Rounding a bend, our photography group spotted what at first appeared to be a couple of coyotes trotting on the opposite side of the road. Too large for coyotes, we quickly realized we were overtaking a pair of wolves. We drove past them, stopped, wordlessly piled out of our van and quietly, reverently, awaited the approach of the wolves, whose ancestors trod the North American continent perhaps 200,000 years before modern day humans would evolve and began their slow march out of Africa.
Upon reaching the opposite side of the road, one of the wolves turned our way, staring at us with what I took as curiosity. This was no coyote, that lean and sly and highly adaptble predator. This was a massively powerful animal, with its enormous paws and long legs thicker than the trunks of the surrounding saplings. There seemed no hint of malice in the stare; no wolf on this continent, to my knowledge, has ever attacked a human.
A third wolf appeared from nowhere. As if on cue, all three turned from the road at once - the third wolf, apparently in charge, looking over its shoulder to give us a hard, cold, warning stare - and disappeared through the green curtain of the forest. What freedom these creatures experience, beyond what any of us, exploring the park in our metal cages, can know.
Reintroduced into the park in 1995, wolves have been successful in establishing packs of themselves throughout much of Yellowstone. Although I've seen wolves in Yellowstone over the past several years, it's always been from quite a distance. I've observed their behavior - by turns placid and playful - through a spotting scope, but certainly they were always too far away from us to photograph. This time, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. For a few moments, we enjoyed sharing the forest with a few wolves who've learned not to fear humans, at least not within the confines of Yellowstone National Park.