I can imagine no better ending. This is what I had been hoping for. Even if it’s just a glimpse from a mile away, that’s still a wolf, this is still Yellowstone, and we’re still on an adventure together.
This is the last real morning of the trip. Tomorrow we’ll wake up in Boise and head back towards the Cascades. This idea will have turned into a memory and life will become “normal” again. We have decided to abbreviate the ending, to skip the crowds, miles of driving, and smoke in Glacier. Yellowstone is the finale, Lamar Valley is the finale. It seems premature, rushed, concluding before it should. I’m not ready to relegate this to the realm of remembrance. I want it to stay ever-present, an unending reality. Give me life on the road, life in this valley, life in the company of the bison and the Absarokas and the Lamar River. Let this story have endless chapters of endless days in an endless West.
It can’t be endless, though. That dream stays a dream. A bittersweet end approaches, but there is solace in this place. I am immune to melancholy in this valley.
There are two Lamar Valleys this morning: the one taken in by the naked eye and the one seen through binoculars. Through eyes alone, the panorama is expansive. Daylight has been slowly washing over the mountains and flooding the riverbanks where the bison graze in relative peace. We've been here since sunrise, moving down valley with the river's flow, scanning the mountainsides for movement. It's a cool morning. High clouds keep the heat down, diffuse the light, and cast blurred shadows over the terrain.
Through binoculars, a more intimate reality is revealed. A herd of hundreds becomes a pair of bison. A flock of Canada geese is represented by the wingbeats of one. A speck of white and tan among the brown mass is resolved as a lone pronghorn. A dark dot on a far away ridge takes the shape of a black bear.
The bear wanders upslope then turns left. It moves through the open country, heading towards the forest that cloaks the mountain. It is in no hurry, neither pursuing nor pursued. Perhaps this is the bear's morning ritual, a survey of the neighborhood. I try to imagine the bear's life, to think what its day will be like, what its life has been like in these mountains and this valley. If only there was a way to know.
Now a smaller shape appears in the same opening. It's slighter, sharper, quicker. The shape is black like the bear, but it has an altogether different gait, a different profile, a longer tail.
It's a wolf.
This is the third time I've seen a wolf and the fourth time I've sensed one. Each encounter has been in this park. The second sighting was almost two years ago below Mount Washburn where I watched seven resting in the distance as dusk fell over the northern range. The first sighting was a year before that and a few miles up this valley where my mom and I followed instructions from a helpful wildlife watcher and positioned ourselves to see members of the Lamar Canyon pack returning to their den. That experience is one of my most precious, along with the first time I visited this place.
On that initial visit, I was underinformed. I'd read in a book that this was a nice spot for wildlife, but that was the extent of my knowledge. We drove into the valley late in the afternoon. Clouds were building in the west as we walked down to a the cobbled banks of the Lamar River. An osprey was perched high in a tree downstream. Bison dotted the valley floor ahead. The sight of it all was as inspiring as it ever is, but it was a sound that would stir me more than anything else. Not the first sound I heard: that was the yips of coyotes. It was the next sound, the clear, mournful howl from the north, the call of the unseen wolf. What joy to know I was in the land of Canis lupus. The memory of that sound is enough to reconstruct the rest of the scene in my mind today. The howl is the cornerstone, as crucial to the moment as its source is to this ecosystem.
Today's wolf is still on the move. It's following a path similar to the bear's, loping up the hillside towards a stand of trees. Bison are scattered on either side, seemingly unperturbed by the carnivore's arrival. Maybe they haven't seen it. Quickly, too quickly, the wolf arrives at the woods' edge, and then it is gone.
The same can be said for us. We spend the rest of the morning in the valley, looking for the vanished wolf while we eat breakfast and sit again overlooking the bison. It's a beautiful day in a beautiful place, a worthy final scene for a summer replete with beauty like this. Appreciating the sum of this experience is difficult, impossible, when we're still in it, but I am trying. The sun climbs higher above the mountains, the temperature rising with it. Golden hour is over, morning has morphed into day. We scan the landscape one final time, acknowledging the wildlife seen and unseen, then get back into the car.
Quickly, too quickly, the wheels carry us out of Lamar Valley, and we are gone.
Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer