Sings With Wolves
They knew I was watching them. Every now and then our eyes would meet and it would feel as if they were staring directly into my soul. Finally, after days of searching for them, I had found my wolves. From my vantage point, roughly 100 metres above them I watched. There were seven of them all together, lying in the sun, their bellies bulging, like balloons, filled with fresh meat. I lay there silently observing them, marveling at the rarity of the sight before me.
It was my first year in the field; I had just finished my degree in wildlife biology at the University of Utah. Filled with excitement I had set out to a hut in the remote Sawtooth Mountains, where I was to stay for a month. My task was to observe a pack of wild wolves as part of a study on wildlife management. I was to have no contact with the human world for the full month.
My first job was to document the sex and role of each member of the wolf pack. To help with identification I would also name them. I started with a well-built, jet-black male, who was obviously the alpha. He walked like a god, effortlessly keeping his pack in order. When our eyes met his stare was so piercing I had to look away quickly each time. I named him Loka after my strong-willed grandfather. Next was his mate, a browny-grey female who walked proudly like a peacock, yet with grace unbeknown to a wild animal. To portray her graceful pride I named her Queen. The second-in-command or Beta wolf was a dark grey male who was the peacekeeper, I named him Hipi, you can probably guess why. Then there was Mouse, the omega, or scapegoat. Much like his namesake he was shy and timid. Rounding out the pack were three bundles of joy, wolf pups, approximately 2 months old. I named them according to their colours, Ash, Soot and Mocha. The pups had a magical effect on the pack. Bringing them together with invisible ties of friendship and family. They started long bouts of play and the joy on the adults’ faces was so pure I couldn’t help but smile as I watched these beautiful creatures romp around.
Each day I would trek back and forth to my viewing platform, I was getting to know the wolves more and more each day. They too, grew to accept my presence and most of the time, simply ignored me. Because of this unique situation I had the privilege to witness the inner workings of a wolf pack. The unmasked affection between the alpha pair was mesmerizing. The unyielding patience of Hipi with the pups never ceased to amaze me and the ‘family’ feel of the pack melted my heart. I had come out here expecting to observe a pack of vicious, blood-thirsty animals but instead I was seeing a dynamic, happy family who only killed for survival. It was at that moment that I realized how misunderstood wolves really are.
It was the morning of my tenth day in the field. The sun was high in the sky and it was set to be a beautiful day. I settled in to my viewing spot filled with expectation as the wolves arose to a new day. Suddenly an unsuspecting deer limped into sight. It was obviously lame in its back leg. The wolves, which hadn’t eaten for a couple of days, were instantly alert. The pups sat by the den with Mouse whilst the others gathered, preparing for the hunt. With a well-practiced technique Loka and Hipi leapt on a flank each and quick as a snake, Queen delivered the fatal bite to its throat. The events unfolded so quickly, yet with military precision, I was amazed by the ninja-like efficiency of the pack.
After gorging on the deer the wolves began to howl, telling the forest of their success. The sound was so eerie and captivating I was immediately in awe of the entrancing music filling the air. I inched closer, trying to fully absorb the sound. All of a sudden, without warning, the ground below me gave way. I found myself hurtling down the cliff-face. I grabbed frantically at rocks, helplessly trying to slow my terrifying descent. I cried out in pain as my leg buckled beneath me and I heard the horrific crunch of my shin bone breaking. Finally I landed in a crumpled heap of pain. Then to my horror I realized how dangerously close I was to Mouse and the pups. The last thing I saw before I passed out from the pain was the other wolves hurtling towards me. Their dangerous look filled me with heart-stopping fear. There was nothing I could do as the deadly blackness of unconsciousness engulfed me. I was at their mercy…
I came to within a few seconds. Bewildered I looked around wondering if I was dead. Heaven sure looked a lot like earth. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t dead and what I was looking at was the forests around the Sawtooth Mountains. I quickly looked around for the wolves. What I saw shocked me to my core. Loka was sitting 2 inches away from me with his head resting on his paws. The rest of the wolves were sitting a little further away and were all fast asleep. I wondered why I was still alive, hadn’t I threatened their young and yet I had been spared. But why?
Suddenly Loka lifted his head and his intense, wise eyes stared at me, what I saw explained it all. I didn’t see anger, I didn’t see blood lust, I didn’t see wildness, what I saw was recognition and trust. He had recognized me and spared my life. I wondered how this could have happened, somehow whilst observing these wolves they had grown to trust me, we were almost like friends.
It felt as if there was a major shift in my brain, I stopped thinking of wolves as wild animals, instead I thought of them as my friends. It felt amazing, I felt honored to have the trust of these remarkable animals. My mind soon returned to the pain that was enveloping my body. I had a severely broken leg and as I breathed I noticed that I probably had a couple of broken ribs too. I had no idea what to do next. I could hardly move and to my dismay it was getting dark. As I mulled over my bleak options the wolves stirred. They all got up and moved slowly towards me. I felt a small tinge of fear as they got closer. What they did next was bewildering, they all sat down around me and huddled into me. I felt the warmth of their well-adapted coats seep into my body. I gingerly lay down gasping in pain with every movement. After several agonizing minutes I finally got comfortable. The wolves were going to be my survival blanket and protect me from the harsh mountainous climate.
I woke the next morning yawning and stretching, the pain in my leg had now become a continuous ache but at least I could ignore my ribs as long as I didn’t move too much. When I realized the wolves had left me. I felt a powerful wave of loneliness engulf me. I was alone and injured with no way to get help. Just as a fit of panic rushed over me I saw Mouse heading towards me, I had never been so happy to see a wolf in my whole life. He trotted over to me carrying in his mouth a freshly killed hare. He placed it in front of me as if he was showing of his skills. He nudged it with his nose and I realized he was offering it to me. A wave of gratitude washed over me and as he sat beside me watching me eat (it took all my will power to not throw up, meat was not meant to be eaten fresh) . However I felt a welling of hope inside me, maybe, with the help of these wolves I could survive the rest of the month until someone came searching for me.
One by one the rest of the wolves slowly arrived and all but Queen greeted me with a lick on the hand. Queen seemed weary of me, more reserved then the others. I couldn’t blame her really, I was an intruder into the normal structure of their lives and I was a new female, she was previously the only one besides her pup.
Towards midday I discovered my notebook which had landed a few inches behind me and lying next to it was my pen. I thought to myself, since I couldn’t do much else I may as well continue my work. I noted the surprising way the wolves had responded to my fall and my admiration of the way they were so willing to accept and help me.
Wolves are so commonly misconceived. I believe it stems from the stories we are told as kids, such as little red riding hood and the three little pigs, where the wolf is the bad guy. If humans were willing to actually spend time with wolves they would see them as beautiful animals and see the side of them I saw for those few weeks.
As the days wore on I began to realize that despite the wolves warming me at night the wind and sun were beginning to take a toll on me, my lips were chapped and I had sunburn upon sunburn. It was four days after my fall when I decided my leg and ribs felt up to trying to move. All the wolves had gone foraging except Queen. I began slowly sliding backwards pulling myself along with my hands. My leg was dragging uselessly behind me, every movement sent pain needles shooting up it. I had moved maybe 10 metres when an unseen stick stabbed my leg. I cried out and white hot pain filled my body. I blacked out and fell sideways. When I came to, Queen was there. She was standing by my shoulder staring intently at my face. When I opened my eyes I saw, what can only be described as relief in her eyes. The one that I thought hated me, actually cared. There are no words to describe how I felt. As I was recovering I was startled by a nudge on my shoulder I turned to see Hipi standing there. I realized they wanted to help. I put one arm around his shoulders and my other arm around Queen’s. Together they pulled my gently towards a small cave.
As we reached the cave I collapsed, exhausted from physical effort and pain. I don’t know how long I slept but when I woke up it was dark. I was lost for a while struggling to remember where I was until I felt the comforting warmth of Loka lying next to me. Enveloped by the warmth of my wolves I drifted back to sleep.
I woke up the next morning with the pups around me, playing with sticks and various objects they had collected. I wondered where Hipi, their usual caregiver, was but as I struggled into a sitting position my question was answered as I saw him lying at the entrance to the cave. As I watched him I began thinking, I realized that I had been in the wilderness with no-one but wild wolves for 5 days. Time was taking its toll on me. As well as my busted leg and ribs, chapped lips and painful sunburn, another factor was now occupying my brain for most of the days, I needed water or some sort of liquid. I was having increasing bouts of dizziness due to severe dehydration. The wolves looked at me helplessly as they couldn’t understand what I needed.
That afternoon Queen came into the cave to feed her pups, at 8 weeks they were mostly weaned but still needed the occasional drink of milk to keep them going. She lay down and closed her eyes as they drank. At that point I was so desperate for liquid that as they drank my mouth watered with need. I desperately inched my way closer to Queen keeping my head low in a submissive position like I’d seen the other wolves do. Queen opened one eye and looked at me like a mother looks at a child, it was at that moment I knew I could proceed. I lay on my stomach and swallowed the feeling of disgust which washed over me as I latched my mouth on her teat. I had never tasted anything as good as the milk that flowed down my throat, like blood flowing into my veins, bringing life back into my body. I drank and drank until my thirst was gone and my belly was bulging. I now know that without that life-saving drink I wouldn’t have survived for much longer, I owe my life to that amazing and beautiful queen-wolf.
As night-time came I crawled to the opening of my cave and observed the wolves. They had successfully hunted that day and I had eaten a portion of their kill. Loka was sitting on top of a small knoll to the left of the cave. He was staring intently at the moon and then he begun to howl. It was a deep heartfelt song which rung out across the forest. He seemed to pierce my heart with his enchanting voice. Soon his voice was joined by many as the other wolves joined in from the pitiful puppy howls to the beautiful voice of Queen. Suddenly I felt a welling coming from deep within me, rising up from the depths of my soul. I cupped my hands around my mouth and unleashed my voice. Loka looked at me and I saw a glint of humour in his eyes as I tried to get the hang of howling. Then all at once our voices became one as we found our rhythm and filled the night with music as we sung to the majestic moon.
The next few days passed in a blur of pain, milk and raw meat. Nearly every night I would join the wolves in a bout of joyful howling, we sometimes just howled for the joy of it and to articulate the happiness we felt at being alive. An amazing bond had formed between me and these wolves and I was grateful every day for their acceptance of me. One day it dawned on me that it had been a month since I left for the Sawtooth Mountains. By my calculations I was due back home yesterday. A wave of emotions washed over me as I realized that this very second people would be looking for me.
I woke up on the 32nd day filled with hope. It was around midday when I heard the sound of something crashing through the forest above me, I quickly dragged myself out of the cave and looked up the cliff expectantly. Then I saw him, a young man, just a few feet away. I cried out with relief. He spotted me and immediately begun to make his way down the cliff. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks. I looked up in shock, why had he stopped? I glanced behind me and my question was answered. My wolves were forming a protective line behind me and Loka had a killer look in his eyes. My heart racing I tried to communicate that this guy was good that he would help me. It wasn’t working so I turned to the man and instructed him, “lower your eyes, get down on the ground, and submit to him”. He looked at me in bewilderment but obliged. The change in Loka was immediate he walked over to him and sniffed him before dismissing him and going to lie under a tree. The guy slowly looked up as he realized he wasn’t going to be killed. He looked at me questioningly but I had no words to explain what had happened. My rescuer then came to my side and assessed my physical condition. He used his walkie-talkie to call for assistance. As we waited he sat beside me and looked at the wolves around us in amazement “why didn’t they kill me, or you for that matter?” he said I looked at him and all I could do was shrug, the gravity of what had occurred over this last month had hit me like a bullet and I collapsed onto him in a fit of tears. I was physically and mentally exhausted.
Finally the backup arrived and the guy piggy backed my up the cliff to where they were waiting with a stretcher. Before I got on the stretcher I asked for a few minutes alone before we left. I sat in my old viewing nook and looked down at my wolves for the last time. They had sensed something was going on and had decided to sit back out of the way and observe. I looked at each one of them individually thanking each one as I went, the one who held my gaze the longest was my beautiful friend, Queen, she looked unbearably sad and resigned. Tears came to my eyes as I told her that I loved her and would never forget her. With a last lingering glance I climbed onto the stretcher and we were off. Just as we were nearly out of ear-shot I heard the heart-wrenching sound of them fare welling me, my heart filled with emotions as I howled back a final good-bye. One of my rescuers looked at me and said “they really loved you didn’t they?” I nodded and said “they were like a family to me, without them I wouldn’t be alive, they were my saviors and I loved them like they were humans”, to which he replied “and I thought wolves were heartless, blood thirsty wild animals” I smiled knowingly and thought to myself ‘so did I mate, so did I’