Sometimes I have to remind myself how special it is to see wild wolves in the contiguous United States. There aren’t many left – fewer than 6,000, according to recent estimates. And the handful that remain have learned to be elusive. But spotting wolves in Yellowstone’s northern range is relatively easy. Almost every day I drive into the park I pass groups of wolf watchers peering through spotting scopes at a distant wolf pack. The wolves tend to be too far away for good photos, unfortunately, and I don’t stop to watch them as often as I should.
Experiencing winter in Yellowstone has been incredible, but the arrival of March had me eagerly anticipating milder spring weather. Winter in the park retreats slowly, however, and frigid temperatures and snow continued to dominate the early part of the month.
In February I managed to find the Lamar Valley river otters pretty frequently, but the first 10 days of March passed without a single sighting. While suffering from early-stage otter withdrawal one morning I happened to run into Deby, a photographer friend who’s been visiting the park almost every day for six years and knows much more about the wildlife than I do. Deby suggested I look for the otters in Lamar Canyon.
At one of the Lamar Canyon pullouts I ran into an older photographer, Alan, who said he’d seen the otters down in the river earlier, but they’d vanished. As we talked another guy – who turned out to have the unusual name Panzer – drove by in a comically big white truck and yelled that he’d seen the otters closer to a different pullout and was heading back there. Alan and I followed.
The other pullout wasn’t as close to the river, which meant we needed to hike over deep snow. Panzer took off first on skis. Alan and I followed on snowshoes. Fingers crossed, we worked our way up the river and eventually found the otter family – a mother with two kids – playing on a sheet of ice.
Awesome! Otters always seem to be having such a good time. Eventually Deby joined us, but before too long the otters swam away. Panzer returned to his truck, and I was on my way back to the road as well when I caught a glimpse of one of the otters eating a fish a little further upstream. I hurried to set up my camera.
Deby and Alan made their way over, too, for what turned out to be the longest otter show I’d ever seen. For over five hours we watched the otter family catch fish and play in the snow.
At one point the otter mom took her kids into a den and put them down for a nap before coming back to continue fishing. A couple hours later the kids woke up and bounded enthusiastically over the snow to reunite with mom.
Late in the afternoon my camera battery finally died. Reluctantly I packed up my gear and hiked out of the canyon. Sunburned, hungry and happy, I was grateful to Deby, Alan and Panzer for helping me locate the otter family. Sometimes photographers can be competitive, and it always makes me happy when we help each other out.
My restlessness for spring intensified as the month went along. With all but one road in Yellowstone still closed for winter, my park trips began to feel repetitive. The ritual started at first light: drive 100 miles to Lamar Valley, search for exciting wildlife along the way, drive 100 miles back to Livingston, repeat the next day. Many times I returned home without a single photo.
But Yellowstone is always profoundly beautiful, and every moment in the park carries the possibility of something special happening. One overcast morning, about a week after seeing the otters, I was approaching Blacktail Plateau when I noticed Deby setting up her camera on a hillside. She’d created her own parking spot instead of using a pullover, which meant she’d likely spotted something good, but I couldn’t see what it was.
At the top of the hill I turned around for another look, and on the way back down I noticed some movement on a nearby ridgeline. Wolves! There were so many it had to be the big Wapiti Lake pack, the same one I’d seen all the way over by Grand Prismatic Spring in February. The cars in front of me stopped abruptly in the road and I did the same, frantically firing off a few shots out my window before the pack moved away.
It was as close as I’d been to wolves in the park, the kind of opportunity I’d been wishing for since I arrived. All too quickly the wolves retreated out of sight and traffic began flowing again.
I moved up to the nearest pullout, which offered a clear view of the now-distant Wapitis as they moved across the snowy landscape. Before vanishing entirely from view the younger members of the pack surrounded two bison. For a moment I thought we might actually get to see the wolves hunt, but the more experienced members of the pack had no interest in risking a confrontation with healthy adult bison.
At the end of the month I flew to Mountain View for a great visit with Marie. It was a perfect opportunity to recharge for what should be an exciting April in the park. Bears are emerging from hibernation, many of the animals should be having babies soon, and on April 20th some of the roads that were closed all winter will finally open back up.