Number 39 Remembered

By

Kristin Kenlan

The Crazy Mountains rise, isolated, from the plains of central Montana. They formed when hot magma rose up through still wet sedimentary deposits, baking the sediments onto the hot core like a shell. Many legends surround their name, all of them having to do with women driven crazy by grief and isolation.

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I have spent only one night in the Crazies. I remember standing at the base of these towering peaks with my head craned back, seeing the late afternoon light glowing on the heat-twisted rocks above me, feeling subdued by a faceless power that I didn’t understand. I had never been in a wilder place, didn’t know my place in it, and recognized that the terms were not mine.

Perhaps time would have allowed me to understand this place. My feeling, then, was almost that of a trespasser, the way I felt when we came upon the print of a mountain lion in October’s new snow in Colorado — a wariness, a need to hurry away.

Threatening clouds brooded to the east as we climbed into our sleeping bags. At home, weather usually comes from the west, so we had hopes of a dry night. In the Crazy Mountains, I was to learn, weather comes from wherever it feels like. By midnight a cold, steady drizzle settled in and I shivered through it while coyotes yipped around our tent. Not too many feet higher, it was snow.

A hundred miles to the south, the Lamar Valley lies in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, separated from the Crazy Mountains by the massive Beartooth Plateau. It was there, in early 1996, that #39, her three daughters and an adult male were released. When I came to Lamar in the early summer of 1997, she had been gone for many months, either driven out or dispersed from the pack. Periodically, tracking flights would pick up her signal. She made her way as far as the Crazies, over high mountain plateau, wandering alone. It seemed a fitting place, somehow.

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I don’t know how to explain #39. Technically, she was gray, but her coat was so light that she appeared almost pure white. That, and the scope of her travels, had made her almost legendary. It was rumored that with the birth of that spring’s pups, her grandchildren, she had returned, but no one had yet seen her.
I had come to volunteer with an organization that was studying the effect of these new wolves on the ecosystem. Early light found us scanning the sage-spotted grasslands surrounding the river. Then, as we watched, a dark whisper of movement registered somewhere in my field of vision. Soon, another form materialized, and then two more, dissolving and reappearing as they moved through the sage. The adults were returning to the den after a night of hunting. They almost seemed to float, so effortless was their motion, and before they vanished into the trees, they lifted their muzzles to the sky and filled the air with a howl that resonated to my core. Then, in an opening far above us, a flash of white and five small pups — black, gray, black, black, gray.

I saw her again a few days later on a nearby ridge, minding the pups. She couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred yards away. Through the spotting scope, I could see her eyelashes. When she turned to look, it was as though she was staring directly through the lens into my soul. Her gaze held neither fear nor threat. Instead, once again, I found myself a trespasser. Silently, I asked her forgiveness and hurried to withdraw — not from fear, but from respect.

Throughout the fall, #39’s stature within the pack appeared to be diminishing and, again, she began to wander. The two adult males of the pack were illegally shot and killed just outside the Park. Then she reappeared once more with a new male, only to be driven off. The wolf researchers say that this new male jilted her for one of her daughters. In my anthropomorphic way, I like to think that she was still caring for her family, as she had cared for the pups, filling the void left by the dead males.

Back in Vermont, my own fall seemed to be made of anxieties stacked on top of troubles. Comfort came in the form of memory — of a white face with a direct, unblinking gaze.

I returned to Lamar the following February. At that time, #39 had been traveling with a new male outside the Park. I didn’t see her, but I bought a picture of her from a local wildlife photographer. He had several images, but the one I chose shows her moving to the left, across a snowy road framed by evergreens. She had stopped to look at him over her shoulder, acknowledging his presence. From the photo, her eyes met mine and I felt the first flicker of foreboding, a recognition that this appraising pause left her vulnerable.

 

It was several weeks later that I found out and, during that time, I harbored a gnawing uneasiness about her welfare. In the end, my premonition couldn’t protect her. Not five days after I left the Lamar, rancher Darwin Emmett heard his dog barking in the night. He rose from his bed, grabbed his new rifle, and strode onto the porch in his bare feet. A spotlight revealed a gray form moving to the left through the pasture. As Emmett leveled his rifle, she stopped and turned to look at him over her shoulder. His bullet knocked her down.

I think her spirit must still be wandering somewhere in the Crazy Mountains. On my wall, she turns her eyes to me. I will need to go to the Crazies again. To feel for her presence there. To look on the face of wildness and, this time, have it gaze back.

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Story by Kristin Kenlan

Crazies photo by Nathan Varley

Adaptation from "Streamside Wolf" drawn by Tracy A. Brooks

Number 39 Remembered photo by Dan & Cindy Hartman

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