How I Got that Shot: A close encounter with Canyon Pack wolves in Yellowstone

The Canyon Pack alpha male wolf (right) and his mate run near the FIrehole River in Yellowstone National Park. (©Sandy Sisti - click to enlarge)

The Canyon Pack alpha male wolf (right) and his mate run near the FIrehole River in Yellowstone National Park. (©Sandy Sisti - click to enlarge)

By Sandy Sisti

Some people have said that successful wildlife photography is 50 percent skill and 50 percent luck, but some days it just seems as though you don’t have anything going for you.

That’s the kind of day it was in late August, when my husband, Steve, and I decided to drive to Yellowstone National Park for a day hike on DeLacy Creek Trail, near Old Faithful. August is usually a slow month for wildlife watching, since many of the animals are in the high country to escape the heat and enjoy the lush mountain forage.

Even though I wasn’t counting on seeing any notable wildlife, I checked some of the internet wildlife watching sites to see if I should keep my eyes open for anything in particular.  The Yellowstone Wildlife site reported that three of the Canyon Pack wolves had been spotted the previous day in Gibbon Meadows.

That sounded interesting, but I didn’t have much hope of finding the elusive Canyon wolves. But Steve and I left home early anyway in hopes of catching a glimpse of something exciting.

Most of our drive from Wapiti, Wyo., between Cody and the East Entrance was in darkness. But as we neared Yellowstone Lake, there was enough light for us to search for wildlife. We checked some favorite haunts for grizzlies along the lake, but had no luck.

We then drove through Hayden Valley without any success. Even the rutting bison herds weren’t visible to us that morning—not a good sign. When we got to the Madison area, we stopped along the Madison River in hopes of finding some bull elk, but only found a herd of elk cows and calves in the far distance.


Great blue heron

Wolves from the Canyon Pack in Yellowstone National Park drink from the Firehole River. (©Sandy Sisti - click to enlarge)

Wolves from the Canyon Pack in Yellowstone National Park drink from the Firehole River. (©Sandy Sisti - click to enlarge)

Itching to find something to photograph before our hike, I spotted a great blue heron fishing along the Firehole River, and asked Steve to pull the car over so I could take a few shots.  As I was photographing the heron, I heard Steve whisper, “wolves,” and soon saw three wolves from the Canyon pack. It was the pack’s alpha male (a wolf known as 712M) and his mate, a white female, along with a gray yearling. They were crossing the road, headed toward the Firehole River.

Even though they saw us, the Canyons continued their approach to the Firehole, intent on getting a drink. At that point, it was just us and them. “Unbelievable,” I thought, and turned my telephoto lens from the great blue heron to the Canyons to start shooting.

But for some reason, I couldn’t get my camera to focus on the wolves—what on earth was wrong? In a state of what I like to call “photo frenzy” (some might know it as “buck fever”), I forgot that I had my focus point set to shoot the great blue heron in a vertical format. Crap! I wondered if this kind of screw-up ever happened to famous photographers like Tom Mangelsen or Art Wolfe. Doubtful, I thought. Quietly uttering profanities, I adjusted my focus point just in time to allow me to fire off some shots of the wolves before they decided they had enough to drink and went back across the road into the trees.

After they departed, we waited a few minutes, hoping for their return. Although we couldn’t see them, we could hear the Canyons howling in the trees. They sounded relatively close, so we decided to stay in the area to see if they would reappear. It was a long shot, but we didn’t have much to do before our hike, and this seemed like a good way to spend the morning.


Waiting for wolves

We packed up the camera gear, got back in the car and drove up and down the road for about  90 minutes, looking into the trees hoping to see the Canyons. Unfortunately, we saw nothing but some ravens and a very intimidating bull bison.

We were about to give up when we saw the yearling’s head pop out from the trees, followed by 712M and the alpha female. This time, we were ready for them, as they made their way from the Firehole to Fountain Flats Drive.

They were quite a sight, trotting along the tree-line with their tails held high. To us, it seemed that they were running just for the joy of it. Although we wished it could have lasted longer, our encounter was over quickly, as the wolves crossed the Firehole and again disappeared into the trees.

In that short time, I took a few hundred pictures of the Canyon Pack wolves, hoping to capture an image that would reflect what we experienced that morning. Once we got home, I combed through the images and found our favorite: a photo of alpha male 712M and his mate, the white alpha female, running side-by-side.

Although there is no way a photo can capture the emotions we felt after our close encounter with the Canyons wolves, this one photo will always remind us of how lucky we were that morning when they decided to cross our path.

Sandy Sisti is a wildlife and nature photographer based just outside the east entrance of Yellowstone, in the heart of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Sisti is also an avid hiker who enjoys exploring Yellowstone’s backcountry. Her 2013 Yellowstone wildlife calendar is on sale now.

6 thoughts on “How I Got that Shot: A close encounter with Canyon Pack wolves in Yellowstone

  1. Sandy, as an avid wolf lover and advocate AND someone whose first trip ever to Yellowstone National Park NEXT WEEK, this is so exciting and inspiring! Thank you for sharing this incredible shot and your experience in seeing these beautiful animals in their element.

    • Hi Rhonda,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the story and photos and I do hope that you have a chance to see wolves during your first trip to Yellowstone next week-how exciting! The Canyons wolves have been in Hayden Valley a lot in the early mornings lately so I would give that area a look-specifically near Alum Creek, Chittendon Bridge and Cascade Meadows. Best of luck to you and I hope you have a wonderful time!

  2. I have always liked the saying: “The harder you try, the luckier you get”!

    Sandy is always in the field, that is why she gets lucky so often. Sometimes though it comes really late in the day or late in the week :D

    We make our own luck, Great photos Sandy!

  3. We have seen one wolf 2 different time in Yellowstone. The first one was at Yellowstone lake when I came to close for comfort. I was looking at something across the lake not paying attention to my husband, who was trying to get me to come back to the car. The wolf seen me about the same time I seen him. I slowly started backing up and he slowly started walking away. We both was not taking our eyes off of each other. I wish I had remember my camera WAS in my hand. Got a couple of pictures, but he was almost to far away by the time I remember the camera I was holding. The 2nd time was when we watched as a wolf was stacking a buffalo. I did get a good picture that time. Been to yellowstone twice now and LOVE the beauty of the whole area. Hope to get back someday.

  4. Hi Opal,
    It sounds like you’ve had some awesome experiences during your visits to Yellowstone. It definitely is a special place!