Winter roared back to the park. Temperatures plunged, snow fell, roads became hazardous, and freezing fog blanketed Lamar Valley. One morning in early November my car’s thermometer dropped to -7 degrees Fahrenheit.
I loved it. On November 5th all of Yellowstone’s roads closed except for the 50-mile stretch from Gardiner to the Northeast entrance. The park felt like it had when I first arrived almost a year ago – more concentrated and intense. While driving in Lamar Valley I often ran into the same small handful of winter regulars I’d met last season: Deby, the former cop who’s been photographing the park almost every day for seven years; Rick, the “wolf guy” who recently retired from park service but still visits every day; and Jort, a friendly guide and photographer originally from the Netherlands.
Around the middle of the month I asked my niece Kate – a senior at Montana State University in Bozeman – if she wanted to meet up once more before I returned to California, and she joined me for a sunny morning in the park. It was great to catch up, and we were lucky enough to find a red fox that trotted right past us as we stood by the side of the road.
In the following days I spotted more foxes, and moose began appearing again in Round Prairie. On one cold morning I hiked out towards a lone bull moose on the other side of Soda Butte Creek and lingered so long that my toes froze. I just couldn’t tear myself away from the scene: a dark moose backlit by the winter-white landscape of icy willow branches shimmering in early light.
Yellowstone saved one of my best wildlife encounters for last. Early one morning during my final week in the park I came across a few people, including Jort and Deby, at a pullout by Blacktail Ponds. Crows were feasting on what looked to be a freshly-killed bison carcass about 50 yards away. “Wolves!” said Jort, who moved his car to make room for me to park. “Wapitis, the whole pack. You just missed them. They’re back up in the hills now.” I managed to catch glimpses of the wolves along a distant ridge, but they were too far away for good photos. Soon they moved entirely out of sight.
I reminded Deby that we’d first met at the site of another Wapiti kill almost a year earlier. When the wolves retreated from the carcass that morning I’d foolishly moved on, but Deby waited there all day and was rewarded with amazing photos when the pack returned in the late afternoon. “I learned my lesson,” I told Deby. “This time I’m waiting.”
And wait we did, doing our best to stay warm. Many hours passed. Occasionally we heard the Wapiti pack’s 14 wolves howling at another pack, 8 Mile, which howled back from somewhere behind us. The Wapitis were infringing on 8 Mile territory, and the 8 Miles didn’t appreciate it.
At about 3pm the Wapitis began to reappear. One of the young gray wolves posed on a rock outcropping at the top of the ridge as the others, led by the white-coated alpha female, began working their way down the hill.
What a rush it was to watch all the Wapitis gradually approach us. The bison carcass was at a perfect Goldilocks distance – any closer to the road and the park rangers likely would have moved it out of sight, any farther and it would have been tough to get good photos. Soon after the wolves reached the carcass they gathered for a group howl.
We had the amazing good fortune to watch the Wapitis for two hours, until finally the sun sank below the horizon and the wolves had eaten their fill. We watched them howl, feed, play, and rest, and they stayed long enough for me to get a sense of their individual personalities. The white-coated alpha female, in particular, was magnetic. She was everywhere at once and seemed to set the tone for all the others.
I drove back to Livingston that evening on a wolf high. The park couldn’t have chosen a better going-away gift, and I was extremely grateful.
It felt strange to be leaving. I’d been selling off any of my stuff that wouldn’t fit in my car, and my apartment was practically empty. What a perfect home base it had been while I spent a year photographing my favorite National Park. I loved having the Yellowstone River right outside my back door. My neighbors, I’m sure, must have thought I was extremely odd, given my strange schedule and hobo lifestyle, but they were always helpful and friendly.
Whenever I happened to be in my apartment in the afternoon I took a photo of my backyard with the idea of creating a timelapse that – I hope – will help me remember the way the seasons passed.
At the end of November I loaded up my remaining possessions and left Montana. On my way back to Mountain View I stopped to see my family in Denver, and the drive gave me plenty of time to reflect on my year in the park.
I can’t say that I enjoyed every moment. I often slipped into laziness, with too many hours wasted on video games and too little effort made at being social. But the overall experience exceeded my expectations. I saw more natural beauty than I could ever hope to absorb, I collected a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable wildlife encounters, and I stayed long enough for the park to seep into my bones.
Yellowstone, to me, is a microcosm of life, a singular manifestation of eternal themes – death and rebirth, joy, fear, family, survival. The park is a reminder that our existence is transitory and all things pass. A newborn elk calf struggles to its feet, an old bison is brought down by wolves, a grizzly sow defends her cub from a threatening boar – all of it unfolding above one of the world’s largest supervolcanoes, the eruption of which, inevitably, will incinerate every living creature in the area. And from the ashes a new and different Yellowstone will emerge. Yellowstone is the universe, the four seasons, each one of us.
It also happens to be a pretty amazing place to take wildlife photos. I found bison, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, moose, pronghorn antelope, red foxes, black bears, grizzly bears, rabbits, bald eagles, golden eagles, wolves, marmots, otters, ospreys, peregrine falcons, mountain goats, badgers, a muskrat, a weasel, and a great gray owl. Still on my list: mountain lions, wolverines, snowshoe hares, pygmy owls, bobcats, and pine martens. I guess I’ll need to go back.
When I returned to Marie’s place in Mountain View I learned that one of Yellowstone’s best-known wolves had been killed. A hunter shot wolf 926F (sometimes called “Spitfire”) near Cooke City, just outside the park’s northeastern border. I’d seen 926 in mid-November, a week before her death. At the trailhead for Trout Lake she ran by me and Jort, moving quickly enough that I didn’t have time to adjust my camera settings, so the few photos I managed to take were blurry.
The death of 926 set off a number of heated controversies. Was the kill legal? Were photographers and/or wolf watchers partly responsible for habituating 926 in a way that made her more vulnerable to hunters? What’s the sense of killing a wolf that helps bring millions of tourist dollars to the community? Should Yellowstone begin hazing wolves to increase their fear of humans? Wolf lovers launched a torrent of invective at hunters, and the hunters responded by threatening to target the rest of 926’s pack.
Deby was particularly attached to 926. She’d followed 926’s struggles and triumphs for years and found inspiration in the wolf’s strength and perseverance. In a series of Facebook posts Deby shared her grief and anger, her tremendous gratitude for being able to witness 926’s life, and her acceptance of the fact that nothing lasts forever. “I loved 926,” Deby wrote, “for just exactly what she was, a wild wolf. Nothing more and nothing less.”