Every story has to have a place to start; I don’t want to take you back too far but I do think it is very important that you know how I ended up where I am today. In May 2009 after a few months of management training with my company my now ex-husband, thought I deserved a vacation. Anywhere I wanted to go! We had already been to Alaska looking for wolves and moose. That trip turned out to be nothing but bears. I know to most that would be exciting however I really wanted to see wolves in the wild. Bears didn’t really thrill me at all. After we came home I had started researching Yellowstone once again. My dad had taken me there when I was 17, over 20 years prior and I could remember nearly every detail of all the animals we had seen in a day and a half in the park. Yellowstone seemed to hold promise so that is where we headed. Little did I know at that moment what life changes were in my future.
The trip started out very slow. We stayed in Jackson Hole and the amount of snow still on the ground was disappointing. I had been working out for months so that we could take some hikes but each place we stopped to hike was either covered with snow, mud or too far to hike at all. Animals, including elk, buffalo and deer were nowhere to be found. Around every bend I heard how I had told him how much fun this trip would be, animals would be everywhere and there was too much snow. On the third day after only finding a few buffalo in the Tetons we had worked our way up to Canyon and I overheard people talking about an elk that a wolf pack had taken down at Nymph Lake the day before. That wasn’t that far away! I begged and pleaded to stop there on the way back to Jackson Hole and was told how hungry and tired he was, it was too far, so back to Jackson Hole we headed.
Near the south entrance I saw something in a meadow and hollered at him to stop. I was out of the car and across the road long before he got it stopped. As I got to the edge of the road and down the embankment I finally got my momentum stopped. I had definitely seen something, not exactly what I was hoping for, but I was about to learn a valuable lesson. This first lesson has now been followed by so many that I have lost count. Now I just say that with every wild animal I encounter I learn something new and wonderful. Standing a short distance from me was a small sized grizzly bear digging through fallen trees, his coat stringy and wet. The bear looked over at me and for a moment we just stared at each other and then it went back to digging. I slowly walked backwards back to the side of the road and stopped again, never taking my eyes off that bear. The only thing I had was a Canon point and shoot and when I realized that this bear wasn’t going to charge me and kept digging I started taking photos. A lot of photos. For about 20 minutes it was just the grizzly and I, it was quiet except for the noise of him tearing grass out of the ground or turning over logs and my ex-husband telling me that I needed to get my butt back in the car and that I must have lost my mind. Occasionally the grizzly would look over my way to see that I was respecting his space, I’ve seen that look from horses before; the one where they judge you to see if they should fear and flee from you, to make sure your not trying to corner them or, in the worse situation, if they will need to fight. I have always respected those looks as it is never my intention to disturb an animal from doing what they would do on a normal day without my interfering. I’ve worked with domestic horses that have been put in those situations and it saddens me to see fear or aggression in their eyes because somebody didn’t understand them.
In high school I had read every book written about bear and wild animal attacks. Not what you would expect from a girl in high school I’m sure, I guess I’m my dad’s girl for sure. More the outdoorsy and nature type I guess. While we stood there and exchanged the glances from time to time I didn’t see the man eater that I had read so much about. Don’t get me wrong, this was no Wal-Mart teddy bear for sure; looking at the teeth and claws that he was ripping the ground and fallen trees apart with it was obvious that if he needed to he could pretty much take out anything he felt he needed to. I saw more than that though; I saw a bear that was just coming out of hibernation that was looking for certain nutrition to survive, determination, power, respect and fearless. I could have stood there for hours watching the grizzly and learning about how it survived. This was a bear that if left alone was more than happy to leave you alone as well. Given the proper space and respect all this bear wanted was to be left to find the food it needed to make it through another season.
Grizzly seen near Jackson Hole
Grizzly seen near Jackson Hole
Twenty minutes seemed to fly by and that is when about 50 other people saw us and the frenzy began. I saw people turn and walk backwards toward the grizzly so that their wives could take photos, kids yelling and kicking rocks toward it and even more who thought that 40 yards near a vehicle on the road was just too far and they needed a closer look. My heart started to ache then. This bear wanted nothing more than to be left alone and now he was a performing bear in a circus that had not so smart people moving in on his space and comfort zone. Talk about lack of respect. I knew for sure this was where the grizzly would most likely turn into the man eater I had read about so I prepared myself to see something horrible. Instead it walked steadily toward the tree line and after a few minutes disappeared. That day I saw much more in those eyes and I realized then that there was a lot more to bears than I had originally thought. I felt fortunate that I had as much time alone with the grizzly as I did.
As we drove back to Jackson Hole that afternoon although I was disappointed I had yet to see a wolf I was wondering what the grizzly had been sent to teach me. The time spent with the bear while it was peaceful wasn’t long enough. I felt there was more I needed to learn and I’d never be given that opportunity again. After all, how many people do you know that can say they have seen a grizzly bear in the wild?
The next couple of nights we moved “camp” to Gardner, that was supposed to be closer to where wolves are normally found and I was not giving up my search. The wolves that had taken down the elk at Nymph Lake had removed any evidence that it had ever happened in a matter of 2 days and that didn’t seem to be a promising area to see them again. Now I wanted to focus on Lamar Valley. There was a report about a bison cow that had died giving birth between Gardner and Lamar Valley and the wolves were already on the carcass and it was near the road, we couldn’t miss it. Anyone who drove the speed limit who knew what they were actually looking for couldn’t miss it anyway and that was not my ex. I lost track of the number of times he raced up and down that road looking for the carcass, or anything else for that matter, and all I heard was how we just missed a black bear or a grizzly. With only one night left to be in the park I was starting to think I would never see wolves in the wild and this was like chasing a ghost.
We stopped at a pull out in Little America to see what a group was looking at and started talking to a photographer who explained they were all waiting, chattering loudly, for a badger with babies to come out of a hole about 30 yards out. I smiled. If I were that momma badger I’d have drug all those babies about 3 miles away, underground, by now and I’d be out hunting while all these people sat and waited. Why would a badger come out after hearing all that chatter knowing everyone was there? The photographer must have known what I was thinking as well because he smiled too and explained that was why he was sitting in his car and not out in the sun.
After an hour of conversation about the park and different types of animals he had seen I became very anxious and said it was time to go. We had less than 24 hours in the park and I had yet to see what I had come here for, we were wasting daylight. That was when the photographer asked what I was hoping to find and told us exactly where to find the bison carcass. Deep down I felt it was another ghost chase, but I was hoping he was telling me the truth. He had no idea how important seeing wolves in the wild was to me. We said good-bye and headed back to the Blacktail area where he said we could find the carcass and pulled into a turn out with only one other car sitting in it. This didn’t seem promising to me. If there was a carcass and wolves there would be carloads of people sitting there. My heart sank. It was only a couple hours before dark and we only had tomorrow in the park.
I wasn’t much into talking to strangers then and finally gathered enough courage to ask the people in the other car what they were looking for. They happily pointed to the bison carcass, what was left of it, and the calf the wolves had eventually taken down a few days after the cow had died. I’m not sure that I could have sat and watched that as badly as I wanted to see wolves. They had been there since the day the bison had died and explained what had gone on. They also explained how they come to the park 3 or 4 times a year just to watch wolves and some of the experiences they have had, I was jealous. As it got later it started getting colder and snow started to fall. We got back into our car and I continued to stare at the hillside hoping for movement, my hope fading each minute. The couple said they seriously doubted the wolves would return tonight as they had only ate about an hour before we arrived and had ate a lot. I sat and stared and wanted to cry, no idea why this was so important to me, but it was.
My ex finally asked how long I wanted to wait, it was getting dark, he was tired and of course he was hungry. I looked at the clock and asked for about 20 more minutes and then I started to pray. All I wanted was to see one wolf in the wild and I’d be happy. I kept my eyes on the mountain and would occasionally look at the minutes as they ticked away, listening to the frustrated sighs coming from the man next to me. Then I saw it! I stopped breathing and then wondered if I did see it. I was afraid to say anything or move for fear I would lose what I had seen. A few seconds later I still saw something black, too small to be a bison trotting our way down the mountain. I pointed and stuttered and pointed more. The neighbors rolled down the window and asked what I saw and I pointed and mumbled again. He pulled out the big telephoto lens and attempted to find what I had seen moving but without any luck. And then I saw a light grey object moving down the mountain farther behind. I had to keep myself from screaming “wolf!!” Our neighbor was finally able to see the light grey in the telephoto lens and confirmed it for us, it was wolves! The alpha male and female from the Blacktail Plateau Pack. Now I was crying. We all jumped out and grouped around the spotting scope and watched the alpha pair and 4 other wolves from the pack come back to the carcass to feed. We stayed out there, only the 4 of us, till there was not a bit of daylight left and we were frozen. The couple mentioned how lucky we were to see this and that I must be good luck. Then they said that it would be nice if the wolves would howl, but they had only heard wolves howl once on all the trips they have taken and there was just no way I’d be that lucky.
We watched the pack as they finished feeding and one by one they drank from the stream and climbed back up the hillside closest to us. They lied down close to the tree line and as we started to lose more and more light they started becoming just shadows. The alpha female started it, lifted her head up and started to sing. The alpha male joined in and one by one they all started to howl. The man looked over at me and said he didn’t believe it – I must have wanted to see them so badly that they heard me. I was once again in tears; there is nothing as pretty and haunting as hearing a wild wolf howl. We drove back to Gardner in the dark. I had been blessed to see the wolves and hear them howl, at that point nothing else mattered.
Our plans to get back out to that area of Blacktail the next morning before daylight was delayed, we could not leave town without breakfast. This was our last day in the park and we had to leave at 3am the following morning so we wouldn’t stay out late that night. As we got close to the turn out we could see the cars all parked in the pull out, it was a circus. I saw an elk cow off to the right acting very strangely with her head up high glancing from side to side and was wondering why if the wolves were that far away she was so concerned. Suddenly from almost the exact area where the elk was about 10 wolves from the Blacktail Plateau Pack jumped out in front of our car and raced across the road, how we managed to miss hitting them I will never know. My heart sank. We were too late and that was the last I’d see of them, people were now leaving the pull out. We pulled in any way to talk to the people we had met the night before; the pack was chasing a lone wolf from another pack who had been feeding on the carcass. I never saw the lone wolf and was hoping it managed to get away.
About 30 minutes later the whole pack returned to the carcass as a whole group of onlookers stood chatting and waiting. This is when I got to meet Rick McIntyre (http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/natural-intelligence/Pack-Man.html?page=1). He walked up and sat his stool down and his scope and started writing notes, occasionally he would look over at me and give me a tidbit of wolf history and information. Unlike the night before though, as quick as the wolves arrived, they left again. After spending about 30 minutes at the carcass, drinking from the creek and then jumping over fallen trees, they headed up the hill and rolled around and then they disappeared. Far off in the distance, way up on the hillside a herd of bison became agitated near a patch of snow. Only through a scope could you see a light grey wolf was sizing up the herd of bison cows and calves. The wolf wasn’t serious and soon moved on. This was the last time I would see them.
The black alpha male was 302M, better known as Casanova and the leader of the Blacktail Plateau Pack. It didn’t matter to me which wolf I saw in Yellowstone, it only mattered that I saw a wolf in the wild and I had. On the way home through the park at 3am the next morning before the sun came up that was all I could think about was the wolves and how special this trip had been. What I had learned. I came home and researched all I could find on the pack and Casanova, a ladies’ man who unlike other alpha males would often time stray.
“The story of the year was probably 302, the most popular wolf in Yellowstone. The Quadrant pack probably killed him in a territory dispute. We know his story well since we’ve been following him for years. Most wolves live to about 4 ½ to 5 years on average—he was probably nine. We had nicknamed 302 “Mr. Casanova.” Most wolves assume a pretty monogamous breeding position in their pack structure and have no interest in philandering. But 302 had a wandering eye. He would leave his pack during breeding season to court females in other packs. It’s ironic that 302 had a huge following—people loved him—but he was probably the most unethical wolf we had because of his extensive “affairs.” – Doug Smith
How ironic that 2 months later I learned that my ex had been cheating on me for months and rather than attempting to work on a 20 year relationship decided his mistress was more important. And in October of the same year Casanova was found killed by members of a rival pack. I will never forget Casanova and the lessons I learned that year. How animals and humans often times take similar life paths. By then I never thought I would return to Yellowstone again. My love for wolves hadn’t changed but there were memories there and my life had drastically changed. I wasn’t able to focus, didn’t care about much and threw myself into walking, running and riding my young horse who became my heart, soul and hero.
The photographer I had met in the park on that trip emailed me during all of this to see if I was still interested in the images he had taken of the wolves at Nymph Lake. About 3 months later we became friends on opposite sides of the United States. We would talk on the phone often and I listened to all his stories of the trips he would take and the animals he would encounter. A part of me was living through him I suppose. Then on his way home from Yellowstone in October (the same time Casanova was killed) he suggested that I return to Yellowstone in May. It would be a chance for me to heal and he could tell that I really wanted and needed to come back.
My parents bought a new camera for me that Christmas, a Canon T1i and I spent the next couple of months trying to learn how to operate it. It seemed like rocket science to me. But with the photographer’s help I was starting to get better images. I also committed myself and a good friend to taking a trip in May back to Yellowstone. Maybe this trip I could take some of the hikes I had wanted to do before and a part of me thought that maybe I wouldn’t come home. I had gone from being a shy individual who constantly thought about self preservation and my responsibilities to one who really didn’t care about much anymore.
The weekend before I left for Yellowstone I went to a reining horse show nearby to practice my photography. I use to show reining and cowhorses and I missed being involved with those people and thought I might see some old friends. Instead an owner of a local magazine was watching me take photos from the outside of the arena and after seeing a few of my images asked if I’d like a job shooting horse shows, she liked what she saw and my style. I laughed. I explained that really did not know much about photography and she told me she saw a lot of potential and that I could make a living shooting horses. We made an appointment to meet if I returned home from Yellowstone in June. I knew by now how fast life could change and held my breath for nothing. And this is how my adventures began.
Although grainy and far away I can still remember every detail of this encounter
Casanova is the black wolf in the rear.
A part of the pack are gathered around the bison carcass.