i once wrote down a goal that i would visit at least one new place, both nationally and internationally, each year.
this year, i've far outdone the U.S. bit; driving to montana made that a pretty easy feat.
and even though i have yet to travel somewhere outside the states, this past weekend felt as though i were submerged in a different culture.
my sister, melissa, being the rad human that she is, has been working with the yellowstone national park wolf project, tracking the lamar canyon pack for over a month now.
she has always loved wolves from as far back as i can remember, and i believe that love started with our growing up surrounded by "packs" of german shepherds. it was kind've a family thing. maybe an italian thing. and a neighborhood thing, actually. in any case, we both turned out animal obsessed, and she followed her heart and instincts right through her biological studies and wolf conservation efforts in college (while i took a much more tumultuous, sporadic path in life...she's always known what she wanted, and it's just something i've always admired about her).
in any case, i was stoked when she invited branno and myself to come tracking with her. neither of us had ever been to Yellowstone, and the thought of seeing wolves in the wild while also getting to visit with my sister made me ecstatic.
so we made the six hour drive down to gardiner, montana where we entered the park and followed her landmark directions to the ranger station portadorm she now called home. the sun had already gone down, so we didn't get much of a view on the way in, but the night was quiet, star-filled and hinted at the magic we'd be waking up to in the morning.
our first full day was her one day off for the week; she's on a six-day, 14-hour day schedule, and i'll just admit right now that ONE day out in the field kicked my butt (albeit i hadn't been feeling so hot..but still).
we headed out into the fairly desolate and frigid park (the lack of crowds and caravans was a treat with the price of not being able to move your toes if you didn't come prepared). melissa took us on a short hike to check out a lamar canyon pack kill at crystal creek. the elk bones and (and fur) had laid there under the trees since early march, where a number of predators had come and had their share, and where groups of university students had stopped by to learn what they could from the scene. (i quickly learned that it was against park rules to remove any remains from its location - an ongoing battle between rangers and those trying to make a buck from selling a buck.)
from there, it didn't take long before i had my moment with the buffs (aka buffalo, and i know they're actually bison and buffalo don't even live in north america...it's just more fun to say). i squealed like a little girl when the herd who had taken over the roadway brought us to a stop, and then again when they were walking right beside the car. melissa seemed unenthused, which i understood by day four of us being there; with nearly a half million bison in the park, it just happens all. the. time.
and yet, the fact that there are SO many of them roaming around led me to learn something new about them, which gave me a new-found love and appreciation for them- they're able to surivive by the hundreds of thousands in a land filled with predators in part because they form walls//circles with their youngins safely chillin' in the middle- and that just warms my heart and makes me adore the furry fro'ed effers even more. and this tactic is very clearly contrasted by the elk method, which is basically every man for himself, run as fast as you can and flail your head around like a muppet character.
that afternoon we stopped at boiling river, where 115 degree hot spring water flows from multiple inlets into the ice-cold gardiner river. a spot that bustles on the weekends, we were lucky enough to hit it at a time where there were only a handful of others soaking in the natural bath waters. unlike hot springs where the temperature is consistently cozy, finding a rocky path that isn't frigid or scorching is the real challenge.
the alarm sounded at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, and we were up before the sun, stuffing our packs with extra layers, hand warmers, hot and cold water and snacks. this was her routine for weeks- out the door by 6:30 a.m. only to return once the sun had made its way behind the mountains again.
melissa, her roommate lisa and myself all hopped into the wire-and-antenna-clad government SUV and headed out to the last point the collared Lamars had been picked up; GPS reports are pulled every four hours, showing the travel of the pack at each hour during that time frame. this method wasn't customary in their day-to-day tracking, but because the wolves happened to be in a sensitive area, extra communication efforts with the office were made to ensure their safety as soon as they were back in signal and sight.
(to give a little more about the tracking system and how it works, there are multiple packs, each with a different number of wolves and a few of those wolves are collared (generally the alphas and a few others if they could be successfully captured). the northern range packs are tracked during the winter months, as there isn't access to the rest of the park due to roads not being maintained. a few individuals are assigned to a specific pack, and not a day goes by that at least two of those people aren't keeping a close eye on their canines...even if it means watching snoozing, aka "bedded," wolves for hours.)
when we had arrived on wednesday, there was a sense of worry over our pack and the distance and direction at which they had decided to travel that week. the information was received and relayed in hushed tones, usually off-radio. the lamar canyon pack, consisting of five wolves (sometimes a sworn number of six as urged by members of the "wolf watchers"), had made their way through rival pack territories and just outside of yellowstone- a dangerous place to be for a number of reasons.
when i mentioned feeling as if i were in a another culture earlier, the wolf watchers, or "wolfies" played a large part in that feeling. that first night, we caught a tidbit of jumbled information on the whereabouts of the lamar pack that came in part from actual wolf project members mixed with rumors and input from the wolfies. their preferred label being wolf watchers, this is a group of dedicated folks who have chosen to live out their retirement living alongside yellowstone researchers and volunteers through the harsh winters, observing and rooting for their beloved wolves.
most members of the group are over 50 years old and all come equipped with their own $1,000-$3,500 nikon or swarovski scope (among thousands of dollars in camera gear). they adore the wolf project gang and although they have their very own radio system, they aim to work hand-in-hand with the official crew. spending just as much if not more hours out in the skin-pinching cold, they retire to their homes at the end of the day only to come back the next morning with a refreshed enthusiasm and car full of baked goods.
my first day in the field with my sister, while perched atop a hill where we soon witnessed the ex-alpha of the lamar pack, 755M, and his two comrades playfully taunt a herd of elk, we received word that an elusive mountain lion had emerged to feast on a deceased bull elk that we had seen the previous day. we were granted permission to leave our post and witness what was an extremely uncommon event. pulling up to the scene was like nothing i had seen before - cars lined both sides of the road for a half mile and it seemed that every person in the park had caught wind of the cougar and congregated to catch their glimpse of even just her tail.
(side note: it's pretty much guaranteed to attract attention and cause other cars to stop//pull over if you're on the side of the road and looking out in any general direction. we even learned of one young group of boys visiting the park who had made it a game to pull over and say things like "bear!" while pointing far out to an amorphous blob of black or brown that was actually a rock...all while tourists scrambled for their binoculars and cameras.)
while walking down the battle-line-esque lineup of scopes, all pointed in the same direction, we reached a few familiar wolfies who offered us a look. sideline official reports of the cat's movement were blurted out left and right, repetitively.
"she's behind the tree."
"follow that patch of snow down to those dark rocks."
"to the left."
"that v-shaped tree there. follow the left side from the trunk."
"that's her tail."
"no, she's still there."
"she's walking down to the elk!"
we all saw it happening, and yet we each felt we needed to immediately recap it for those around us just in case their scopes had led them astray.
while i was focusing on the cat and trying to soak up every moment of my first cougar sighting in the wild, an older woman who had possibly mistaken me for a permanent member of the wolf project crew walked up to me and whispered, "oh good - i'll go get the cookies while you guys are here!"
sweets and wild animals. i was in my personal version of heaven.
the world of the wolfie-yellowstone crew coexistence isn't all fuzzy and sweets, though. in fact, just as with any subculture, there are certain members who arouse more drama than others. some of the wolfies have personal websites or blogs where they share their photos and stories and where they have created quite a following, but inside the park, some question whether their intentions are in line with the animals' best interests (i.e. if they're trying to get closer than advised to the wolves and wildlife to get the perfect shot , which they say will spread love and awareness but actually endangers//alters the lives and habitat of the animals).
but, all that aside, there's nothing more moving than listening to a detailed account from one of these canine super fans who have been at the park longer and know more history than some of the park employees.
"I remember the day 755M split off from his pack so vividly," one shared.
Again, 755 had been the original alpha male of the lamar canyon pack, until he was leading a pack comprised of only his offspring, none of which he'd be abel to mate with, so off he went, alone, in hopes to form a new pack.
"755 was down in the valley and his pack was up on the hill, crying down to him," she continued, tears welling up in her eyes. "He let out one last, long howl and then turned around and walked off into the darkness alone."
And just like that, my own chest had tightened and vision blurred from the water in my own eyes.
By far though, my favorite human interaction while at the park was with rick, a stoic, dry-humored biological technician who had been there since the wolves were reintroduced. He was kind've the ring leader out in the field amongst all the separate wolf pack groups//volunteers.
He'd come over the radio letting us know the whereabouts of the prospect pack or the last visible point of our underdog lamars, and he would ever so softly suggest that your idea or plan was not a good one, all without saying it to you directly.
"okay...let me just give you some more information," he'd retort, even-keeled.
or after sharing your thoughts on relocating your post due to where you think the wolves might be going, he'd offer, ".....well, why don't you just think about the most logical path an animal would take."
driving from lookout to pullout, we'd often cross paths with him in his unmistakable car wrapped in wolf graphics, and of course we'd stop to say hello or share new information we'd come across. these brief check-ins often turned into drawn out conversations about topics that ranged from our presidential candidates' scandals to the terrible troubles faced by teenage girls (and i loved every minute of it).
"hey, i was listening to this podcast...don't be thirteen," he'd state matter-of-factly. "those poor girls and what they face- i had no idea. there was a movie....'13 again'?...don't do that."
i quickly deemed these series of interactions "roadside with rick," and other than the incredible wildlife interactions i witnessed, they make up my fondest memory of our time in yellowstone. branno had shared how rick was the type of guy he'd want to sit down with "tuesday's with morrie" style, and i couldn't agree more- rick is just a wealth of knowledge on top of his many personal accounts of the happenings at yellowstone and his deadpan, straight-faced jokes.
(my favorite was when he stopped my sister, her roommate and myself to let us know what seemed like a pretty important message. he said that he had talked with the office, and he asked if we had heard about the changeover. we all looked confused, myself especially, and we shared that we had not. he said they'd no longer be using "3 alpha lamar" to call us via radio.....they were switching over to "3 alpha kardashian." i couldn't tell if i found it funny or not because rick got such a kick out of his own joke that i couldn't help but laugh hysterically.)
the five days went by so fast. as much as i didn't want to sit out in the cold for another fourteen hour day, i equally didn't want to miss out on any updates in the lives of my now-beloved pack. i understand how the wolfies get so entranced by this world- you become a part of it, at a distance. it's this weird connection of not being able to interact, but feeling every victory, challenge and tragedy along with the animals. it's probably much like how some people become engulfed in soap operas, only this one seems so much more raw, vibrant and unforgiving.
i'm so grateful we got to experience an uncrowded yellowstone in such an intimate way, and i'm not sure going back at any other time of year will feel quite the same. i do know, however, that animals make me real happy. and being outdoors. and photography. so, i'm just gonna keep focusing my life on all'a that.