The Wolf at the Door
I am jolted out of bed at 5 am by a phone call advising me about a opening in a workshop on wolves.
“I could care less about wolves, especially at this hour,” I retort in a voice slurred by sleep.
“Dr. Paul Paquet is a world expert on wolves and he is a great teacher,” my friend continues. “You have always said a good teacher can make any topic interesting.”
“If I said that I wasn’t thinking about wolves,” I snort.
“The park is beautiful at this time of year,” she continues cheerily, “and I have already paid for your ticket.”
So this is how I come to be driving out to Riding Mountain National Park thinking about wolves and grandmothers. Little Red Riding Hood, Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing, The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Keeping the Wolf From the Door. What do these stories about wolves have to tell us? Well never mind, after this weekend I will likely know more than I want to about wolves.
I arrive at the Visitor’s Center at the park late Friday night. The slide show by one of the biologists has just finished. Good, I think, one down
The audience, outfitted in anoraks, duck boots and plaid jackets comes alive with questions as the lights are turned up. There are farmers and lab techs, lawyers and nurses, teachers, vets and accountants. Two young biologists have driven for 18 hours all the way from Illinois to hear Dr. Paquet. People's interest in wolves is equally wide ranging. One man has spent years watching wolves from his farm on the edge of the park; another is interested in the stories of feral children like Mowgli, said to be raised by wolves; a student has spent the summer tagging wolves; others mention the connection between dreams of wolves and eating disorders like anorexia. Clearly this is going to be more interesting than I have anticipated.
The next morning we are up early. The park is languidly shaking itself awake. Bison lumber out from hollows shrouded in blankets of mist. A graceful flight of snow geese hoot eerily overhead. We scamper along the wet grass on the verge of the road finding prints of elk, deer, moose and wolf. We move excitedly from heaps of bear dung full of bright red cranberries to piles of wolf droppings.
Scat, we are advised, is the best non-invasive way to determine what animals are eating, how healthy they are and what is happening in the ecosystem. Coyote, for instance, are enjoying a bumper crop of grasshoppers. We pry apart several coyote scat to find hundreds of tiny grasshopper legs. Coyote scat is rarely wider than your thumb, while wolf scat is rarely narrower. But avoid moving your thumb too close. Scat, no matter what the size, is a four letter word that begins with S and ends with T.
Nights are spent howling at the moon. After hearing tapes of wolf calls, the group, lead by Paul on cue let out a collective spine tingling howl. It is wonderfully therapeutic to experience the night and feel our place in this evocative way. We are answered by elk, coyote, moose but never by wolf, who lives up to his reputation for cleverness and cunning and clearly isn't fooled.
Dr. Paquet tells us about his wolf research in Banff. At the apex of a vast food pyramid, the wolf is threatened not only by more and bigger hotels but by the multi-lane highways that careen through the narrow Banff valley. Clearly, while we are making highways safer for vehicles in Banff, we are making the planet unsafe for wolves and ultimately unsafe for ourselves.
We wind up on a sunny Sunday afternoon ranged around the fire pit outside of the church camp where we have been staying. Autumn leaves are ablaze around us. A cool breeze swirls through the evergreens lining the lake at the edge of the campsite. We reflect on global sustainability. On what it means to have one of the larger mammals on the planet such as the wolf disappear, or as environmentalists now say, "wink out".
On my way back home, my head is full of wolves. It is said of our times that we need new myths. I wonder if we couldn’t do with a fresh look at old myths. Wolf has long been a warning about the perils of greed, avarice and foolishness. In these times of plenty we have not only forgotten the message of Wolf but we may be at risk of losing the messenger. This might be what my grandmother meant by the greater danger lurking on the edge of privation or catastrophe. The Wolf to be kept from the door in our times may be loss of our own humanity and connectedness with the planet.
Photos: Wolf WS tracking, scat examination, sequence of wolves setting up a howl in harmony from Barry Lopez, Wolves & Men.