South of Big Lake, black and naked trees stand skeletal against an oyster-shell sky. In places the spruce and fir still show green. Then the forest returns, untouched, only to retreat again to bristling charcoal. I drive through a gerrymandered map of forest peeled back by fire and laid desolate. The largest blaze in Arizona’s history, the 530,000-acre Wallow Fire, torched this part of the state for the entire month of June last year. I’m worried, and I feel the weight of it on my chest. “Beneath any landscape,” writes author Craig Childs, “is a desert.”
But this is not a desert yet, I try to reassure myself. This is a place of return, of life restored, of once the wildest now wild again. This is where in only the last couple of decades the Mexican wolves have come home.
Along the forest road, I navigate the low carriage of the Kia Rio over dozens of diagonal waterbars the size of overturned sofas. Signs warn that “Low Clearance Vehicles Are Not Recommended,” but I press on, scraping bottom. This late in June, I have a narrow window of maybe one week before the first monsoons arrive in these mountains, the seasonal thunderstorms having already begun pelting southern Arizona. And when the rains come, the roads will go—waterbars or no—as deep layers of ash turn to mud like slick, wet cement and whole hillsides tumble and roll before relaxing into the newest angle of repose. By the 4th of July, the US Forest Service will close the entire region.
At five p.m. I make my campsite with a couple hours of light to spare. I’m completely alone. I can see that the Wallow Fire swept through the undergrowth, but giant ponderosa pine still forest the deep canyon I’ve chosen. Willow and alder still thicket the banks of the river.
This is good, I consider with some relief. The river runs clear, and five days ago telemetry in this area located the Bluestem Pack.
On March 29, 1998, eleven captive-raised Mexican wolves, the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in the United States, were released for the first time here in the Apache National Forest near Campbell Blue Creek. The last recorded wild Mexican wolf in Arizona was killed in 1970, although few had been seen since the 1950s. The release did not go well. Left alone, the wolves were fine, doing what wolves do, hunting elk, having more wolves. The alpha pair of this, the Campbell Blue Pack, even produced the first wild pup of the recovery program.
But by the end of the year, in what appeared to be an organized effort of sabotage, most of the wolves were dead or missing.
Wildlife officials would not be denied, however, and the following year, in the midst of the controversy, the lawsuits from the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association, the angry threats from ranchers, the government brought in Dances with Wolves author Michael Blake and released twice as many wolves in five packs covering two states. Wolf recovery by shock and awe.
The Bluestem Pack came along in June of 2002. Nine wolves—an alpha female named Estrella and her mate, two juveniles, and five pups—took to a home range that spread out over this national forest and into two adjacent Indian reservations, even making forays into the ranges of other packs. After seven years as the alpha female, Estrella left the pack and her daughter became the alpha female. A year later, a hunter illegally shot Estrella, bringing an end to a legacy that included twenty-two pups—six of which became leaders of other packs. At her death, she was the oldest living Mexican wolf in the wild.
Reports say the Bluestem Pack survived the Wallow Fire with pups in tow. And this year, as one of the most successful wolf packs of the program, the Bluestem has denned again.
Today, about sixty Mexican wolves in eleven packs haunt these woods, from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, the San Carlos and Fort Apache Indian reservations in Arizona to New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, the so-called Blue Range Recovery Area. Last year, at least thirty-four pups were born to these packs. Three hundred additional wolves live in captive-breeding facilities—all of them descendants of five Mexican wolves captured in 1973.
After setting up camp, which for me amounts to rolling out my sleeping bag onto the pine duff, I pull on my fishing vest and walk to the river, threading my fly rod through a mesh of alder branches tight enough to screen bear. I tie on a #18 parachute adams and get a strike on my first cast, the fish retreating in a swirl of dark water and yellow underside. Apache trout!
Moments later I land a nice brown trout. Then, finally, a ten-inch Apache. The official state fish of Arizona, and officially … my breakfast.
At seven-thirty, the light fades. A Clark’s nutcracker caws from looming pines. I eat a dinner of Triscuits (dill, sea salt, and olive oil) and Jarlsberg, crawl into my bag and switch off my headlamp. An eggshell of moon bathes the forest, turning every burnt stump into a bear … or wolf. I think about the two wolves from the original Campbell Blue Pack that showed up at the camp of some hunters and, as they watched, began dismembering a deer they had killed. Careful, I try not to release my trepidation into the woods where it could take on steel-white teeth designed for shearing and tearing, and claws as hard as obsidian. Instead, I try to comfort myself with the thought that a mountain lion is more likely to make a meal of a human than a wolf.
Then I start hearing a soft padding in the gray ash and seeing pairs of green eyes.
At three a.m. my brain shakes me awake to the imagined howls of wolves. Or were they imagined? I can’t be sure, but I hear nothing now. I sleep with my eyes open, and sometime between the blackness of moonset and the bird song of dawn I dream of wolves. There is movement among trees, like the shadows of shadows slipping past each other. And breathing, a wet, deep-chested huffing. I dream of wolves with my hazel eyes wide open.
In the morning I find tracks near my camp. Everywhere are the cloven prints of elk, like giant plant stomata plump with moisture. Bighorn sheep, too, from a cluster of ewes that came to the river for water the evening before. These tracks I remember. But then I see the palm-sized imprints: four toes and a center pad. “X marks the spot” I hear my daughter say as she points out the diagnostic cross pattern of canine pads. Jessica is the Wildlife Linkages Program Coordinator for Sky Island Alliance and an expert animal tracker. She has seen wolf tracks here. She has seen wolves here. But I’m not sure if these are wolf or very large dog. Maybe a dog … I just know I didn’t see them yesterday.
I take photographs of O’s and X’s, and print my own letters on paper to remind myself to ask Jessica how to read the language.
To see a wolf is to see an animal two million years old. This is about the time the ancestor of Canis lupis parted ways from what would become the modern coyote. But the story of the wolf is really much older, older than the dinosaurs, as mammals go—at least the gopher-sized insect-eaters that slept in the shadows of dinosaurs and only came out at night.
What we begin to recognize as “wolf-like” appears in North America after the great extinction of sixty-five million years ago when a group of slow and clumsy carnivores called creodonts gave way to the carnassials with their special teeth for shearing flesh. Ten million years later or so, this group of carnivores split into the two great divides, the Cat Branch (cats, civets, mongooses) and the Dog Branch (dogs, raccoons, bears, weasels, seals, walruses). From this latter branch, the first canid, the fox-sized “dawn wolf” took to the trees, walking on padded toes or stretching out its long, supple frame among the limbs.
In the following epochs—Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene—while the cats honed their basic stealthy, ambush form, the dogs explored many variations on a theme, molding and remolding their bodies into a cornucopia of predators. While one line tested out flippers and tusks, or a massive bulk with huge heads and marrow-extracting jaws, another tried longer legs and compact feet, a shorter tail and broader snout. It’s during the early Pleistocene, nearly two million years ago, that we see the greatest development and diversification of the North American wolf.
Now comes the rise of Canis. C. edwardii, the first wolf. C. rufus, the red wolf. C. armbrusteri, a giant wolf and sister to the dire wolf, C. dirus, the largest bone-crushing wolf ever to exist, which became extinct only 8000 years ago. And C. lupus, the modern gray wolf.
Some researchers think the progenitor of the gray wolf crossed the land bridge to Eurasia and evolved there into Canis lupis, crossing back again into North America where they shared the continent with dire wolves. Both had already established themselves here as the first Native American people, trailing their domesticated wolves, came over Beringia around eighteen thousand years ago.
Human packs living and cooperating with canine packs.
After millions of years of evolution, of nature sculpting organs, muscles, bones, and the orderly wires of instinct to create an animal designed to hunt together in packs, to kill together in packs, I hear my first wolves. I’m camping near Hawley Lake on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, home to the Tsay-O-Ah, Maverick, and Paradise packs. It’s just before sunrise and the land is still and wet. A mist boils off the lake’s iron skillet. When the howling begins, in the moments it takes for my brain to register “wolves,” the blood pools in my chest. I feel no warm surge of pulse. I stand half in and half out of the world. Light slides over my paling skin as their calling moves through the forest like an unexpected hush. It is the sound of angels mourning their immortality.
Then it ends as suddenly as it started, my foot still lifted, poised mid-step over the threshold of a connection.
Being pack animals ourselves, we either have an alliance with wolves, or we compete with them. In the beginning, before we drew out and formed from their stock our canine familiars, it was all alliance. Today, I’m afraid, it’s mostly competition. We speak the same language, but like so many other human traits, we’d rather polarize than compromise. The politics of predators like the politics of insects. No compassion. No concession.
But the nature of wolves lies outside whatever we may think of them, beyond alliance or compromise, beyond our science and our myths. They are as real as the sound of their voices through the trees, as vital as breath. Their way is as evident and mysterious as a trail of blood in the snow.