“I’m just a nobody.”
I won’t say this man’s name but if you have stood on the side of the road in Yellowstone during the winter searching through a spotting scope for distant wolves, you have probably met him. He claims to be “just a nobody” because he does not have “advanced degrees” or a job with the Park Service. He hasn’t written books about the Lamar Valley or received awards for his research. He simply drives his battered camper van down from Canada to spend a number of weeks in fall and winter looking for wolves.
Winter wolf-watching from a camper van in one of the coldest places in the country is not for the faint of heart. It means getting up at dawn to drive Yellowstone’s one plowed road to see if you can spot the Junction Butte or the Wapiti or the Lamar Canyon packs. It means keeping your ear tuned to the crackle of a two-way radio to learn what other winter wolf-watchers are finding. It means sleeping in empty campgrounds or in friends’ driveways outside the park, grabbing a shower when someone offers one, doing laundry at the laundromat in Gardiner when you can steal a couple of hours. It also means hours of standing on the side of the road in bone-chilling cold with your eye glued to the lens of a spotting scope, glassing the snow-covered hills for wolves and taking down details of pack behavior when you see them.
You would think this uncomfortable existence has the potential to turn someone into a grumpy bugger. But the man who says he is “a nobody” is always the first to welcome a visitor to his spotting scope to share a glimpse of the wolves. He doesn’t rush you and will even go to his van to grab a back-up scope if there are a few of you lining up for a look. He will respond to your novice questions about pack dynamics and history with a smile, generous with his knowledge, and eager to help you learn the ropes. On chilly days, he’ll jump in the back of his van and heat up some hot chocolate for you. Thanks to the attention of the “nobody,” you feel your wolf ignorance beginning to fade and get replaced by a growing familiarity. You start to get a feel for what is going on. When the next car slows and a head pops out to ask you what you are seeing, you can say with confidence, “It’s the Wapiti pack. The Alpha female is the light-colored one to the left. They are not on a kill, just resting.”
You see, over the course of a day or two, the man who describes himself as “a nobody” is helping you feel like you belong somewhere within the winter wolf-watchers. He is helping to integrate you into the pack. It is a curious crowd indeed, made up of amateur biologists, retirees, students, photographers, and various other oddballs and loners. The piece that brings them together is a love of a wild world that exists beyond the confines of the human one. Out on Specimen Ridge tracking a weakened elk, the wolf pack conducts its business in near oblivion to human concerns. The wolf-watchers feed on getting a glimpse of this other world, one whose wild efficiencies shed a revealing light on their own.
I’m certain the wolf-watchers start to reflect back what they observe in the wolves. It’s cold, our needs are simple, our interests the same. There are things that need to happen if everyone is to get by. Not everyone is an alpha. But the pack survives because everyone plays their part. There are uncles and sisters, great aunts and hangers-on all adopting crucial roles. These individuals aren’t always as eye-catching as the alphas but they are just as essential. They are a glue and a quiet inspiration.
This truth is made crystal clear when standing in the snow on the side of Yellowstone’s roads next to the man who says he is “a nobody.” His presence and his efforts help to build a lasting bond between the place, the animals, and the fellow wolf-watchers. I am deeply grateful for this.