When I was 17 my mother was so surprised I actually graduated from High School that she thought I deserved some kind of big reward. I was very outdoorsy as a kid so within the budget she proposed I opted for a solo backpacking trip in Denali National Park (AK) for most of the summer of 1989. I wanted to see wolves in the wild. Mom was foolish enough to agree. One thing you need to know about Denali park is that they manage that place intelligently, which means all the backpackers have to take an orientation that teaches them how to store food to prevent bear encounters, what sections of the park map are forbidden for safety concerns (wolf dens, bear kills, etc.), and how transportation in the park works. Part of the reason this park was chosen was because mom had an old friend who was now a ranger at Denali. The plan was for me to backpack alone for 10 weeks, re-supplying and checking in every week at Maxine’s ranger hut (Igloo station, for those of you who know the park). I never saw Maxy after the first week, we mostly just communicated about what provisions I’d need by leaving notes.
Fast forward to the last week I am to be there in late August, I’ve only spotted three outcasts from a great distance across the tundra, lone wolves. I decide I need to force the situation. Yes, I had been backpacking by myself for about 8 weeks so far and was probably starting to go a little nutty. Also, I was 17. Anyway, sometime earlier I had learned from Maxy that one part of the park had been closed due to the presence of several wolf dens. I didn’t want to break any of the park laws so I opted to hike the outer border of this restricted area. This region was about as big as a typical east coast county, so I wasn’t expecting too much.
A few days in I opted to make camp for the night at the top of a steep rise overlooking a fork in an almost dry river bed. I made dinner to the view of a treeless hilly tundra with windy clouds occasionally threatening to sweep me off the rise. Long after dinner, the hills across the riverbeds eventually turned orange from the sunset at my back. With the long days it was always a struggle to fitfully fall asleep, but eventually I did. I remember having the kinds of dreams where you are aware of their nature and can control events. I dreamt of wolves. At some unknown hour in the short night, I heard a wolf howl. It was very faint, and very distant and it might have even been real. Either way it woke me up.
I howled back.
Maybe a minute later, I heard the wolf howl again, from way off to the north, deep in the closed region. It was still very faint, but this time it was no dream.
I howled back again.
Another minute later I heard another wolf howl, this time slightly closer but from the south-southeast. Two wolves.
I howled again.
Now the response came from the north wolf, sooner and closer. Before I howl back, the south wolf howls, also closer. At this point it suddenly occurs to me what it was that I was orchestrating on this starry evening. My blood turns cold and I stop fucking howling. Its too late now though because the north and south wolves can apparently hear each other, and are now calling to each other every minute or so, and getting louder and closer, and I am at the center.
I hear a third wolf from the east.
The heaviest thing I have with me is a 9-iron golf club. Two years earlier, I had brought it with me as a joke on a backpacking trip along the Appalachian trail. After several equipment mishaps on that hike, the golf club turned out to be very useful and so I had it with me on every backpacking trip since, despite its weight. Also it was fun to drive rocks off of mountain tops. So now I am clutching my 9-iron and lying to myself that it might prevent me from becoming breakfast for three wolf packs. I begin to compose a note to my family about my final act of utter stupidity just in case my plan does not go well. Dawn is just starting to break. I estimate that I have about 30 minutes before the wolves reach my spot. I choose not to flee. I spent my entire 17th summer alone to come here to see wolves. I get my nerves under control, pack up everything but my cookware, start up my Whisperlight stove, and shortly I’m enjoying what might be my last meal of hot apple-cinnamon oatmeal.
I can’t see any yet but the wolves are close now. They are frequently howling from every direction and clearly getting excited. I’m hoping they are more excited about each other than me. I haven’t made a peep in what seems like hours and so I’m hoping they are no longer aware of my position or concerned about my presence.
I’m about half done with my oatmeal when the first wolf appears about 150 yards away, emerging from the brush in one of the dry riverbeds below the rise upon which I made camp. He’s a massive grey alpha, and I recognize immediately that this was the south wolf. I name him Buck. He’s walking slowly sniffing here and there and after a few moments, sits and lets out another howl. Soon after, the north wolf appears at the top of the rise opposite mine, on the other side of the forked river. He howls from that position and then sprints down the hill toward Buck. He’s even bigger than Buck, and a little lighter in color. I name him Fido. The two alphas meet at the center of the fork and things get quiet for a few minutes while they check each other out. They are oblivious to me for now. One of them starts a long howl and the other joins in, and within minutes, wolves appear from everywhere. First the adults, coming from the brush to the south and from over the north ridge. Then the puppies and then some more adults. The big east wolf alpha comes from the far river fork and the rest of the wolves only quiet a little to acknowledge him. He’s grey and brown and about as big as Buck. I call him Rusty. Then his family joins the party in the center of the fork. All the wolves and pups are all now yipping and howling and playing and barking with glee. I’m getting more hopeful that they are unconcerned or unaware of me. In total I can see 40-50 wolves of all ages down there, having a wonderful canine celebration. I’m aware that I’m seeing something very rare and very privileged. I’m sleepless and I haven’t talked to another person in months. I’m not safe and still could be dead in an hour. I let myself sob for a few minutes before packing my cookware.
Before I set out though, I hear a new sound. A low rumbling, first from the south then moving in fast behind me in an arc to the west and towards me. It came in so low that I didn’t see the plane until it was nearly on top of me, swiping right over my head clearing the rise where I had made camp by 30 or 40 feet. The Cessna then went in low over the fork and all the wolves ran up the east river and over the north rise, more or less in one big pack. I notice the plane has park service markings on it as it circles around back towards me. It flies in low again, this time off to the side of me and I give a ranger I do not know a friendly wave as he flies past. He looks angry.
The plane and the wolves are all gone now. I hike back out to the west, towards the unrestricted sections of the park. Two or three days later I make it back to Igloo station and Maxine is there, as is my mom who I knew had flown in a week earlier for her own vacation. Mom and Maxy look relieved to see me as I attempt to sound like a normal person who hasn’t just spent 10 weeks by himself. It doesn’t take long before Maxy asks me if I was at so and so latitude and longitude on that particular night. I wasn’t in the restricted area (just yards away from its border) so I didn’t see any sense in lying. It was tense but polite after that as Maxy interrogated me over the next half hour, with me asserting over and over that I never crossed either river into the restricted zones. I didn’t mention the howling thing.
When I was on that rise that morning, I had noticed a few of the wolves were collared. According to Maxy, the rangers became very surprised in the middle of the night to see so many of them suddenly on the move. Once the wolves stopped moving, the rangers flew out to see what the fuck was going on. I learned that the wolf packs of Denali will semi-annually come together around the same time of year and at the same place to swap members and reform new packs. This keeps their genetics diverse and life goes on. Apparently I was the only human being in the history of the park to actually witness this event from the ground. The rangers also noted that I had to be the luckiest kid alive, because not only did I get to see this event, but that the wolves had changed every thing about it this year. They met in a new spot, about a month earlier than usual, and three packs instead of the usual two had come together.
(this is my poker face)
The rangers closed that section of the park the day after they flew over it, and to my knowledge it has not been opened since and the wolves are still using the fork for their annual convention.