Writer and poet Nancy Lord completed her residency at Denali in 2010, and donated several essays and poems inspired by her time in the park.
What a gift, to have ten days at the East Fork Cabin and to be able to explore the park at will. I most appreciated having access to other people (scientists, rangers, wildlife technicians) working in the park, from whom I could learn. In the evenings, I read through the library of Denali-related books and made copious notes.
My writing background is in prose, and I completed both an essay and a short story based on my experiences. The quiet time and sparks of aware ness also seemed to support a poetic approach, and so I wrote some of the rst poems of my life. The experience, overall, was a creative opening for me--not just to a fresh and dramatic natural world but to new ways of seeing and thinking.
“Wolf” is a donated product of the Denali Artist-in-Residence program and does not reflect the opinion of the National Park Service.
About the Author
Nancy Lord, Alaska’s Writer Laureate (2008-10), holds a liberal arts degree from Hampshire College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Vermont College. In addition to being an independent writer based in Homer, she fished commercially for many years and has, more recently, worked as a naturalist and historian on adventure cruise ships.
She is the author of three short fiction collections (most recently The Man Who Swam with Beavers, Coffee House Press, 2001) and four books of literary nonfiction (most recently Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life, University of Nebraska Press, 2009.) She teaches part-time at the Kachemak Bay Branch of Kenai Peninsula College and in the low-residency graduate writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Her awards include fellowships from the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Rasmuson Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and residencies at a number of artist communities. Visit her website.
She is, after all, a wolf. She is, by nature, aloof. So when she walks by the man who’s wading the creek, boots in hand, she neither slows nor turns her head. Which is not the same as not paying attention. She sees the man startle, freeze midstream with the water running over his pale feet; she sees his mouth fall open.
She knows the type. He’s come to the park to partake of its Nature. He hopes to see what the Denali people call “The Big Five”— bears, caribou, moose, sheep, and (least expected) wolves. He hopes to take pictures of all ve, to capture them in this modern way—what they call non-consumptive use, as opposed to, of course, consumptive use but, still, just another way of taking. Humans have that need to turn everything in the world into something of their own. They’re worse than greedy pups, and they never grow out of it; everything has to be all about them.
Now, behind her, she can hear the man fumbling for his camera. He’s muttering. “Goddamn, goddamn.” Had he really seen a wolf, if he didn’t have a photo?
The gray wolf coursing the creek can’t know that less benign brothers (and sisters) of that one barefoot man are at that moment, elsewhere in Alaska, basking in the expansion of the state’s predator control program and (close to home) the removal of a buer of protected land just outside park boundaries. (Fewer wolves, more moose roasts and caribou steaks for the humans.)
That is, the consumptive people were still gaining. She also can’t know that the previous March, over near Alaska’s eastern border, state employees shooting from helicopters killed all four members, including two wearing visible research collars, of a pack that lived in a national preserve and had been studied for sixteen years. And the same month, down on the Alaska Peninsula, two of her kind had taken down a schoolteacher who went running on a lonely road—only the second recorded instance of a fatal (for a human) wolf attack in North America. In that case, the state immediately sent out a plane to gun down wolves in the area, which already “incentivized” wolf trapping with an allowed “take” of ten wolves per person per day.
But let’s say she does know all this. Let’s say she’s the dog that is god, the all-seeing, all-knowing. (Not that any wolf wants to be called a dog—or a god, for that matter—but nevermind that.) If she knows these things she will know that, between the competition and the fear and retaliation, now is not a good time to be a wolf.
The wolf’s hunting ground lies near the top of the pass, near where the creek empties out of a small lake. Snowshoe hares like the willows there, and she likes the snowshoe hares. The hares have enjoyed several peak years, breeding like rabbits (as the saying goes) and the park is littered with their white feet. The lynx and coyotes, the foxes and golden eagles, the wolves— all of them have fattened on hares, and none of them has eaten the boney feet.
A slate-colored junco breaks from its bush as she passes, and a buttery uttering away from late-blooming cinquefoil draws a snap of her jaws. A ock of ravens rises like a cyclone in the distance: park road, roadkill. Her nose works the air, full of scent old and new, animal and vegetable, the riches of her world.
She is a good-looking wolf; she knows this for a fact. Well-fed, bright-eyed, with a ne coat of soft and streaky, nuanced grays. Her thick tail, tipped with black, ags proudly behind her.
She stops. She stretches her neck. The clouds in the pale sky look like the backs of sheep. Ground squirrels chirp aggressively, fearlessly, from their burrow entrances. The sun, the breeze, clear water running, willow leaves shimmering in the light: who’s to say wolves can’t enjoy all these, can’t have an aesthetic, even spiritual, experience?
An airplane buzzes overhead, and the wolf ignores it as she would a y. Let’s say she knows—not a great imaginative stretch—that she and the rest of her pack are much-studied animals, tracked by plane through all the seasons, stalked at their dens, photographed in even their most intimate moments. The planes are sometimes followed by the great whirring helicopter-beast, its side open like a wound, a man leaning out—coming closer, lower, closer, louder—with the stick that shoots the sting that knocks away all sense. This she’s seen: members of her pack collapsed like rags, tongues hanging out, men shoving them around, attaching those god-awful collars. She knows the terror of the chase, the pack scattering, the howling from the shadows.
But men (and women too) must do their studies, collect data, know where the wolves go so they can manage them. They’ve counted: 59 park wolves (in spring, before the season’s pups), twelve packs. This is down from 130 in 1990, an average of 92 between 1994 and 2005. Winters decide. Hard winters are hard on the ungulates, generous to the wolves. Easy winters, the caribou, moose, and sheep all run away, fold less often to starvation.
Those same studious people track the transmitting collars. They know when the wolves leave the park boundaries (those imaginary lines) and when they return. They know when they signal from stillness: death by moose kick, by the skull-crushing bite of another wolf, by trapper. They go look, if they can, at dead wolves and take away their collars; this is how they decide that a majority of all park wolf deaths come at the jaws of other wolves, in territorial disputes.
Wolves, more often than not, can outsmart wolf trappers. They’ll avoid traps—the crushing steel legholds, the wire snares. This is why predator controllers need airplanes and shooters; the trappers are too few, too inecient. In all of Alaska, there are some eight to ten thousand wolves. Every year more than a thousand are “removed.” This is called managing for abundance.
The wolf, with her educated imagination, keeps trotting up the creek. Grant her the knowledge of numbers, of facts and contradictions, of conicting jurisdictions. Grant her memory: the wolf that returned with steel wire cinching his neck, cut deeply into esh. She and the others licked the wound. The injured wolf’s neck swelled. Its muzzle and face and eyes swelled. Then, the helicopter came. The humans and their tools removed the wire.
Our omniscient wolf is panting now. Say she knows, remembers, imagines all that; say she’s as smart as a chimpanzee. Still, her powers go only so far. She can’t imagine how any of that makes sense. One man tries to kill a wolf by strangulation. Other men go to great eort and expense to save the same wolf. What do men want?
Just ahead, a turned-away ground squirrel feeds distractedly, tearing at grass. The wolf slows, studies the quivering curves of shoulder and side. A few more light steps and she launches like a spring, closes her mouth on the rising head. In the evening, when she returns to the den site, the year’s pups swarm to her. She arches her back and regurgitates their steamy meal. The pups’ mother, sprawled at the edge of the blu, lifts her head. When she drops it again, the battery pack portion of her collar clunks on the hardened ground. She—the dominant female—and her mate wear the collars in the pack, as do the breeding pairs in most of the other park packs. They have been singled out for this honor by the humans who study them. What the humans have learned impresses them (the humans.)
They can hardly believe how cooperative wolves in a pack are. They see that wolves hunt together with actual strategies, and that they share food. They spy on the social rituals, the acts of dominance and submission, the care lavished on the females with pups as well as the pups themselves, the discipline meted out. They ponder what they call “cooperative breeding”: the fact that, in a pack, only the dominant pair has young, and the other adults assist with their care, something like aunts and uncles, like members of a family. Of course, the gray wolf knows, they are a family; why is that so hard to understand?
When the shooters and trappers kill the parent wolves, the social structure of packs is broken. No surprise there. Young pups are left without sucient parenting, fail to get their full instruction in how to succeed as wolves. Other wolves in the pack—and sometimes wolves that move in from other packs—negotiate their status and roles, settle on who mates with whom. As long as there’s enough food, the new pair will produce enough pups to replenish the ranks, in short order. This suggests, to a cognizant wolf and at least some humans, that the millions of dollars spent on government wolf control are a waste of money.
and certainly not worth the bad press. When it’s people howling, you’ve denitely got a problem.
The next morning, early, the six adult wolves hunt in the valley. They stream down its middle single-le to reach three caribou separated from a larger herd. They gather themselves there—splitting up, three taking a run around one side, two the other way, one holding in reserve. They run the caribou this way for an hour, rejoicing in the stretch, the scent, their muscled leaps above the brush as they survey the scene. They slip close to, then fall behind the smallest (but eet) caribou, and they reconnoiter and try from another direction, dividing into a new constellation, more circling, the always- testing that is their way. The caribou with clacking hooves ee over the plain, toward the hills. The wolves, nally, trot back along the braided river bottom.
The river intercepts the park road, and the gray wolf and a brother climb up onto the gravel track and walk along it. They’re tired from the chase, and the road represents the easiest of paths. Before long one of the park buses motors up behind them with grinding gears and a great cloud of dust. It’s no threat, and they ignore it. It creeps along behind them, and they’re aware of the sound of windows sliding down and snapping into place, then the clicking and whirring of ocks of cameras. The gray wolf looks behind her, sees eece-covered arms, wedges of face, the round eyes of all those cameras. They’re ashing like sparks from a re, or like the sun reecting on moving water.
The two wolves trot on.
Another bus, in another cloud of dust, approaches from the other direction, stops a long way o. The wolves continue toward it, see the movement inside, its people standing, crowding forward, more windows sliding and snapping, voices now.
The bus driver is saying, “You’re incredibly lucky to see this. Of the ve big mammals in the park, wolves are the ones you’re least likely to see. They’re the emblem of true wilderness and play a very important balancing role in the natural ecosystem.”
“I can’t see!”
“Oh, #%&^! Why does the battery have to die now ?”
“They look just like dogs.”
“I’ve never seen anything so majestic in my whole life.”
“Three down, just moose and sheep to go.”
“Can you imagine anyone wanting to kill these beautiful and noble animals?”
“These are the wolves Sarah Palin shoots from airplanes.”
“I still can’t see!”
The gray wolf has seen and heard this all before. She’s not averse to following the road when it’s going her way, and she’s gotten accustomed to passing the buses or even people on foot, giving them all a thrill. If she knew the park management disapproved of this fearlessness, this less-than shy wolf behavior, she wouldn’t care.
If she knew that the chairman of the Alaska Board of Game, one who’d been happy to get rid of the protective buer at the edge of the park, had referred to the Denali wolves as “mangy dogs walking down the road,” she might or might not have been oended. These days she let a lot roll o her back. If she knew that wolf lovers had made a CD of wolves howling, something they called Wolf Songs , and that a trapper just past the park boundary played it to call in and shoot wolves, she might have wanted to chew the arms o of every one of those crazy humans.
The two wolves are past the buses now, two buses stopped in one direction, one in the other, a wolf jam waiting, the people with their heads down, looking at the pictures they’ve taken. Overhead, a golden eagle oats. Clouds gather on the far-o mountains. The gray wolf steps off the road, into her lucid world.
Last updated: February 5, 2015