Sep 25, 2016
By Antonia Callas
The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone
It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.
Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.
As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.
One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.
We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.
We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.
Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.
“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.
Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.
Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.
The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.
Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.
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About the Author
Antonia Callas writes whenever she can carve out time from her day job writing and editing marketing copy. As a freelance writer, she has written articles and reviews for a variety of magazines and newspapers, and has two produced screenplays. She is currently working on a non-fiction book.