To See a Wolf in Yellowstone

After visiting with friends and family and taking Big Bertha in for a much needed check up at the car doctor, our adventures are continuing in the U S of A.  Our route is going to be a giant loop, taking us first south, east, and south again, to then make our way west and north back to Abbotsford.  We’ll be seeing several of America’s National Parks as well as a few cities along the way.  This is Callum’s dream.  He has wanted to see the National Parks of America for a long time and used to ask me “Rachel, when will we travel in America?” and I used to reply “When we move to Canada, so let’s see something else.”   Well, we haven’t moved to Canada, but we are in North America for some time.  We have seen Canada and friends and family and now it’s Cal’s turn to fulfil a dream.  First stop: Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone was America’s very first national park and actually the very first designated national park in the world.  It has been a national park since 1872 and signed into law as such by President Ulysses Grant.  National parks in general is considered “America’s best idea” by Wallace Stegner, a writer and historian.  We agree.  While we’ve visited a few already in Canada and I’ve seen a couple in the states as well on previous trips, it’s on this trip that I’m really beginning to appreciate how special they are.

When Callum was in teacher training, he had to practice making lesson plans.  The very first one he made was about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in 1995.  He made little drawings of wolves, bears, elk and deer and created an activity where students had to figure out how each animal and ecosystem related to one another.  It was brilliant and I was kind of jealous of his cartooning skills.  Anyway, one of Cal’s most coveted animal sighting: a wolf—in Yellowstone.

Our first long day of driving was from Abbotsford, BC all the way to Missoula, Montana.  We left at about 6:15am and crossed the US border about 30 minutes later.  I can cross in no time at all but Callum, being a pesky Australian, had a bit of a longer wait.  We drove and drove and drove.  We ran around playing “chase” in a rest stop area in Idaho.  We went crazy on that drive, I tell ya.  We finally rolled into Missoula at about 6:30pm to have Mexican for dinner and find the local Wal-Mart to park and sleep.  Happily, it was a 24 hour one so washrooms were always available.

The next day we drove into Gardiner which is a small tourist town at the northwest entrance of the park.  I took a picture of Callum standing next to the sign much to his annoyance at how long the 2 second photo took…he was on the edge of Yellowstone!  He wanted to go see it!  He didn’t want to stop for stupid photos!  Our first stop was the Visitor Center, which Callum nerdily takes great pleasure and interest in seeing at every.single.spot.we.go.  After perusing maps and books he was again impatient to go.  I like looking at the magnets and postcards.  It can take a long time.

Yellowstone takes up the north western corner of the state of Wyoming with skinny bits overlapping into Montana (above) and Idaho (left).  When you go to the park, 99% of your time will be in Wyoming.  Okay!  On to actual sites.  Our first major site we visited was Mammoth Hot Springs.  These are some stellar calcium carbonate hot springs which create through some scientific reaction or other these enormous white and orange mounds that look like burnt and misused marshmallows.  The landscape looks like it’s from Mercury or something.  Not that I know what Mercury looks like, but it’s how I’d imagine it.  We walked all around these strange mounds, snap-happy with camera, GoPro and smartphone alike.  We saw similar mounds in Italy 2.5 years ago but nothing this large and impressive.  This part of the park is not always seen by tourists who come to Yellowstone—the main draw being “Old Faithful” the erupting volcano which lets off some steam and water every 91 minutes or so, like clockwork.  That is in the south westerly part of the park.  So, Mammoth doesn’t get a lot of attention despite its very accessible boardwalks surrounding these mammoth springs.

After Mammoth we made the 30 minute trip to our campsite, which we were lucky to have booked as it was a busy one.  We made our dinner in the dark with these groovy headlamps that we have and called it a night.

While in the park, which was for an entire week, I was subjected to a lot of early mornings and sighs from Callum when I didn’t wake up precisely when he wanted me to.  We went on a few ungodly early morning drives to scope out the wildlife.  I don’t know why all animals the world over have to be such early risers, seriously.  Why can’t they get up at, say, 10am?  I am already a human being again at that hour.  5am and you’ll find me in a fetal position, more akin to a walnut than a woman.  6am fairs not much better.  7am I might grow some visible limbs.  You get the picture.  Morning is truly the best time to see animals for us, though.  They also like to appear at dusk but the light is tricky for photography then and to be honest, I take no enjoyment from nature if I can’t photograph it.  Callum thinks this is hilarious.  “If your camera battery died, and we saw a wolf, and you didn’t have your phone, and the GoPro wasn’t working, what would you do?”  he teases me.  “I would rather not see a wolf,” was my reply.  Shock!  Horror!  How could I!  To see a wolf is his DREAM, you understand.  He’d be happy to see a wolf with or without a camera.

Our first lucky spotting was a grizzly bear.  Granted, this bear was very far away.  But the chaos he caused on the roads of Yellowstone, oh my.  About 100 cars were parked either well or rather unwell along the road, everyone was racing to the best viewing spots and before our van was barely off (no pun intended) Cal was out the door and a whish of wind slapped my face with the slam of his door.  I calmly collected the camera and the keys and trudged up the hill to where he was excitedly pointing out the bear.  I handed him the borrowed binoculars (from my Dad) so he could see more clearly.  After about 10 minutes of bear-watching, he wondered aloud “Why didn’t we borrow BOTH sets of your Dad’s binoculars?  With only one pair, we have to share.”  This was my cue, ladies and gentlemen.

Because I’m a terrible wife (only very rarely, mind you) I hadn’t gotten Callum a birthday present this year.  We were sitting in Yellowstone at the beginning of September.  His birthday is the end of May.  Yeah.  I might qualify this admission with a brief note of explanation: we were in a strange city in the middle of Peru on his birthday and both of us felt kind of sick.  Not like throwing up sick, just kind of woozy and headachy and grumpy.  Another note of explanation: I am not a great planner when on travelling trips.  I plan much better when I’m living a normal life.

Okay, so being a terrible wife and all, the present-less birthday weighed heavily on my mind for some time and then WHOOSH a brainwave hit—I should get Callum a pair of his very own binoculars.  Binocky-nocks.  So, I employed my esteemed father’s help in selecting some in my budget and had snuck them, wrapped, into Big Bertha whilst my unsuspecting husband was not looking.  At my cue, I trotted back to the van “Where are you going?!  There is a grizzly to look at!!” and retrieved the package.  Put the package next to him and said “Happy Birthday!”  Callum admits he thought my timing at first was really terrible.  He had to put down my dad’s binoculars to open his present.  But then, the joy on his face was all worth it.  “What a perfect gift at a perfect moment!” he said.  YES.  No longer a terrible wife.

So, we both enjoyed spying on our grizzly friend, changing locations for a more promising view of the happy bear tearing apart the carcass of a long-dead bison.

We spotted a zillion bison while in Yellowstone.  It was really quite endearing to see people still getting excited about them after the first day.  Really, it was sweet to see a car parked off to the side of the road for a single bison.  Ha!  We said to ourselves.  That’s so cute.  Because in Yellowstone there are like 4000 bison.  In large herds.  Everywhere.

We were also lucky to see plenty of elk, another animal that roams around at will in many different locations, oblivious or indifferent to human traffic.  Pronghorn deer were quite interesting to see, more commonly known among Americans as “antelope”.  They were cool.  I missed taking a prize-winning photograph of one with the sun behind him, silhouetting him against a trickling stream with these gorgeous rocks all around.  Honestly, this photo would have won me international acclaim.  But Callum continued driving the van.  He ignored my pleas to stop because he was more interested in not being in the way on the road.  Geez.  Everyone is annoying in Yellowstone, why can’t we be, just for a second, just to take a prize-winning photograph??!!  His decisions astound me sometimes.

We saw coyotes.  That was neat—I’d always heard them growing up but not seen them.  We saw a moose and her calf, briefly.  We saw these neat cranes.  We saw a marmot, a pika or two, and grouse which we termed “rock chickens” because we didn’t know what they were and then looked them up later. We saw deer.  We saw more elk. We saw more bison.  We saw some beautiful landscapes.  And then, one morning in the Lamar Valley, while I continued to slumber as a walnut in my nest of blankets in the back of Big Bertha, Callum pulled over after our morning drive and left the van.  He came back minutes later to get the camera and another sweater.  “It’s a black wolf, Rach.  If I were you, I’d get up to see it.”  Yes, yes.  A wolf.  Okay.  I might fast forward the waking up process to see a wolf.  I got up, I got a sweater, found some shoes, and trudged up the hill (why always up a hill???!) and scanned the horizon.  Where was this damn wolf?  It wasn’t actually visible to the naked eye, it turned out.  My binoculars showed a very faint black spot that might have been an animal far, far into the distance.  We got to actually see the thing through someone else’s fancier scope thing which was set up on a tripod.  Ah, yes.  It was indeed a wolf.  It was pretty cool.  I sat in a chair with a blanket wrapped around me straining to see more of this guy for about 10 minutes.  Then I decided it was too cold to sit outside and try to see more of the black speck.  I sat in the passenger seat of the van and tried to create warmth with my breath.  Don’t get me wrong, I was very pleased Callum got to see a wolf in Yellowstone.  More than pleased.  I am elated.  It is always very gratifying seeing your partner so happy.  I just think I needed a bit more time to change back into a human that morning, and I could’ve been so much more excited at about 10am.  Maybe even 11am.

Among the wildlife, we did see the most famous thing in Yellowstone.  We drove down to see Old Faithful erupt.  It was pretty spectacular. I enjoyed seeing that very much.  It was like being in an outdoor church with the whole congregation circling this modest piece of land which acted as the stage.  We all waited, mostly silently, cameras poised.  The steaming volcano let out a few burbles and burps and got everyone’s heart racing.  Was this it?  Was she about to blow?  Ah, no, just a bit of a tease, that.  A few more minutes pass by.  Another bit of bubbling and steam…but not the real deal.  Heck, I may as well take another sip of my coff—damnit, there she goes!  With an enthusiastic burst of energy, and with a gust that built momentum with every second, Old Faithful spewed its innards to the delight and satisfaction of everyone present.  It was a brief sermon.  Only 3.5 minutes or so.  Short and sweet can be a good thing, though.

Next, we walked amongst some of the strangest pools of water I have ever laid my eyes upon.  The big one in Yellowstone is called Grand Prismatic Springs and it is a rainbow coloured circular amoeba shaped pond, with tentacles squiggling, reaching out to the orange and white landscape beyond its borders.  It is truly the best thing I’ve seen.  The park is full of these multi-coloured clear water ponds, which are actually very deep.  Grand Prismatic is about 150 feet deep.  They are remnants of the enormous volcanic eruption that occurred several hundreds of years ago.  We spent several hours visiting many of them, but in particular, we hiked up to the viewpoint of Grand and it was truly grand.  I think it’s on my list of “things to see in real life before you die.”

Yellowstone did not disappoint.  Try your best to make it there in your lifetime, please.  Thanks.


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