The genesis of this book was a week-long wolf-watching class I took 10 years ago in Yellowstone National Park, which was the first time I saw wolves. I had never been to the park in the winter, and I was profoundly unprepared, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I grew up in Texas, and we were not a family that skied, so I had never seen the kind of snow you find in the northern Rockies. Before my trip, I went to the REI store in Austin and told the salesman I needed a winter coat. I told him I’d be standing outside in temperatures well below freezing for hours, looking through a spotting scope as my classmates and I searched for wolves. The salesman nodded and steered me to a medium-weight down jacket that came only to my waist. No hood. “This should be fine,” he said. The class instructor had told us to bring snow boots, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, so I just packed my hiking boots, which were not insulated or waterproof.
I rented a Subaru at the Bozeman airport, figuring I'd need all the help I could get on the icy roads, and I was right. Notoriously overcrowded in summer, Yellowstone is virtually empty in December, when most of the park is accessible only by snowmobile. Just a single road through the northern tier is kept open all winter, plowed daily for the benefit of the handful of visitors and for the 100 or so people who live just outside the park’s northeastern entrance and would otherwise be unable to leave their driveways.
The class was in the Lamar Valley at the Yellowstone Institute’s Buffalo Ranch facility, a collection of cabins and classrooms set on a hillside overlooking the Lamar River. My roommate happened to be a fellow Texan, a transplant who now lived in western Wyoming, where he guided whitewater rafting tours and had seen a lot of mountain winters. “Where is your coat?” he asked me as we settled in to our cabin.
“I’m wearing it,” I said.
“Oh, man,” he said. Fortunately, he had a spare — a giant parka that covered everything but my lower legs — and the Institute had a cabinet full of snow gear, no doubt for people like me who didn’t know what they were getting into.
There was a lot of blood on the snow; you had the sense that something frenzied and terrifying had happened there.
Once I was properly outfitted, the class was wonderful. We began each day at dawn, the air so crisp it felt electrified. For the first few days we set up on a knoll with a commanding view of a creek drainage, so covered in deep snow it was almost completely featureless. About a half-mile out was an elk carcass, and we trained our powerful tripod-mounted scopes on it. The wolves who had brought it down were long since finished with it and nowhere in sight. Our instructor, Nathan Varley, was born and raised in Yellowstone, the son of the park’s longtime head of research. He asked us to count and record the scavengers that came and went throughout the morning, to aid in a study that the park’s biologists had underway. We saw magpies and ravens, mostly, but also golden eagles and the occasional fox or coyote. Most of the bears, of course, were hibernating. At the end of the first day, we walked out to take a closer look at the carcass. It was a big bull — much bigger than you’d think a member of the deer family could be, probably close to 600 pounds. Varley showed us the rumen — the elk’s second stomach, still full of grass and untouched by the carnivores who had been feeding there for days. Everything else was gone — muscle, cartilage, organs, even some of the bones and hide had been eaten. There was a lot of blood on the snow; you had the sense that something frenzied and terrifying had happened there, and you wondered what on earth could have done this.
On the third day we finally saw them. We spotted the Slough Creek Pack, or most of them, standing high atop a partially forested ridge. They were far away, and even through our scopes they were tiny, but you could see their faces, which was astounding. The white snow made their dark bodies easy to track as they moved here and there through the trees. We didn’t see them hunt that day, but we witnessed something far more unusual. As the Sloughs rested in the snow, a lone wolf from another pack approached, moving cautiously up the mountainside. Varley, suddenly excited, urged everyone to zero in on him, because we were about to see something most visitors never would. Life for a lone wolf is dangerous. Packs generally have only one breeding pair, and young wolves have to leave their homes to find mates and territories of their own. Most don’t succeed. They either give up and return to their natal packs, or end up dead, killed by rival wolves who relentlessly patrol their holdings and brook no trespassers. Occasionally, though, a lucky lone wolf will find a mate, or, as this one was now attempting to do, persuade a strange pack to take him in as an adopted son or daughter.
As we looked on, the Sloughs leaped to attention and rushed to meet the stranger, the alpha male and female taking the lead. The intruder didn’t run; instead, he seemed to shrink into himself, ducking his head all the way onto the snow and tucking his tail between his legs. The younger Sloughs seemed delighted to see him, but the alphas were wary, charging at him again and again and briefly forcing him to roll onto his back, as meek and submissive as he could possibly be, before leaping up to protect his flanks in case of attack. My classmates and I were entranced, but also anxious, bracing ourselves for the very real possibility that we were going to see a wolf get killed in front of our eyes. In the end, the young wolf scampered away, back down the mountain the way he came, and the alphas let him go. He might try again tomorrow, Varley told us, or he might run all the way home, thankful to be alive. When the encounter was over, my classmates and I were bubbling with childlike enthusiasm, suddenly unaware of the stinging wind on our exposed cheeks, or our frozen feet.
I was hooked.
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is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly
. His first book, Tulia
, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Texas Institute of Letters nonfiction prize, and was named a New York Times
Notable Book of 2005. The Washington Post
called it one of the most important books about wrongful convictions ever written. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his family. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West
is his most recent book.