Yellowstone: wild and free
November 12, 2011
As the moon rises over the high grass in the Canyon Valley of Yellowstone, we hunker down beneath the fire’s glow. At a remote back country campsite several miles from anyone, we were settling in for the evening under the falling of occasional rain and snow showers. In the distance, the howling of a wolf echoes through the sky as hail bounces off the man-made lean-to we were sitting under. Wild and free, after nearly being hunted to extinction in the lower 48 in the early 1920s, the gray wolf has made a remarkable comeback in Yellowstone National Park and much of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.By the end of 1926, there were no more gray wolf packs left inside Yellowstone National Park. There was no evidence of any breeding pairs into the 1990s anywhere except northern Minnesota and Isle Royale in Michigan. Since the early 1800s, society targeted the wolf and declared them evil predators and killers. Fairytales, misconceptions, ignorance and failed education have led people and society to this day to continue to believe that wolves are the enemy and that they should be eradicated. Fear and hatred of the wolf have fueled the fire for society, ranchers and hunters to attempt to bring the wolf to extinction. Wolves are still hunted legally and illegally today in the U.S. and Europe. The Native Americans held wolves to the highest esteem and admired them, even believing them to be spiritual beings that could bring about magic and power. The Indians learned many assets from the wolves, including foraging for food and strong family loyalty attributes.As we awoke to a frosty air and drizzling rain, I began packing up my sleeping bag. I heard my friend running down the path towards me from the campfire that he had relit for warmth earlier in the morning. I knew that he must have spotted something in the meadows below us. Out of the tall grass about 300 yards away we saw five creatures walking across the meadow. It was the canyon wolf pack. The canyon pack was known to frequent the area around Cascade Lake where we had settled in the night before. A perfect location for a pack of wolves giving them a vast meadow and open area to travel and hunt with large, dense forests all around them to find a den and watch over their prey from above. There were three all-black wolves, one gray and white and one almost all-white in the canyon pack. They slowly moved across the valley floor using the hiking trail to navigate toward Cascade Lake. We moved up to an opening for better viewing along the trees about 75 yards toward the lake in the direction the pack looked to be heading. They stopped just below our location, now about 200 yards away and began jumping on each other and chasing each other with a playful demeanor. After a few minutes the entire pack began moving up toward our location in a single-file formation. As the pack began closing in, the only thing you could hear was the shutter on my camera clicking at five frames per second. The site I was witnessing was an extraordinary and intimate moment for a wildlife enthusiast and photographer. As the pack got closer and closer, the joy and excitement was almost awe inspiring. Four members of the pack continued to the left and started heading up the ridgeline of an adjacent slope in their single-file formation while a lone all-black wolf veered from the pack and began heading directly to our location.
Most likely one of the alphas (male or female) was the loner who had decided to check us out in a bit more detail. At this point the pack had almost reached the top of the ridge and was checking on us and their pack member every few paces by a quick head turn and a glance as they continued moving. The loner was still heading our direction at a steady pace while always keeping an eye on our every move. What an opportunity and privilege we were engaged in as the wolf continued to head in our direction. We both figured, wow, we got a once in a lifetime close up of a wolf pack and we were close enough not to have to look through a scope. But, the wolf just kept coming closer and closer with no fear or sign that he was going to turn away. He was within 30 feet and he kept walking directly at us. The rest of the pack had now disappeared into the dense forest above the ridge where they most likely had a den. We had both just been standing our ground up until this point with very limited movement or sound, but the wolf was now within 15 feet of me. I slowly began to back up as I tried to keep my camera steady and an eye on the wolf. He was so close to me that the telephoto lens I was using (500 mm) was too big to fit him in the frame of sight. As we slowly backed up, the black wolf with his bright blue eyes looked up at us and in an instance made a left turn and began walking away. He glanced back at us as if to say we were of no concern to him and his pack as he disappeared into the forest to join the rest of the pack. After decades of planning, debating and preparation, 31 wolves were relocated into Yellowstone National Park from Canada in 1996 and 1997. As of 2010, there are at least 97 wolves (11 packs and six loners) living in the park. The population has declined 43 percent from 2007 mostly due to a smaller population of elk (their main food source) and mange disease. Yellowstone is one of the last and probably the best places to view wolves in their natural habitat. The Lamar Valley of Yellowstone, which in the far northeastern part of the park, is a popular and good area to view wolves. It is called the “Serengeti of the U.S.” because of the large populations of wolves, bears and several herding animals that battle and fight for survival year round. Some say that wolves are the last true wildness left in the world. John Denver once said, “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.” I say, “you haven’t truly experienced the beauty and last true essence of the wild, until you’ve looked into the eyes of the wolf.”Shanin Theiss works for Keystone as an EMT/security patrol officer and firefighter/EMT with Copper Mountain Fire Department. He is the assistant training officer for the Summit County’s Water Rescue Team. His passions are nature, landscapes and wildlife. He travels and hikes to remote places where many have not ventured and tries to bring back this world through the vision of his lens for others to enjoy.Visit his websites for more info and pictures:www.shanintheissphotography.PhotoReflect.comhttp://shanintheissphotographyandprojections.webs.com/.