Wild Things

 

“There are some who can live without wild things

and some who cannot.”

-Aldo Leopold

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I’ve been keeping a sort of Wildlife Life List over the years, and it has become fairly complete with local species—with one notable exception: Gray Wolf. This is not surprising, they were extirpated from Washington in the 1930s and only reappeared a few years ago. Since then, I’ve kept track of their surprising progress, and I’ve wondered if I’d ever get to see one. More than any other animal, I’ve wanted to see a wolf.

This nation once exterminated wolves with such extreme prejudice, it feels symbolic of the broader disregard for nature that has landed us in our current environmental mess. Now, we’re on a planet facing serious trouble. But, the return of wolves feels like a hopeful sign, a small step toward a more balanced state. I may be a dreamer, but I think if we can learn to coexist with a species as challenging and controversial as wolves, there might be hope for wild nature after all.

And maybe for us, too.

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A watercolor sketch of a wolf I did for a previous post, Gray Wolf. Nature is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable. Can we learn to live with wild things?

 

Last weekend, when my family and I had a possible wolf sighting, I was thrilled. And it wasn’t just one wolf, but three of them. A pack.

In all honesty, we’re not one-hundred percent sure it was a true sighting. Wolves look a lot like coyotes—except they are twice the size—and at a distance it’s hard to tell the two apart. Still, we had a pretty good look at them, and they just didn’t look like coyotes. There was something about their behavior and the way they moved—not slinky like the familiar coyote, but smoother, straighter, and more powerful-looking. Even more compelling, the next day we found 5-inch tracks nearby that were undoubtedly wolf, scat that was possibly wolf, and the kicker: Washington’s newest pack, the Wenatchee Pack, had an official Washington Department of Wildlife “Confirmed Sighting” a few months ago in Pitcher Canyon, just several miles to the south. There is no doubt…wolves are in the ‘hood.

So, there you go. Whether it was a true sighting, or just my own dreamer-self needing wild in the world, I’m adding Gray Wolf to my List.

 

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I painted this coyote for a project. Coyotes are half as big as wolves, have a narrower snout and larger, pointed ears. To me, the animals we saw didn’t look coyote-like.

 

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This is an unretouched photo of one of the tracks we found. It measured about 5 inches from the bottom of the pad to the top of the claw marks. Click here to see a comparison of wolf vs coyote vs dog tracks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The following story is a short sketch of our suspected wolf sighting last weekend. It’s all completely true…except for the obviously imaginative parts.

 

Pack

 

He was expecting us, of course—wild animals are far more in tune with the world than we are. He probably knew the moment we stepped out of the cabin door—all four of us talking and laughing, thoroughly enjoying our weekend-getaway in the Eastern Cascades.

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A quick watercolor sketch I did of the meadow as viewed from the cabin. Those are the Three Brothers in the distance.

 

My husband and I and my brother and sister-in-law were heading out for a sunset stroll to the old pioneer homestead where there’s a good chance of spotting the elk herd. Dusk and dawn are the best times for wildlife-watching, and the herd often comes out of the forest for an evening graze. Just that morning we had watched a bull elk with a magnificent rack of antlers saunter across the meadow like a king. At night, we’d hear the bulls bugling their love-calls to the females. It was a haunting sound, a little plaintive for such a regal animal. “Please, baby, pleeeease baby, pleeeee-eeeee-eeeee-eeee-eeeeese!!!”

 

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A detail of a watercolor illustration I did of a bull elk. At full size, the large males are eight feet tall.

 

We didn’t know it then, but we wouldn’t be seeing any elk in the meadow—they were hesitant to leave the forested cover. It was a good decision, because three of Nature’s supreme top predators were on the move, and they’d love nothing more than killing and devouring an elk. Gray wolves had not been seen in these parts for the better part of a century, but they were here now, and the elk were naturally nervous.

I imagine the scene…

…the wolves were bounding up from Pitcher Canyon, adrenaline and anticipation fueling their almost-flying gait. They knew the elk were nearby, the mountain air was saturated with elk-scent, and the constant bugling was like a beacon. The leader realized it was a long-shot—dangerous even. After all, an eight-foot bull elk deep in the frenzy of the rut would be a poor choice for prey. But still… there might be a sickling or a young one from the herd they could take.

 

Anyway, even if the hunt failed and they resorted to scrounging for mice or carrion, it would be worth it, just to feel like a pack. For most of his life he had run solo, existing on nothing but his wits, luck, and smaller, easier prey like beaver, rabbits and occasionally a deer. Then one day not long ago, a female had appeared, a straggler from a pack whose territory ran to the west, closer to the Cascade peaks. The two had forged the bonds of a breeding pair, ideally a partnership that would last their whole lives. Soon another female joined them, a younger sister to his mate and not yet fully mature. Now they were a pack of three. It was an important accomplishment—as a pack, they could support each other while they scouted out territory, a place with good prey where they could raise up new generations. Plus, now they could really hunt.  Since time began, wolves have practiced the art of cooperative hunting: assessment, strategy, and teamwork. It was high time to hunt like wolves.

 

But as the three wolves scrambled up from the forested canyon and trotted into the open expanse of grasses, the leader paused. Deep in his awareness, an alarm was being raised. He scanned the distance and, about a half-mile away he could see five or six dens, the kind used by only one species. Uprights.

 

He signaled to the others to take cover while he went to investigate. Following his nose, he found a good spot and took position, holding his head high and letting his nostrils flood with hundreds of the incomprehensible scents that always exuded from Uprights. The wind shifted and now he could hear them, and he perked his ears to capture their vocalizations, rising and falling from chirpy to booming and back again. None of it made sense, but still, he took note of every detail.

 

He stood stock-still with all senses on full-alert as they rounded the bend and came into view. Ah. Just as he expected: four Round-Headed Uprights. Adults. Two male, two female.

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The four of us strolled from behind a grove of ponderosas into the open. The rutted road led to the old pioneer homestead, now just an aspen-ringed clearing on a small rise above the meadow. I was lost in thought, imagining pioneer life in such a place. What would it be like, coming outside on a frosty morning to milk cows or hitch up the wagon and facing such a landscape: meadow, mountains and forest, all arranged like a carefully composed oil painting. It was almost too beautiful to be fully natural. How did they focus on chores with such a view?

I felt someone grab my arm.  Ralph was pointing to a spot straight ahead in the grasses.

“Coyote!” he whispered.

We all froze, and someone whispered, “who’s got the binos?” Each one of us —even though we knew better—had forgotten to pack decent binoculars. All we had was a flimsy loaner pair, shared between the four of us. We had been kicking ourselves all weekend for being such idiots, since we knew full well the cabin is a terrific place to see wildlife. The large camas meadow, with grasses, wetlands, and aspen groves, is ringed with ponderosa pines and Douglas fir forests—all just a hop and skip from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Usually, we saw elk, sandhill cranes, coyotes, bear, deer, owls, hawks, songbirds, snakes…you name it. A weekend at the meadow was like a mini-African Safari, Northwest-style.

And yet, we had forgotten binoculars.

“Oh, well…it’s better this way,” Fran had said as we started our walk. “It’s always when you forget your good binoculars that you spot something really cool.”

“Yeah, and at least we remembered the beer,” my brother Mark had added.

And sure enough, in the tall brown grass a hundred or so yards in front of us, we all saw him: a large grayish canine body standing with ears perked up and aimed straight at us like little radar dishes. He was obviously assessing us, reading our scents and our postures.

“Give me the binoculars!” Ralph hissed.

As I blinked to focus my naked eyes, I was struck by something about him I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“Strange coyote,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s a coyote,” Ralph said, his voice quavering just a bit. “Look at the size of him. Oh man…it’s gotta be a wolf.”

“A WOLF! Oh, let me see!” I squealed.

For the next few moments, the four of us fumbled around, passing the binoculars, and whispering as if to not give ourselves away. It was kind of silly since the animal was already fully zeroed-in on us.

“Do you think it’s really…”

“I can’t quite tell…”

“Oh geez, he’s looking straight at us…”

Suddenly, as if distracted by something in the distance, his head swiveled sharply sideways. Then he bounded off through the grasses.

“Darn, he’s gone…he ran off into those trees…I lost him…”

“There he is! He’s right there! Oh my god, here comes ANOTHER one! Look, they’re nuzzling each other!” The two wolves were sidling up against one another, brushing their bodies and faces together.

“Look! I see a third! There’s THREE of them!”

When it was my turn with the binoculars, I saw a smaller wolf run up to join the larger two.

“The third one looks playful, like a pup,” I said. “He’s…bouncy!” I was so excited I couldn’t think of the technical term and reverted to Pooh’s descriptor for Tigger.

The three wolves congregated for a few moments, then the leader took off, heading north toward the far end of the meadow.

“Look at that stride,” Ralph said. “Coyotes don’t move like that.”

It was true. There was something distinctly different about the posture and gait of these animals—they didn’t slink like coyotes, but ran smoother and straighter.

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The male had decided: the pack would move on. With Uprights here, this was not the time to go after elk, especially since there were only three of them to work the hunt. They would head north into the forest, and if they were lucky, they might be able to catch and kill a deer.

 

As he ran, all thoughts receded from his animal mind until there was nothing but the sensory input of the world and its creatures. He took it all in, instinctually searching for his own place in the midst of it all.

 

Now that they were a pack, he had a better chance of finding it. They all did.

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Seeing the wolves head north, we raced back to the cabin and settled ourselves out front where we’d have a good view—if the wolves continued on their trajectory they’d pass right in front of us.

As the sun sank deeper the gold sky seemed to dissolve, slowly revealing the blackness of infinite outer space. The meadow became drained of color until it was a silver expanse surrounded by shadowy forest. It seemed like the perfect place for wolves to hide in wait for prey to appear.

We waited in silence and I noticed that the birds and other wildlife seemed to have vanished—it was suddenly dead-quiet. I began to feel chilled from the light wind blowing down from the mountains. It had been a while…had we missed the wolves? Or, were they maybe in the forest taking cover for an ambush?

“Just think,” I whispered to Fran. “Maybe we’ll see the wolves take down an elk!”

She looked at me with widened eyes, and I couldn’t tell if she was intrigued or horrified by the thought. The scene started to play out in my imagination… the terrified screams of the elk as he struggled against the snarling hunters. I shivered. Did I really want to witness such a thing?

“There he is!” Ralph whispered as we watched a wolf dart across the meadow and into the woods on the north side. “That looks like the young one catching up—the other two probably went ahead. I think they’re gone now.”

Thirty minutes later it was pitch dark, the sky steadily filling up with stars. I got up and walked back up to the cabin and started getting things ready for dinner. Mark and Ralph got the fire going.

“Where’s Fran?” I asked as I set the table.

“Still out there,” Mark replied. He chuckled. “If we let her, she’d stay out there looking for wolves till the moon comes up.”

“Well, go tell her that her pack needs her to come inside,” I said. “It’s feeding time.”

 

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Here is the link to the rental cabin at Camas Meadow. Click here for info.

11 thoughts on “Wild Things

  1. You wrote, “I may be a dreamer, but I think if we can learn to coexist with a species as challenging and controversial as wolves, there might be hope for wild nature after all.”

    As John Lennon would say, “you’re not the only one” … dreamer that is. I think the same. Are you familiar with Project Coyote in the Bay Area, by any chance? They’re involved in educational efforts about coexistence with coyotes and other predators. I see that model as the future of our interaction, if we’re going to move toward a more progressive ethic toward our fellow travelers on four feet and wings. I hope with all of my heart that “progressive” and compassionate are cornerstones of our future wildlife policies.

    • Ingrid, so glad I’m not the only one! I have not heard of Project Coyote – I’ll check it out. I think education is so important. There tends to be such an urban-rural divide on the subject of wolf recovery, and I believe it stems from poor communication. Living with wildlife—or any form of wild nature—is not easy, but it is essential to the human spirit. I think we can find a way, if we try.

  2. What a beautiful post! Seeing those wolves must have been an incredible experience. I’ve always wanted to see a wolf, though I’ve heard them many times howling in the forest around my parents’ house.

  3. Wild things you make my heart sing

    You make everything groovy, wild things
    Wild things you move me
    And I know, I know that for sure
    Wild things, I love you
    And I hope, I hope you endure…
    (a ditty for you-plagarized from Chip Taylor, songwriter)

    • How nice! I’m sure Chip wouldn’t mind. I’ve been humming that (old!) tune, too, since I started working on the story. I hope they endure, too.
      Now I’ll be expecting to hear a cover of that one on your next CD!

  4. What a thoroughly beautiful story, and introduction. And always, always – love your art. I just read about the slaughter of a sacred albino moose yesterday, in Canada, by visiting hunters…. Sad doesn’t cover it. So this is oh-so-timely. Many thanks for honoring these creatures with whom we share our planet (not very well, thus far).

    • Thank you, FeyGirl! I think down there in your area (Florida), red wolves once lived…I wonder if there are any left in the wild? To be sure, top predators have hard time competing with humans, wherever they are.
      But, killing an albino moose just seems like senseless slaughter.

  5. Hi Denise. That was wonderful; I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I find I am rather jealous… what a very cool experience you all had! Excellent. Assuming they continue to thrive… there will be more sightings. ~Kim

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