A dual by-line with my friend Becca Skinner, originally published in On Land Magazine.
LAURA: They glide through the icy water with apparent ease, their heavy, snow white bodies leaving a trail of beautifully symmetrical v-shaped ripples. It must take enormous effort to swim against the current.
The swans navigate it gracefully, occasionally pushing their long necks underwater, rolling stones in search of hidden nourishment. Rising steam from the riverbank crystalizes on the heavy pine boughs behind them, creating an ombre effect of glistening white rising up to meet deep greens, fading again to pure white on the mountain tops that hold the Madison River tight.
We pause the snow coach at a spot where two large trees sweep to the side like open theatre curtains, the swimming swans perfectly placed at center stage. There isn’t another vehicle in sight. If this is all we see today, I’m satisfied.
The babbling of the river current fades behind us; snow-heavy clouds hang low ahead. I close my eyes for a moment, praying I’ll never lose this sense of awe inspired by our first national park. When I open my eyes again, we’ve distanced ourselves from the river; the Fountain Flats open the landscape ahead. Four other snow coaches are gathered on the side of the road. We slow, looking south.
Less than 200 yards away, three gather on the flat. The Wapiti pack, our guide says. We creep down the coach’s stairs, huddle together and watch breathlessly as the lead distances himself from the other two. He pauses, points his nose skyward, and howls. The wind carries the sound to us. Soon, a cacophony erupts. Howls, yips and mournful cries echo across the flats. It’s not an echo. On the knoll to the east, there are six more.
Someone turns back to the coach to retrieve another layer of warmth and with a deep breath, tells us to turn around. One by one, eight more emerge from the trees to the north, leaping over snow drifts to meet their packmates. They give us a wide berth, cross the road ahead, and merge. The pack bows to the alphas, then, a frenzied greeting of licks and yips and rolls.
By now, I’m watching the photographer from the snow coach ahead of us as much as I’m watching the wolves. Our group of watchers has coalesced with theirs. Frozen tears pool under her eyes. Her hands shake with energy. I watch her taking deep, steadying breaths to still her quivering camera. Between shutter clicks, she repeats...