Reisverhalen

First the deep, long song that silences your core. The birds fall silent, hands are held up to raise attention, and the only response you manage to form, is a punch to your heart and the deafening conquering of the mind when at that moment, your soul falls naked before the howl of the wild wolf.

In de herfst van 2013 reisde Ineke naar Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, VS. Dit reisverhaal is Engelstalig, exclusief en verslavend.

Pray for Death

You never really know what to expect when driving through the historic North East entrance into Yellowstone. The national park looks different every day, with unpredictable weather ranging from sunny and warm in the morning, to cold and snowy at lunchtime. Hot springs breathe their ancient breaths over the landscape, and wildlife lives determined by the moment.
So when two fragile Belgian girls dressed in layers to meet wildlife biologist Brad Bulin for 2013’s Fall Wolf & Elk Program, he gave them one solid advice for a successful discovery: pray for death.
Thanks, Brad, we will carry it in our hearts.

Where the Deer and the Buffalo Play
According to author Gary Ferguson, some 19th century writer already claimed that it really didn’t matter whether people actually travelled to the recently created Yellowstone National Park. Simply knowing such places were out there, would gender a ‘consciousness of freedom’.
Years ago, I travelled to faraway Australia to describe it as the Virgin Country for its untouched beauty of nature. Back then, I considered the vast purity and prehistoric sense one of the last places where the ancient ways of Earth could still be sensed. It had a remoteness from our human society where one could find a mirror in every tree, meadow or wild animal. There, one could rediscover oneself beside social or economic expectations. I left that continent with teary eyes and feared I would never again experience such greatness. Until I discovered Yellowstone.
Everyone hears about it at one point in their lives. Some watch a National Geographic documentary about the harsh living conditions of the bison. Others study the micro bacteria in hydrothermal features, or gather data about active or dormant volcanoes. Yet all over this world, wolf lovers have followed the reintroduction of the species in this particular National Park. All the while, in bars of surrounding states, hunters express their concern about their livelihood now that the controversial beast once again roams the plains of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
While my heart glows with admiration for most animals, domestic or wild, I wanted to experience first hand what it meant to walk the land of the wild. Why were conservationists so set on bringing back the predator that had been exterminated in the area seventy years before its reintroduction, and why did grown men carry such a hatred towards these biologists’ project? What does the hide of a bison smell like, and does a bugling bull elk really sound like Jurassic Park?
We would have four days to find out, and on our very first hour of excursion, we fell silent. Just ahead walked a lone bison by the road, a bald eagle sat peering over his lake, and a golden meadow beamed the purple and green colors of beaver habitat.

Scat and Bones
Even though most wildlife will be warned of your arrival by your scent and sounds, there is no better way to explore the land than with your feet amid the scat.
The large pies of the bison, seeming quail eggs of the elk, sausages of the coyote, huge droppings of a bear or territorial heaps of the pronghorn. Some lay scattered over the landscape, others were put along specific pathways, and they all tell the story of who was where and when.
Right when you lift your head to establish poop has never been so interesting, there you spot a white stick laying in between the sage bushes. Oh, wait, it has pink spots all over it, and doesn’t it suspiciously look like one of those props from the vet’s office? Yup, it’s a femur, and a large one at that.
Patella, vertebrae, hipbones, ribs, antlers and skulls. The longer you gaze out, the more remainders of ‘eat or be eaten’ reveal themselves. Icy, hungry winters, summers of drought, mating competition or predation: here lies wildlife, rated R.
Ever excited to share the wonders of nature, Brad takes us past a herd of docile bison to show an entire bison carcass that had lain down for its eternal rest over a year ago. Among the bones hung the soft smell of death, and the giant horns hovered still over the ghostlike skeleton. Biologists had cut the femur in half, judging the boar’s health by its bone marrow. This boy had been in good health at the time of his death, pointing to the unlikely destiny of prey as predators will save energy by going after the weaker ones. Instead, this particular bison had probably been killed during a struggle with one of his own, where no doubt the scavengers had seen an opportunity to feast. Here he was, once a steaming icon of the American West, now only the brute remains of a Big Friendly Giant.
No spirit can’t be lifted by the sight of Mom’s Ridge, a mountain pass frequently used by the local wolves since their reintroduction in 1995. Once the herd of bison had passed us, we took up their place at the edge of the trees, where Brad shared the story of a famous wolf, whose determination and charisma would make it to the books. Here he was as a yearling, stealing sticks and branches from the pups until the little ones learnt how to stand their ground against his playful greed. So off he trotted into the woods, only to return with a glitter of pride in his eyes and a heavy log between his teeth.
‘Alpha material, right there’, laughed Brad, and he went on to speak of his bravery in later life, when he left his Rose Creek Pack to face the infamous territorial Druids, only to wag his tail and become alpha male.
‘And if you look over your shoulder’, said Brad, ‘right where the meadow ends and the trees start on a steep hill, you’ll find the den of his mother, number 9, an original reintroduced wolf back in the 1990’s, who mothered many wolf pups here.’

Wolf Country
Nothing prepares you for the magnificence of finding yourself on wolf territory. You read the stories and watch the documentaries, but whether you study their behaviour or simply like their pictures, when you put your hand on the soil of where entire packs were born, you find yourself thinking ‘this is a magical place’.
It’s been like this for as long as human history stands. We have loved him when he showed us how to hunt as a group, and let us take his fuzzy little pups to raise them ourselves. We’ve hated him when he killed our cattle, and we’ve feared him when he scavenged off our dead and killed us in a rabid rage.
Yet today, millions of people who have never even seen a live wolf, feel connected to his gaze and cry at the sound of his howl.
Decades ago, ranchers, hunters, poachers and trappers put their feet on the coffee table, announcing that the last wolf had been killed. Yellowstone and the surrounding areas were free at last from this competitive predator, the land was all ours. Little did we know about the crucial role the wolf and his ancestors had always played in our ecosystem, but we were soon to find out. Elk became numerous and overgrazed the plains, causing harm to both fauna and flora alike, with all species interconnecting in ways we still don’t fully understand. The landscape changed, little by little, and biologists agreed that reintroducing the park’s top predator would bring back the balance we’d disrupted.
No one effect has only one cause, Brad taught us. To form an explanation about the changes in ecology is a complicated matter filled with variables we may not even realize about, but fair enough, as both wolf haters and lovers agree: ‘it’s always those damn wolves’.
In the years the wolf has returned to Yellowstone, life has changed. Elk numbers went down, as well as some other species that had thrived in the absence of the wolf, such as the coyote. Other species, plants and animals that had slowly disappeared from the scene, made a comeback that restored a balance once lost, and turned Yellowstone into the healthy circle of life we now know.
So here we hiked uphill, past bear tracks that we followed for a mile where his toe nails drew neat grizzly holes in the mud. We stepped over the patches the bear had made when sliding down the hill, to the remote pen where a couple of Canadian grey wolves were moved to in 1995, and again in 1996. Without a guide you’d stand no chance of finding it, but once we’d left those bear tracks and looked up where Brad was pointing, we found ourselves in front of a large enclosure, aged by two decades of preservation.
We climbed through the only opening where people had once cut the fencing to release these celebrities into the wild. Before they could, the wolves spent ten weeks in this enclosure to prevent them from darting off to their Northern territories.
It proved to be a real trick to care for this family without them getting used to humans. It was vital that they kept their natural fear of the two legged predator to avoid them getting too close and causing accidents or getting shot. Some made it, others didn’t, and Brad shared the story of how one wolf brought a litter of pups into this world outside the pen. This mother wolf, brave but cautious number 9, had been taken from her Canadian territory and put in this enclosure with strong headed male number 10. The two of them had started off nipping, snarling and ignoring each other, but nevertheless grew attached. They baffled their caretakers with their soon strong sense of family when they mated.
Sadly, king number 10 was shot dead soon after his release, leaving number 9 to survive and den on her own. The biologists at the time considered the slim chances her and her pups would stand against rival predators and starvation. In order to save this precious family of wolves, biologist Doug Smith sought and found the litter hidden in a deep den. He reached his arm inside and grabbed a few pups, one by one. By the time all but one pup had been collected, it was time to go. Doug reached out deeper and further, touched the fur of a curled up little one, yet couldn’t get a hold of him. The team was heart broken to leave this pup behind, until a third party arrived that happened to be carrying a set of pliers. So off Doug went, creating new bruises along the way, and proudly pulled out the last pup of the litter. It was a small, stubborn puppy, whose determination and charisma would later make it to the books, when he became alpha male of the Druid Peak Pack with a wagging tail. Or so we like to believe.

Find Rick, find a wolf
Hiking through bear country to find a wolf’s den is one thing. Tracking them at the crack of dawn, is another.
‘Has anyone prayed for death last night?’ Brad would ask, for if death came in the night, a kill has been made. When a kill is made, a carcass will be found, drawing the attention of scavengers like ravens, coyotes and bears, making it easier to spot any one of these animals, including the original killers: our beloved wolves.
As we peered over the meadows in silence, listening for the bugle of a bull elk echoing through the landscape, looking for ravens circling the sky, and waiting for the howl of a wolf or a coyote, you feel like a true explorer using nature’s voice that tells you where to find the ghosts of the plains.
But it is so much easier to find the ever passionate Rick McIntire and his never failing tracking devices.
Since the early days of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, wolf project employee Rick McIntire has hardly missed a day tracking the collared wolves of Yellowstone National Park. Once he finds the signals, he sets up his scope, drawing attention to his students, fans and tourists driving past each pull out to catch a glimpse of him.
Some days, you spend hours finding Waldo in the vast landscape. If you’re lucky, Rick’s soothing voice will sound to the leap of your heart: ‘Ok, folks, we do have two blacks and one grey in sight right now.’
Scopes and binoculars are adjusted, breaths are held, and there they are: black and grey specks between the faraway aspen and conifers. Whether these wolves are from the Junction or Mollie’s Pack, once your eyes distinguish the triangles of upright ears catching your distant sounds, you’re alive. Better yet, if you return to the Rick gang again the next morning, still vaporing with excitement from the dots in those scopes, you get this gut feeling that today might be the day.
First the deep, long song that silences your core. The birds fall silent, hands are held up to raise attention, and the only response you manage to form, is a punch to your heart and the deafening conquering of the mind when at that moment, your soul falls naked before the howl of the wild wolf.
This is home, greater than any god, but you just can’t find them in your scope, for the lens is damp with your tears.
There they are, not more than half a mile away, sometimes hiding in the tall grass, then gliding through the bushes with horizontal tails. They’re scattered between the trees, always keeping an eye on one another. A grey stops, turns his face towards us and sniffs the air. He raises his muzzle and closes his eyes, howls. Yet you can’t hear, for it is a careful howl. You never quite know which other pack is close and dangerous, do you. Another wolf, a black one, stops and howls too, to the left this time. What or who are they howling to?
Agile, lean, they trot over a hill, and just when Brad tells us about the pups they keep behind this hill, a quarter of a mile in front of us, they speak. It is a chaotic, loud howl, with changing pitches carried by the wind, that makes them sound more powerful and numerous than they are.
Baffled and in love, we take turns peeking at the details through the scope and follow their shadowy figures with our naked eyes. When we get back on the road, we don’t know whether to laugh with excitement or be silent in awe. But then Rick turns around, slows down and turns on all four blinkers. Something’s happening, the wolfman speaks. Where? In the far distance? Where we were just looking? And while desperate eyes look for any sign of a wolf, right in front of us, blended in with the grey of the road, stands one tall wolf. He is larger than any European or Mexican wolf I have ever seen, and calmly, he sniffs the yellow line. As wolfman holds traffic so the wolf can cross, a second ghost crosses, and the two of them disappear in the fall of rain, which curtains the sight of them as if it was the end of a memorable theater show.
Now we finally understand who the others were howling to. Thing is, they probably answered, and we never even heard.
The rest of the day we sigh ‘what a lifetime experience’. Hooked on the rush of wolf tracking, two Belgian girls would rise early even after the program, to be the best groupies we can be to Rick, with success. In those four days of adventure, thanks to Brad Bulin and Rick McIntire, we managed to observe a total of nine wolves, most of them descendants of our famous number 9.
There is a genuineness to a wild wolf that can hardly be found in a captive one. For decades we have been observing captive wolves and basing all we know about wolves and dogs on those researches. Wild wolves were ever hard to observe with the lack of proper equipment or below the shelter of dense forest. Now, since 1995, meadows and plains offer an opportunity to observe these animals in their natural surroundings, surprising behaviorists with their strong family ties, their generous nature to each other and abilities to hunt and recover from injury and sickness. We’ve seen how wolves can be harsh when they kill rival wolves or ban their own mothers or sisters from their packs, but we’ve also seen leading pairs making way at a fresh kill site, for others to feed before them.
Although pack hierarchy is of unmistakable importance, we realize how much we have yet to discover about this complicated species that is in many ways similar to us. By some put on a pedestal, by others hunted to extinction, but always in the center of our souls.

A herd of bison at 3 o’clock!
‘I’m Ina and I want to see bison’, is how I introduced myself on that very first trip. I had only seen bison in Dances with Wolves, when the European cowboys of the early years of settlement took a few decades to destroy millions of them, leaving only a handful to be remembered as the american icon. Somehow, I had assumed they would still be rare to find. Maybe we’d catch a herd if we were lucky enough to find the right look out. How was I to know they would rule this park, travelling from one meadow to another, or resting lazily between the bushes. We’d hardly travelled for ten minutes, when we caught the first of many. He waved his enormous head from side to side with each step like an elephant, and rested his cool gaze on the window of a Yellowstone Association bus, where a silly girl pressed her face to the window.
There they were, behind every turn, as brown specks in the far distance or tramping the earth a few yards away, grazing like ancient bulls with a fur coat and a damn muscular behind.
I consider myself lucky to have sat by a calm herd on a few occasions, either recovering from altitude nausea on a log, or enjoying a sandwich on a rock. At any of those times, I didn’t even notice how silent these beasts really were, until Brad pointed it out. Make no mistake, however controlled these creatures seem, they rank among the highest in the list of accidents happening with human visitors, although I strongly suspect those victims to be excited tourists who ignore their gut when they run close to flash a picture. No wonder some bison go Russel Crow on them.
I’m proud to say I have sniffed the sweet air of the bison, tasted their marihuana breath, and felt the softness of their fur at the site of a carcass, but most of all, enjoyed the pure sense of freedom when finding my euro self in the bison’s comforting company.
I swear if I didn’t already enjoy being a dog trainer, I’d change careers to bison whisperer, just to be able to watch them from dusk ‘till dawn.

Scarface
Even though we were lucky to have spotted a rare moose, a coyote hunting for mice, and pairs of pronghorn hopping their pale butts across the hills, no trip to Yellowstone is complete until you’ve seen a bear. At this particular place on Earth, following bear tracks for a mile just won’t do.
Just when we were saying our goodbyes to the Rick crew, we cast one last look through one of their scopes. Lo and behold: a black bear strolled between the pine trees. We looked up in amazement of Yellowstone’s never failing ability to surprise, and got information about a grizzly bear just a mile ahead, sleeping over his prey in plain sight.
As children on Christmas morning we ran down to the road, making our way past lazy bison toward Petrified Tree, where bear paparazzi had already gathered. About a hundred yards down the eerie sticks of trees that had once been burnt in a major fire, laid a twenty three year old grizzly, happily snoozing over a carcass that looked like a deer. Most of the meat had already been consumed in his determination to fatten up before sweet hibernation.
He must have smelled our excitement, yet there he was, looking cuddly and soft, covering his scarred face with his claws as if to prevent his scars of life being caught on camera.
Honestly, beat the sight of seven wolves and two bears before lunchtime for me. I bet you can’t, until you’ve visited Yellowstone National Park.

Mammoth versus Old Faithful
We hadn’t realized how fond we were of Mammoth Hot Springs until we left. The soft bugling of bull elk seeping in our morning dreams, and the constant presence of cow elk scattered across the front lawn, had already become a strange habit. In fact, the friendly faces of the harem had seemed so soothing, that when we had to pass a few of them to get our luggage to the car, we didn’t hesitate. Well, I didn’t hesitate, and strolled past one of them who suddenly seemed a lot taller when she raised her head and put on her dismayed face as I interrupted her grazing. So when my friend followed behind me, hesitated and looked up at her, the cow gave out a threatening cry and ran straight towards her. Luckily, we managed to scare her off with the banging of our luggage and on we went, hoping not to run into mister bull elk around the corner.
They may seem harmless from a distance, but the closer you get, the larger the antlers seem. Take a look at those hunter trophies up a rancher’s wall and you’ll notice. The funny thing about those antlers is that a bull sheds them once a year entirely, after which they grow back in a month or so. These bones covered by a layer of skin grow as fast as one inch a day, and make a perfect weapon to use during fights with other males at mating season, which was right about now.
So really, we didn’t feel like annoying a bull elk with our mere presence, with no one else around but his harem. But I’m telling the story, aren’t I?
No bull behind the corner that morning, but plenty on the plains as we drove towards Old Faithful. After four days, it still hadn’t dawned on me how divers Yellowstone can be. From the orange, yellowish meadows between aspen, spruce and firs, the forest grew dense with pine trees, often smoky with that white breath of hot springs. The metaphor ‘Wonderland’ gained meaning as we watched the smoke rise mysteriously from rivers and woods, as if some giant magician sat hidden in the caves of the surrounding mountains.
More realistically and not so far below us, the volcano’s heat turned water into springs that rose in front of our eyes, and we held the thought that at any moment now, the ground could give away and we might be engulfed by lava.
Still we carried on, destined to watch the geiser basin so often seen on pictures, prying with its glowing colors of crystal blue, purple, pink, yellow and more. Billions of micro bacteria thrived in these thermals, each set on a certain temperature in the water. The further the winding road took us, however, the colder it got. Snowflakes were wiped from the windshield and hats and scarfs were gathered. By the time we arrived at the basin, the air had gotten too cold and the trail around the basin blinded us with smoke. We walked it anyway, bumping into Japanese tourists who never hesitated to take pictures from nothing but smoke. Once in a while, we caught a glimpse of the painter’s pallet below, and took comfort in the thousands of photographs and postcards, snapped on warm, clear days from above.
We arrived at Old Faithful just in time to watch the geiser erupt, in the coincidental company of our fellow wolf and elk discoverers. After all, the key to a great Yellowstone experience is timing.
The eruption was neat, smoky and several meters high of steaming water, like Earth spitting out a bad taste of ancient saliva. However cool this eruption was, wolf high as we were, we decided to prefer the calmer setting of Mammoth that smelled of grazing elk and a lone bison, and made our satisfied way to Old Faithful’s log dining room for a good ol’ burger with fries on the side.

Life changing experience
Brad warned us that a visit to Yellowstone could be a life changing experience, and I knew he was right from the moment we entered the historic North gate, until we sadly passed the ‘Leaving Yellowstone National Park’ sign.
We are grateful for the few who called a stop to settlement in 1872 and noticed that this place was special. Even the golden glow of the sun seems more pure and colorful than anywhere else I’ve been. The fall landscape treated us with bright yellow aspen, orange plains with the dark patches of bison, and green and purple bushes hiding an immense diversity of wildlife.
Out here, you feel alive. You realize Earth has plenty in store yet, if we only respect its brittleness and accept that there is an ecosystem far larger than our human needs dictate. No extreme is helpful, so when we think of a certain species, wolf, bear, bison, elk, moose, coyote, pronghorn, eagle or human, let’s distinguish our personal beliefs from the objective fact that every species has its own greatness, and we are nothing more or less than part of it.
Then maybe, as Gary Ferguson puts it, we can rest our heads wherever we are, knowing that whatever beliefs we may cherish, we’ll find consolation in the ancient ways of places like Yellowstone.

Did you see the bison on the left?

Ineke Vander Aa
Fall 2013

 

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