Our old and faithful friend was scheduled to pop at 4:23 pm, but it was now 4:30 and the natives were getting restless. Arms were tiring of holding camcorders, people were looking at their watches and grimacing, cell phone calls were lengthening. The Japanese tourists who had arrived by the busloads were staring, perplexed.
But then, she blew. Applause, and a roar from the crowd. Mist and steam flying. Camcorders whirring. Cell phones calling out. And a minute later, the crowd walked away from Old Faithful, a nice big splash well-timed and planned with a routinely calculated ending — nature’s best-selling romance novel.
Two days later, my 10-year-old daughter pried me out of my sleeping bag at dawn. "Dad," she pleaded, "we have to go see the wolves again."
"OK," I responded, groggy. We had been camping in the Pebble Creek Campground at the east end of the Lamar Valley. For two days we’d been visiting the wolf-watching sites, hoping to catch a glimpse. So far, we’d seen two sleeping black wolves from several hundred yards away, not exactly what my daughters had in mind.
As we arrived at the wolf-watching area on this crisp Yellowstone morning and climbed the hill overlooking the Druid Pack’s rendezvous site, I heard an excited conversation over the radio held by the Park Service volunteer manning the station.
"Six wolves," the radio said, "heading your way." In response, my family and the Park Service volunteer — a sum total of five people awake and watching on this beautiful, sunny morning — grabbed binoculars.
As our vision telescoped across the valley, we saw two huge bull elk standing, literally, atop the mounded dirt of the wolf pack’s rendezvous site. Then, as if on cue, about a thousand yards away to the east, six wolves — two grays and four blacks — loped out of the river bottom and up onto the sagebrush steppe. They seemed headed for the same mound of dirt.
The Park Service volunteer, an older, bearded man, said in the most subdued of tones, "Well, we just might see something spectacular this morning."
At about 400 yards of separation, both the wolves and the elk got wind of each other. The wolves stopped and stuck their noses in the air; the elk quit grazing and held their heads high. The wolves advanced 50 yards, and in response the two bull elk turned nervously to the south. The wolves stopped. The elk stopped. And then another advance by the wolves, more nervous walking by the elk.
At about 100 yards between wolves and elk, I could feel the tension. Our group of five watchers was dead quiet. I pulled my eyes out of my binoculars and looked over at my two daughters. Their eyes were intent and glued to the binoculars.
A second later, the Park Service volunteer called out, "Chase!" And so it was, the two lead wolves in full run, the bull elk racing away, the four other wolves following in the back.
After about 200 yards, the bull elk distanced themselves from the gray and black wolves in the lead. Another 100 yards, and the four wolves in the back turned around and started trotting back to the rendezvous site. After yet another 100 yards of chasing, the distance between the elk and the two lead wolves grew wider, and then slowly, the two wolves turned around and pranced back with the pack.
An extraordinary scene of life, and almost death. The fine nuance of predator and prey, extemporaneous and unique — nature’s poetry.
As we were leaving the park later the next day, we drove by the Old Faithful site and I said to the girls in the back of the minivan, "You want to stop and see Old Faithful again?"
They answered with a question, "Can we get ice cream?"
"No," I said. "Not today."
"Then we don’t want to stop."
A few seconds later, my daughter asked, "Can we go see the wolves again?"
"Next fall," I answered, "maybe we’ll come back."
Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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