An edited excerpt from Animal Stories (Alaska Northwest Books, 2014)
Camped alone deep in Alaska’s Brooks Range wilderness, I had found a comfortable spot along the North Fork of the Koyukuk River when a howling came from the forest behind my tent. A loud, clear, resonant wail of alto key that rolled across the valley, the howl triggered an immediate physical and emotional response: my heart raced, pulse quickened, spirit lifted. Instinctively I turned from the river, binoculars in hand, and faced the wooded hills above camp. With all the tracks and scat on this river bar and across the North Fork, I had anticipated—and sometimes imagined—wolf howls throughout my three-day campout here. Each morning and night I swept the hillsides with binoculars, hopeful of a miracle. Now one had come to me.
I peered at two tundra knobs a few hundred feet above the camp, then scanned the spruce forest below. As I did, the howling resumed. The first baleful voice was joined by a second, higher-pitched one, more of a soprano. The trembling howls blended and shifted key. Were there more than two singers? Hard to tell. Wolves are known to mix their voices in a way that produces a magnified sense of numbers. The howls prompted me to consider whether the wolves had spotted me on the open gravel bar or noticed the tarp or tent. Were they protesting my intrusion into their territory? Announcing my presence, or theirs, to other wolves?
Rain that began as a fine mist earlier in the afternoon was falling harder, but I barely noticed. Or cared. The wolf songs lasted a minute or two, but resonated much longer. This is what I had long dreamt about, to share the wilderness with howling wolves.
I asked myself which was more desirable: to see wolves or hear them sing? No simple answer came to me, but there was this fact: Over the years I had seen wolves a half-dozen times, yet heard them howling only once before. Those earlier songs had come from a distance in these very mountains, though in another valley miles to the west, during my days as an exploration geologist.
Decades have gone by since that rainy autumn afternoon in the mid-1970s, but a faint chill still passes through my body whenever I call up the memory, which is dreamlike yet remarkably vivid. On a gloomy and raw September day, with fresh snow powdering the higher mountaintops and the field season nearly ended, I left my tent to take a short walk. The still, fog-shrouded valley was absolutely silent, making it possible for the faraway conversation to reach my ears. The first voice seemed a sort of moan, and it came from the forested lowlands north of camp. Turning toward it, I listened intently, expectantly. Minutes passed before the deep, bass howl sounded again, this time joined by another wail. The howls were so faint, I had to concentrate to hear them.
That time, too, I could never quite say how many voices I heard. Neither could I explain why each time the howls reached me, I broke into a smile. Was it the beauty of their song? Or the realization of my good fortune after a season of hoping? I have no idea how long I remained in that trance, just me and a distant wolf pack connected by the string of their notes as they moved across the John River Valley. The word “haunting” comes to mind as I recall those first howls, but it’s the loveliest sort of haunting you can imagine.
I didn’t think the wolves would disturb anything in camp; they’re not notorious camp raiders like bears and squirrels and jays. But to ease any nagging doubts I walked across the gravel bar and checked my tent and then the tarp, where I’d placed my food cache for lunch. Then back to the water’s edge for more searching. Even before I reached my lookout I spotted a wolf, upstream from camp and halfway across the braided North Fork, not far from where I had crossed the river three days earlier. Maybe two hundred yards away. I couldn’t be fully certain from this distance, but the wolf struck me as female and that’s what the animal became.
If I had to name her color, I’d say white wolf. But that ignores the subtleties of her coat. Bringing her into focus with my glasses I saw that she had a mostly white face, with some gray atop her head and on her neck. Her flanks were light gray, legs white, tail the color of gathering clouds, becoming darker, like storm clouds, at the tip. In her wettened coat, the wolf appeared lean but not skinny and, I assumed for no sure reason, she was in good health.
The wolf crouched low as she crossed the mid-river sand and gravel bars, as if to avoid detection. She glanced now and then in my direction, and I was sure she saw me. Moving slowly, she reached the final, deepest channel. She stepped gingerly at first, splashing through the milky green river. Then, for the final few feet, she plunged and swam across. The wolf stopped at the forest’s edge and looked back intently—but this time not toward me. I swung the binoculars back and forth across the river, expecting another wolf to appear, but none followed.
The she-wolf moved into the forest and as she did, a large, brownish bird flew from a spruce tree: another predator, a northern goshawk. I assumed our encounter was over but the wolf reappeared, walking slowly along the woods’ margin. Once she stepped into the open and smelled something on the bar. Then back under the trees. She took one last look across the North Fork and turned away. Her walk became a trot and she was gone, melted into the forest’s shadows.