I arrive back to Cas Friday afternoon utterly exhausted, but deeply satisfied. My class at the Institute exceeded expectations, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain the program a little more.
As everyone who’s been following me this summer already knows, I’m working as a sales associate for the Yellowstone Association (YA). The bookstores located inside every visitor center in the park is part of how this non-profit generates money to give back to Yellowstone, but there’s another facet of the organization as well, the Institute.
The Institute is the educational arm of YA. Classes may be based out of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch (typically the more rustic”Field Seminar” classes), or out of Gardiner for the more all-inclusive “Lodging and Learning” programs. There are programs for kids and college students, teachers, and families – and the scope of the classes range from an afternoon lecture to seven day long extravaganzas with multiple outings. The type of class I took was classified as a Field Seminar, and was based in Lamar valley at the ranch.
Amenities at the ranch are rustic. There’s a central log building called the bunkhouse with two classrooms and a kitchen, this is where classes meet. Plastic tubs in the kitchen/dining area are where visitors store their food during their stay – meals are not provided with the classes, so you need to bring everything you’ll need to eat with you. There are two stove/ovens, but only one microwave because of limited power.
There are about 18 or so small cabins set in two groups. Each cabin has three single beds, a chair, a heater, and a small porch. There are no electrical outlets and not much space in each cabin, they’re for sleeping only pretty much. The cabins seem to be quite new, and still have that newly cut wood smell. You need to bring your own sleeping bag or linens to sleep on.
The shower house is a large log building split in half down the middle, one half is men’s, one half is women’s. It’s quite beautiful on the inside, and the shower water is hot. Again there are a lot of shelves and hooks for everyone to hang their own towels and personal gear. Don’t bother bringing a hairdryer or straightener, the power grid can’t support it (the ranch gets it’s power from solar panels, there is no shore power out there).
For everything the ranch lacks in modern conveniences, it makes up for in natural splendor. The site is situated along Rose creek in a lush grass and sage valley. A few stately old cottonwoods look over the bunkhouse, and and forested hills and peaks rise behind the Institute – just made for photographing.
There’s plenty of wildlife around too. I don’t think there was a time during my stay when bison weren’t visible, often pronghorn were as well and the ground squirrels had burrows underneath several of the cabin porches and provided good entertainment – chasing each other around the campus. A kestrel was nesting in one of the cottonwoods, and would get quite ornery if you got too close.
And the wolves. Yellowstone’s northern range is one of the best places in the world for wolf watching, which was a key component of the field seminar I attended.
Titled “Wolves – Reality and Myth”, my class had several facets. We left the Institute each morning at 5 am for several hours, and again at dusk for an hour or two, with the hopes of wolf sightings as those are the best times of day to spot them.
In the afternoons, we’d attend a discussion/lecture in the bunkhouse. Topics ranged from wolf facts such as their physiology, pack structure, diet, and denning habits. History such as how wolves were viewed in the past and how they were reintroduced to the park 20 years ago. How the wolf has changed things at Yellwostone since it’s return – the idea of trophic cascades. Current debates at attitudes toward the wolf – there are few people who are neutral about the subject, people either really like the thought of the wolf coming back, or really dislike it and we examined both sides. And myth surrounding the wolf, such as native American stories, and how the wolf seems to evoke extreme responses in people whether good or bad.
There was also one hike a day each late afternoon after the discussion class. The first was a 3 mile round trip out to the Rose Creek acclimation pen in the hills behind the Institute, a ten foot tall chain-link structure where two of the packs brought in from Canada in 1995 and 1996 were placed for several weeks in holding to get use to Yellowstone before being turned out. The idea was that they’d get use to Yellowstone as “home” and when they were released, would stay in the area to establish their territory. There were seven such pens in Yellowstone, but all have been dismantled except this one. The class instructor, Dr. Nathan Varley, was a volunteer with the Wolf Project team during the time the acclimation pens were in use and was able to get a lot of great first hand stories and information.
The hike on our last afternoon before class let out was to the old den site of the now defunct Rose Creek pack, but I didn’t take that one being so tired from the late evenings and early mornings.
And did I get to see a wolf? Oh yes. By the end we had ten sightings of seven different wolves, all of the adults of the Lamar Canyon pack which are denning not far from the Institute. The experience was very moving and not something I’ll ever forget.
If you’re going to be visiting Yellowstone and have a chance to take a class at the Institute, I highly recommend it. The quality and presentation of the classes are top notch, and the location is hard to beat.
The Yellowstone Association Institute page: https://www.yellowstoneassociation.org/experience?a=your-way
The YA Institute summer 2015 class catalog (PDF): https://www.yellowstoneassociation.org/sites/all/files/downloads/Summer_2015Catalog.06_for4Web_0.pdf
The NPS Wolf Project page: http://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/wolves.htm
Another Yellowstone wolf watching page, with lots of info about current packs: http://yellowstonewolf.org/index.php
Dr. Nathan Varley’s private wolf watching tour page: http://www.wolftracker.com/
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And lastly, for those who don’t mind me getting a bit philosophical and sappy, a poem written by the instructor’s assistant Lynn Weston, who’s been sacrificing his sleep for twenty years now to get up before the sun and go watch wolves in Lamar:
“Tracks of 163″*
From the East he came in a gentle light;
Towards the old picnic area with a carcass in sight.
His trail would take him across a flooded marsh;
But the soggy land would not make his travel’s harsh.
Where he would step toward his satisfying goal;
He left in the mud the imprint of his soul.
After feeding and disappearing into familiar pine;
I examined what he left in the shadows of time.
Impressed upon the land more precious than gold;
The spirit of the wolf was seen perfectly formed and bold.
The elements may eventually erode away the actual facts;
But in my dreams I will see him forever leaving tracks!
*All wolves in Yellowstone are given a number when they’re collared, about 20% of the wolves in the park have a collar, and thus a number. 163M was born to the Druid Peak pack in April of 1998 and was killed by a cougar in a carcass dispute in January of 2000. This poem was written based on a sighting Lynn had of 163M in June of 1999.
On the last day of class Lynn gave to each of us a plaster cast of a wolf print he had collected himself. I got 163M’s track, and so this seemed the most appropriate poem of his collection to share.
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