Backstory: A Unique Ski Partner

I hit Lake Ediza around dusk and set up camp on the north side of the lake. After salami, cheese, and beer, I turned in for the night. A full moon shone. I would have liked to stay up to admire it, but I needed to get an early start the next morning to summit and ski Mount Ritter, a 13,000-foot peak in the central Sierras.

Something crunching through the snow woke me. It was the unmistakable sound of a large animal approaching. Heart beating faster, throat dry, I catalogued the possibilities and didn’t like the answers. Too big for a coyote, it had to be a bear intent on attack. Since it was winter, my food was in my tent. Whatever was out there had to have smelled it.

the-wolf

Canis Lupis: The Wolf [Photo] William C. Campbell

After a few moments of thought, I grabbed my ice axe, dove out of the tent, and came nose to nose with a huge bitch wolf. I should have been terrified, but I was so grateful it wasn’t a bear. I just stared at her. Moonlight spilled over black and silver fur, and illuminated her amber eyes.

My inner voice shrieked: It’s a wolf, dumbass. Do something. So I yelled insults and shook my ice axe in her face. She cocked her head to one side; her lupine features reflected astonishment and disgust. She wandered off slowly. I figured she’d left for good, so I climbed back into the tent to sleep.

Sometime later, I woke to a series of whuffing snarls followed by a long, mournful howl. I rolled over and pulled a jacket over my head. As if she knew I was trying to return to sleep, she cranked up the volume. I’ve lived with dogs all my life. I know the drill. She’d keep this up all night until she got what she wanted. I grabbed a box of Triscuits, unzipped the tent and sat in its doorway. I chucked a cracker at her. She ate it and moved closer. She looked like a gray wolf. They don’t roam wild in California anymore. She had to be someone’s pet, abandoned by an owner who couldn’t control her, or maybe she’d run off on her own. Three crackers later, she took them from my outstretched hand. A collar nearly buried in her thick ruff clinched it; she had been someone’s pet. After a few more Triscuits, she curled up next to my tent. We both went to sleep.

In the morning, she was still there and she joined me in a ski ascent of Mount Ritter. As I skinned up, she would climb to the skyline on a ridge, howl to get my attention, and then disappear. Seconds later her snout slammed into the back of my leg. The first time it happened, adrenaline shot through me. Edgy, palms slick, I jumped back. I wanted some distance between us if she were going to attack. Tail pluming, she trotted back uphill.

She repeated the game over and over. It was astonishing how fast she could get from the peak of a ridge to me and carry out a blindsided strike without being seen or heard. It was as if she were saying, “Hey! Clueless bozo! I could kill you and take your food, but I’m having too great of a time.”

I smiled at her. In my world, animals need names. So I called her Wolfette. Coming down from the summit I tried to lose her by skiing faster than a solo guy with any sense had a right to. But she stuck like glue.

Back in camp, I took my skis off and sat on a low boulder to eat some lunch. Wolfette laid her head on my shoulder and gazed at my jugular. After a day spent skiing with her, I wasn’t nervous anymore. I gave her a hug—and the rest of my food. When I started toward Mammoth Lakes and home, she was still trotting alongside me.

“Hey, Wolfette,” I said. “How about if I try to find your family? They must be worried about you.”

I turned to gauge her reaction, but she was gone.

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