Nearly every year on the Mogollon Rim I crossed paths with a white wolf. The last time I saw her was in 2005. I say “her” because I didn't ever see any wolf-balls or related genitalia. I've told the story around many a campfire, often to the ridicule of those who believe there are no wolves on the Rim. Nobody made more good natured fun of my wolf stories than Tim, Marc, and Becky.To be honest, I couldn't blame them. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would be skeptical as well.
The first time I saw her, I didn't think there were wolves on the Rim either. Mike, “The Man in the Tower”, had given me the census numbers on large mammals in the Bear Canyon area and wolves were not included.
About a mile north of the lake on Forest Road 89 is a wide cut through the Ponderosa Forest that extends from the northeast, southeastward toward Star Valley and Payson. In the middle of this cut runs huge towers, crackling powerlines, and a rough road that services them. Certain times of the summer, elk gather here of an evening to browse on the grasses that grow in this open area.
At the southeast corner of the Powerline Road and FR 89 is a meadow with a few large Ponderosa. It is a favored campsite of large families and RV campers who wish to avoid the crowds of the lake, but feel safer with the open environment and proximity of traffic. Beyond the power lines, FR89 becomes worse and greenhorns become fewer. Bivalve fossils, three to four inches in diameter, are abundant beyond the power lines.
It was a Tuesday. The weekend warriors had pulled out, leaving me to my forest. Often the RV folk left behind bags of store bought firewood. They sold splits of alligator juniper at Woods Canyon and it was good for cooking. It was better than pitchy old pine for sure, and with the recent rains, drier than the dead-fall oak I preferred to grill with. I walked FR89 toward the power lines, mentally marking the camps who'd left the dry bags of juniper and taking one-hits from my dugout.
Between the trees in the corner meadow, I saw something gleaming in the sunlight. It was a small reflection and didn't look like a beer can. I'd become an expert at recognizing beer cans littering the forest. I maintained my focus as I crossed the hundred yards of meadow so I wouldn't loose sight of it.
When I was twenty five feet from the object, I caught a movement in my peripherals and stopped. Twenty feet to the left of the object, and on an intersecting path, was the white wolf. She was also looking at the object and didn't appear to have noticed me. Not wanting to surprise a large white wolf, I coughed. I coughed in as friendly and nonthreatening a manner as I possibly could.
Startled, she stopped and turned her head toward me, just for a split second, then she bolted straight across the meadow and disappeared into the thick pines. She was mostly white, with just a touch of gray at the shoulder and haunch. Her head reached my waist. This was no coyote. I put my dugout in my pocket and stared after her.
I'd seen a wolf only once before, high in the Rockies on Mt. Elbert. This one was larger, and more white. I wondered if she didn't see me because I was stoned and vibing with the forest. It seemed odd to surprise a wolf in an open meadow. I'd heard they had released wolves near the Arizona and New Mexico border, but that was half a state away.
The shiny thing that drew me into the meadow was a child's compound bow. I fashioned an arrow from a hollow piece of tent pole with raven feathers and a handle-less phillips screwdriver (for the point). It would drive the arrow into a log enough to make it hard to pull it out. I gave to bow to the parents of Gavin Dvorak the next time I saw them. He was about to turn four, I think, and was maybe a bit young yet.
That winter at the river, I think Grizz, Lee, and Rusty were the only people who didn't try to convince me I saw a coyote. I know what a coyote looks like. Grizz said he thought they had released some wolves in the White Mountains.
Fourteen months later, I had my second sighting.
About a third of the way down the western side of Bear Canyon Lake is a still, shallow finger just before the shore curves to the left. There's a steep ravine that ends in that finger. At monsoon times, that ravine feeds the lake. I had some success floating homemade flies on the calm water there.
On the morning in question, I was maybe forty feet from the point of the finger, having a smoke before trying my luck. My most recent creation was a red dragonfly I made with a rooster feather. There was a mother duck and ducklings up at the point, and I was watching them to see if they shed any feathers. Suddenly, the white wolf sprang from an unseen spot in the tall grass, snatched a duckling up into his mouth and trotted up the ravine and out of view. The remaining ducks made quite a commotion and hastily retreated further into the lake and around the corner.
The activities had no harmful effect on the fishing, I caught three nice trout on the dragonfly. That night I tied up three more.
That winter, the gang at the Verde could barely keep contained in their mirth that I would think a coyote was a wolf. Tim said he'd seen some pretty big coyotes, and I should realize they get bigger in the mountains than the scrawny desert variety. I know what a coyote looks like.
In July, one year, Marc was camping with me at the northernmost camping area by the west side of the lake. He didn't like that spot because it was so populated, but Tyler had my fishing gear back in Phoenix and I had to spend long hours at the lake to keep fed on crawdads and dandelions. Marc had the idea to have a fourth of July party out there and invite our friends from the Verde. When the time came, we'd move out to Marc's usual spot at near where FR89 merges with FR91 near Willow Creek.
We invited about thirty people in all. Maybe half that showed up. Early on, it was just Becky, Marc, Grizz, Trapper, Rusty, a friend of his, and Janine. One night just before dark, we drove out to the rim's edge to get a cell phone signal and call some people with specific directions to the party. I think everybody rode along but Rusty and his friend. Somebody was following us. Maybe Corona Brion and Dave the Pirate.
About a quarter mile from the lake turnoff the white wolf raced across the road, the meadow on our right, and into the forest's edge where we lost sight of it. Marc hit his brakes and said “Did you see that? That was a big white wolf!”
“Oh, no!” I replied, “That was just a coyote.” They believe me now.
The next year, toward the end of the summer, I was walking south on FR89 toward the Bear Canyon Loop Trail (a favorite of mine). I wasn't planning to hike far. I didn't have my day pack or any water on me. Then I saw the white wolf yet again. This time she crossed the road at almost the same place we had seen her the previous year, only this time she stopped at the forest's edge and looked back at me. I put my hand in one of her tracks and her paw was nearly as big as mine. Certainly not a coyote. I know a coyote when I see one.
She hesitated as if waiting for me to follow. I was high again, just like the last three times. That's actually pretty remarkable as I look back. It wasn't often I had grass on the Rim. Anyway, I got the idea that if a possibly magical white wolf wanted to show me something in the forest, who was I to refuse?
We went west, for the most part, and slightly north. We crossed out of familiar territory and down ravines and over meadows for a couple of hours. Just when she would be almost out of sight, she would stop and wait for me to halve the distance between us. We were miles from the lake, far beyond any trails or fire roads. I knew that the rim road was to my left (south), FR91 was ahead, and the power lines to the right. FR89 was behind me. Even if I got lost, I knew how to find camp.
Eventually, I began to speculate on my lack of water and the wisdom of allowing a wild carnivore to lead me deep into the forest. I couldn't discount the possibility that she was leading me to her pack for dinner. I didn't have a flashlight or jacket and it was growing dark. Insert whatever excuse you want, I quit following and rolled a cigarette, Thinking again how thirsty I was and how good that water was going to taste back at camp. I turned to head back to FR89.
Between the roots on the west side of a pine tree facing me were two water bottles and a pair of binoculars. I didn't see them on the way past because they were on the other side of the tree. Did that wolf just lead me to water and binoculars? It was obvious they had been there a while from the dust and dirt. I assumed a hunter had forgotten them last fall. I opened a bottle and drank. It tasted like the bottle. It was obviously old, but I was glad to have it.
I thanked the wolf and went home. It was dark when I crossed FR89.
The following year was the last time I saw her, and I saw her several times over the course of my last week ever at Bear Canyon. I was camped in the forest between FR89 and the lake, about a mile and a half north of Rim Road 300. I wasn't more than a quarter mile from the place I picked up her trail the previous year. My camp faced east toward the lake, and sat about two hundred feet from the top of the ravine leading down to that fly fishing spot.
Each morning, that wolf would trot right past my camp, as I sat there with my coffee and morning puff. Sometimes I'd wave and say “mornin'”. She was never in a hurry, traveling along with that familiar trot. Neither of us were afraid. I wondered if she recognized me as I did her. One morning, on my way to the lake, I saw her trot right through somebodies camp while they were fixing breakfast. They didn't even see her.
I watched her wind through the forest among campsites and up and down that ravine to the lake and never saw anybody even look at her. I stopped to ask a few people if they'd seen a wolf but got the same derisive comments my river buddies used before they saw her. There is much that goes on, sometimes within feet of ourselves, that we do not see.
In 2012, ten years or so from my first sighting, wolves appear on the census as living on the rim. I found an article dated 2002, that says wolves were released in Apache-Sitgreaves Forest. This is where I saw the white wolf.
I know what a coyote looks like.
For more information check out The Mexican Grey Wolf Recovery Program at: http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/brwrp_home.cfm