes up with a small rodent in his mouth. Lunch time!
On a hillside, a black grizzly bear is spotted napping between meals. His huge paws with their sharp claws rest on top of the elk carcass he has covered in dry grass. His body language selfishly shouts this cache is MINE, warning off other bears, wolves and circling ravens who must wait for scraps.
There’s a wolf sighting. Dozens, perhaps a hundred, wolf afficionados line the roadway peering through binoculars, powerful scopes and cameras with huge lenses. Is that black spot on the hillside a wolf? Or a rock? No one is quite sure. If only the black spot would move. So they wait. For hours.
Another day a mother grizzly bear, her fur silver in the sunlight, teaches her two cubs to dig for roots in Hayden Valley. The cub stands on his back feet to see over the top of the sage brush, checks his mother’s whereabouts, then trots after her.
The mob of tourists create a traffic jam along the road, drawing a park ranger to the scene to sort things out. Dozens of tourists have moved too close to the bears for safety; the ranger struggles to get them to move back.
Finally, on the last afternoon, word spreads through the tightly knit community of professional wolf watchers that three wolves have taken down a male elk in the Gibbons River near Steamboat Geyser. We hurry to the spot.
Hordes of people – the wolf paparazzi – line the road and creek. Motorized cameras whir, shutters click. Park rangers have set red cones out to keep the onlookers at a safe distance. Some tourists don’t recognize the warning until a ranger physically drags them back to where they belong.
Two of the three wolves have already run off, too shy to remain near the growing crowd. The beta male remains in the creek, however, ripping off chunks of elk meat for his meal. He’s larger than I’d expected. And determined.
All I could think was that one beautiful animal – the young male elk with seven point antlers – had given his life so that other beautiful animals – the small Canyon wolf pack – would have a better chance to survive the coming winter.
In Yellowstone all the animals live by the rules of Nature, creating balance in their environment.
Special thanks to our guides, Nathan Varley and Linda Thurston of www.wolftracker.com for allowing me to check off a big one on my ‘life list.’
Books that leave you smiling from Love Inspired
Montana Heart, 12/2010
Big Sky Reunion, 5/2011