Howling brought me out of the darkness of a dream into an indigo sky just touched by dawn. The moment felt surreal, as if it their voices were not really there, only in my mind. For a second, I lie somewhere else dark and familiar from my past. The wolves were there, though, in the night woods, the crevices of the mountains, and the moonlit fields, just beyond our tent.
Their howling was barely audible, from a faraway place in the park. Sporadic whispers that soon began to grow. Dampened hair, chilled body—condensation lay thick on the inside of the tent, its flimsy material no match for the elements of Yellowstone. I reached over to wake my brother, but he was already up. We smiled knowingly and listened in awe.
Romey leaned into me and mouthed, Hellroaring, the name of one of his favorite wolf packs. I grinned and shook my head, Druid Peaks, my favorite. As I stretched into my sleepiness, the calls in the mountains received answering howls from our valley. More wolves. And close. Any drowsiness faded with their last wail. Our faces fell, momentarily frozen with fear. Then, we unzipped the tent and slid out to greet them.
Our camp stood at the edge of a pine grove, overlooking the lake. Behind the lake rose hills littered with trees stripped of their branches and bark from past years’ fires. The tops of the trunks protruded like silvery swords into a pastel sky, my last vision before we’d closed the tent only hours ago, coated in moonlight.
The slight elevation gain from our camp in the pines afforded us a bird’s eye view of the dead forest, the lake, the meadow with Delft-blue aster, and the mountains beyond. Fog blanketed the lake, a sea of white uncertainty. If I hadn’t charted the boundaries of the lake the day before, I could have mistaken the steaming soup before me for a wandering cloud escaping its life in the sky.
Movement to the left caught my eyes and the wolves appeared with the dawn.
I backed against the wall of our tent and noted the unstable trees that surrounded us. The wolves appeared directly below us. They must have glided through the obscurities of the dead forest before they took to open ground. They didn’t see us. We felt hidden in the pines, and photographed them as they made their way through the valley while light flooded the sky.
The wolves moved like shadows through the meadow, their eyes golden, glowing like the parched August grass. The alpha appeared first, a large grey wolf with a white tufted chest. Four smaller wolves followed the alpha’s lead, spreading out in front of us, no more than a few hundred yards away now. But they were not interested in us. They were going towards the water, drawn to it by some internal instinct of survival.
“Are they going to drink?”
“Don’t know. Maybe.”
Whispers sound like waves in the silence.
Out of the mists, the moose appeared with a great crack, its giant rack covered in dangling mossy velvet. His spread, hardened butterfly wings that framed his docile face, hinted at his ferocity. The wolves were behind him, closing in like infantry, no longer concealing themselves, the pack’s arrow-like form slipping at the culmination of the hunt. The moose crashed into the water, heavy legs sloshing through the lake like oars on a boat. The wolves didn’t hesitate to follow, but the great moose pulled ahead, each stroke increasing the distance between life and death. He was soon gone, and the wolves returned to land.
They screamed in fury, or pain from a gnawing stomach, and made their way back through the dead woods into the abandoned mountains from where they came.
Romey and I didn’t move for a full minute after they had gone.
Chasing wolves was at the top of our bucket list. We’d chosen this hike to Cascade Lake, our first backcountry trip in Yellowstone, because we’d heard the wolves were close. In the past few days, we had driven over thirty hours through eight states, cramped in my 1994 Honda Accord to get here.
After the wolves were out of sight, we set about making breakfast; potatoes and sausages we planned to drown in Cholula. Apples, peanuts, and leftover sandwiches. Campfire coffee and a broken up granola bar. Our goal was to carpry the rest of our food back in our bellies instead of on our backs.
The wolves had kept my mind from wandering to the messages left on my phone, somewhere back in the bottom of my trunk. Messages I’d been trying to ignore. Do you miss me? When are you heading back? Why aren’t you returning my calls? Messages I’d answered in my mind a thousand times, but couldn’t find the courage to say out loud. I’m never coming back. I’m afraid I’ll change my mind if I talk to you.
Howls in the distance silenced us again.
“Is that them?”
“Doesn’t sound like it’s coming from the right place. Could they have gotten that far already?”
“Maybe they’re coming back?”
“Or it’s another pack.”
We left our sausages to burn and walked down the trail to investigate. The mist had lifted from the lake to our right and the sun peeked above the mountain range high to the left, over Dunraven Peak.
“It would make sense if they headed towards Dunraven. They’re not going to go towards the village,” Romey said.
My eyes fell to the eastern fields where the sun had crested, chasing the dew to the western mountains. And they were there. Different wolves. Black fur, devil eyes and ears like giant antennae.
They wove through the tall grass like nightmares, holding their dark heads low. But their eyes pierced through the distance between us, flying at me like golden bullets. The hairs on my arms and neck raised in salute.
The largest wolf was the first to stand and show himself. Fully erect, his trunk stood above the golden grasses that matched his eyes. He strutted towards the pines, revealing himself to us with all the pomp of a crowned prince.
He was massive and easily trumped my 120 pounds. His paws had a breadth wider than the unfinished postcards in my car three miles away. I hadn’t finished the cards because I wasn’t sure what to say. I don’t want to come back. It’s not that I don’t love you. Not the right words for a postcard. And now it occurred to me that maybe I’ll never send them, after all.
I watched in silent terror, unable to move.
“Can you climb?” Romey asked.
I shook my head. The pines were too old, the lower branches gone.
They’re coming right at us. Too close. Too close.
And suddenly they are not wolves and we are not people. I am not on a journey and this is not Yellowstone. I am just meat and they are just hungry and this is just nature. The romance is gone (it was never really here), only instinct remains.
Romey starts yelling and I blow the bear whistle around my neck. The wolves don’t flinch, but continue to prance in a maddening line towards our camp. Romey steps at them, trying to look as ferocious as his 6’2 frame of muscle can muster. But I can smell my fear and see it in my brother’s eyes.
A buffalo cuts them off, an old one we saw in the field the night before. He comes from behind our tent and charges them, landing in front of us, beating his hooves, giant irons, into the dirt, upsetting a storm cloud of dust. The wolves hesitate; there are only three of them and even an old buffalo is too much of a danger to such a small pack.
Up to this point, I assumed that fate was in my control. That I could escape if I just left it all behind. But you can never really escape yourself, and there is no easy way out. I realized now I’d have to face the troubles that bit at my heels as I had fled across country, and facing them meant saying goodbye to people and habits I had never been able to break. Sometimes, all you can do is survive.
The wolves know that.
They turn on their heels and dart off in the direction they came, their instincts guiding them to survive, to pick another prey. This is not their fight. They disappear and return to the mountains, along with any words we had left to describe what had just happened.
When we finally recover and trek out that afternoon we come across wolf scat, full of fur and bones, left on the trail for us. A message to us: Today is your day to survive.
STORY IMAGE COURTESY THE AUTHOR.