The king of US national parks
‘We’ve got 12 packs now,’ says Stacey, with a proprietorial bearing earned through 10 consecutive wolf-spotting holidays at Yellowstone. He relates his epiphany with shining eyes. ‘On the last day of my first visit in 2001, I’m down the Lamar Valley with my wife when 25 members of the Druid Peak pack come right by us.’ He insists his wife’s as happy as he is to spend three annual weeks in Yellowstone, putting in 14-hour shifts squinting into an eyepiece. ‘But I acknowledge that the American male still likes to think of himself, deep down, as a frontier outdoorsman.’
There’s certainly a blokeish ambience about the park – a sense of flinty eyed, stubbled reconnection with one’s inner Davy Crockett. Tales of fatal misadventure – two hikers have been killed by bears in the last 12 months – are recounted with sombre relish, and plenty of teeth sucking at transgressions of good trail practice. Tracking a huge dark moose through a twig-snapping wood, I’m very glad of the neighbouring stalker who whispers that we’re safe. The unblemished black fur on those salad-server antlers indicates that the bull moose isn’t up for a fight.
People still come to Yellowstone for the geothermal action (‘I mean, how many times can you say you rode your bike round the rim of a volcano?’ says one of the many Harley-Davidson riders who file through at the stately 45mph speed limit), but they stay for the wildlife. Sprightly octogenarians Don and Jo Drain are up before dawn every morning, piloting their seven-metre recreational vehicle from a campsite just outside Mammoth Springs – the small town built for the park’s original military guardians – to one of Yellowstone’s fauna hotspots. ‘We’ve been coming here for a month every year for the past five years,’ says Don, dabbing his brow in the shade of his RV’s awning, ‘so we pretty much know the best places to see pronghorns, moose and wolves.’ And the best times to see them: ‘This is elk season. We saw a big bull with a huge rack put on a rutting display down by the river the other night – digging into the ground, urinating everywhere – one hell of a show.’ The Drains are familiar enough with the park’s ‘griz’ to know some by name. ‘Griz 264 is a superstar – he kills one or two elk calves a day. Then there’s the Five O’Clock Bear, who always comes out of the forest at that time. If you want to see bears, you need to be good at spotting a carcass – circling birds of prey, a little flash of white bone in the undergrowth.’
For the less dedicated naturalist, there’s a simpler technique: drive around until you hit a logjam of parked vehicles, then get out to see what everyone’s stopped to look at. Yellowstone’s roads cover just five per cent of the park, yet within a couple of days’ driving I’ve encountered every landmark species, except a wolf. A bull elk in the roadside pines, bugling hopefully, and rather effeminately, for a mate; a speckled osprey, posing for an hour on a conspicuous bough overlooking a lay-by; a moth-eaten coyote halfheartedly stalking a pronghorn, and most of the park’s 4,000 bison, rolling about in the dust, grazing in the dawn mist or ambling en masse up the tarmac, their huge minotaur-like heads brushing my wing mirrors. So confidently approachable does the wildlife seem – ‘cocky’ is Jo Drain’s word – that you begin to wonder if they’ve been bribed to satisfy the very low boredom threshold of any Disney-fed visitors who come expecting sights to be served up on demand.