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Updated: Dec 18, 2020

By Amanda Gabryszak

My classmates and I were leaving Yellowstone that day. On one last assignment, we trudged over the snowy hills at dawn to see if we could properly follow and identify animal tracks. It was nine years ago – the memory is getting fuzzy. But as my classmates and I ascended the crest of the hill, I saw the wolf – and the wolf saw me.

It was this strange moment of connection. We were simply doing what our professor told us to. But in contrast, it seemed the wolves tracked us back out of concern or curiosity before recognizing we were human, and fleeing. Neither we nor they got too close for the situation to be dangerous – and they were gone more quickly than I could’ve snapped a photo even on my cellphone. It’s true more people are hurt each year by far more bison and elk in Yellowstone each year than they are by wolves – but that doesn’t mean you should go looking for close encounters with them – it’s disrespectful and dangerous to try and get too close. Usually, for the better I think, if you are lucky enough to see wild wolves it’s at a site already identified by park biologists tracking a collared wolf, or serious wolf watchers with sophisticated gear. They’ll likely have staked out a safe spot from the early morning hours on – viewing the packs of canids through scopes, collecting data, and answering questions. Unless our teacher had collaborated with the park biologists, this was different.

Gray wolf in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone Park, Wyoming.

When I look back, that’s the memory that stands out the most on that trip. Sure, we worked with park biologists and listened to presentations and looked through scopes. We saw pronghorn and coyotes and even wolves on other occasions. But something was different about that last encounter. Something changed.

I was 19. It was before I started working in wildlife rehab. I’d only taken two science courses. I thought I was going to be a journalist. I went because I thought I would tell the story of wolves, and their reintroduction to Yellowstone; that I’d have a totally hands-off role.

Through that encounter – and a later internship as a naturalist back in the region – I was stricken by this baffling realization that I didn’t want to be someone that only thought about and wrote about and taught about the wolves and other animals – I wanted to work with them. Directly.

Why I link it back to that chance encounter, I have no idea. But I think when I saw the wolves in a more wild environment, something clicked. I caught a glimpse of a world I wanted to participate in, as well as protect. Not to say I wanted to go run off with the wolves in an anthropomorphic sense, but I understood that there’s more to the wild world than we can understand; and we are destroying it.

It’s great people are getting outdoors more and more with the pandemic, but it’s important to respect the park rules and obey the trails. I sometimes wonder if people can connect with wildlife and nature while rushing through the national parks. I think that’s why it’s important to slow down and listen, and really use your senses and put yourself in the moment – wherever you’re at.

If my classmates and I hadn’t been paying attention and rushing through the trail we were hiking because we were cold, we might’ve missed the wolves entirely. The more we rush through our lives, the less we see the beauty of it all.

The pandemic has forced many of us to sit still, but maybe sitting still and learning to look out the window is what we need. We might not have wolves in Western New York, but there’s still an abundance of wildlife and many parks waiting to be explored. Fostering connection with the natural world does not mean feeding or touching wildlife. That’s more often the opposite – trying to own or control.

Rather, find time to just be in nature. No agenda. Nothing to do after. Maybe you’ll feel that connection.

The world opens up when you start paying attention.

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