Wolves at Our Door

Back in the mid 1990’s, when I was still living in California, there was a documentary on TV about a study of wolves in the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho.  “Wolves at Our Door” by Jim and Jamie Dutcher, was a milestone in promoting an understanding of the hierarchy and behavior of wolves through close-up, personal interaction.  The project was in a minute portion of our great land, where I had once lived.  I saw my first wild wolf there… well before the Dutcher’s controlled study.  PLEASE VISIT THEIR WEBSITE… Living With Wolves …you won’t be disappointed!

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I had been fortunate enough to grow up close to nature and had already seen plenty of foxes and coyotes… there was no question about the animal I saw near the headwaters of the Wood River back in 1974.  It was a special sighting… I was on my way back to the Sawtooths one early September morning,  it was one of those rare times when the full moon is setting as the sun is rising.  There was a light frost and I was admiring the sparkles of reflected light on the grasses and bushes of the small meadow that the Wood River, only a few feet wide at this elevation, meandered through.  The sun was just breaking across the meadow… tickling the frost crystals, always one of my favorite things to gaze at.  And there it was, a mere stone’s throw away, cruising along the river bank… silver, grey and white… its rich coat fluffed up in the cold morning air.  This majestic species had long been thought exterminated from the region, yet there it was…  a wolf!  So beautiful!  Far too brief and fleeting… the moment is forever etched in my memory.

Imagine my delight, twenty years later in California, to see the Dutcher documentary… not only was this one of my favorite subjects, it was filmed in the old stomping grounds of my misspent youth.  I knew exactly where they were, and it was very close to a spot I had spent several weeks camping at, back in the 70’s.  In those days it was easier to camp out all summer than it was to find a place to rent… Stanley was/is a VERY small town with limited summer housing.  The Forest Service was pretty relaxed about letting summer workers stay at a non developed campsite for more than the officially allotted 14 days.  My boyfriend and I had a spot next to a meadow, just inside the treeline and not far from Iron Creek.  One morning I got up early and was delighted to find a large bull elk and his harem of about eight cows, grazing at the far end of the small meadow… a distance of about 100 yards.  It was my first “up close and personal” sighting of a wild elk herd.  The cows quickly moved off… startled by my sudden appearance, but the bull lingered a bit, watching me, before disappearing into the forest.

But, getting back to the wolves… more than 20 years would pass before I would see another in the wild.  20 years and a completely different life would come and go… marriage, family, loss.  Less than a year after my husband Scott brought the Dutcher film to my attention in 1994, I would become his widow.  We had planned to move to Idaho in the summer of ’95, but he died unexpectedly in February of that year.  I decided to carry on with our plans and returned to Idaho in 1996, moving to the Wood River Valley, about an hour south of the Sawtooth Mountains.

Salmon River & Sawtooth Mountains as seen from Lower Stanley, Idaho. Looking south. down the Sawtooth Valley.  My campsite was just inside the treeline, at the base of the mountains.

Salmon River & Sawtooth Mountains as seen from Lower Stanley, Idaho…. looking south. down the Sawtooth Valley.  My campsite was just inside the treeline, at the base of the mountains.

I reconnected with an old friend from my earlier time in Stanley… a local musician.  We were back in Stanley late one night, after his band finished playing the Rod and Gun Club.  It was mid winter, 1997 and there was a blizzard howling outside with crazy wind and sideways snow.  I had anticipated spending the night there, due to the weather, but Al insisted on going home that night.  I was furious because we were in my little 2-wheel drive Nissan pickup, and I didn’t believe we would make it over Galena Summit.  We began our trek across the Sawtooth Valley, blazing a trail on the snow covered road.  The wind was intense and creating 2′ to 3′ snow drifts at intervals across Highway 75.  A few other vehicles had pulled over to wait it out but I knew, if I stopped, I would not get my truck moving again and I had no desire to spend the night out there… so I pressed on.  Fortunately it was a very cold, dry, snow and the drifts were virtually weightless as I plowed through them.  We had traveled 4 or 5 miles, driving slowly enough so as not to slide off the now invisible road.  Suddenly, off to my left I caught a bit of motion and, next thing I knew, a large silver shape was crossing in front of me… fluidly loping across the road in just a few bounds.  Up to that point I had been unleashing an obscenity laden tongue lashing on Al for getting me into this mess, but now I was speechless… another wolf!

Since that time I have seen several other wolves in that vicinity… but always lone individuals.  The only encounter I’ve had with a local pack was on a chilly fall afternoon along the Salmon River.  Al and I were soaking in a hot springs in the riverbank.  We were watching a herd of elk meander down from a ridge… heading for the river.  Suddenly, off in the distance, came the beautiful song of the wolves… apparently they were watching the elk too.  I could tell that we were between them and the elk, but there was never any feeling of threat or danger… only wonder and joy at being blessed to hear them sing and for being given a brief glimpse into their world.

These exquisite creatures have been reintroduced to several of the mountain states… here in Idaho the population is less than 2,000 but the taking of wolves is legal… over 300 were killed in the past year.  If you find this troubling, please visit the Dutcher’s website Living With Wolves to see how you can help.

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My Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades…
Colored pencil drawing of a Mexican White Wolf – Laura Marinangeli, early 1990’s

I did this drawing as commentary on a Mexican White Wolf recovery program back in the early 1990’s… it was encouraging to see wolves being brought back to the US, but I felt the proposed location at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico was dubious, at best.  I changed the “Man in the Moon” to a “Wolf Wearin’ Shades” to underscore the point and draw a correlation to the nuclear past of the area.

The drawing was created as a composite… the wolf was sourced from a postage stamp sized image in the back of a National Geographic, and the moon was from a NASA image… but the lake and mountains, and the moon going down, were from my imagination… inspired by that frosty September morning, so many years before, when I saw my first wolf.

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4 comments

  1. great read! thank you for sharing! and wow that first image is so stunning

    1. Thank you! I wish I could take credit for that beautiful image, but it is not mine. It’s the home page image for the LIVING WITH WOLVES website, but I couldn’t find any info on who the photographer is. Possibly a still from the Dutcher’s movie “Wolves at Our Door”? It is so compelling, very well chosen by the designer of that page.

  2. Great read Laura, I have also experienced a different side of the wolf, granted a more harrowing side. One that left hackles on the backside of my neck at 2 am in the morning.

  3. Thank you, Linda! It can certainly be unsettling to come face to face with our human vulnerability when out in the wilds. I attempted to follow the elk, on the morning I spotted them in the meadow (bare feet and all) and, while I was gone, my boyfriend had a visitor of his own… a black bear that he had to scare away by banging a couple pans together. Glad I was out chasing the elk, rather than caught with the bear between me and the camp! I hope all went well with your encounter!
    Thanks again…

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