YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — In winter coats and hats, the men started arriving at the Hayden Valley lookout. They greeted each other with updates, “See that carcass up in Lamar?” “Saw that lone wolf stripping it bare just this morning.” They pointed their scopes toward an opening in the trees, still swapping tales of young grizzlies, the cubs that created the Bear Jam up north, before folding their arms across their chests and settling in to wait.
The tourists filtered in and out of the lookout, squinting into the verdant valley, dotted with spring flowers in June, elk and bison crowding around the streams, a lone hiker setting out. Inevitably the “scope guys,” as we started calling them, would spot a grizzly, or an eagle, and the tourists would line up, mutter “Wow,” then jump back in their cars, set on checking one more animal off their Yellowstone National Park lists.
Not us. We lingered. We were on a mission to see wolves, my 6-year-old son Kai’s favorite animal — the canine he had chosen to study in his year of road-schooling (that’s home-schooling on the road). Before we rented a Jucy campervan and drove from San Francisco to Yellowstone, Kai researched and wrote a kids’ book about wolves, going so far as to contact Doug Smith, the wolf biologist responsible for spearheading the relocation of wolves back to Yellowstone, to gather information such as the best places to spot these elusive animals.
Despite the snow still covering the ground, we camped at Madison Campground in the heart of the park, transforming our campervan into a double-decker bunkbed, using body heat to warm ourselves. We woke at dawn each day to find bison mere feet from our beds, but after the first couple of sightings, Kai and his brother, Nikko, 2, rolled their eyes. “Another bison; let’s find wolves.”
And search we did. From morning to night we hit up every spot Doug Smith recommended. We spent our first day up in Lamar Valley, an emerald wonderland, with yellow flowers creeping up the mountainsides and hugging the sinuous river. The low clouds blew across the blue sky, playing hide-and-seek with the sun. The valley yawned, boasting plentiful space for bison to graze on the long grass, the elk and deer to sip water, the grizzly sow and her cubs to appear atop the hill. For hours, we sat at an overlook atop this land that time forgot, searching for just a glimpse of a wolf.
Later, we went on a stagecoach ride deep into a pasture for an old-fashioned country cookout. As a group we sang “Home on the Range” around the campfire while a group of kids threw rocks at a deer carcass, stripped to the bone. Before sunset we hopped back in the stagecoach. We passed a coyote hunting a pack of antelope. The bouncing animals along with the arrival of our tribe of vehicles sparked fear in the dozens of bison lounging around the pasture. The massive beasts stood, started kicking the dirt, then threw a false charge at our stagecoach. The staff urged our coaches forward, lingering behind with the food trailer to bang on pots and pans, distracting Yellowstone’s heavyweight contenders.
Despite our real life Wild Kratts adventure that evening, Kai was not deterred from his quest. At dusk, we followed the advice of a staff member to the far side of the Lamar Valley, where an elk carcass was said to be located, attracting plenty of wolves. We parked at a desolate overlook. The wind rattled through grasses. The sky turned black. Just as we were pulling out of the lot, a red fox, another of the park’s most elusive creatures, appeared in our headlights, then slunk into the night.
Since Lamar’s grasslands brought Kai no luck, we switched focus to the Hayden Valley. We parked the Jucymobile at an overlook waiting for the scope guys to appear. After Kai had impressed the salty codgers with his knowledge of the park’s pack hierarchies, they told him about a ranger to find up at Lamar who carried the radio tuner cued to the wolves’ collars. At one point, someone whispered “wolf” and all the scope guys pointed toward an opening in the trees, where a white wolf supposedly stuck its head out. Kai jumped up and down, attempting to see the animal, but by the time they let us peer through the scopes, it had retreated. Kai’s shoulders slumped. “We’ll never see a wolf.”
On our last day, we parked at Lamar’s busiest overlook. Kai sat on a fence staring into the wild reaches of our country’s most popular national park. A man who looked a bit like Don Knotts in a tan ranger suit parked a coughing truck on the outside of the lot, wandered through the overlook, peering occasionally into binoculars, then closed his eyes and inhaled the dry scent of summer in this valley.
When he opened his eyes, I approached him, asking if he was the ranger with the radio tuner. (He was!) I explained our search, our frustrations, and our determination — leaving out my desperation to deliver a wolf to my son, not wanting him to know (yet) of life’s disappointments and instead find travel as a way to locate, learn, love our world. The ranger smiled patiently, said none of the wolves had been out that day, then pulled the radio tuner out of his vest, sat on the fence next to Kai and said, “Want to find out where they are?” Kai nodded enthusiastically as a crowd gathered. He spun the knobs, passing through white noise to a low humming tone. “That’s the pack living up there,” the ranger offered. “They haven’t been down to eat in a couple days; I am expecting them.” Kai looked up at the tall mountain expectantly. Then the ranger added, “The best part of Yellowstone is that it’s still wild. We don’t get to pick what we see and when.”
I’m sad to report that we waited in that parking lot until well past dusk and those wolves never appeared on that slope. Kai got schooled by in one of life’s powerful realities: We can hope an adventure turns out like we plan, but in the end, it may be out of our control. I held Kai and promised to visit the wolf sanctuary just outside the National Park, knowing years could pass before he appreciates this searching for an animal that doesn’t want to be seen.Michele Bigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.