Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
A little after midnight, I woke up in a rented vacation condo in Colorado at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. My boyfriend of two and a half years slept soundly next to me. I was 27 years old and not sure whether I still loved him.
I wanted some air. I opened the window and saw what I first thought was a large husky darting beneath the ledge. Then I realized it was something else.
"Get up," I said to my boyfriend. "Get up; I think it's a wolf." He didn't stir.
The wolf stopped in his tracks. I followed his line of sight until I noticed a smaller wolf, a female. He trotted toward her and they met, jumping into the air, pawing madly at each other and then nuzzling and touching noses. As they ran off in lockstep, their fur glistening like strands of silver in the moonlight, I knew I would break up with my boyfriend.
It felt as if the wolves had come for me; I had never seen something so spectacular at just the right moment—and I knew that someday I'd go to them.
Three years later, in the summer of 2009, I went to Wyoming to see my parents at their small vacation condo in Jackson Hole. One day I overheard my mother's friend mention that she was going wolf-watching, and I insisted on joining her.
"I don't know if we'll have enough scopes," she said.
"I'll find one," I said.
Twenty-four hours later, I was riding in the backseat of her four-wheel-drive SUV, bouncing along remote dirt roads.
"Hold on," she said, as the vehicle forded a creek, knee-high with water. We pulled up in front of a sandy butte that overlooked the Buffalo Valley, the eastern edge of Grand Teton National Park: home to the Buffalo wolf pack, which was then 22 strong, with two new litters of pups.
We unloaded the car, and I slung a telescope over my shoulder, then started out at a quick pace. At the top of the butte we set up our scopes. Soon I heard frenzied whispering: "There, there! See them, right there. Pups and the aunt!"
"I see them," I said, focusing on the 14 pups and the one adult wolf watching over them. Biting and swarming, the pups fell off the pile, regained their footing, and like mini-daredevils, jumped back into the fray. The rest of the pack returned from the hunt, sprinting with their tongues hanging out. The pups couldn't contain their excitement; one just spun in circles, unsure of which adult he should run to first.
Months later a photo of the Buffalo pack, trotting in a single-file line across a barren snow-covered field, showed up on the Internet, causing outrage among elk hunters, who see wolves as a threat to the state's 104,000-strong elk population. (In 2010 hunters killed more than 25,600 elk, while wolves killed about 7,500.) Antiwolf Web sites like Lobo Watch, Save Elk, and Wolf-Free Idaho posted pictures of snarling wolves, some alongside catchphrases such as "Smoke a pack a day" and "Zero tolerance." But, as I would learn, this kind of hatred is nothing new; America has always had a fraught relationship with wolves.