A majestic timber wolf Stands on a high ridge overlooking the vast Alaskan wilderness. She throws back her head and lets out a mournful cry. The howl of the wolf can evoke a sense of wildness in me and bring to me images of an ancient heritage long forgotten by today's world.
I have studied wolves for years. They are among the most beautiful and intelligent of all animals, a symbol of the wilderness in perfect balance. Alaska is one of the few places left in the world where they still thrive in their natural habitat.
The sky is growing lighter now with the coming of dawn. The wolf looks up and sees me watching her. She pauses for a few seconds and then quietly vanishes into the forest.
Reluctantly, I decide to start back to camp. Walking back to the ridge I begin to recall my first trip to Alaska, ten years ago. It's funny how you don't really miss things until you've been away from them for such a long time. I sigh. I have missed it a lot. Ahead the sun is rising over the horizon.
I sit down on a tree stump across from my tent and pour myself a cup of coffee. I begin to sip it slowly as I bore deeper into my mind, searching for memories from the past.
I had gone to Alaska to gather information for a book I was writing at the time. I lacked in experience but I had determination. Little did I know what challenges lay ahead or the amazing friendship I would make.
THE BLACK WOLF
I arrived in Alaska by plane to Anchorage. With my last few dollars I bought some supplies and a bus ticket that would take me to the mountains of the Alaska range.
The next day I left on the bus. It took us almost three days to reach our destination. I spent most of my time looking out the window. The wilderness of Alaska was a lot different from the prairies of Illinois where I grew up.
Finally we arrived in the mountains at the end of the line. It was the first time I'd set foot off the bus for three long days. I didn't even bother to pick up my gear, I just wanted to be off the bus.
I breathed in the fresh air and gazed at the towering mountains. I never thought I would see something that beautiful.
Suddenly the moment was interrupted by the sound of the bus door sliding closed. I whirled around and saw the bus driving away.
"Hey!" I yelled. "My stuff's in there!" I chased after the bus, cussing and yelling. Finally the bus stopped.
The bus driver tossed my backpack out of the door and drove off. I ran up to my gear and picked it up. My camera was gone. "Figures," I mumbled.
I backpacked a few miles west to a ridge overlooking a small stream. At least I had a place to camp. Then it dawned on me. I had never assembled a tent before.
It was a struggle but finally I got it to stand. I backed up and looked at it. "There!" I said. At that moment the tent collapsed. I moaned. "I wanted to sleep under the stars anyway."
The next morning my back ached from sleeping on the rocks. "Oh," I moaned, "I need some coffee." That was one thing I did have.
After the coffee woke me up I decided to go looking for wolves, my cause for being out in the middle of nowhere. I hiked up the mountains and down into the valley but I found nothing that day, or the next, or the next.
I began to wonder if I would ever find any wolves to study. I wanted to go home.
I finally got my break one week after I arrived in the mountains. I was hiking as usual when I stopped at the lake for a rest. That was when I first saw the black wolf.
I was sitting on a rock splashing some water in my face when I looked up and saw him standing near the trees on the other side of the lake.
He was solid black except for a small white spot in the center of his chest. For a few seconds he just stared at me with his curious, golden eyes. He was a young wolf, about one year old.
Suddenly I saw another wolf appear by his side. He was a smoky gray color and he was about the same age.
The gray wolf turned and walked into the forest but the black wolf stayed a few seconds more. Then he turned and darted after him.
I just sat on my rock. My heart was racing. I couldn't believe what I had just seen. A wolf had just appeared and vanished in front of my eyes.
I saw the wolves again and again during the next few weeks. They were lone wolves, most likely brothers, who had been driven from their pack. They roamed around the valley for most of the time.
I decided to give them names. I named the black wolf Lakota. It is an Indian word that means "the great wolf."
Lakota was the bolder and more outgoing of the two wolves. He was the leader.
I named the gray one Pike. Pike was a shyer and more timid wolf, but he had brains.
Together they were a team. Their very survival was dependent on each other's trust. I knew that there was much I could learn from them. The next lesson would come in blood.
LESSONS OF SURVIVAL
Wolves are predators, Which means that they eat other animals in order to stay alive. Packs of wolves can bring down animals as large as elk and caribou. Lone wolves, when hungry, eat rabbits, beavers, birds, and even fish!
I knew that wolves had to kill to survive. I knew that only the strongest individuals would live to adulthood. At least, I thought I knew.
I never thought I would see the wolves kill a large animal and I've only seen it happen a few times since. But one day I did see it. I was tracking the wolves down the ravine, into the valley. They were hunting caribou without much luck.
I was standing on the top of the ridge, watching them circle the herd. I could see a caribou on the outside of the group. It was a young animal who was limping on three legs. I could see his leg was broken.
Lakota spotted him first. Pike went downwind of the deer. I knew they were going to jump him.
Lakota burst out from the brush, jaws wide open. The caribou whirled around but Pike was ready for him. He closed his jaws around the deer's neck.
The caribou panicked and fell on top of Pike. Lakota tore away at the caribou's tender side. The prey rose up, shaking his head violently. Pike released his deadly hold, and Lakota jumped back.
The wounded caribou tried to run away on three feet. Wolves can run at speeds of forty miles per hour for hours without tiring. The chase was short.
The wolves dragged him to the ground and began tearing him apart. They tore his sides open and began ripping parts of him out. They were eating him alive.
Finally, I couldn't look. The sight was too gruesome. I closed my eyes and tried to force the images out of my mind. I'm not sure how long I sat there. When I looked up the caribou was dead and the wolves had half eaten the mangled carcass.
I learned much that day. I thought I understood how the wolves worked, but you can't really understand them until you've seen something like that. It was wrong for me to think that they would be the way I wanted them to be. Now I understand.
I stand up and drink some more coffee. I pick up my backpack and pull out an old book. It was my journal. I opened it slowly and turned the pages. There was a photo of three wolves on the first page.
There was Lakota, Pike, and a white wolf standing by a creek. "Kepa," I said to myself.
It was in October and the winter snows were falling. I had noticed that another lone wolf was in the area. She was a white female I called Kepa.
She joined Lakota and Pike. Sometimes wolves join each other to form packs, particularly during the winter when hunting gets difficult.
Kepa was a very smart wolf. She knew how to get the bait from steel traps. One day I saw her do this. She turned her back to the trap and kicked snow on it until it snapped closed. She then ripped the slab of meat from the trap.
Afterwards the three wolves continued down the trapline robbing traps. Soon Lakota and Pike perfected the skill.
During the next few months the pack became close, particularly Lakota and Kepa. When these bonds form within a group of wolves the dominant wolves become the alpha pair. The alphas are usually the only wolves to mate.
The mountains were beautiful in the winter. A three-foot-deep blanket of snow was draped elegantly over the forest. At night the northern lights sparkled brilliantly in the bitter cold sky. For now, at least, the world was at peace.
As the long winter dragged on it grew harder for the wolves to survive. The temperature plunged to forty below and freezing Arctic winds carved the windswept landscape. The prey was scarcer than ever. Somehow the pack got by.
I spent most of the winter huddled in my tent. If it weren't for my extremely warm expedition gear and my heaping supply of firewood I might not have survived.
One day I was out in the field watching the wolves scavenge for food when I had a close encounter with a grizzly bear. Grizzlies hibernate most of the winter but may awake from time to time to eat. Often they can't hold through the whole winter on their fat reserves alone.
I was standing at the edge of the forest and I could see Lakota, Pike, and Kepa eating a freshly killed snowshoe hare a few yards away. Then I heard it, a low growling noise. Then a roar.
I turned around and the bear came out of nowhere. With one swipe of his paw he sent me flying to the ground.
The next thing I knew Pike and Lakota were slashing away at the bear's chest. The bear shook his head to the side and sent Lakota into a tree six feet away. Pike fell on his side on the ground. Blood stained the snow all around the trees.
Kepa flew from the ground into the grizzly's face. She sunk her teeth into the bear's muzzle. The bear's eyes widened and he roared in pain.
Lakota, who had been stunned by the bear's blow, was up again. He bit down on the back of the bear's neck.
The grizzly was overcome by pain and fell on his side in the snow, but only for a few seconds. He rose back up and shook the wolves from his back.
Lakota wouldn't let go. The bear knocked him to the ground and ripped his shoulder open. Lakota wailed in agony but somehow managed to kick free.
Then the wolves banded together and chased away the injured bear. Once he was gone I could see how bad Lakota was injured. Dark, red blood was streaming from his wound.
I never forgot that day. I guess you could say that the wolves saved my life. If they hadn't chased the bear away I might have been killed.
I will never really know if the wolves knew that my life was in danger or if they just chased off the bear to defend their territory. But I think that maybe it was a little of both. Who knows, maybe they thought of me as a friend.
It was January, one of the coldest, most brutal months of the year. I needed supplies. I hiked a few miles southwest to a small town called Kaltag.
When I got there I was tired and my legs ached terribly. I walked into a small shop on Main Street and just sat in a chair for a few minutes.
I got up and took a few packages of food and a box of matches to the counter.
The man at the checkout counter was a Native American with a tough, weathered face. He looked at me and said, "What brings you out here?" "I've been studying the wolves here for several months," I answered.
"The three wolves out in the valley?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said.
"You should be careful in the valley," he warned.
"What do you mean?" I asked in a confused tone.
"There are a lot of bush hunters in the area this time of year. They hunt wolves from planes."
"Isn't that illegal?"
"Yes, but Wild Joe doesn't care."
"Who's Wild Joe?"
"He is a man named John Perrault. He's nicknamed Wild Joe because of his explosive temper. He hunts wolves."
The words scared me. "Not my wolves," I snapped. Then I grabbed my supplies and left.
DEATH FROM THE SKY
It was a quiet February day when it happened. I was hiking in the mountains, on my way back down the summit. I could see the wolves in the distance. They were standing in the middle of a one-hundred-yard clearing in the forest.
Suddenly I heard the roar of a plane's engine. I looked up and saw a bush plane swooping down toward the clearing. My heart raced as I ran down the side of the mountain. I needed to protect them but I was too late.
I heard four shots. They all missed. I was standing at the edge of the forest now. Then another shot. Pike dropped to the ground. My heart stopped.
Just when I thought he was gone he got back up and staggered to the safety of the forest. The plane had passed over.
I ran out over the clearing. I found the place where Pike had fallen. Blood was splattered on the snow.
I saw that his bloody tracks lead into the woods. Part of me didn't want to see him but the other part made me.
I found him lying on his side by a log. He had been shot in the neck. He was spitting up blood. I couldn't look at him. I almost cried.
I turned my head and saw Lakota and Kepa standing silent. I looked back at Pike, then down, at my rifle.
I didn't want Pike to suffer anymore. I drew my gun and pointed at Pike's head. "Good-bye, friend," I said, and I pulled the trigger.
In the months after Pike's death I began to realize how much I missed him. He had been the shy little wolf who helped save my life. And now he was gone.
I never found out who killed Pike, whether it was Wild Joe or who it was, but I vowed that if I ever found out I'd make them wish they had never been born.
Some people say that animals have no emotions, but I know that they do. I could see it in Lakota and Kepa. Back at an old cave they used to live in there was a place where Pike used to lie. Sometimes, at night, Lakota would get up and go sniff Pike's spot. Each time his scent grew fainter and fainter.
Sometimes, when they were hunting, Lakota would look over his shoulder for no reason, almost as if he expected to see Pike running behind them. On the night of Pike's death he and Kepa wouldn't leave his body. It was their way of saying good-bye.
THE END OF WINTER
Like all things winter can't last forever. The snows melted away to reveal the new March grass. Spring had returned to the valley.
Kepa was soon to have pups. She was fat and she ate constantly. The hardships of winter seemed so distant now.
I hadn't seen Lakota or Kepa for ten days when I found the den. I was hiking and from the ridge I could see Lakota disappear into the old cave where he, Kepa, and Pike had spent the winter. Kepa appeared at the entrance of the den and greeted him with a friendly lick.
Two weeks later I saw the pups. There were four of them. They were small and awkward at first but they grew with time.
The wolf pack was whole again. I haven't forgotten Pike, but it seemed almost as if a little part of him lived on in Lakota's pups.
As the months passed the pups grew stronger and I could pick out their distinct personalities.
The tan pup was the runt of the litter. The gray pup acted like Pike, shy and timid. The white pup had inherited Kepa's ice-blue eyes. And the black pup was bold and strong like his father.
As much as I wanted to stay there with the wolves I knew that my time there was short. Soon the time would come to leave.
I remember well the day I left my campground in the mountains. It had to be the single saddest day of my life.
I took down my battered old tent and gathered up all my gear. Once I was packed I hiked down the ridge to say good-bye to Lakota.
The wolves were standing near the cave. When Lakota saw me his ears stood erect. I stared at him and his family. They stared back.
Suddenly, Lakota threw back his head and howled a long, mournful howl. Then Kepa howled, and then the pups. The harmony of the wolves' wild song echoed in the mountains. They must have known I was going.
When they stopped I turned around and left. Back then I didn't know if I would ever see the wolves again. All I knew was that I had to get a bus to Anchorage and fly home. When I got to the bus stop there was a bus waiting.
I took one last look at the mountains and stepped on the bus. When I got home I didn't tell anyone about Lakota or Pike. I never even published my book, until now.
A NEW BEGINNING
That is my story but it isn't really over. I have returned to Alaska to once again study the wolves. I camp on the same ridge in the same mountains and watch Lakota's children hunt in the same valley.
But sadly the wolves are still hunted here and in other places where they are protected. I have made it my mission to make people understand them. Because with their understanding comes hope for their survival.
Wolves cannot exist without our help. The wilderness cannot exist without the wolves. It is this delicate balance that we must protect.
My memories are growing dimmer and dimmer now but I will never forget Lakota and his pack. They made me understand what wolves were about when it was almost too late. It was people like me, people who say that they love the wilderness, then turn around and try to change parts of it, that could be the hope for the wolves, if they only understood.
The sky is growing dark now and the stars are beginning to shine overhead. In the far distance I can hear the mournful howl of a wolf. It is up to us to make sure that this howl still echoes in the mountains years from now.