Wolf Watching

The scopes stand ready

The scopes stand ready

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.

Magnificent scenery behind the cabins

Magnificent scenery behind the ranch cabins

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.

Widflowers in Lamar

Widflowers in Lamar

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).

This bull elk passed away several winters ago near the ranch

This bull elk passed away several winters ago near the ranch

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.

Rose creek running past the bunkhouse, the kestrel nest is in the cottonwood to the right

Rose creek running past the bunkhouse, the kestrel nest is in the cottonwood to the right

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.

Awesome side effect of wolf watching - witnessing sunrises and sunsets

Awesome side effect of wolf watching – witnessing sunrises and sunsets

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.

Our instructor Dr. Nathan Varley points to Druid Peek, the Druid Peek pack is the most famous of Yellowstone's wolf packs

Our instructor Dr. Nathan Varley points to Druid Peak, namesake of Yellowstone’s most famous wolf pack

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.

Rose creek acclimation pen, was a pretty place

Rose creek acclimation pen, loved the big old spruce near it

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.

A yearling of the Lamar Canyon pack

A yearling female of the Lamar Canyon pack, can’t believe I was close enough to get a recognizable picture with my camera phone! (look ma, no zoom)


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/

Bathed in nature's beauty while waiting for wolves

Taking in nature’s beauty while waiting for wolves

* * *

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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Imprint of a soul?

Imprint of a soul?

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  1. Sheryl on July 12, 2015 at 8:48 am

    Was this class a perk of your job or did you pay for it and take vacation time? I’m enjoying your summer and putting Yellowstone on my bucket list. Thanks.

    • Becky on July 12, 2015 at 10:26 am

      A perk of working for YA Sheryl. Do visit Yellowstone sometime, preferably not the month of July though which is living up to it’s reputation for being crazy busy here.

  2. Bill on July 11, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Have enjoyed your site and your posts for sometime now. I really want to see a wolf in the wild. Can’t wait to come to Yellowstone and try my luck. Should be embarking on my own full-timing adventure soon. Your posts have made me even more eager than I already was. Thanks and keep up the great work!

    • Becky on July 12, 2015 at 10:25 am

      Glad to hear it Bill. Lamar and Hayden valleys are usually the best places to see wolves, and dawn and dusk the best times. As you’re driving around the park, watch for people with high powered scopes set up in the turnoffs, that’s usually a pretty good sign. 🙂

  3. Dwayne on July 11, 2015 at 2:37 am

    Might want to check out Amazon and look up “Breathing Mobile Washer”. It is a way to wash your clothes with a 5 gallon bucket and sorta like a toilet plunger. Reviews show it really works good-cost is about $16

    • Becky on July 11, 2015 at 9:45 am

      I’ve heard of the “wonder Wash” Dwayne but this is a new one for me. I’ll peek into it thanks.

  4. Omar on July 8, 2015 at 12:30 am

    Hi Becky,

    I’ve been lurking for sometime. I wanted thank you for sharing your nice pictures and wonderful experiences with us. I hope to be in your shoes soon.


    • Becky on July 10, 2015 at 8:19 pm

      Hello Omar,

      Thank you for following IO, I’m glad you’re finding it helpful. Best of luck to you on you full-timing plans, safe travels and happy trails!

  5. PamP on July 7, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Wow! What a great opportunity for you. When you are old like me, you can look back on your life and be so glad you said “Yes” to a life outside the box. I had no idea wolf tracks were so big!

    • Becky on July 7, 2015 at 10:23 pm

      I certainly believe I will Pam. 🙂

      As I said to Andy above, Gray Wolves have big paws that act like natural snowshoes in the winter, to keep them on top of deep snow. Certainly is surprising to compare one to the size of my hand, haha. Hard to confuse them with coyote tracks.

  6. Jodee Gravel on July 7, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    What a beautiful place, the serenity and spirit of the valley is well captured in your photos. The sunrises and sunsets make for long days, but the experience was certainly worth it. The poem was very touching, thank you for sharing it.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Our Time in Brookings, ORMy Profile

    • Becky on July 7, 2015 at 10:18 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it Jodee, you’re welcome. Besides the wolves themselves, Lamar is a fascinating place in it’s own right. I’ll definitely get back out there to see it again before the end of the season.

  7. Andy on July 7, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing that Becky – that class sounds like it was great.

    That wolf print is HUGE… I had no idea they were that big.
    Andy recently posted..Hiking the Little Big Econ River from the Barr St. TrailheadMy Profile

    • Becky on July 7, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      You’re welcome Andy.

      Adult Gray Wolf males average 100-130 pounds (females are 80-110 pounds) which certainly isn’t small, but they also have bigger paws for their size than most dog breeds. It helps them stay on top of deep snow in the winter like natural snowshoes.

  8. Todd on July 7, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Very nice opportunity & story. Thanks for sharing. I don’t believe I could do the cabins at this age but appreciate your insight. Would love to do the wolf class, skip the cabins.

  9. Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets on July 7, 2015 at 10:15 am

    I know you have a deep appreciation of this and other experiences you are having while in Yellowstone. But years from now, I also know how you will review all these opportunities you have created for yourself, and you will say “YES”!!! “I’m SO glad I chose that lifestyle”. What a life.
    Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets recently posted..End of an EraMy Profile

    • Becky on July 7, 2015 at 10:06 pm

      Indeed Ed. 🙂 Best of luck to you on the closing of your business!

  10. Jim on July 7, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Now that’s the best posting .Very very cool…

    • Becky on July 7, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this Jim.

  11. Shelly in Durham NC on July 7, 2015 at 7:44 am

    What a beautiful post, Becky. Recently I saw a documentary on the importance of wolves to Yellowstone….all of which I am sure you learned about in your class. Wolves in the wild…fabulous!!

    Bet it was nice to get back to your own comfy home.

    • Becky on July 7, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      I haven’t slept that soundly in quite a while Shelly, haha. I was thinking while out there that Cas would’ve fit in the parking lot out back just fine, could’ve had my own bed and not used an entire cabin for just me.

      And yes, though wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone is still to this day a hotly contested issue, most ecologists agree that bringing them back had a good effect on the park.

  12. Ron on July 6, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    WOW!!! What an opportunity. It will be hard to top this Summers adventures.

    • Becky on July 6, 2015 at 11:21 pm

      I know Ron! But then I say that every summer and am always pleasantly surprised by the following. 🙂

  13. Kristi on July 6, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    Beautiful–Lamar Valley has always been on my “to do” list. So glad you got to see it.

    • Becky on July 6, 2015 at 11:20 pm

      Lamar is amazing, especially this time of year with all the flowers in bloom. The “golden hour” in the valley is especially golden with all the sagebrush and grasses.

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