Feeling nostalgic tonight, and my friend Nancy mentioned howling with a coyote yesterday, which puts me in mind of the time I ended up in the middle of a wild wolf pack across the road from where the River of No Return-Frank Church Wilderness of Central Idaho begins.

I once told someone I would share this story sometime. I have no idea now who that even was, but I think tonight is the night. I hope they manage to stumble on the story. It’s a bit of a drawn-out story, but if you like the feel of true wilderness–and WILDness–and if you like the feel of the hair standing up on the back of your neck a little–read on.

Panther Creek, Idaho

Panther Creek, Idaho

I was elk hunting with two good buddies in October. We were sleeping in a camp trailer along a place called Panther Creek, which once was home to a large herd of elk that you could often see there even in the broad daylight–before the wolves, that is. But that’s another story.

It was about 2:00 in the morning, pitch black outside when I awoke to the howls. Now anyone who has heard a real wolf howl, as opposed to a coyote or dog, even if it was only on the movies or TV, can never forget that sound. Even in my state of half sleep, there was no question what I was hearing. Once you’ve listened to it in person, it will be forever engraved on your eardrums–believe me.

I was instantly aware that my buddies had both come awake as well, and I said, in probably a bit of an excited voice, “That’s a wolf!”

My buddy who shared my bunk of course agreed. This was no coyote. The sounds aren’t even comparable.

So here I am, with a .30-06 rifle and a .45 Long Colt Smith and Wesson revolver, in my stocking feet and Long Johns. I was so excited to hear this sound that I came up out of bed and ran outside, leaving both said rifle and revolver in the trailer. One of my buddies came with me, while the other stayed in bed.

At this point, I am still in my socks, and the ground cover is dirt, grass, and intermittent sagebrush and snow. Yes, it was cold. But there is a pack of wild wolves howling down in the canyon below us, not two hundred yards away, and I’m not wasting time getting my boots on!

You have to understand that at this point in my life, when I was about 30-32 years old, I had spent most of my life imitating the howl of wolves, from the young pups to the adolescents, to the deep-throated howl of a mature Alpha male. I was in my glory.

I howled out a reply the moment their calls stopped, and within seconds the Alpha male–VERY recognizable–called back to me. I began a dialog with him, and the others chimed in, even the pups, who were obviously pretty young.

This “conversation” went on for quite some time as my friend and I worked our way down the slope toward the pack, walking through the sage and over the crusted snow. Then I began to realize that the Alpha male, who was still down below, now probably less than a hundred yards away, was speaking to me alone. In less than minutes, I heard two of his pack howling, in answer to him–one to our left, one to our right.

I turned to my friend and said, “They’re surrounding us!”

To which my friend, who used to be very fleet of foot, responded by turning and racing back up the hill to the safety of the camper. I stayed.

I kept howling, Alpha kept answering, and his two pack members kept talking back to his calls until they had worked themselves into a position where now Alpha was with the main pack, and the two others were between me and the camp trailer–and my guns.

All fell silent. Of course, my heart is racing now so fast I can’t feel the cold. I am waiting, listening. Soon, I hear a sound that should probably have chilled my blood, but it didn’t. The word I would think of is “exhilarating.” Alpha, who had stopped howling minutes earlier, was working his way toward me, and the only reason I became aware of this is that I suddenly heard him, maybe ten or fifteen feet in front of me, and he is sniffing the ground, trying to locate me. But the wind was from him to me, and he wasn’t sure what he had here. It’s pretty certain, because, bragging aside, I knew I had the wolf howl down, that he thought he had a strange wolf invading his turf, and he and his compadres were coming–let’s face it–to kill me. Or at least to teach me a painful lesson about invading their stake-out hunting grounds.

Then everything changed. I could tell when the breeze shifted or Alpha simply got close enough to catch my scent because he turned and ran back down through the sagebrush to the canyon below. I could hear the brush crackling as he ran. Then, after a minute or so of dead silence, I heard him call again, at which point the little pups started up, and then the two “outriders,” if you want to call them that.

I kept talking to them, and now and then Alpha would talk back to me. But mostly he was calling the troops back in, and each time I heard them reply to him they were closer to the pack.

Eventually, they reunited. At that point, I figured they would all head out since even Alpha was obviously scared by my man smell. (Can’t blame him there!)

But they didn’t leave. We talked a little longer, and I finally went to bed–obviously not to find any sleep that night, because the adrenaline in me was running wild.

In the morning, I got up to get ready for the hunt, and on a whim I decided to let loose with a last questing howl, thinking the pack was probably long gone. Out of the dark below came the call of Alpha, and then soon the others, including the pups.

If I had it to do again, I probably would have skipped the elk hunt that morning and stayed to see what morning light revealed. I didn’t see any elk anyway. But we were using my pickup, and without me, my buddies wouldn’t have had any way to get into a good hunting spot. When we returned later, the pack was gone, but we could see where they had been “camped out,” within rock-throwing distance of our trailer.

That is my story of the “big, bad wolf,” a story I’m not sure I’ve ever shared this publically.

Now, I’m not going to take a position or make any political statements one way or another about Canis lupus, the gray, or timber wolf. I am only here to tell you what my personal experience with wild wolves was. I never felt any good reason for fear of them–not nearly what I have felt around some dogs–and I will always cherish that deep, dark, snowy night among the wild wolf pack of the River of No Return Wilderness.

Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness