Walking With Wolves | William Thomas Online | William Thomas

Walking With Wolves

Daybreak, Tribune Bay -Will Thomas photo



William Thomas

We met up two hours after daybreak, with the sun just topping the trees, and strung our footprints and conversation for a kilometer up and back along a rare sandy shore beside the Salish Sea.   

     We had nearly regained the trailhead leading back to Lori’s van when, further out by the water’s edge, our attention was drawn to a most remarkable dog trotting after the woman coming our way. 

     His narrow chest and muzzle were clues. But the way that animal turned to lope directly towards us with a canted, almost prancing gait — head drooping, bright penetrating eyes upcast — were not doggie traits.

     The long-haired woman looked on with the concern all dog owners know when their unleashed charge races toward two strangers to test their reactions. Will they freak out? Or will both bend down with welcoming cries of delight and, after a moment’s mutual introductions, reach out with caresses and more murmured appreciation?

     “Is he a wolf?” Lori asked the woman, who seemed pleased by her discernment. As far as it went…

     “Sara,” (I thought I heard the correction), was part wolf, part husky and part… malamute? Forgive this journalist for not taking better mental notes. I was too absorbed in running my hands through the thick black fur of this exotic female creature. Who was unusually friendly, we learned, since most dog-wolf mixes are “indifferent to people.” 

     Which hardly jibes with the concerns of endangered wolf specialist, Regina Mossotti, who cautions canine fantasists: “If you combine that strength, intelligence and wildness” — of a human-shy wolf — “with a lack of fear that dogs have, that could be a pretty serious situation.”

     Or a pretty marvelous one! 

     The reality of it is, they’re nice dogs,” counters Kent Weber, co-founder/director of Mission: Wolf — a Colorado wolves and wolf-dogs refuge.

     Copy that. Unlike humans, who share just 98.8% of our DNA with chimps, wolves and dogs have more than 99% of the Canis lupus genome in common. Little Red Riding Hood totally learned that each 1.2% divergence in DNA = 35 million differences in biological expression.

     If I had to choose between “monkeys” and wolves, I’m with the wolves. (Thailand’s chattering chimps were disconcertedly aggressive. Never look them in the eye!)

     Sure, you might be thinking. But what would you do if you came face-to-face with a wolf-wolf while walking along a narrow mountain trail? 

     Those unblinking amber eyes returned me instantly to that encounter…

*     *     *

Racing a squall in the High Country of the open sea -RandyThomas photo

Racing a squall in the High Country of the open sea -Randy Thomas photo

Aloft, afloat and afoot, I have long been drawn to the stark beauty of desolate places. Which explained my attraction to a 10-mile ridge walk, following a 10-mile approach through Jasper National Park.

     Currently, reservations are required months in advance to access this popular route. But back in 1975, the Skyline Trail was a less travelled gateway to the kind of high country a trekker seeks with the avidity of an isobar-obsessed surfer chasing the perfect break.  

     In early September, when snow-blocked passes were not yet a significant threat, I abandoned Vancouver, aiming my venerable TR-3A toward Jasper, just across the BC border in Alberta. Back when only growers cared about greenhouses, few activities were more fun than slaloming through 500 miles of mountain curves in a topless British sportscar. 

     By the time I pulled off Maligne Road and began unloading a dismaying amount of gear, the sun was behind the trees. Though tired from the drive up, I perked up when I realized that my little Triumph — repainted with so many hand-rubbed coats of British Racing Green it shone almost black — was the only car at the trailhead. 

     Always a good sign.

     Further rejuvenation came with my next brisk breath of pine-scented mountain air. John Denver might’ve been a sentimental, cherub-faced crooner before an inaccessible fuel switch dove his homebuilt Long E-Z into Monterey Bay. But “Rocky Mountain High” got it forever right.

     Shouldering the heavy Fjallraven pack and cinching the external packframe’s gut strap extra-tight to shift the load off my shoulders to my hips, I struck out for the nearest accommodation. Which, of course, was on my back. 

     My most ambitious alpine adventure yet began with a gentle climb along a wide forested path. Hard chargers “do” the Skyline Trail in two days. But keen as I was on committing medium-format photography, reading my dog-eared copy of Wang Wei in settings that ancient Chinese poet would have approved, and just looking out my eyes — I’d brought fuel and provisions for five.

     After an hour’s easy warm-up, I pitched my tent in the deserted Evelyn Creek campground. At 5000 feet, the little Svea stove’s welcome putt-putt-putt took extra innings to boil water for tea. It had been a long push from the coast. But after all those crossed-off lists… I was here!   


Stopping at Evelyn Creek proved providential. For next morning, the trail immediately commenced a steepening climb. That’s the thing about the high country. You have to earn it. Compensatory incentive came with come-hither peaks, teasingly glimpsed through the thinning trees. 

     Until I came upon fresh scat. Black bear, I guessed. Though brother griz was said to be around. Appreciative of the warning and desirous of reciprocating, I stopped to lash a cowbell to the Fjallraven’s handy packframe. 

     At Mile 5 my clangorous westering path finally turned in the “right” direction: NW. Passing through an eerie ghost forest of cold ash and fire-blackened snags, I broke out into more open country. With once-distant mountains crowding closer, I stowed the bell before descending into a long alpine meadow cut by clear icy brooks. 

     “The stroller along mountain streams is given to reflective moods,” EM Kindle wrote in his 1929 geological guide. Which must’ve been why I was already breaking out the Svea to brew a powdered milk-and-honey-laced cup of Russian Caravan. 

     Another good call, because in another mile the trail pitched up steeply. Downshifting to a slower pace, I carried on. The higher I climbed toward Big Shovel Pass, the finer the views of Curator and Antler Mountains opening out to my left.

     Four miles on, I nearly tripped over Curator Mountain. The base of this 8280-foot peak lay so close to the trail, I stopped to assess the best line. Though snow still clung to Curator’s sheltered southern slope, I judged its bare eastern shoulder to be “walkable” all the way to the top. 

     But not at this late hour. 

Into the High Country, Singing Pass, BC Coast Mountains -Randy Thomas photo

Nightfall comes early in the mountains. Eager though I was to reach the foot of the Skyline’s daunting portal before dark, my first view of that imposing cirque made me pause to assess an obstacle resembling a volcano’s collapsed cone. 

     But according to The Geological Story of Jasper Park, this amphitheater for giants had been shaped over eons by repeated glacial erosion and ice streams fracturing its sheltered leeward side. Regarding the mysteries of Deep Time, Kindle described: “A vivacious young lady, who when asked if she was interested in history, replied that she preferred to let bygones be bygones.” 

     For those who can read a 70 million-year-old library in stone, this park’s 5,000 square-mile massif of limestone, sandstone and shales was “upthrust” from antediluvian sea bottoms, “crumpled in huge folds and set up on edge” by titanic forces to form the Rockies from, well… rock.

     But you knew that already.

     Of more immediate geologic concern was the “Notch”. Situated in a saddle between two peaks, the lofty pass strongly hinted that the squashed contour lines on my topo map were not the territory depicted. 

     From this foreshortened perspective, the route up the right-hand flank of that three-sided bowl looked walkable — it was a park-registered “trail” after all. But so are the stairs leading up the Empire State Building. Anyone mad and determined enough to hump a backpack to the “summit” of that iconic skyscraper, would still come out below the height of the Notch.

     But there was no avoiding it. This 1500-foot pass was the price of admission to a realm I craved like the open sea. 

     The first pale stars were emerging by the time I finished pitching my nylon shelter beside startlingly turquoise Curator Lake. Though exhuastipated from the hike in, I was stoned out of my everyday mind in ways known only to those who seek far places. 

     Whether journeying through high mountains, empty skies, or trackless ocean, when forced by circumstances to pay strict attention to every move you make — once you’ve been “away” long enough or far enough to forget anywhere else, you are already in a profoundly altered state.


The author holding the Superwide below Yarigatake in the Japan Alps -Randy Thomas photo

When confronted by a tough challenge, it’s best to just go for it. After a fortifying breakfast of (real) eggs, biscuits and yes, more smoky Russian tea, I set out to “tiger” the Notch. 

     Laboring like a Sherpa, pausing often to contemplate that perplexing conundrum: “Why am I?” — I eventually ran out of incline. Gasping from exertion and wonder, I gaped at an Otherworld of snowcapped summits supernaturally displayed under a light blue sky, deepening toward the blackness of space. 

Will Thomas flying Cessna 172

     The Watchtower (9157’) dominated the view north. Closer to hand, swoosh-like curls of remnant snow randomly decorated wind-smoothed sandstone waves. 

     At an altitude of 8238 feet — far higher than any Cessna I’d flown — I took a long swig from my water bottle and realized that this was as close as I would get in this lifetime to making photographs with an 8x10 view camera on the surface of Mars…


For a time out of time, the only sounds were the soughing of the ever-present wind, my Vibram-shod footfalls, and the tapping of the aluminum monopod. (Twisting an ankle on loose scree was not an option.) 

     This was ideal terrain for high country cruising. But each time I settled into an easy rhythm, I was halted by the sheer majesty of my surroundings. Good Goddess what a planet! And how nature loves being noticed. Everywhere I looked, some fresh aspect was waving both hands and shouting, “Take me! Take me!”  

     The Hasselblad’s unique field-of-view would capture these sweeping vistas on 2 1/4-inch Fujichrome with the clarity of a picture window. Unlimbering the packsack, I waved an incident light meter before exhuming the Superwide and clipping it onto the monopod’s quick-release bracket. Working quickly, I set speed and aperture on the interfacing lens rings, cocked the shutter — remembered to withdraw the slide from the removable film back — and gripped the cable release. 


Tarn, Skyline Trail, Jasper National Park -Randy Thomas photo

Framing a descending series of turquoise tarns propelled me into that place athletes, photographers, writers and other practitioners of deeply focused attention call: The Zone. I knew I’d arrived there when the composition arranged itself… and the shutter tripped without conscious thought.

     You could say I was pumped. 

Walking, stopping, exclaiming each time I cranked the film advance, the day passed, a dream within a dream. Only when the trail commenced a sharp descent toward the Signal Mountain trailhead — closer to the town of Jasper than the TR — did I turn to retrace my steps. 

     Boring! I know. But the chances of duplicating my outward passage were equivalent to twice dipping my toes into the same stream. As I subsequently learned during a Japanese Tea Ceremony in Kyushu (gaijin translation): 

                                              Ichi-go ichi-e 

                                           First time every time 

Coming down was harder than going up. Steep descents on rock are brutal on load-bearing knees. And it’s all too easy to slip. So it was with much satisfaction and some relief that I re-pitched my camp on Curator’s shore, opened Wang Wei and a carefully hoarded half-bottle of red wine, and read…

                                     I will pour you some wine

                                   And you must relax


                                   The world’s affairs and the floating clouds —

                                   Why question them?

                                     You had best take life easily —

                                   And have a good dinner.

Even after one-thousand years, this was excellent advice.

So I did.

 Daybreak, Yarigatake, Japan Alps -Randy Thomas photo

Next morning, assailed by a sudden fit of get-home-itis after a night of fleeting moonlight and windy stars, I reached for a stuff sack. And paused to reconsider…

                                   Weather & provisions holding, 

                                   Base camp secure,

                                   Why not linger another day 

                                   In Wang Wei’s “Far mountains, 

                                   sharp on the cold sky”?

Which made it day five when I traversed a steep grassy slope, several hours into my return to “reality”. Seduced into even mellower cadence by my lightened load and the packframe’s companionable creaking, I entered a blind bend and met a wolf coming the other way.

     I could hardly believe my luck! 

     In that nano-instant, we each registered, no threat. I just had time to blurt, “Hello, Mister Wolf!” in my friendliest voice before the 10 feet between us shrank to 10 inches.   

     The dark-furred grey wolf made no reply. Intent on covering ground, he was indifferent to my presence. 

     Mindful of trail etiquette, I would have made way if I could. But on that skinny concourse, the best I could manage was to stop myself from reflexively reaching down to stroke the nice wolfie as he passed. 

     The wolf never broke stride. Never looked up as he trotted past without making physical contact. Thank goodness! I doubt I could have handled another 120,000 volts.

     Thrilled by such rare blessing, when I turned to wave goodbye, that magnificent animal was already around the corner and gone.

     Those eyes are with me still.

Minutes later, I encountered a backpacking couple coming my way. 

     “Did you see the wolf?” I excitedly inquired. 

     Both hikers stared at me as if I’d been too long in the bush. 

     “What wolf?” the woman said.

“Randy” Will Thomas, travelling back in time -Photog unknown

“Randy” Will Thomas, travelling back in time -photog unknown

*scans by King Anderson


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