A Walk on Yellowstone's Wild Side
Wolves battle for territory. Coyotes endure love triangles. Wolverine fathers show their kits the ropes. Few places offer more intimate wildlife viewing than Yellowstone in winter.
I wake up in a warm, rustic log cabin in the middle of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.Stepping outside and inhaling winter air amid the vast stretch of river bottom and forested hillsides--except for the other cabins, a pure wilderness with no built structure in sight--allows me to feel a hint of what it must have been like to live in the West before wolves were extirpated, when wild was a part of everyday life. While several outfitters offer winter wildlife tours, a main advantage of a Yellowstone Association trip is geographical--you stay in cabins at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, so out-in-it that you're well advised to scout the scene before walking from your cabin to the nearby bathroom lest a bison or elk be blocking your way. The cabins are not luxurious--twin beds with pillows, pegs to hang your coats, a heater, and a sleeping bag--but their cozy comfort, surrounded by such wilderness, is everything you could want.
Days start with an early, hearty breakfast--eggs, bacon, pancakes, cereals, rib-sticking food to fuel hours in the cold. You spend the morning in the field, and during a picnic lunch guides give lectures about wolves and other wildlife.
There's downtime in the afternoon. You can nap in your toasty cabin or strap on cross-country skis and explorethe Blacktail Plateau, where a groomed trail climbs through prime wolf--and elk and bison--territory and unveils panoramic vistas of the wintry Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. Or you can drive 30 miles west, across the park, to the Wyoming-Montana border and walk the quarter-mile trail to the Boiling River. Here a stream of scalding water leaking from beneath the Mammoth Geyser basin pours from a hole in the hillside. Where the hot water mixes with the icy Gardner River, stacked rocks corral it into bathing pools. Soaking in the water, peering through the billows of steam pouring into the frigid air, you watch the sunset suffuse in deep yellows the high ridge of cliff--a remnant of the volcanic tuff from the supervolcano that formed Yellowstone's geology more than half a million years ago.
Back at the ranch, after a dinner of curried tilapia or pasta with chicken and a fruity merlot,whiteboard and projectors transform the dining room to classroom. Yellowstone Wolf Project leaders like Doug Smith and project biologist Dan Stahler--some of the most knowledgeable wolf biologists on the planet--tell you about the interactions between park wolves and other animals. One night we're treated to a presentation by artist and naturalist George Bumann, whose facility with facts about the natural world is dizzying. He faithfully replicates the belching roar of a bison bull, a squealing elk bugle, and various complex coyote yodels. About the latter, he says, "For 70 years coyotes didn't know what wolves were. But as soon as the first wolf hit the ground in Yellowstone in 1995, this howl became the coyote word for wolf. It's a life-and-death sound. It gives me the willies just doing it."
Bumann encourages us to take cues from the world around us, to wonder what deer are looking at and why magpies suddenly start chattering. "If you watch what they're watching, they're going to open up their world to you."
Anybody driving through the park might notice three coyotes wandering over the snow across the Lamar River. But Baron tells you about the love triangle consuming them. "It's a boy with a girl and a straggler boy," she explains. "The straggler coyote comes over and howls and howls at the female, and she just sits there all pretty and wriggles, and her big male companion looks at her and says 'No!' It's been going on for weeks."
Any visitor might spot bighorn sheep rams perched on a cliff above the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. One might even notice that, on the rams whose horns have grown into a full curl, one side seems shorter. Baron explains why: "It takes those guys about five years to grow their horns all the way around in a curl, and when they do you see them start to knock them against the rocks, trying to break the tips off. The tips grow into their peripheral vision, and they don't like having their sight blocked."
These are things you learn riding the bus between wolf sightings. Before we see any wolves--before the Agate alpha female howls at the Mollie's that have devastated her pack--we see mergansers and geese, a shape-shifting flock of gray-crowned rosy-finches in flight. A hundred or so elk gather on a hillside across from where Slough Creek meets the Yellowstone River, a couple of young bulls pushing each other around even though breeding season is over. Baron and her co-leader, Brad Bulin, tell us about pronghorn antelope, how if it can survive for its first 33 days, a pronghorn fawn, at 30 miles per hour, is faster than any animal capable of chasing it (adults can run up to 60 miles per hour). We learn how mountain lions hunt from above, poised on cliffs and boulders, leaping onto their prey's back, biting into the back of the neck.
As our bus rattles over the Lamar River headed west, we see an otter slithering along the ice below. Baron sparks up with information. "Otters are the flower children of the weasel world," she says. "Most weasels are very territorial. Otters' habitat is so limited, just river corridors. They might travel 25 miles a day, and they're all traveling along the same places. So they share daybeds with other otters. They'll curl up beside some otter they don't even know."