The tracks that I saw two Fridays ago I supposed to belong to a set of three wolves, and three days later I returned there to cast some tracks of their paw prints on the shores of the lake where I had found them. Originally my plan was to cast a bunch of the tracks, then hike around the lake with some left-over plaster to see what other cool tracks I might find.
The wolves had a different plan for me.
I spent a few hours pouring plaster, and most of the good tracks were close to the area where I accessed the lake. It was a hot day, even by Wyoming standards, and there was a pair of swans that took great interest in my affairs. They were alternating feeding with short forays to investigate my work with much curiousity, as I traversed the banks back and forth over an area about a 1/4 mile in distance. I was happy to have them there.
After pouring the plaster, I started off to hike around the lake. As I continued east, the amount of wolf sign just increased. I found more evidence of movement there by the wolves, it still seemed like only three individuals but it was obvious that they used the area with some frequency. Not only were there more tracks, but there were bones and parts of animals that indicated kill sites and also objects that seemed to be used as toys. After my day, I learned that the area was home to a wolf den, so it is likely that many of the bones and feathers that I encountered during my day were the play things of young wolves. These included swan feathers, and I suspected that perhaps there were only two swans because their young had fallen prey to the wolves of the lake.
As I was walking and scoping the ground in the heat of the day, a form caught my eye towards the east side of the lake, about 300 meters away. As I brought my binoc’s to my eyes, I already knew what it was.
It was a wolf.
Languishing on the cool mud by the lake.
It didn’t realize I was there, despite me being generally upwind of it. I stared a bit in disbelief, even though I shouldn’t have been surprised based on the amount of sign that was around. Still, when you actually see a wolf for the first time, in the wild, there is a moment of pause that’s required by the mind and body. We as a species have a long history with the wolf, and like many things, the experience is not quantifiable by the mind. Nor are words capable of expressing it.
Eventually it got up and started scouting the shoreline, and it was then that I realized there were two other wolves in its company. I saw a beautiful red-tailed hawk flight feather on the shore right next to me, and I couldn’t help but smile. Shortly thereafter a red-tail appeared in the sky just to my left, and it seemed to coax me on, giving me the go-ahead to investigate further.
I didn’t want to disturb them, but I saw that it was possible to get a little bit closer while still keeping water in between us. As I tried to get in position, two of them heard/smelled/saw me, and they moved away up a densely vegetated drainage behind them. The third moved a bit slower in the same direction, until all three had disappeared. I waited a bit, then decided to walk further, still having the intention of walking around the lake.
As I got about 50 meters from where they had been, I realized that I needed to pass very close to where they had been laying. In addition to not wanting to bother them further, I realized that I’d be walking, by myself, on a very exposed mud plain, with no where to go and nothing to defend myself. I don’t think wolves would attack me unprovoked, but … they are, umm, wolves. This was real.
As I was trying to decide what to do, the largest of the three reappeared not far away, within 150 meters. She (I’m assuming, based on size) seemed to be relaxed and just investigated the area as I watched her. I was able to get a few more pics as she meandered around.
As I watched her, it started to occur to me that, while it was amazing to see her chilling by the lake, it left two other wolves unaccounted for. And I was essentially pinned in by the lake, the willows, and the hillsides around me. Not that I really expected that they would be trying to flank me and give me a surprise, but why chance it? It was my first experience with wolves, and they are intelligent animals. And big. Very big.
I think it was right around when I took these pictures below that I decided a greater distance between all of us was prudent …
The feeling of having a wild wolf gaze at you is unlike any other feeling. Thrilling, chilling … primal.
After taking these last shots, I started to make my departure, leaving the wolves in peace to their afternoon cool-down. I’m not going to lie … I also picked up a large club-like log, and, neanderthal-style, plodded back along the lakeside from whence I came, with many glances behind me. I may have grunted a few times between wide smiles.
After I gathered up the casts of the tracks and put all my gear back into my jeep, I walked down to the lake to say a good-bye and thank you. As I expressed my gratitude standing on the bank, I heard a peregrine calling as if to acknowledge my sentiments, and I just gave a big smile – and a wolf howl – before I turned and made my way back to camp. It’s a thrill to know that when I howled like a wolf there, wolves were actually hearing it.
Instead of angry neighbors.
On the drive out, my old friend the red-tail called so loudly that I stopped my jeep to find it, and it flew out in front of me as if my escort, leading me for a bit, seeming to celebrate the events of the day with me as it finally landed on a nearby tree and watched me pass.