Editor's note: Visitors come from throughout the world to catch a glimpse of the wolves in Yellowstone National Park. For one recent visitor, the trek to the park's Lamar Valley had a cathartic outcome. Guest writer Todd Wilkinson explains.
A tall stoic man stood at the back of his pack, consumed by his own thoughts.
He had been listening to an instructor from the Yellowstone Association. For a couple of days, he squinted into roadside spotting scopes and absorbed eloquent discourses on natural history. He was there with family members who arrived to watch wolves together in the Lamar Valley.
Joining them now was Rick McIntyre, a Yellowstone National Park researcher, who has spent more than 3,500 consecutive days afield over the last decade chronicling Canis lupus since it’s return in 1995.
McIntyre knows the healing properties of healthy wild ecosystems. It was rectifying, he says, that Yellowstone restored wolves, since it had been park rangers tasked to carry out extermination in the late 1920s.
Lanky and wry, McIntyre is known for drawing parallels between human and wolf societies. Such anthropomorphic analogies, he believes, give people different angles to ponder animals and, in turn, a means to reflect on our own lives.
On this day, by chance, he shared the anecdote of a formidable alpha male lobo, the father of many daughters and co-leader of the Druid Peak Pack.
The wolf’s female offspring were testing their independence and ignoring their father’s over-protectiveness. Young males from a neighboring pack had noticed the daughters. They began coming into the territory and the interactions, increasingly, amounted to the equivalent of flirtatious dating.
The father didn’t think much of the intruders, and though the alpha could have destroyed them, he simply drove them off, resigned to the futile fact he could not stop the courtship, McIntyre explained.
Eventually, after months of ongoing interludes, one of the daughters returned home. She was pregnant.
As McIntyre related the true story, he had his audience’s rapt attention. He asked: “Do any of you have teenage daughters who dated guys you didn’t like?”
The tall man, off by himself, thought about it and then nodded gently in bemusement. McIntyre noticed a gleam in his otherwise serious demeanor.
The noted wolf ecologist continued his roadside lecture and afterward, the tall man lingered. McIntyre approached him and playfully inquired, “So, how did your daughter turn out?”
The man acted as if he hadn’t heard the question. A few moments passed and a few more. McIntyre felt awkward. He didn’t know what to do. Perhaps he had inadvertently said something offensive?
Following a pause, emotion crept to the tall man’s face. He told McIntyre in a soft tone that, yes; he thought his daughter had turned out alright, after all.
McIntyre realized there was something else, but he didn’t want to pry. He was already uncomfortable as the tall man turned, saying nothing more, and walked away.
A family member who had observed the exchange from the periphery stepped forward. He was ecstatic. “I don’t know if you realize what just happened but it was an amazing thing,” he said gratefully.
He explained that the tall man’s daughter had had a very difficult issue arise in her life and ended up dying from it as a young adult. The father had dealt with unspeakable grief.
He never talked to anyone about her, not even while in the company of relatives.
The experience of watching Yellowstone wolves had somehow ended his long silence. McIntyre was informed that it gave the relieved family a new opening to move forward in a way that it couldn’t before.
Just as he had the first moment he learned of the wrenching pain, McIntyre’s eyes now fill with moisture relating it again. “How does a father cope with a loss like that?” he asks.
McIntyre has witnessed the park’s effects on people. Some converge upon Yellowstone to temporarily forget or put the progression of time on hiatus. Others delve into the big scenes and find reasons to embrace a purpose.
The preserve, he suggests, can be a venue for healing. The same as it has repaired old biological holes once gouged into the heart of the ecosystem, it is capable of filling empty spaces in humans.
Few depart unmoved. Most go home to different internal places from the ones that accompanied them when they entered the gate. “It can be magical,” McIntyre says, “when you allow it to come in.”