America's Yellowstone National Park in winter is a spine-tingling place to track wolves
A mournful, almost magical, sound permeates the air, at once eerie and soulful. Sweet tones cling to every branch and leaf as they travel on the wind, apparently suspended by the clouds above and penetrating your very soul. Sounds so distinctive and pure that few other animals in the natural world compare in strength and beauty of voice. These are the dulcet tones of a wolf pack singing.
The Rose Creek pack were lying about a kilometre in front of us on the northern side of the road. They were resting after a long night’s hunting and feeding. Their long, lean grey and black bodies stood out against the pure white snow of winter. With no warning the alpha female rose, threw back her slender snout and began to sing. Within seconds the rest of the pack followed suit, each animal on a different level, some providing the bass and others the harmony. All the sounds blended perfectly, with the vocal precision of a church choir. Nearby a couple of scavenging coyotes tried to compete but were drowned out by the pack who by this time had reached full voice.
I’d come to Yellowstone to see the beauty of the park in its winter guise – finding wolves, I thought, was going to be a bonus. Thanks to my guide, Ken Sinay, I had managed to see wolves every day of my visit, even if they were sometimes a little way off.
Serious wolf-watching in Yellowstone is relatively easy if you know how. The whole process depends on a dedicated group of researchers who go out at first light every day with their tracking antenna, looking for the presence of any one of several wolf packs in the area. When they hear the tell-tale bleeps from the radio collars, they get out of their cars with spotting scopes and comb the horizon looking for the small rounded humps of sleeping wolves.
Keen wolf watchers follow them or drive around until they find a group of researchers parked-up with spotting scopes. I’m told that in summer, group numbers are in their hundreds, all desperate for a glimpse of Yellowstone’s most elusive and talked-about creatures.
When I was there our little group numbered about a dozen. Wolves mainly hunt at night so wolf watchers tend to see wolves just lying about during the day. Some days wolves wouldn’t be found at all. Sometimes they wouldn’t move into range of the receivers until late afternoon. Sightings weren’t predictable, but they were relatively common.
This particular day it wasn’t that cold – only about -3°C. The sun, if it was going to shine at all, hadn’t climbed over the mountains, but there was a warm buzz of excitement at having found the pack so quickly. The wolves continued to sing as we all just stood in silence, totally mesmerised by the performance before us.
The next day Ken suggested we head over towards Soda Butte Creek at the eastern end of the valley, and track a pack to its kill. Researchers often inspect kill sites as part of their research and they told us about one site where they had found the bodies of two coyotes killed by the pack as they tried to scavenge a meal.
The site wasn’t far from the road, but it would take us a couple of hours to reach it on snowshoes. If this particular site wasn’t destroyed by human traffic it might also be possible to do some detective work and speculate on wolf dynamics during a hunt. I was eager to see some of the park away from the crowds and perhaps observe some of the park’s wildlife more closely.
Shuffling past a herd of bison, I was surprised to find how difficult it is to walk in snowshoes. Extra effort is required to lift your feet well above the snow, and if the snow is very fresh you tend to sink in with every step. Ken and I moved slowly up and over a few hills before creeping along a ridge and crossing down into a small and precipitous valley where we hoped to find the kill.
There were coyote tracks all over the place and we regularly came across marks in the snow made by groups of ravens still searching for that forgotten morsel. Once inside the valley we saw the snowshoe tracks the researchers had made as they criss-crossed the valley looking for the kill site.
After a few minutes we came across a set of wolf tracks heading out of the valley. The soft snow was fairly deep in the valley but wolves have such large paws that they don’t break through its delicate surface. We cautiously followed the tracks down into the valley. Wolves have been known to return to old kills and we knew it could be dangerous if we found ourselves surrounded by a pack.
What was left of the elk was lying in a small depression. This seemed to be where the unfortunate animal made its last stand. There was fur everywhere but not much blood. Part of the fore leg remained complete, and a section of the hind leg still had a piece of skin from the rump attached.
We sat down on a rock and scoured the terrain. The wolves’ plan of attack was fairly obvious. “I should think that the pack chased her down from up there,” said Ken, pointing to the opposite ridge of the valley, the way we had come. “I suspect they forced her here into the deep snow and this is where she made a fight of it. I doubt that there was really anywhere else for her to go and she would have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of wolves.”
I suddenly felt uneasy. I know it’s a cliché but I really felt that a pair of eyes was watching me. Ken had felt it too. High up the valley wall in deep snow a pair of coyotes sat, watching us intently. Ken suggested we leave them to it and we quietly trekked our way out of the valley.
The next day our staunch group of wolf watchers was parked up along Soda Butte Creek observing a lone wolf crossing the valley floor. The Druid pack was resting on top of the ridge behind them and this animal was obviously returning to the security of the pack. The wolf had a long way to go and we had plenty of time to find a good viewing spot.
Along this part of the valley the road hugs the hillside. Ken suggested we get away from the group and go to a vehicle pull-off spot, where he knew we would get a better view down the valley.
As the vehicle pulled up, I turned to open the door and get out of the car. There, standing not three metres away checking me out, was the wolf. He was a young male and we had obviously caught him completely by surprise as we pulled up.
In my excitement I spun around with my camera to snatch a picture, startling him. Shutter speeds and f-stops went out the window as he sprinted off up and across the hillside to the safety of the ridge line. Once there he stopped and turned to look at me once again, seemingly as interested in me as I was in him. My heart raced as I sat there, unable to move, staring at this magnificent animal watching me watching him.
After what seemed an age, I slowly lifted my camera and took a shot. As I lowered the camera, he turned and trotted off over the hill and disappeared from view. Poor Ken had missed it all.
We followed the wolf’s tracks up the hill and along the ridge until we lost them in the deep snow. We returned to the car but I carried on and crossed the road, going down to search along the creek to see where he had crossed. By this time all the wolf watchers had turned up to see if we had seen him.
I was oblivious to the crowd as I strode back out of the creek towards the car. When I looked up, I saw Ken smiling. I must have been beaming as I held up my hand with my thumb and index finger pressed tightly together. All I could say was, “He was that close, man. That close!”