Thunder Goes to Yellowstone

Thunder and I haven’t always had a great relationship.

When I first started seeing Marie almost ten years ago, Thunder – her Border Collie – was still just a puppy.  He had so much excess energy at all times that he almost seemed to be vibrating.  If you reached towards him, Thunder would invariably snap at your hand.  He was being playful, not aggressive, but it made him impossible to pet.

I moved into Marie’s place a couple years later and Thunder was definitely not happy to have an interloper encroaching on his territory.  The first time we were alone together, I returned from a short errand to find that Thunder had peed on the floor.  Not just in one spot, but an almost continuous line of pee that zig-zagged its way back and forth across multiple rooms.  The look Thunder gave me reinforced his point:  This is MY turf.

“It’ll be like Turner and Hooch,” Marie predicted.  “You’ll see.”

And she was right.  Gradually Thunder started to appreciate that I fed him on time and took him on walks and runs.  His snapping problem faded away, and he decided he likes to be pet.

At one point I heard about a woman in the Bay Area who was offering sheep-herding sessions for untrained Border Collies (as a way to see if they have the instincts to become a real working dog), and Marie and I jumped at the chance to let Thunder experience – even just once – the primary activity Border Collies have been bred for over hundreds of years.  Thunder absolutely loved it, of course, although he chased the sheep so enthusiastically that he wore his foot pads raw.


Thunder Herding Sheep


Thunder Running


These days Thunder and I get along really well.  I give him a lot of attention, and he’s accepted me into his pack.  But his energy level is still extremely high, especially for an older dog, and I worry that he doesn’t get enough physical and mental stimulation.  Which set up Marie for a perfect maneuver.

“I’m thinking about doing another Yellowstone road trip pretty soon,” I told Marie in late October.

“Why don’t you take Thunder?” she suggested, not missing a beat.

And just that easily Marie rid herself of two big annoyances.  For a week she wouldn’t have to stomach the sight of me happily playing video games as she left for work in the morning, and when she returned home at the end of the day there wouldn’t be dog hair all over the floor.  “It’s a win-win,” Marie declared triumphantly.

The long drive from Mountain View to Yellowstone went smoothly and Thunder and I made it to the park before noon on our second day.  For the most part Thunder is good in the car, although on two-lane highways he has the odd habit of lunging at oncoming cars as they pass.  “I think he’s trying to herd them,” Marie explained.


Thunder Arriving at Yellowstone


We had arrived in Yellowstone the day before they shut down most of the park’s road system, which meant we were able to enter at West Yellowstone instead of driving all the way up through Bozeman and Livingston.  Almost immediately we found bison and elk, and I loved watching Thunder try to figure out what kind of creatures he was seeing.


Thunder Watching Bison


Thunder Spotting Bison


It wasn’t Thunder’s first trip to Yellowstone.  When I spent a year in Livingston, Marie brought Thunder and her other dog (a little white Maltese) to visit for a week, but we only took Thunder into the park once or twice.  Encountering bison and elk was still a novel experience for him.



Thunder on the Lookout


On our first full day in the park I stopped at a pullout to photograph a few bull elk when suddenly a chorus of howling filled the air.  Wolves – I later learned it was the 8 Mile pack – were close enough to see without binoculars, shadowy dark outlines muted by a light snowfall.


Three Black 8 Mile Wolves


Bull Elk in November Snow


Bull Elk Locking Antlers in the Snow


It was Thunder’s first time hearing wolves howl.  I expected the sound to hit him like an electric shock, but more than anything he looked subdued and anxious.  Apparently we don’t need to worry about Thunder going all Call of the Wild on us.  (If you turn up the volume of the video below, you can hear howling towards the end.)


Thunder’s First Time Hearing Wolves Howl



The next day we found the 8 Mile pack again, along with a few of the regulars I’d met during my year in Yellowstone:  Deby, an ex-cop who now photographs the park full time; Jort, a Yellowstone guide; and Rick, a former Wolf Project employee who continues to be one of the foremost experts on the park’s wolves.  Deby and I and a couple other photographers set up our cameras as the 8 Miles, scattered on both sides of the road, enveloped us in a series of extended howls.  It was an eerie, hauntingly beautiful performance.  Deby, who’s been visiting the park almost every day for eight years, claimed that she’d never heard so much howling for so long.


8 Mile Alpha Male in November Snow


Gray 8 Mile Wolf Howling


8 Mile Alpha Male in the Snow


Gray 8 Mile Wolf on the Run


At one point while the wolves were still howling I let Thunder out of the car for a bathroom break.  He conducted his business as quickly as possible and then immediately asked to return to the safety of the back seat.



8 Mile Wolf Under a Pine Tree



Thunder and I spent the rest of our week happily searching for wildlife along the one open road in the park, from Gardiner to Cooke City.  Based on Thunder’s enthusiasm as he jumped into the car each morning, he was having a blast.  All day long he remained on high alert, ears up, panting excitedly as he ran from one window to the other.  We spotted wolves, coyotes, foxes, bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep.  I hoped to find otters but didn’t have any luck.  On two different mornings we spent hours at Round Prairie watching a sleek red fox hunt rodents in the snow.


Thunder in Lamar Valley


Red Fox at Round Prairie


Red Fox Licking Its Chops


Red Fox Pouncing in November Snow


Red Fox Walking at Round Prairie


Thunder Having Fun


Two Young Bighorn Sheep


Thunder seemed to enjoy the drive home to Mountain View almost as much as our days in the park, and before I knew it we were back at Marie’s place.  “How was your Turner and Hooch trip?” Marie asked.


Thunder and Rob in Yellowstone


Thunder can still be frustratingly pushy and pesty at times, no question.  But it was incredibly fun to watch him revel in all the new sights, sounds, and smells he experienced on the trip.  The two of us have definitely come a long way.

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