“Are you sure about this?” my wife, Sherrie, breathed. She glanced over her shoulder toward the comforting glow of our house on the lakeshore, then gazed ahead where a black wolf stood on the ice in the gathering twilight. Bundled against the Southeast Alaska cold, we’d taken along just one of our three dogs — our female yellow Lab, Dakotah, who’d always been perfectly mannered and under voice control around wildlife, from bears to porcupines.
Despite some understandable jitters, Sherrie was so thrilled she was about to jump out of her skin. After all these years of trying and not seeing, there it was: her first wolf. Perfect, I thought, and easier than it ever should be. But as we walked farther out on the ice, things changed. The wolf, instead of watching from the tree line as he had several times with me, angled toward us at a trot. Then he broke into a bounding lope, snow flying beneath his paws, jaws agape. I drew Sherrie toward me and reached for Dakotah’s collar. My vision sharpened, and synapses crackled. I’d seen my share of wolves over the years, some point-blank close, and hadn’t quite shifted into panic mode. But anyone who claims he wouldn’t get an adrenaline jolt from a running wolf coming straight in, with no weapon and no place to run, and loved ones to defend, is either brain-dead or lying.
In a few heartbeats, the wolf had closed the distance to forty yards. He stood stiff-legged, tail raised above his back, his unblinking stare fixed on us — a dominant posture, less than reassuring. Then, with a moaning whimper, Dakotah suddenly wrenched free of the two fingers I’d hooked through her collar and bounded straight at the wolf. A tone of desperation sharpening her voice, Sherrie called again and again, but there was no stopping that dog. The Lab skidded to a stop several body lengths short of contact and stood tall, her own tail straight out, and as we watched, mouths open, the wolf lowered his to match. With the two so close, I had my first clear idea of just how large the wolf really was. Dakotah, a stocky, traditional-style female Lab, weighed in at a muscular fifty-six pounds. The black wolf towered over her, more than double her weight. Just his head and neck matched the size of her torso. A hundred twenty pounds, I figured. Maybe more.
The wolf stepped stiff-legged toward Dakotah, and she answered. If she heard our calls, she gave no sign. She was locked on and intent, but utterly silent — not at all her normal happy-Lab self. She seemed half-hypnotized. She and the wolf regarded each other, as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face and trying to remember. This was one of those moments when time seems to hold its breath. I lifted my camera and snapped off a single frame.
As if that tiny click had been a finger snap, the world began to move again. The wolf’s stance altered. Ears perked high and held narrow, he bounced forward a body length, bowed on his forelegs, then leaned back and lifted a paw. Dakotah sidled closer and circled, her tail still straight out. The eyes of each were locked on the other. With their noses a foot apart, I pressed the shutter once more. Again, the sound seemed to break a spell. Dakotah heard Sherrie’s voice at last and bounded back toward us, turning her back, at least for now, on whatever call of the wild she’d just heard. We watched for long minutes with Dakotah softly whining at our sides, staring toward the dark, handsome stranger who stood staring our way and whining back, a high-pitched keening that filled the silence. Half-stunned, Sherrie and I murmured back and forth, wondering at what we’d seen and what it meant.
But it was getting dark — time to go. The wolf stood watching our retreat, his tail flagging, then raised his muzzle to the sky in a drawn-out howl, as if crushed. At last he trotted west and faded into the trees. As we walked toward home in the deepening winter evening, the first stars flickered against the curve of space. Behind us, the wolf’s deep cries echoed off the glacier.
With that first close meeting one evening in December 2003, a wild black wolf became part of our lives — not just as a fleeting shape in the dusk, but as a creature we and others would come to know over a span of years, just as he came to know us. We were neighbors, that much is certain; and though some will scoff, I say friends as well. This is a tale woven of light and darkness, hope and sorrow, fear and love, and perhaps, a little magic. It’s a story of our time on this shrinking world, one I need to tell — most of all, to myself. Late at night, it fills the spaces between heartbeats, nudges me awake. By speaking, I hope not to be rid of it, nor even to understand, but just to set down all the facts, the musings, and unanswered questions as best I can. Years from now, at least I’ll know that I did more than dream, and that once upon a time, there was a wolf we called Romeo. This is his story.