Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wolves in Hayden Valley

By eight am we had made it down into the Hayden Valley. The Grand Loop Road's eastern arm runs along the Yellowstone River as it flows north out of Yellowstone Lake along the eastern edge of the Hayden Valley. This is another "hot spot" for wildlife viewing and we had our fingers crossed. Must have had our toes crossed too because we could not have hoped for what we were about to see.

Once again, rounding a bend in the road we came upon a large clot of vehicles pulled to the side and filling a turnout. Out we hopped with camera and binoculars and approached a small group of folks talking excitedly. What was all the commotion about? A wolf pack, just on the other side of a copse of trees jutting out from the road toward the river.

There was no sign of them from our vantage point, but then a fellow's two-way radio crackled. Someone had gone up ahead along the road, and had found a clear sight line to the pack on the other side of the trees. It was like a scramble at an air force base, everyone grabbing gear, folding up their spotting scopes and running for their cars and vans.

I don't recall how far we drove, 1/2 mile to a mile I'd guess, before we came to another turn out. We all piled out (now I'm seeing the Keystone Cops) and rushed to the edge of the pavement. There, there they were, probably a half mile away, tucked just at the base of the trees, basking in the morning sun.

Don't see them? I couldn't very well either. Look to the left of the dead tree at the center of the frame.

Ah, there they are!

The aptly named Hayden Valley pack was cavorting and romping in the sunrise. The Alpha female was white, and she stood out like a firebrand in the sunshine. Her pups, probably 4 or 5 months by this time, were frolicking in the prairie grass. This wolf pack was fairly known, it turns out, as they tended to hang out very near the road, and could often be seen crossing the road. Lucky they didn't get run over!

Do you see the wolf on the right edge of this image?

I didn't have a tripod, so I knelt by the railing and balanced my camera on top, and took some shots, hoping against hope that something would be visible. I'm happy that I was able to get these, poor as they are (and super blown up at that).

Many of the people there watching with us did this on a regular basis. Some were retirees who spent much of their time exploring the park. Others were private tour guides who knew the park inside and out and would take groups around to the best sights. These folks knew everything about the regulars of any particular area--I remember one fellow talking about the bald eagle pair and where they usually hung out and where their nest was. They were all gracious and friendly and let us watch the wolves through their spotting scopes.

While I knelt on the ground and the group of 40 or so chatted, one woman raised her voice above the rest. Without shouting, she calmly said, "If you listen you can hear them."

The group went silent instantly. And yes, there, rolling across the valley floor, was the sound of howling wolves.

First, one of a moderate tone, then joined by another, lower. Then a third, higher. Then a fourth. They howled and yipped and sang in the sunrise. I was utterly flabbergasted. Never in my dreams could I have imagined this, a morning beside the Yellowstone River listening to the singing of the wolves. I put my head down on my arm and cried like a baby.

We stayed for a while there by the river, but the day was wearing on and we had other things we wanted to do. If the wolves had been closer, more visible, we would have stayed longer. We decided to return in the evening, to see if there were still around. To our delight, that evening around 6:30 when we made it back into the valley, the wolves were still in the area.

Here, the alpha female, wolf number 540f, sniffs along the river's banks. Several of these wolves were collared for tracking purposes, to help biologists study them and learn their behaviors. They are never given names, to help those studying them be less likely to anthropomorphise, I guess. So 540f it is.

Whatever her name, she was beautiful.

Upstream from the white wolf was one of her pups with another adult, nosing around in the flats. The yellowed, hazy skies that hung over Yellowstone that day was from the smoke of Idaho wildfires.

Here they are, cropped.

For months after our return home I was haunted by the howling of the wolves. That moment followed me everywhere. Anyone who has had the good fortune of hearing wolves in the wild knows what I mean. It never leaves you, that feeling. Wolves were never really the enemy of man, not until we domesticated their prey. I would not be surprised if for millenia we didn't work together, one following the other to sustenance. How else did we end up with dogs? We have a certain kinship to these creatures, and I for one am forever grateful to those who made possible the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone.

By February of the following year I couldn't take it any more and decided to do a piece in honor of my experience. The alpha female, wolf 540f, was burned onto my brain. I didn't have images good enough to work from, so I stated a search online for photos. I came across some awesome shots of the pack taken near the end of October 2007, three months after we'd seen them. I do not recall the photographer's name, but I downloaded a few. Here's one of them calling in the pack. The fellow who shot these watched them take down an elk a day later.

From some other photos I found I created this piece.

With my prints I like to include information sheet about the animal, physiological info, habitat etc and my experiences with that animal. I wanted to write a piece about this magical morning, and started doing some research about the pack.

I was shocked by what I found. Here is the end of the story:

As we know, Nature is not sentimental. Nature cares little for beauty or mystical moments, as these are human inventions. A few weeks after finishing this drawing, I decided to do some research on the Hayden Valley pack. After some searching, the news I found was initially stunning—the Alpha male and female, wolves 540f and 541, had been killed in late October of 2007, probably by a neighboring pack, just three months after I had seen them and been so moved by them. It was a jolt to my psyche, yet at the same time a confirmation of how Nature works. Yes, life can be brutal, and often is. Life needs death to sustain it, whether to feed it or to make room for the next generation, the next ruling pack. There is no room in Nature for the sentimentality of a broken heart.

The Alpha female of Hayden Valley and her pack were, for many thousands of Yellowstone visitors, the first and perhaps only wolf pack they will see in the wild. I am only one of many who was moved by this powerful animal. The knowledge of her fate only makes my oh-so-human tribute to her that much more personal and intense.

Yes, by the end of October, wolf 540f was no more. No one is sure how many of her pack survived, although several months later an adult was spotted with one of the pups near Old Faithful. Life goes on. Perhaps they started a new pack, or were taken in by another. Life goes on.

I will never ever forget that moment, that experience that still brings tears to my eyes.

What majesty.

What grace.

1 comment:

  1. Your ode touched a responsive cord. I totally understood your tears; how could one not release such joy? But, my heart sank when I learned the male and female didn't make it. Of course that is Nature but you gave them an extra dimension. And this is good for they live on. Thank you, Marie!