I steady myself against the morning chill and lean into the spotting scope until my right eyelashes flutter in a dark tunnel. The world afar zooms into focus. All I can see is a cluster of hillside rocks and a funny wind-swept tree, grainy and grey in the early light. Then my pupil constricts on movement and my mind quickly reconciles the shape: a wolf. No, wait… it’s a wolf pup.
I stifle a small squeal of delight because it threatens to shake my focus and I don’t want to lose a moment of this experience. The animal crosses to a rocky outcrop and sits staring into the valley, braced on a jagged precipice by long front legs. Its fur, which looked nondescript in the shadows, suddenly glitters like wisps of gold when the rising sun creeps onto its back. I raise my camera and snap several greedy photos but, even with my 200-500 lens, the wolf is just too far away, a blond dot against ruddy stone. I go back to the scope.
Soon there are two more pups trotting around near the wind-swept tree. Under my breath I wager the youngsters are about 4-months old.
“Yes …about,” whispers Kate next to me. “They were born in April. This is a new pack. It currently supports two young males with dense black fur, a four-year-old grey female called “06” (for the year she was born) and her first litter. Four pups. I don’t know where the other one is. I hope it’s okay.”
Driving across Montana, on my way back to Arizona from a month-long road trip, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to swing through Yellowstone National Park. I dearly wanted to see grey wolves in the wild and this would be another chance to look for them.
I arrived at the entrance gate in the late afternoon with three problems doodling in my brain. 1. I had no idea where to actually find wolves, 2. it was too early for wolf sightings—crepuscular, they tend to be more active at sunrise and sunset so I would have to cruise around until dusk, and 3. all the Yellowstone campsites were full so I couldn’t stay the night, which meant after my wolf quest I would be forced onto dark roads to find sleeping quarters outside the park.
Later, after several hours of driving the upper loop, hungry and exhausted, I stopped for a quick break at Roosevelt Lodge. Slipping into the last available rocking chair on the veranda to contemplate my next move, I found myself talking with a woman whose wavy grey hair was escaping her hat and cascading past soft blue eyes like a winter waterfall. Kate.
A twist of destiny, it turned out Kate has been observing Yellowstone wolves for twelve summers, and in our brief surreal conversation, she offered me space to park at her campsite and revealed the observation point for the Lamar Canyon pack—the wolf family I’m now watching through Kate’s spare spotting scope.
I cannot get over my good fortune. Two siblings interact on the distant slope, playfully nudging each other before settling down a few meters apart to groom. The air is growing warmer and chatter in hushed tones spills around our feet as the surrounding assembly of onlookers increases. I take more pictures with inadequate zoom. In motion the wolves are clear and obvious, yet frozen by my camera lens their shapes are barely distinguishable from the boulders.
No matter. In the end I have seen two adult males and three pups, more than a hapless wanderer could hope for. I hug Kate goodbye, my heart filled with gratitude for our new friendship, and by the time the sun is climbing toward its zenith I’m on my way, heading toward home with visions of wild wolves still simmering in my chest.
Kate Saunders is a fused glass artist from Oregon. See her beautiful work at www.lewiscreekglassworks.com.