Monday, March 19, 2007
Adventures of a Wolf Watcher
Our first few days in the park were spent in and around the Lamar Valley in the northeastern corner of the park. We stayed in a comfortable motel in Cooke City, a tiny end-of-the-road town just outside the park, altitude around 8,000 feet. I called it "Testosterone City," because it is a snowmobiler's haven, with people coming from all over creation to ride their motorized sleds through the mountains outside the park boundaries. Sadly, days before we arrived, 5 of them had been killed in a backcountry avalanche, conditions no doubt exacerbated by the noisy vibrations of their machines. Mornings and evenings in town reverberate with the sound of revving engines as strapping men, outfitted in cold weather garb, prepare for fast paced tours through some the world's most exquisite landscapes.
As "wolf watchers," our days started at 5 AM, with breakfast at 6:15, in the van and on the road by 7 or so. We had brought clothing to keep us warm at temperatures well below zero, but like the rest of the country, Yellowstone was suffering from "crazy weather syndrome." The mornings were cold with temps in the teens but by midday it was well up into the thirties and at lower elevations in the forties.
Our guides, Scott and Paul, both highly qualified biologists, know their subjects well, having been involved in research projects involving the park's wolf population. As I sit here at my computer, Scott is somewhere out in the backcountry tracking the wolves through their daily rounds, recording data that will further our knowledge of wolf behavior. Some members in each of the individual packs wear radio collars and on this trip we were guided daily to locations by other scientists picking up signals from the collared wolves. Once in the targeted area, the skilled eyes of Scott and Paul honed in on our subjects.
The first day out we spent the morning observing the Druid Pack, waiting off in the distance, to feed on an elk they had killed just before dawn. Unfortunately, the kill was almost in the road and when we arrived photographers with giant telephoto lenses and other wolf watchers like us, lined the road, waiting for an opportunity to watch the wolves feeding. The group that I was with moved off down the road to another location where we observed the same pack across the Lamar River, basking in the sun, waiting for the crowd of gawkers to leave. Later in the morning park rangers moved the carcass away from the road, but still the wolves hung back. Coyotes, ravens, magpies and eagles were not shy and feasted most of the day.
Years ago when I was working in photography, I carried multiple cameras, big lenses, tripods and the rest of the gear neeeded for excellent photo making. These days that gear remains sitting in a closet while I go armed only with a digital point and shoot camera, prefering not to lug lots of equipment around. I also find that if I'm not trying to figure out how to get the best shot, I can experience whatever the subject is, whether it's a wolf or flower, in all of its glory without missing a thing. This photo was taken with that camera through a spotting scope that the guides provided for us. The pack was probably a half to a full mile away and all the observing we did, like bird watching, was done through the scopes and binoculars.