The Yellowstone wolf encounter was phenomenal. If that was the only black wolf we saw last summer, no one would be complaining. After all, like cougars, black wolves don’t exactly grow on trees.
But this is Jill we’re talking about. So of course we’d find more black wolves up close and personal in 2014.
After leaving Yellowstone, we made our way through Glacier, Waterton and into Canmore before we (by which I mean I) waffled as to where we should go next. Back-track to Kananaskis and look for grizzlies? Or keep driving north to Jasper in the hopes of seeing black bears at the tail-end of berry season?
We chose the latter. Thank God.
We set out from Canmore before 5am so that we could drive Banff’s 1A highway at an early hour, hoping to find grizzlies which were becoming increasingly scarce on this trip. But the day started with many frustrations. We couldn’t find a gas station that was open. And then we couldn’t find Jill a coffee. I thought she was going to murder me.
Better late than never, we got underway and started down the 1A about an hour later than hoped. Thankfully the weather wasn’t great, so I hoped this would mean less traffic and more wildlife.
After reaching the halfway point on the 1A, I remember being a little perplexed as to why we hadn’t even seen a deer. I started cursing Banff.
And then I bitterly started questioning why Jill hadn’t produced a black wolf for us lately.
I swear within five seconds a black dot appeared ahead of us on the road.
We both looked at each other. We looked at the dot. We willed it not to turn into someone’s pet on the prowl. But why either of us remotely questioned the obvious is beyond me. Of course it was a black wolf.
I have been fortunate to have seen many wolves in my life – most of them from a distance, through a scope, in Yellowstone. Obviously, we saw a pretty amazing wolf in Yellowstone earlier in the summer. But somehow this was different.
As we pulled ahead of the wolf, turned off the car and looked back, we watched the massive alpha male of the Bow Valley pack trot toward us.
He looked old. And weary. And maybe even a little bit sad. But he also looked proud. And wise. And powerful.
He very rarely would pay us any attention, as he walked west on the 1A. It seemed that the effort of going through the forest was just a little bit too much at his age. The road made life just a bit easier.
I knew what false comfort the road offered wolves in Banff, but I also wanted to let him have this morning and sought to focus on ensuring his safety, more than getting the perfect shot.
We would drive ahead of bends in the highway and watch for traffic until he reached the straight away again. But, as it turns out, there was no need for worry. In the hour we watched him, a car never passed.
We weren’t, however, alone with this alpha male and his gigantic paws. We all shared the road with another wolf – this one almost silver in colour and sporting a collar. The alpha female of the pack.
Together the two wolves trotted west. Occasionally they’d walk side-by-side. More often than not, the female would walk along the power cut, while the male walked alongside our car.
After several kilometres, he left the road and both disappeared from sight.
About five minutes further along the road we saw a car stopped. We knew the two wolves couldn’t have covered that distance so quickly, so our thoughts turned to bear or elk.
We never reached the parked car, for as we slowed Jill spotted another black wolf.
Our first reaction, obviously, was to laugh. Uncontrollably. Like two maniacs who had just escaped the insane asylum. Like, come on, another black wolf? Dude. Seriously. This is getting weird.
Then the most beautiful wolf either of us have ever seen stepped out of the forest and on to the road.
Unlike the previous wolf encounter, this one wasn’t trotting down the highway. It was hunting.
And it made sure we knew that it knew we were around.
Though this is the kind of wolf that is often depicted as a blood-thirsty man-killer, we both felt very much at peace in its presence.
Mercifully, the light slowly began to improve – not enough to use the big glass, but the wolf was so close, my 70-200mm lens more than got the job done.
The setting wasn’t ideal – on a road – but the wolf was as perfect of a specimen you could ask to encounter.
And you had the feeling that it was almost ghost like. Not really in front of you; that it would disappear in a heartbeat.
So I pressed down on my trigger again and again.
Finally, it moved back into the woods, across the train tracks and out of sight.
It was a morning we’ll never forget, but one we also wanted to re-live.
After a week in Jasper, we decided to spend two nights in Banff in the hopes of seeing the wolves again.
And on our early morning drive down the 1A? That old black wolf, once more, was out walking the line.
Clearly Jill has some kind of strange voodoo power. Whatever she asks to see, she will see. I can only hope that she uses this power for good. And by good, I mean pine martens.
So what’s on the docket for next summer you ask?
I pestered Jill and she revealed the news. It’s not a pine marten (dammit!); it’s a woodland caribou. Not the most remarkable animal to see in the wild, but next to impossible to find in the summer. I’d say stay tuned, but I think we all know how this story will end.