Too Great for our Footsteps

“And so I kept running, and Brenin [my pet wolf] kept running with me; and we both got fitter, and leaner, and harder. This pragmatic impetus for my new-found fitness, however, quickly changed into something else. On our runs together, I realized something both humbling and profound: I was in the presence of a creature that was, in most important respects, unquestionably, demonstrably, irredeemably and categorically superior to me. This was a watershed moment in my life.” -Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher and The Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness

The first time I truly felt the presence of wolves in the wild was during the 2013 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Dragging a sled filled with my gear and food, I’d followed a frozen snowmachine track along the Yentna and Skwentna rivers to the foothills of the Alaska Range. I’d then postholed in shin-deep snow over Rainy Pass, gaining safe passage into the Interior.

After 210 miles of slogging, I dropped into the Rohn checkpoint. I sat by the woodstove on a snowbank padded with fresh-cut cedar for a cup of hot chocolate, a can of soup, and a nap. The rudimentary wall-tent cabin provided a welcome reprieve from the harsh reality of winter in Alaska.

I then ran through the Farewell Burn, the site of Alaska’s largest forest fire where a million-and-a-half acres of forest had gone up in flames in the late 1970s. I distinctly remember feeling a shift in mood as if suddenly everything had become a little more remote, serious, and committed. The landscape is intimidating—barren, inhospitable, and lined with charred trees for miles on end. My sled bobbed rhythmically behind me as I ran. It was a plastic shell filled with many comforts, including a down-feather sleeping bag and salmon that I didn’t catch myself. There, in the wee hours of the morning, I was acutely aware of my frailty in this environment, of my complete dependance on the stuff I had brought with me to survive.

Reflecting on that moment afterward I remarked: “The beam of my headlamp follows the perfectly symmetrical tracks of a wolf. I imagine the animal moving gracefully, powerfully, moving like one who belongs here, unlike us, clumsy, struggling strangers in a land too great for our footsteps.”

I’d been thinking about wolves recently after attending a fascinating presentation by Paula Woerner who heads up the Wolfwood Refuge, a sanctuary for wolves and wolfdogs located in southern Colorado. Paula was in Estes Park, Colorado for a day, with one of their rescue wolves, Ra, and several other wolfdogs. In her talk, she dispelled many of the myths surrounding our fear of wolves, such as the fact that wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare and their natural instinct is to flee rather than hunt us. She also highlighted the enumerable benefits wolves have on our ecosystems. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s is but one powerful example of the dramatic positive impact they have on restoring balance to the land, forests, and rivers.  

As I listened to Paula talk, I looked over at Ra, who sat quietly in his cage. Ra had been bred for sale in Alaska, but was deemed unworthy due to an underbite. He’d been permanently chained up to a two-foot leash before being rescued by Wolfwood Refuge as an older pup. While Ra’s life in captivity is now immeasurably better than it was, it’s still hard to see such a majestic animal behind bars. The image of this caged wolf has remained scarred in my memory as a potent reminder of the immense privilege we have as runners to roam this land freely and the inherent responsibility that freedom engenders.   

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When as a runner have you felt the power of the wild and your smallness within it? Can you describe the situation and transport us into it as Joe has?
  • What responsibility do you think we as trail runners have to the wild places through which we run?

Ra. Photo: Joe Grant

Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 5 comments

  1. Hone

    I used to run into wolves quite a bit. We had a couple of packs that roamed in my hometown. It was awesome and a treat when I would see them. Over the years I saw them many times while out running. I remember one time coming up on a moose during a run that had its back leg completely ripped apart and the muscles were just hanging and flapping as it tried to walk. Blood was everywhere. About 30 yards away one of the pack of wolves with huge black male were just laying around waiting for the moose to bleed out. It was crazy to witness and I called the park rangers to come out and put the moose down. That same pack a year later became aggressive during a harsh winter and started attacking runners dogs targeting them as food so the entire pack ended up being put down. Bummer.

    Amazing creatures to watch in the wild.

  2. Sandy Stott

    For a number of years, one of my mountain circuits in New Hampshire ran along a ridge that few visit. There, I could count on being a pack of one. That all changed one year — at least audibly — when I began to hear concentrated howling from the valley below.

    I know the area along and around this ridge very well — it’s my home mountain — and I’d often heard coyotes yodeling before their night hunts. These howls were different. Long story short, they came from wolves or hybrids brought to an encampment of large pens fashioned in woods where no one else lived. For a decade this rescue site persisted. Then a mix of tax trouble and sheer fatigue closed it down. I never learned where the 40+ wolves and hybrids went next.

    But for that decade, whenever I ran this route, at some point wolf-song punctuated the run and my thoughts, and the woods changed. Always when this happened, I felt transported to another time, an older one, and always, I felt a surge of energy, a lupine kinship arriving in my feet.

    Yes, the remnant hair on my neck sometimes stood up too. The howls and yodels I heard were, after all, from animals way more able than I. But mostly, I felt blessed to be carried into these deeper woods, to be able to run to and through them.

    Thanks, Joe, for bringing back that memory; it’s been 15 years since I listened to it.

    Sandy Stott

  3. Chris

    Wow, this was a moving read! Thank you Joe for continually sharing your highly developed reflections and amazing adventures! And with all the well deserved excitement surrounding the UTMB, it’s really special to see this piece pop up at the same time. As a trail runner I am fortunate to be constantly reminded of those creatures which have no voice and live out the stories of their lives without ever speaking a word. I remember stopping at a brook in the woods on a run near my home in New England for a splash of cooling water only to be surprised by a stoic great blue heron standing knee-deep in the center of the pool I stood beside. The heron stayed still and so did I, only a few feet away from one another. After a couple minutes, the heron began to stalk upstream. Intrigue took over and I left my shoes on the bank of the brook and stepped in. I traveled upstream behind the heron at a slow stalking pace, accompanying the bird while it hunted for its next meal. She or he was totally aware of me, and I tried my best to move when it moved and be still when it stayed still, to show it that I meant no harm and didn’t want to interfere. That heron and I moved along this way over the course of an hour or so, sometimes only a few feet from each other. At one point, I was crouching low and we were face to face at eye-level, which for a moment gave me a jolt of strange fear. The eyes reminded me of a dinosaur and the beak was like a long, beautiful blade. The fear only lasted for a second and gave way to awe. The heron eventually gave up on the hunt and flew upstream and eventually up over the canopy.

    I try to remember the creatures without voices as I make decisions around my consumption of goods and services in this amazing life. I think as trail runners we have a unique view of these creatures on their home turf, which we also get life and sustenance from, albeit in different ways. We can become guardians of this turf by spending our money wisely, as money equates to life energy, and through active volunteering and work to protect the wilderness we love and need.

  4. Steffen

    Love the book you’re quoting here! I recommend it to all my runner friends.
    Bumped into a (supposed) wolf once while hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. We had our Lab-Rottweiler Lily with us and met a guy who briefly warned us that he had a wolf with him and that we should look out for our dog. I honestly didn’t quite believe him. When the “Wolf” rounded the corner, I was amazed. He seemed double the size of our (70 lbs) dog, moving swift and very calm. The two sniffed each other and I was relieved that they both walked on in separate directions without even a second look at each other. Now I was curious. So when the animal passed me I reached out to him to let him sniff my hand. As he stayed very calm, I summoned all my courage and touched his gray fur – to see that my hand sank into it up to the wrist. As I said, I am not sure whether or not is was a wolf, I’d say it likely wasn’t. However, I want to think it was one and that I was privileged that he let me pet him.

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