It was a cold winter day in Yellowstone National Park. There was nothing out of the ordinary or noteworthy about the weather. Snow was on the ground, temperatures were below freezing and the roads were occasionally slick with compact ice in the shady spots.
I had once again driven into the northern range in hopes of an amazing wildlife sighting or an epic snowshoe adventure. Maybe, if the stars were aligned and I believed in the tarot, I’d get both. I had been coming into the park all winter, at least once a week, looking for animals in the morning, hiking through the “heat” of the day, and then spending the evening slowly driving from Pebble Creek to Mammoth, scanning every ridge for something moving.
On this day, I had gotten a late start and had missed the morning’s activities. Instead, I was well-rested and eager to jump out of my vehicle and hit a trail. The hiking goal for the day was the Lost Lake Loop near Roosevelt, where I had previously watched a few bison tentatively walk across a frozen lake. I could hear the creaks and cracks from afar, but the ice held, and the bison continued to move south out of view. Up on the farthest ridge to the south of Lost Lake, there were also a few bull elk, lounging in the sun. I was hoping to return, this time with my good camera, and capture a few of these unique images. What I got instead was an experience that continues to this day.
I rounded the wide turn and caught my first glimpse of the pullout near the Petrified Tree. Typically, this spot would see a few cars at most, with passengers either scanning from their cars or a few people snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. That was not the case on this day. The parking area was packed, and the hillside looking north was lined with spotting scopes and camera setups more expensive than my car. Despite the crowds, I found a spot down below the main parking area and moseyed up to the group.
“What do you all see?” I asked one of the many professional photographers on the scene.
Silence greeted me.
I coughed and asked again, this time making eye contact with an older man with a gray beard. He shuffled a bit and looked away, which is sadly how many professional photographers have acted in recent years during the winter months. Years ago, like 15 or 20, you could ask someone, and they would be more than eager to respond and point things out. They would even nearly always let you look through their expensive spotting scope to see the animal if it was too far away to be seen with the naked eye.
Things have changed a bit in recent years. No longer is everyone always friendly. Many are now competitive and secretive, going so far as to work together and carpool from a larger parking area to where an animal is, so the number of cars at a pullout won’t draw a crowd. This man was part of the latter group, I assumed.
“Cool, great chat!” I said and walked toward a couple with a young child, all of whom were smiling widely.
Their exuberance contrasted with the old man, and when I asked them the same question, they responded with glee. “A wolf pack has been eating a bison just on the other side of the gully.”
They continued excitedly, sharing with me that the kill had happened late the previous night, and they had seen the wolves in the morning. They were nowhere in sight now, but the bison was still bloated and full of meat, ensuring the pack would return soon.
Typically, with a dead animal so close to the road and being scavenged by wolves, the rangers would move it farther away to ensure the safety of the animals. Because of the large gully separating the growing crowd of a dozen or so people and the kill, the powers that be deemed it safe and let the once-in-a-lifetime viewing continue.
I had sat by kills like this before, for hours and hours, waiting. Eventually, the wildlife feeding on the dead animal would return, but I typically don’t wait around any more. I always struggle to stand still for that long. I weighed my options.
I thanked the couple, gave them a copy of one of my guidebooks that I had in my backpack, and returned to my car. I figured that I could go snowshoe, then come back and maybe see them. If I missed the wolves, I would miss the wolves. I could be waiting for five or six hours for them to crest the hill again. I put on my snowshoes, told myself “No regrets,” and headed up the snowed-over road toward the Lost Lake Trail.
Five minutes from the car, I had rounded the corner and was out of sight of the handful of people sticking around for the wolves. The noise of passing cars and conversations had vanished. It was now just me and the crunching of snow under my snowshoes. I stopped and soaked it all in.
Then I heard something else crunching down the snow.
The crunching continued, but it was soft. Nervously, I looked around and saw a canine, smallish in size, coming into view from further up the road. At first, I thought it was a wolf, but only because I was wearing my stylish sunglasses instead of my prescription pair. As it got closer, it was quickly identified as a coyote. A handsome guy, with a bushy tail, a healthy belly, and a determined look on his face. He was heading my way, right at me.
I scampered to the edge of the road, but that was as far as I could go. A steep hill was on one side of me, while a dramatic drop-off greeted me on the other. He continued toward me. He was on a mission and didn’t seem to care about me at all. He was heading to the kill. You could tell by the look in his eyes. It was a meal, a large one that could help him push through another week in this brutally cold landscape.
He passed me and glanced at me. He was no more than ten feet away, but we locked eyes and quickly bonded. I wished him well as he passed, and he glanced back with a yawn. I imagined it was him telling me, “Same to you, buddy.”
As he walked away, I gave a warning to be careful, as there were wolves nearby. His ear twitched, but he kept on his path.
I hiked on, looking at a frozen lake, a frozen waterfall, and a myriad of animal prints in the freshly fallen snow. Yet, my thoughts stayed on my four-legged friend. After completing the hike, I walked back down the road toward my car. Rounding the corner, the noise of the people, now numbering around 15-20, was faintly heard, as were the sounds of shutters being snapped non-stop. I paused and glanced toward the dead bison.
The wolf pack was there and feasting on it. I wondered if the coyote had gotten a chance to feed before their arrival. My snowshoes were removed and tossed in the back of my car where my tripod, now in hand, had been sitting. I walked up the road to the best viewpoint and set up. The wolves were ripping flesh 75 yards from me. Everyone around was in awe.
I snapped pictures, but my mind drifted. I was curious about the coyote, but I was quickly brought back to reality. A wolf was being distracted from the bison by a raven hollering at it from a nearby fallen log. The wolf crept down the slope toward it, but as soon as he got to nearly lunging distance, the crow hopped away and mocked it some more.
I wanted on and saw movement down below the raven and wolf. The coyote was in gully. He was stealthily moving about, painstakingly slow. If the pack saw him, he would be chased down and more than likely killed. He knew the risks, but the desire to eat was worth it. For an hour, I watched him slink and lurk, waiting for a chance to grab some food and dart off. That moment never came. I gave up watching when I assumed he had given up his sneaky feast, which was when he found a log far away and lay on the side of it away from the kill.
I returned three days later, and the carcass was mostly bare. Eagles and ravens were picking at it, but there were no canines. There were also no photographers or cars in the parking area. I sat and watched the birds for a while, enjoying the stillness of winter. I began to wonder about the coyote and glanced toward the log where I had last seen him.
Nothing was there.
There are a few pit toilets at the large parking area near the gate to Roosevelt Lodge. The lodge is closed in the winter, but the spot is a popular place for visitors to relieve themselves and maybe go for a hike up to Tower Falls. I stopped here for the former and while in the short line, I started chatting with a couple who was at the wolf kill a few days earlier. They had told me that right as the sun was setting and the wolves were moving away, the coyote made his move. A few wolves saw him and attacked him, but he escaped, bleeding badly from one of his hind legs.
My heart sank. He had taken a risk and potentially paid the ultimate price. I thanked them for the information, waited in line, used the facilities, and headed toward Lamar Valley feeling full of sorrow.
Driving by the Specimen Ridge Trailhead, I spotted movement on the south side of the road, low and darting methodically between the tops of the sage that had yet to be covered with snow.
It was a coyote.
And he was limping.
His leg was still discolored and useless, hobbled up as the injured guy worked as best he could with three legs on the slightly soft snow. You could tell he was in pain. You could tell movement was a struggle. You could tell that even with it all, he was pushing forward. Onward.
I watched him roam for a bit and found myself searching for hope. His pace was quite good for the conditions. His snout was red, so he had been eating recently. Despite the lack of use in his leg, he seemed strong. His eyes, when he glanced my way thanks to a squeak from my brakes, had a look of determination. Maybe there was hope in this place for him after all.
I drove away pretty soon after I saw him. As much as I tried to stay positive, it was too much to watch. I needed to leave him and move on, not dwelling on what-ifs and the potential soon-to-be.
I wished him well again, and he turned his head one last time to look at me. There was no yawn this time. Just a look of resoluteness as he headed deeper into the wilds of a wintry Yellowstone.
This should be the end of the story, but a year later, in the summer, I was hiking in Lamar and saw a coyote in the distance limping.
The coyote was walking. On three legs, the fourth was tucked away.
It was the same leg as the coyote the year before.
It was the same size.
Throughout that summer in Lamar, I saw this guy. He was smart, sticking close enough to popular trails and roads to stay safe from most predators. Some in the park said he was habituated and faking his injury for human food. Some said he would be hit by a car if he was always hanging out that close to the road. Some even called for the park service to put him down so he wouldn’t suffer.
Every time I heard these complaints or comments, I would share my story.
Every time I saw him, he looked strong.
Every time I saw him, I wished him well and went on my way.
Every time I saw him, the pain in my heart was lessened.
A year later, the now infamous floods hit this region of Yellowstone, closing off Lamar Valley to nearly everyone. I was unable to enter the park and found myself curious about the coyote’s fate.
Had he been seen?
Was he still looking strong?
Curiosity won me over and I reached out to a few friends who worked in the park. I knew they had seen the limping coyote in previous years and knew that if anyone could know his status, it was them.
Every time I asked them, I would get an update.
I was first told that he had been seen and looked healthy.
I was later told he had found a mate.
Much later, I was told he had been spotted bringing food to a den with active pups.
My heart swelled.
At the end of October 2022, I was finally able to return to the park. The new road between Gardiner and Mammoth was paved and open. The washouts around Lamar Valley were repaired enough to allow entry. Without hesitation, I drove down to the park. The goal wasn’t to search for the crooked-walking canine. I wasn’t really even thinking of him as my car passed through Paradise Valley toward Gardiner.
In Lamar, I watched the late-season grizzlies plumply wandering through the sage. I wandered up Pebble Creek and witnessed firsthand the power of the raging waters of June 2022. I filled my soul with the energy that only Lamar could provide and decided I should start heading home.
The sun was low on the horizon, causing more haze than I’d have liked because of the smushed bugs on my windshield. I slowed down even more, taking advantage of an empty park, and noticed movement on the side of the road a few hundred yards ahead of me.
I slowed down to a near stop and shook my head in disbelief.
He limped in my direction.
I rolled down my window.
I wished him well.
He looked at me.
He went on his way, hobbling on.
We continue to cross paths and our routine has stayed the same.
I speak. He looks at me and yawns.
We go about our day.
Every time I drive into Lamar, I assume he will be there, looking for my car or me on the trail, awaiting my good wishes and showing me that as much as I think I know about the resiliency of animals in nature, I know nothing.
I know that on one of these trips, I will stop seeing him. I know that like everything, he will pass on and be forgotten by the lands and the visitors.
Knowing that his death will occur won’t stop me from forever scanning the prairies and hillsides around Lamar and Roosevelt, hoping to spot a limping coyote surviving against all odds.
His fame has risen to that of a regional celebrity, many of whom have given him the name “Limpy.” Some say he was hit by a car and that is why he limps, but they don’t have the same connection as I do. They see him every so often limping and hear he was hit by a car and accept that as the truth. But now you know better. Now you know the story of the limping coyote of Yellowstone’s northern range.