Tales From Yellowstone
a short story by david mills
During an epic thirty day family vacation covering much of the western United States, it was our visit to Yellowstone that turned out to provide one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a National Park. Just a quarter way through the trip, which had already included the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave, Custer State Park, and would eventually include Grand Tetons, Zion, North and South rims of the Grand Canyon, Four Corners, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Garden of the Gods, we found ourselves falling slightly behind schedule. This night we were supposed to be setting up camp at Canyon Campground somewhat in the middle of Yellowstone. We were traveling east to west and found ourselves facing dusk at the Northeast entrance. It had also started to rain. We concluded it was prudent not to continue. Setting up a tent in the dark, in the rain, although sometimes necessary, is best avoided when given the choice.
Just outside this Yellowstone entrance is the tiny town of Silver Gate. Bed options were limited and indeed our only option was Range Rider Lodge; essentially a large 2-story barn, open in the middle with rooms around the perimeter. It resembled an old bunkhouse or hostel and our room was nothing more than eight bunk beds. Bathroom accommodations were in a separate location and shared by all. We loved it.
After settling in I did what I typically do in a new location, I scout out locals to interrogate. I find this the most efficient way of discovering the “real skinny” on the area - what to do, what to see, and all the news worth knowing. This kind of insider information comes from the knowledge that only those residing in the area possess. To my delight and excitement I discovered from the young crowd that checked us into the hostel that there was indeed some information worth knowing. Apparently our route into Yellowstone was taking us through Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley is known for its wildlife more than anything and this year was the year the Lamar Valley wolf pack could be viewed from a vantage point not too far removed from the road. A gentleman wolf-watcher who left early most mornings to observe the pack lived up the road and invited us to join him on his next outing. Turns out his next outing was in a few hours at 4:30am.
I returned to our accommodations for the evening and informed the family about the exciting news of the opportunity to potentially see wolves in the wild. The excitement in their voices was thrilling. Unfortunately, when I informed them we’d need to be rolling out of bed at 4:30am, or in other words, not too long from then, the news became a lot less thrilling. In the end my oldest son and I were the only ones willing to forgo the sleep. Sleep? Who needs sleep when there’s an adventure to be had. We all settle in for the night, some of us for a longer night than others.
A few hours passed and it was time to get up. I shook my son awake. Did we actually sleep at all? I don’t remember. Our anticipation was mutually shared. I wondered how the other three managed to not spring out of bed and come along. At the same time I understood. Sleep, particularly in a bed, even a rickety old bunk bed, can be a wonderful thing when camping.
We met the wolf-watcher just outside the bunk house. He had his wife and two dogs with him. He rolled down his car window and cautioned us to drive slowly, but didn’t say why. He headed off, we followed. It was a moonlit night with the sun not due up for a good hour. We turned and twisted along the road and made our way through the empty park entrance station. It was way too early for anyone to be manning the entrance. Didn’t matter though, we had a National Park annual pass. We continued to wind our way deeper into the Park trying our best to keep the wolf-watcher’s rear taillights in view.
We soon decided that we weren’t exactly sure what his idea of "slowly" was! For some reason we thought it meant, well . . . slow. Apparently we were mistaken. At one point we thought we had lost him as he sped ahead. “Do you see him?” “No, I don’t see him, there’s too much fog!” The fog had really moved in and had turned a reasonably illuminated morning into an endless sea of gray. Suddenly, his break lights appeared up ahead. The closer we got the more apparent it became that, okay, now he really was going slow, really slow. We did likewise. We crept along squinting to try and figure out the reason for his sudden change in velocity. All we saw was a thick gray mist. Eventually we did notice some large boulders along the side of the road but nothing that would indicate a reason for the wolf-watcher's deceleration. The fog rolled over the road, our headlights only piercing it a few feet in front of us. We crept along straining our eyes. We began to make out boulders everywhere lining the road. One in fact lay straight in front of us. What in the world was a boulder doing in the middle of the road? We began to maneuver our way around it. It was then that we figured out the reason for the slow-go of the wolf-watcher. We were in the middle of driving, no tiptoeing if you will, through a heard of sleeping bison. They were sound asleep everywhere alongside and in the road. And boy, in the mist they really did look like boulders! The day was starting off with a lot of promise.
As we exited the minefield of bison our escort began picking up the pace again. This time we kept closer. It wasn’t much longer that the wolf-watcher made a right turn onto a dirt road and not much long after that, made a left into an open field. He parked his car. We pulled alongside and did likewise. Almost simultaneously another car pulled up and parked. We noticed two other cars were also already in the makeshift parking lot.
We stepped out of the car. Daylight was creeping over the valley that lay before us. Our vantage point was not elevated much, but enough so that we were higher than most the eye could see from left to right. Yet the other side of the valley, approximately two hundred to three hundred yards away depending on where you were, rose to a height significantly above where we stood. I guess that’s why they called it a valley. Directly in front of us amongst the sprinkling of the sagebrush typical for the area were several small ponds each about the size of a baseball diamond or smaller. Weaving its way through the valley was a small river that varied in width from about fifteen to twenty yards. We soon learned this corkscrewing tributary was named Slough Creek.
The car that had pulled in at almost the same time as we did turned out to be a park ranger. But not just any park ranger. He was THE park ranger studying the Lamar Valley wolves, the subjects of our quest. He exited his vehicle, strolled around to the rear of the car and opened the trunk. From the trunk he pulled out various gear: a small pack, stool, spotting scope, and tripod. But what really caught our attention was when he pulled out something about the size of a shoebox, dangling from it was a wire about five feet long and at the end of the wire was attached a small antenna. I knew immediately what it meant. The “shoebox” was a receiver and it meant that at least one of the wolves was collared with a radio transmitter. This also meant that if anything exciting was going to happen, we’d undoubtedly get a heads-up.
As it turned out, the other two cars were additional wolf-watchers already positioned with spotting scopes at the ready. These individuals are probably best described as groupies, wolf groupies to be precise. They quickly informed the ranger as to what they had been observing so far that morning. “The pack was in about an hour ago and brought some small game to the pups,” one said. “We couldn’t tell what it was,” the other added. “Then the pack headed off in a Westerly direction,” one mentioned as if knowing what the ranger might ask next. “Did the pups consume the kill?” the ranger asked instead. “Oh yes, it was gone in a matter of minutes,” it was joyfully acknowledged.
Everyone settled in to the task at hand: wolf watching. The groupies simply went about their apparent routine looking through their spotting scopes, occasionally moving them to look in other directions. The park ranger unpacked his pack setting out a notebook and thermos amongst a few snacks. He then set up his scope. Next he grabbed the receiver and flipped this and turned that, apparently running some sort of test. As if speaking to all of us he quipped, “nope nothin” as he held the antenna high over his head.
Our escort, having set up his spotting scope, called us over and began to instruct us on the fine art of wolf watching. For the first time since arriving we began to focus on the scene that lay before us. The valley truly was beautifully serene. It was still pre-dawn but the sun rising from behind us was only moments from making its first appearance of the day. Most of the fog had burned off, but a transparent mist still lay in much of the low areas. There wasn’t a cloud in the light pinkish sky. The slight breeze across our faces made one think, “Can it get any better than this”? The answer we would find out later was . . . oh man could it ever!
We stood facing the valley. Although the wolf-watcher pointed out several things I don’t remember anything he said after he pointed out the first one. Because what he directed our attention to initially was approximately 100 yards away, to our right at 2 o-clock and about a quarter the way up the rise on the other side of the valley. It was the wolf’s den. Not only the den, but more excitingly, there were three wolf pups frolicking nearby. Actually, pups probably isn’t an accurate description. They were more like teenagers, and teenagers in that awful gangly stage at that. Frolicking probably also isn’t the right description. They were harassing each other, beating each other up, wrestling, falling, tripping, stumbling, and boinking into not only each other but most of their surroundings as well. In other words, they were hilarious and having a boatload of fun.
Their boundless energy seemed to never stop. Or if it did it only lasted until one recovered enough to stir things up all over again. More running, more falling, more boinking, then a brief respite, then it would begin again, then end, then begin, then end, and so on. We watched this impressive display of roughhousing for about an hour alternating our viewing between looking through the spotting scope and simply watching with our naked eyes. The spotting scope was great and would bring the pups up extremely close to the point where you could see them in great detail. But the problem was that these rambunctious troublemakers rarely stayed still long enough to offer you an exhaustive look.
We had previously been cautioned by both our escort when we arrived and later by the park ranger not to get our hopes up. They told us we could easily spend the entire day waiting and watching and not see anything but the pups. Particularly, they said, since the pack had already been to the den earlier that morning. It was also mentioned that the next time the pack showed up might well be after nightfall, if at all.
After a while, the businesslike park ranger (in stark contrast to the chaotic wolf pups) caught our attention as he began to stir a little more than usual. Up until this point his movements were limited to an occasional sip from his thermos and a methodical, almost unconscious reach for a snack. Other than that he was intently fixated on his equipment. But now he stood up, his left arm fully extended as he held the antenna as high in the air as he possibly could. He was looking in a southerly direction. Directionally speaking the valley in front of us was to the west, south to our left, and north was to our right.
All he said was, “They’re coming in from the south.”
Now I’ve never been big game fishing, but this pronouncement by the ranger reminded me of what it must be like to be out on a boat in the middle of the ocean drifting for hours in a state of calm while your line casually trolls behind you. Then, all of a sudden and just like that, you find yourself with a 600 pound marlin having taken your bait sending you and everyone on board into a complete state of frenzy.
All heads instantaneously turned in the same direction as the ranger’s. We strained our eyes looking for movement. Then something caught our attention. But wait, what is that approaching? It was rapidly getting closer and soon easy to discern. “That’s certainly not a wolf,” I thought. What it was was one of the largest elk I’ve ever seen; a big bull hoofing it as fast as he could through the valley. I wondered had the elk also been collared and was the ranger picking up his signal? Apparently not, for about 20 yards behind the elk was the reason for the ranger’s declaration - three adult wolves in hot pursuit. The scene was dramatic, the elk in the lead, the wolves closing in fast. As they made their way directly in front of us and about 60 to 70 yards away, the elk, probably sensing it his best option, barreled headlong into one of the ponds. The splash was enormous. Smaller splashes followed as all three wolves hurled themselves in after him. The frantic elk made his way quickly to the middle of the pond and stopped. The wolves swam toward him. They then made several rather feeble attempts at attacking him. But because they had to swim, and the elk was a perfect height to stand in the middle of the pond with his head above water, the wolves lacked the leverage necessary to mount any sort of serious attempt at bringing him down. They soon abandoned the attack and swam to the northern shore of the pond.
After shaking themselves dry, the wolves stood on the bank of the pond staring at the elk. The elk refused to make eye contact and appeared to be quickly trying to figure out his next move. His expression was one of “I’m not defeated yet,” but he also seemed to realize what the eventual gruesome outcome might be. I don’t think he liked the idea.
The three wolves were also regrouping. They gathered in a huddle and appeared to derive a plan. The huddle broke and one went to the most westerly edge of the pond (which was straight in front of us on the furthest side of the pond) and the other two positioned themselves around the pond so that if you drew lines connecting them they would make the points of an almost perfect triangle, with the elk in the middle. Let the standoff begin.
As everyone waited for what would happen next, it soon became apparent that it could take a while. The elk certainly wasn’t going anywhere and the wolves saw no point in going in after the elk. This allowed time for the catching of one’s breath, additional observations, along with some discussion amongst the wolf-watchers. I inquired of the ranger as to the makeup of the pack. Quite honestly I was expecting more wolves, or at least more than three. I mean after all wasn’t’ that what I’d always seen on those nature programs? So was this the entire pack? The ranger explained that it was.
The male on the other side of the pond was the alpha and obvious leader. He was a big beautiful solid black specimen. He was also the one in the lead as the pack pursued the elk into the pond. Going clockwise around the pond the next wolf was big, beautiful, and gray. This was the mother of the pups and actually seemed the most anxious about getting dinner. Whereas the other two wolves just sat and watched the elk, she tended to pace back and forth along the bank of the pond. The third wolf as it turned out was the only survivor from last year’s litter. He was gray and smaller than the other two; obviously still growing, and for that matter still learning the ins and outs of being a wolf. He seemed to be taking instruction from his parents rather than initiating anything himself.
As we waited for a resumption of the action my son and I had a chance for a few other welcomed observations. To our right and down in the valley about 50 yards an American bald eagle had been fishing in Slough Creek. Every 15 minutes or so he would glide along the creek then suddenly dive to the surface of the water, talons at the ready. Several times he managed to pluck a fish from the water, then fly off high over our right shoulder to deliver the meal to its nest. But soon he’d be back to try his luck again. We also noticed that grazing bison were beginning to pop up all around the valley. By now there were probably 7 or 8 evenly dispersed throughout the landscape and one couldn’t look in any direction without spotting a bison. And finally, the wolf pups, which we hadn’t been watching since the pack made its entrance, had brought their shenanigans down from the area around the den into the valley near the creek. They may have felt safe to do so given that their parents were in the vicinity.
While waiting for the next chapter in the wolf/elk saga to begin we continued to watch bison emerge throughout the valley, the bald eagle fish, and the pups run roughshod over each other again and again. Thirty minutes had passed since the elk sought sanctuary within the pond, then forty-five minutes, then finally something happened. Almost causally, the big black alpha male left his post and strolled clockwise to the mother. The two of them strolled together over to the younger male. If the pond were a clock they now stood grouped together at about 8-oclock. I made a comment to no one in particular, “It looks like they’ve given up.” The ranger turned his head to look at me, and with years of wolf observation under his belt simply said, “Oh, they know what they’re doing.” Well anyway they sure seemed disinterested, frequently turning their back on the elk and engaging in some playfulness not unlike the pups.
Apparently, the elk thought they had given up also. He looked around frantically moving his head from side to side seemingly planning something, while at the same time saying to himself, “Here’s the chance I’ve been waiting for!” He made his move. At first he eased slowly toward the opposite bank from where the wolves were congregating, trying it seemed, not to catch their attention. But as he neared the edge of the pond his pace quickened. Then with one great thrust he leapt out of the pond and landed on solid ground running at a full gallop. He was free! The trouble was, he made it only about 10 yards from the pond before the wolves were off and running in pursuit. Their cunning plan, known only to themselves and the park ranger, appeared to be working.
The elk actually looked a little comical as he ran as fast as he could while at the same time looking back over his shoulder to see what was happening behind him. “Have I really gotten away?” he was probably thinking. He’d run, and look over his shoulder, run a few more yards and look over his shoulder again, run some more and look again. But the realization soon set in, “No, it looks like I didn’t get away after all.” The wolves were quickly closing the gap. The elk, knowing the only place in the entire valley where he was safe, soon began running a big loop back to the pond. The wolves made the same circle and had just about reached their prey when they ran out of room. The elk made a flying leap back into the water, proceeded to the middle, and stood there once again. The wolves instantly took up their respective positions around the perimeter of the pond. We were back where we started.
We all realized it was again appropriate for us to take another deep breath and regroup. Who knew how long the wait would be this time? Everyone reached for a sip of the drink of their choice and a few grabbed some snacks. Not much was said. The next half an hour was sip, sip, bite, bite, and the occasional repositioning of a spotting scope. By now the pups were fairly close and finally looking exhausted. They lay under a small grouping of poplar trees about 50 yards straight out and to our right. Everyone waited for what would happen next.
The relaxed atmosphere was broken once again by the matter-of-fact voice of the park ranger. “Um,” he began, “I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to about 1-oclock, traveling right to left about 20 yards the other side of the pond.” The ranger was very good at pinpointing what he wanted us to see. My son and I immediately picked up the movement. Making its way across the valley rather quickly and deliberately was a massive grizzly bear. Surprisingly to us, he paid absolutely no attention to everything that was taking place around him. He acted as if he had someplace to be, and he was running late.
So, we come to it, that moment that will forever go down as one of my most memorable moments in a National Park. It lasted all of two minutes. But for those two minutes, those two glorious minutes, my son and I stood one cool morning in early autumn, in Yellowstone National Park, in Lamar Valley, and simultaneously watched an American bald eagle fishing out of Slough Creek, a couple dozen bison grazing, three wolf pups playing under some poplars, three adult wolves maintaining close vigil over an elk stranded in the middle of a pond, and a huge grizzly bear ignoring it all and hastening it through the valley. That was the moment.
Putting an exclamation point on it and confirming the specialness of what we were witnessing was none other than the park ranger. He turned to us with a big smile brimming across his face, and with an excitement we had not witnessed up to this point declared, ”I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I have never seen so much, in one place, all at one time.” If that wasn’t confirmation of the magnitude of the moment I don’t know what was. My son and I soaked it all in, both of us starring off into the valley. Then, turning to each other we simultaneously said all we could muster, a simple “Wow!”
We never could have imagined when we dragged ourselves out of bed hours earlier what lay in store for us. When we arrived back at our accommodations and recounted the story to the rest of the family it was met with the appropriate excitement, but also the appropriate disappointment for not taking part. On our way into the park later that day we stopped at the observation spot and again relived the moment. The valley was empty, but my son and I with much vigor brought the whole experience to life for the rest of the family.
This tale has been retold countless times and will be told countless more. And every time it’s told the ending of the tale is always the same; the elk gets away. A few minutes after the grizzly bear departed the scene the wolves once again moved to a congregation point on the southern bank of the pond. The elk too, once again sensing an opportunity, made his way out of the pond and began hightailing it in the opposite direction. The wolves, as they had also done before, began to run in the direction of the fleeing elk. But this time, instead of pursuing the elk they diverted over to where the pups where located. A joyous family reunion of wolves ensued. They frolicked and ran toward the den as a very fortunate elk made its way up and over the crest of a hill on the other side of the valley; periodically looking over his shoulder all along the way.
My oldest son and I decided it was time to get back. For now anyway, the show was over. The memory on the other hand would last a lifetime. As we drove we said little, still basking in the glow of the experience. I wondered to myself what could possibly top what we had just been fortunate enough to witness? But little did I know of the other grand adventures awaiting me within America's National Parks.
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