Yesterday I spent over an hour watching three grizzlies revel and roar and hold off a pack of 10 wolves from a fresh elk carcass on Pelican Creek. I made the acquaintance of Ron who beat me to the scene and together we stood in the sun and the grass before one of the most beautiful and powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

I’d followed his set of boot prints all morning. His were the first to touch the trail that season, closed so late for bear habitat, and mine were the second. I walked wondering whether I would catch up to him or not. How fast my boots could move me. Jarred from my delicious motion I saw the first wolf four miles up. The animal stood black motionless on the edge of the meadow. My eyes stuck on that shape, so dark, so angular, and at that instant he caught my scent– the wind was at my back– and he took off for the cover of the pines that line the open valley bottom in a thick wall.

In a half mile I saw the wolf again. He stood on a rise and watched me. Then he turned his tail and loped off again. In this manner I continued to push him up the creek. I passed a bison carcass, the heavy mats of wet wool, and later another bison, reduced to a skeleton. A skull from CM Russell. And without warning the scene came on me all at once: a flurry of movement on an oxbow. The vague circling of uncountable shapes, dark and light. Two heavy humanoids, lulling like drunks, anchored the motion. My wolf in the timber barked and howled. A man stood on a promontory overlooking the commotion, top-heavy with his stuffed daypack, rigid and teetering before his tripod with a foot-long lens. I hurried down to join him.

And we watched. Slowly the animals scattered. The wolves left singly and in pairs, keeping the eyes of the bison, choosing lines through the pines. The grizzlies slapped at the water and rubbed in the meat. Then it was quiet except the steady western breezed. The river flowed high but silent. Ron and I traded emails. We learned that he knew my mom before my family moved to Wisconsin. He cautioned me against continuing up the trail, but I was charged and inspired and I hiked another three miles before turning around, stopping to remove my boots at the swollen creeks, taking off trail through dry sage to escape the swamps sheeting snowmelt, I burned my face in sun, smiled, and gasped through miles more air.

I drove the last three hours home as the sun got low and I made my first phone call in over a week, pulled over for a view of the Tetons. And today, I learn that Yellowstone’s first fatal bear mauling since 1986 occurred yesterday. A couple miles north of where we watched our magical scene. I am picturing the way our grizzlies lumbered north, gorged on those shocking ribs striped red and white violent, as Ron and I gaped and poured at how much life is there.

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Pelican Creek, 7/6/2011

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