It was 6 a.m. and the sun had yet to emerge over the craggy peaks of Yellowstone. The air was eerily still, and silence hung over the Lamar Valley, where much of the park's wildlife had gathered for the winter. The land felt deserted.
We pulled up to a parking lot that was empty save for one car: that of famed wolf biologist Rick McIntyre. When McIntyre is squinting through a telescope, you know exactly what he's looking at. I exited the van, the frosty air biting at my thick jacket, as McIntyre gestured wordlessly for me to take a look. Suddenly I heard a melancholy howl, and a chill crept down my spine, unrelated to the cold. Through the glass I saw seven wolves, members of the Junction Butte pack.
On Natural Habitat Adventures' Ultimate Wolf and Wildlife Safari, travelers can observe wolves living wild and free, restored to their prehistoric habitat. Though the primary draw is expert-led game drives, the itinerary, which takes travelers from Jackson, Wyoming, to Bozeman, Montana, includes a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge, excursions in Grand Teton National Park, snow-coach tours of sights like Mammoth Hot Springs, and a visit with wildlife photographer Dan Hartman at his log cabin in Cooke City, Montana.
On the journey, moose, foxes, elk, otters, and all manner of wildlife make cameos. One night, as we hunkered down at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge near Yellowstone's famous geyser, a herd of bison meandered past. During a stay at the rustic-chic Explorer Cabins in West Yellowstone, a curious red fox came to visit my campfire. I felt as if I were stepping back centuries in time to when wildlife roamed freely.
Wolves have all but disappeared from the United States, making Yellowstone one of the few places where it's possible to see one in the wild, and even so, they remain elusive. But 85 percent of Natural Habitat Adventures' guests catch a glimpse of the shy creatures. Either through a scope set up by one of the naturalists or biologists who lead the tracking expeditions, or just peering out of the safari truck's pop-top roof, wolves are easy to spot against the brilliant snow. Thanks to an informal radio network of rangers, biologists, and wolf-watchers around the park, expedition leaders are the first to know when a pack is located.
The beauty of seeing an apex predator in the wild goes beyond a mere travel memory or a snapshot. These moments reconnect us with the world as it's meant to be and trigger revelations about ourselves. Watching these animals — deadly, yet still in need of our protection — makes us shockingly aware of the power and vulnerability of being human.