People in Gardiner discuss wolves the way other people talk about sport.
“I heard the Junction pack is bedded down by Boulder with a kill so I’m hoping to catch a little carcass action,” a moustachioed local tells me while we wait for our coffee at the diner one morning. That evening, a waitress reveals that she plans to drive out after her shift and sleep in her car so she can catch one of the packs at first light. Elsewhere, this might be strange conversational fodder but in this Montana settlement, the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park, it’s small talk.
The first national park in the United States takes in parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho but its vast terrain is a universe unto itself. Here, the stars shine brighter, traffic gives way to herds of hulking bison and hot springs bubble from the earth’s crust in surreal shades of cyan and ochre, like a technicolour portal to the underworld. While almost four million people visit Yellowstone each year, it retains more than an echo of writer John Muir’s “big wholesome wilderness”. Both beautiful and fierce, it’s a place where novice hikers can (and do) stumble upon grizzly bears or slip to their deaths in acidic geothermal hotpots. “I guess you could say that Wyoming is the opposite of a nanny state,” says my guide, Jody Tibbitts, when I ask about the misfortunes that can befall adventurers. “Out here, you’re on your own.”
I’m riding shotgun for the next three days with Jody, a Wyoming born-and-bred guide with Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. The sun is turning the sky a vivid pink when he collects me from the Element Bozeman, an elegant hotel in the Rocky Mountains foothills. The journey starts and ends in Bozeman but we’ll spend the next two nights in wolf-mad Gardiner, entering the park each morning by the stone pillars of Roosevelt Arch just after dawn. Instead of driving south to the more popular sights, we’ll travel along the quiet northern roads. December, the most bitterly cold month of the year, is low season for travellers and prime time for wildlife watching, as animals become easier to track and observe in the snow-covered landscape.
No sooner have we entered the park than we’re eyeballed by herds of wary mule deer. Minutes later, we stop to watch pronghorn graze peacefully on a ridge. In the Lamar Valley, a pristine plain known as “North America’s Serengeti”, bison forage through several inches of snow. We even spy a bald eagle in the distance. Having lived in the US for two years without ever laying eyes on the national emblem, it’s thrilling to get a glimpse of one, though it’s not quite as majestic with its distinctive white head buried in elk entrails. Try putting that image on the Oval Office carpet. I seize this quiet moment to quiz Jody on some of my more unnerving wolf research (I urge you to resist the allure of YouTube when embarking on a trip of this nature).
It turns out people wildly overestimate the likelihood of an attack – as much as they do their chances of living through one. Survival expert Bear Grylls’ suggestion that victims “go down on top of it” and “squeeze through both eyes into the brain” is so optimistic it borders on delusional. "Forget all those stories about the Big Bad Wolf or The Grey,” says Jody, referring to a film in which Liam Neeson straps broken glass to his fists to fight a wolf to the death without so much as a hint of irony. “Truly wild wolves are extremely skittish.” In fact, there have been only two fatal attacks by wild wolves in North America in the past 70 years. Hunted and poisoned almost to extinction in the 20th century, wolves disappeared from Yellowstone before being controversially reintroduced in the 1990s. The park’s 100 or so wolves are protected within it but what happens when they wander outside has been the subject of a bitter legal battle between hunters, farmers and environmentalists. “I sometimes see people with bumper stickers that say ‘smoke a pack a day’ or ‘save an elk, kill a wolf’ but I think people who hate wolves usually just misunderstand them,” says Jody.
Around midday, I get the chance to judge for myself. On a shoulder of the road, we discover five people with telescopes set up. One woman knows each member of the pack by sight and is rattling off identification numbers – she’s one of the town’s many “wolfies”. Through the scope, Jody traces some tracks up to a dark shape and instantly recognises it as a wolf. To my eye, the shadow in the snow could just as easily be a rock – until it stands up and starts to make its way across the flat, tail raised. Higher along the elevation, three or four wolves are bedded down on an outcrop. We’re all chatting excitedly, comparing views and speculating about where they might be going – and that’s when they begin to howl.
At first, it sounds like wind rushing through the pines but as more wolves begin tilting their heads towards the sky, it grows into an unmistakable, ethereal chorus. Silence falls over the onlookers as we listen, enraptured. The howling echoes across the valley for about a minute, occasionally interrupted by a pup’s high-pitched “yips”. When the song is over, several more wolves emerge from the tree line and the group begins sniffing one another, transformed in an instant from fearsome beasts of legend to dog-park regulars. “I guess it’s pretty hard to look bad-arse when you’re wagging your tail,” a man beside me whispers.
In the following days, we find the remains of a second ill-fated elk in front of the tree line in the Lamar Valley. A lone wolf is hunkered down in the snow nearby. Though it’s impossible to make out any more than a face, a pair of amber eyes staring directly at us over a patch of bloodied ice makes it abundantly clear why so many cultures ascribe wolves a power that borders on spiritual. It’s electrifying but I struggle to articulate why. In a valley teeming with charismatic bison, moose and birds of prey, why do wolves inspire such awe?
“They’re very smart, they can strategise and they’re so protective and affectionate with each other,” says Jody when I pose the question. “I think perhaps we can see a lot of ourselves in them.” On the final morning of the trip, just as we’re finishing our breakfast, another traveller asks us how we’re doing. “We saw the Junction pack howling and a beautiful lone wolf bedded down in the Lamar Valley,” we tell him. “You should head out today; see if you can catch a little carcass action.”