Revisiting the wolf

Last summer the girls and I had a wonderful, magical encounter in a relatively remote part of the Payette National Forest. We were on the Ruby Meadows/Willow Basket trail. We'd run out four or five miles, beyond where motorized vehicles are allowed. We were on our way back to the car. It was a Monday, in August, and other than the one elk we spooked and the occasional bird or chipmunk, we were blissfully alone. Or so we thought.

Leaving a stream where the girls had paused to slacken their thirst, we moseyed down the trail. I had just noticed that Maia's tail was down when she suddenly stopped and turned nearly 180 degrees to look back into the forest behind us, up slope. Meadow, as always taking her cue from Maia, also stopped to look. Meadow's tail dropped, perhaps the first time I had ever seen that happen. When I too turned to follow the direction of their gaze, I looked directly into the eyes of a wolf.

I felt awe, surprise, calm, and above all, delight. Finally. I've wanted to see a wolf in t
he wild since moving here. I welcomed him, and felt no fear. Which frankly, surprised me.

His body language was casual, curious, and easy, putting all of us at ease. Clearly, he was simply curious. He stood tall on long skinny legs, ears erect and listening, looking at each of us in turn. I understood why he came to investigate. We were, after all, doing what wolves often do - trotting quietly and steadily through the forest. We were in his territory. And two of the three of us look like wolves. Maybe he was hoping for a mate.

I was relieved that the girls showed no inclination to move toward him, or chase h
im, or run away. We all simply stood still and observed each other for several seconds. Then the wolf turned and literally danced - seemingly floated - away. I've never seen an animal move so quietly and gracefully, unrushed yet purposeful. He stopped once, looking over his shoulder at us as if to say "run safe" before melting into the forest shadows.

Driving home, it almost seemed like a dream.

I'll never forget those brown wolf eyes, which had been highlighted by the sun's rays filtering through the tree branches as I gazed into them. It is nearly impossible to describe the feelings and emotions I experienced. Yet when I meet someone who has had a similar encounter, they know; they understand.

Today we went back to Ruby Meadows.

Canine memory is something we can endlessly speculate about and argue over. As I observe my girls, I know their memory is excellent for things that are new, unusual, exciting, frightening. When Maia was a pup, we walked past a culvert in a city neighborhood. She wanted to look inside and I let her, and - a raccoon! That made such an impression that to this day, Maia investigates every culvert, because you just never know. Same thing with cats. Wherever either Maia or Meadow has seen a cat run - or better yet, a rabbit - they remember the place and pull or dash to get to that exact spot the next time we're in the area, as if they believe that cat or rabbit will be there again!

So I wondered how they would react to our first visit to Ruby Meadows since the wolf visit. Both girls had shown some sense of nervousness and caution toward the wolf at the time, and Maia has always been wary of bears in a similar way (tail down, wanting to go back to the car). I figured that if nothing else, the scent of wolves might linger to remind them of last summer's encounter.

We arrived at virtually the same time of day and similar weather as last year: cool with filtered sun and a dry trail. As soon as the girls jumped out of the car, their breathing seemed faster and heavier than usual, and they appeared more alert. As we started up the trail, they were eager, tails up, but I noticed that they both stayed very close to me, closer than I ever remember them staying so early in a run. The trail is fairly wide, and they sandwiched me between them for the first couple of miles, like a celebrity escorted by her bodyguards through a pressing red carpet crowd. When I stopped about a mile in, to "take care of business" several feet off the trail, Maia actually came and sat right beside me, looking into the forest behind me, while Meadow paced the forest in front of us, scanning the near scene for anything unusual. I felt very protected, and lavished them with praise and treats.

I remember thinking, though: Who's protecting whom? Are they protecting me? Or are they hoping I'll protect them? My fervent hope and belief is that it's a lot of both.

I had no doubt, today, that they remembered this place of the wolf. They were more alert and cautious than they would be, say, on the ski hill slope we run on a weekly basis where we've never seen anything more threatening than a deer. Any why wouldn't they remember? I did. Anyone, and any dog, would.

Eventually they calmed down and our run was uneventful and fun. I took over 30 photos, a few of which appear with this entry. The first, with Maia at the edge of the trail, shows her looking into the forest in nearly the exact spot we saw the wolf. Two more provide a general feel for that section of forest - its lushness, how the sun filters through the trees, its shadows - illustrating how easily a wolf can blend in and disappear. The final one shows phlox in bloom. Phlox is another of my favorite high-elevation wildflowers, and it was abundant on the trail today.

Bark Magazine published my wolf encounter story, written within hours of reaching home that magical day last summer. I had to somehow make it real by letting my fingers dance on the keyboard to describe it, embedding the scene forever in my memory. The story appeared as the End Piece in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue. It's probably the piece writing of which I'm most proud.