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“On the ragged edge of the world I roam, and the home of the wolf shall be my home”
from ‘The Nostomaniac’. Robert Service.
I am awake long before my alarm sounds at 4am. Rising at 4am is not something I do well. In fact, I actively try to avoid any kind of anything before 7am. But today is different: today I plan to see wolves in the wild in Yellowstone National Park.
I know you can’t plan these things but there’s nothing like a little positive thinking to start the day. Actually, I prefer to start the day with coffee – several even – but the town of Gardiner near the north entrance of the park is eerily quiet at 4am and sadly coffee is but a distant dream.
And so I drive. In the dark of night the winding road into the park seems more treacherous than it did in daylight yesterday and I am very aware that the park’s wildlife is most active at this pre-dawn hour. And by wildlife I don’t mean squirrels and rabbits. I mean grizzlies and bison. I drive with my foot on the brake, struggle to keep my eyes open and try not to think about my caffeine-starved state.
I notice some blue-green spots in the dark up ahead and assume that they are fatigue induced. But no, they are the eyes of a herd of bison that have taken residence in the middle of the road. There are bison everywhere in Yellowstone and these massive ugly-yet-kind-of-beautiful creatures are the largest land animal in North America. They could crush our tiny rental car in a heartbeat if they wished. These guys have just woken up and are looking pretty sleepy and harmless and they eventually decide to move on and let us pass.
It’s about a one and a half hour drive from Gardiner or two and an half from West Yellowstone through the park into the Lamar Valley in the northeast, the best area for spotting wolves at this godforsaken hour. The sky is beginning to lighten slightly as we reach the valley and there are small pockets of wildlife enthusiasts huddled by the side of the road.
We choose a spot and chat to a German couple who tell us that the wolves were in this area the previous morning. We gather tripods and lenses and throw on a few extra layers to keep out the chill and begin trudging into the valley away from the crowds. As the dense clay-like mud on the narrow trail makes our boots heavy, dawn arrives. And so do the wolves.
A pack of five in the distance on a ridge above the treeline. There are two pups who play fight while the others nap and pace and scout the vast open area. Even with my 400mm telephoto lens, I can’t get a clear shot of the wolves as they hunt for breakfast. Instead we watch the through a hugely magnified and perfectly sharp spotting scope, which makes it very easy to believe they are right in front of us.
After an absence of almost seventy years due to poaching, wolves have been gradually reintroduced into the park and now over three hundred wolves roam wild in Yellowstone National Park. ‘Wolf watching’ has become a popular activity and if you listen carefully, you may even hear them howling…
I’ve never seen wolves before and the experience of watching a pack in the wild at dawn is beyond words. I am in awe. This day couldn’t get any better.
“…Humankind’s relationship with the wolf is based on a spectrum of responses running from fear to admiration and affection. Lopez’s classic, careful study won praise from a wide range of reviewers and went on to improve the way books about wild animals are written. “Of Wolves and Men” reveals the uneasy interaction between wolves and civilization over the centuries, and the wolf’s prominence in our thoughts about wild creatures…”
*The photographs of the grey wolves and grizzly bear accompanying this article were not taken in Yellowstone National Park.