Today, for once, we’re not looking for the wolves. Instead, my husband, John, and I are heading into the Yellowstone backcountry to examine the carcass of an enormous bull elk that the Geode pack, the wolves we’re monitoring as part of a twice-yearly winter study, killed and then fed on for two days.
Our lives have become so focused on these wolves that our world has narrowed to a ten-mile stretch of road that runs east-west through the rugged Northern Range, paralleling the Geode’s territory. Far from the romantic image that wolf research tends to conjure, we spend our days traveling between roadside pullouts in a too-big government truck, taking radio-telemetry signals, observing our canid quarry through frosty scopes from miles away, filling out dozens of data sheets that record every howl, growl and pee and freezing our tails off in enough layers to pass for the Michelin man.
But not today. The wolves left this kill site behind last night and headed east, opening up an opportunity for us to examine up-close their recent ungulate meal.
We pull the truck over into deep snow and shed countless layers of wool and down. Teeth chattering, we step off the road into the quiet morning.
After a couple dozen floundering steps, we pick up the trail. It weaves for miles ahead of us – perfectly formed, every inch a mosaic of the footsteps that created it, so solid we leave our skis behind in favor of boots, even though this is Yellowstone in winter. Once, a tourist asked me who all these people were who created the trails stretching in the distance through the snow. I only glanced behind her shoulder at the herds of elk and bison dotting the mountainside in the distance.
We set out at a brisk pace on this path formed by hoof and paw and quickly leave our frenzied work and the dreaded road behind. The bears are deep into winter slumber by now, so we move quietly through the rolling terrain, pausing only to savor the sight of cougar tracks and fondle soft clumps of bison fur that cling to the sage. We settle into the solitude with our rhythm of even footsteps and icy breath.
We’ve somehow crossed over. The Geode wolves inhabit a territory that hovers between the edge of civilization and another, wilder place. Like their brethren throughout the West, these animals are nipping at the fringes of human development. But here in Yellowstone, it takes little more than a few steps off of the people-beaten path to leave the buzz of humanity behind.
Still using the game trail we cross a frozen river, trusting the route of elk and coyote over our own judgment. Climbing into the hills we approach the rocky area where we think the carcass lies, eager to see what’s left of the big bull. We gain a rise and spot the elk lying on the edge of a snowfield.
There’s a wolf standing over him – one we don’t recognize, have never seen. She’s black, alone, uncollared and unknown. We lock eyes with her, frozen, and she regards us coldly with her deep yellow gaze. Then she turns calmly and vanishes into the snowy wild, her home.