Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. — We were searching for villains. Legendary bad guys that huff and puff and blow houses down. Evildoers who frighten boys named Peter and girls named Little Red Riding Hood. Fiends in sheep's clothing.
Big. Bad. Wolves.
We got lucky right away. At least, we thought we did: "There's one," shouted photographer Hal Stoelzle soon after we entered Yellowstone National Park last winter.
The animal was about 100 yards away and seemed to be digging in the snow. Hal jumped out of the car, sank deep into a snowdrift and then decided to set up a tripod with a long lens rather than venture farther into the field. Twenty minutes later, his face had turned scarlet from the wind and 15-degree temperature. The bushy-coated digger was still pawing at the ground in the distance.
Nature travel has its drawbacks. Especially when subfreezing temperatures and snow flurries are part of the picture. But winter in Yellowstone has an upside too. It's the best time of year to spot wildlife: bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn antelope, bison, coyotes, even wolves, successfully reintroduced to the park 10 years ago this week and now the park's main winter attraction. All can easily be seen from the roads of northern Yellowstone, near the park's boundary and the Wyoming-Montana border.
Hal and I had signed up for a two-day wolf-watching program that would begin before dawn the next day. But, hey, maybe we could find a wolf or three on our own, we thought, as we drove the icy park road from the north entrance at Gardiner, Mont., to the northeast entrance at Cooke City, Mont., the only road open all year.
About a mile from our first sighting, we spotted two more of the creatures trotting across a field. Again, they stayed in the distance. Farther on, we pulled over at a lookout point to admire the scenery. As we were gazing at a frozen waterfall, a wolfish face popped up over a snowy berm about 8 feet away. Its snout was dusted with crystals of ice. I gasped in delight. Hal clicked off a few frames before it darted away.
We congratulated ourselves on our great luck. Then I spotted a sign half-buried in snow: "Don't harass the coyotes," it read, "for your sake and theirs."
"You don't suppose that was a coyote instead of a wolf?" Hal asked.
"No," I said flatly. "Coyotes don't look that good. They have mangy coats and sort of slink around."
Of course, it was a coyote. They were all coyotes, we learned the next morning in our Winter Wolf Discovery course.
"Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference," said naturalist Greg Wright, who taught the two-day lodging-and-learning program. "Coyotes are smaller, their faces are more pointed; they yip instead of howl. The best clue, though, is that they came near you. A wolf wouldn't. Wolves shy away from people."
But, like many other winter visitors to the park, wolves were what we wanted to see. With a little diligence, most people succeed; about 153,000 Yellowstone visitors have spotted Canis lupus, the planet's largest wild dog. Despite the wolf's role as villain in fairy tales, it has become nearly as popular in Yellowstone as Old Faithful Geyser.
Where and when to look
To see the wolves, you have to know where to look. Wright did. Within an hour of the 6:15 a.m. start of our class, we saw wolves -- and heard them too -- as three packs howled to mark their territories in the pre-dawn light.
The course, organized by the Yellowstone Assn. Institute and Xanterra Resorts, included park accommodations, a little lecture time and a lot of field time, trailing wolves, snowshoeing and exploring the starkly beautiful Lamar Valley, sometimes called America's Little Serengeti for its plentiful wildlife.
The Lamar is wide and open, a long, glacier-scoured basin where large herds of elk and bison forage in the winter for grass, trying to find enough food to survive until spring. Wolves -- and unforgiving temperatures -- are their nemesis.
We watched lumbering bison use their massive heads to batter aside snow so they could eat scrubby brown grass; saw herds of graceful elk loping across the valley, their heads held high to convince predators they were strong and healthy; spotted a pack of gray wolves on a snowy hillside, wagging their tails, nuzzling one another, taking turns playing with a stick. Later we saw them napping quietly, their tails circling their bodies for warmth.
And everywhere we went was another stunning view. To the east were the 10,000-foot peaks of the Absaroka Range, a landscape of darks and lights where thick forests were shrouded in black clouds, then brilliantly lighted as the sun emerged into a cobalt-blue sky. To the west, near the park's northern entrance, were the spectacular terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, staircases of super-heated geothermal pools that sent clouds of steam into the frigid air, causing lacy patterns of ice on the limbs of nearby trees.