A wolf on the ridgeline

Spotting a lone wolf in Denali National Park reminds the writer of where he prefers to be: immersed in wildness.

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    Young solo male wolf in Denali National Park, Alaska.
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Driving my mud-splattered Toyota through Sable Pass, a place of tundra foothills known to be frequented by grizzly bears, I instinctively slow down and pull over to the shoulder when I round a curve and see two shuttle buses stopped on the gravel road. The buses' signal lights flash golden in the somber light of a gloomy autumn afternoon, a sure sign that the drivers and their passengers are looking at wildlife.

Maybe they've spotted some bears, I think, while looking for anything that resembles a grizzly.

The fortunate owner of a rare road permit, I'm homeward-bound after three nights in the heart of Denali National Park. Already I've spotted most of the larger, grander wildlife you can hope to see here: caribou with their antlers shedding velvet; Dall sheep, white against the browns and reds of volcanic hills; a giant-antlered bull moose feeding on willow; and, best of all for this bear lover, a blond, berry-fattened grizzly that hungrily stripped blueberry bushes of fruits and leaves beside the park road, then casually ambled onto the gravel surface less than 15 feet from my car's front fender.

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I turn off the engine and follow the gaze of the bus drivers and their passengers, off to the right. Unable to find anything that remotely looks like a bear or other large animal, I walk over to the nearest driver, who holds up three fingers. I take this to mean a family of three bears: mom and twin cubs.

But when I ask, "What do you see?" the driver shocks me with his answer. "Wolves," he replies. "But they just went over the ridge."

"You're kidding. How many did you see?"

"Six in all."

Of course I can't leave, knowing six wolves are passing through the area. I wait five minutes, maybe 10. Then, looking back to the ridge where the wolves disappeared, I decide to play a hunch. I do a U-turn and retrace my path through Sable Pass, looking for a different angle, one that might better reveal the wolves as they move across the hills.

Attention focused on the ridge, I nearly drive into the ditch, but swerve at the last moment. Keeping my eyes (mostly) on the road for a few hundred more yards, I pull over.

Then, putting my binoculars up, I scan the ridge. For a minute or two, I see nothing but rock and tundra and clouds. Then, to my delight, a dark, four-legged form appears, silhouetted against the sky. A lone wolf is trotting along the ridge top.

The wolf is far enough away that I can make out little detail, except that its body is dark gray. For no clear reason, I decide the animal is a male. He descends the hill and begins angling toward a dirty remnant snowfield that fills a north-facing gully.

The wolf stops frequently and repeatedly drops his head as if smelling the tundra, then glances around, as if in no hurry.

Other shuttle buses arrive and I go over to one of the drivers, tell him about the wolf, and describe the animal's position. The patch of snow helps him quickly locate the wolf, so another bus load of people gets to share in the treat.

By now the wolf has returned to the ridgeline. He briefly paces back and forth, then drops out of sight.

I've watched the wolf for 10 minutes or less, at a distance where the wolf is barely visible with the naked eye. Yet this "encounter" will remain firmly fixed in my memory, like all my past meetings with wolves.

There's something about seeing the wolf on that far ridge that is especially exciting. Maybe, in part, it's that my hunch played out. But it's more than that. Today, at least, I'd rather see the wolf atop that far ridgeline than have him amble down the middle of the road as Denali's wolves sometimes do, trailed by buses and cars. Denali's wild backcountry is where this animal is most at home, closest to his essence.

Seeing the wolf in remote terrain, and knowing that other members of his pack are nearby, stirs my imagination. It's almost as if I've been carried out there, far from the road and its bus loads of tourists.

"Out there" is where I prefer to be when in Denali, walking ridges and exploring the tundra. Immersed in wildness, I sometimes sense a lupine joy. It's what I'm feeling now.

Driving my mud-splattered Toyota through Sable Pass, a place of tundra foothills known to be frequented by grizzly bears, I instinctively slow down and pull over to the shoulder when I round a curve and see two shuttle buses stopped on the gravel road. The buses' signal lights flash golden in the somber light of a gloomy autumn afternoon, a sure sign that the drivers and their passengers are looking at wildlife.

Maybe they've spotted some bears, I think, while looking for anything that resembles a grizzly.

The fortunate owner of a rare road permit, I'm homeward-bound after three nights in the heart of Denali National Park. Already I've spotted most of the larger, grander wildlife you can hope to see here: caribou with their antlers shedding velvet; Dall sheep, white against the browns and reds of volcanic hills; a giant-antlered bull moose feeding on willow; and, best of all for this bear lover, a blond, berry-fattened grizzly that hungrily stripped blueberry bushes of fruits and leaves beside the park road, then casually ambled onto the gravel surface less than 15 feet from my car's front fender.

I turn off the engine and follow the gaze of the bus drivers and their passengers, off to the right. Unable to find anything that remotely looks like a bear or other large animal, I walk over to the nearest driver, who holds up three fingers. I take this to mean a family of three bears: mom and twin cubs.

But when I ask, "What do you see?" the driver shocks me with his answer. "Wolves," he replies. "But they just went over the ridge."

"You're kidding. How many did you see?"

"Six in all."

Of course I can't leave, knowing six wolves are passing through the area. I wait five minutes, maybe 10. Then, looking back to the ridge where the wolves disappeared, I decide to play a hunch. I do a U-turn and retrace my path through Sable Pass, looking for a different angle, one that might better reveal the wolves as they move across the hills.

Attention focused on the ridge, I nearly drive into the ditch, but swerve at the last moment. Keeping my eyes (mostly) on the road for a few hundred more yards, I pull over.

Then, putting my binoculars up, I scan the ridge. For a minute or two, I see nothing but rock and tundra and clouds. Then, to my delight, a dark, four-legged form appears, silhouetted against the sky. A lone wolf is trotting along the ridge top.

The wolf is far enough away that I can make out little detail, except that its body is dark gray. For no clear reason, I decide the animal is a male. He descends the hill and begins angling toward a dirty remnant snowfield that fills a north-facing gully.

The wolf stops frequently and repeatedly drops his head as if smelling the tundra, then glances around, as if in no hurry.

Other shuttle buses arrive and I go over to one of the drivers, tell him about the wolf, and describe the animal's position. The patch of snow helps him quickly locate the wolf, so another bus load of people gets to share in the treat.

By now the wolf has returned to the ridgeline. He briefly paces back and forth, then drops out of sight.

I've watched the wolf for 10 minutes or less, at a distance where the wolf is barely visible with the naked eye. Yet this "encounter" will remain firmly fixed in my memory, like all my past meetings with wolves.

There's something about seeing the wolf on that far ridge that is especially exciting. Maybe, in part, it's that my hunch played out. But it's more than that. Today, at least, I'd rather see the wolf atop that far ridgeline than have him amble down the middle of the road as Denali's wolves sometimes do, trailed by buses and cars. Denali's wild backcountry is where this animal is most at home, closest to his essence.

Seeing the wolf in remote terrain, and knowing that other members of his pack are nearby, stirs my imagination. It's almost as if I've been carried out there, far from the road and its bus loads of tourists.

"Out there" is where I prefer to be when in Denali, walking ridges and exploring the tundra. Immersed in wildness, I sometimes sense a lupine joy. It's what I'm feeling now.

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