I took a day or so to get my bearings around the portion of coast that would be my temporary home for the next few months. It was the middle of summer but I had not correctly anticipated the climate right there on the edge of the ocean and soon learned that walls of fog would be rolling in to greet me most mornings and I would experience a very cool wind instead of hot sunshine. The water temperature, too, had been highly overestimated on my part and on the first day I tried to go swimming in my bikini I had locals staring and pointing; I was the only one in the water and I soon found out why. It took a long soak in the shower to stop my shivering after that attempt. The tourist brochures of holiday goers lazing in sunshine had fooled me, but once dressed appropriately I found Yachats and the coast the perfect place to be. I knew it would be a relaxing paradise after a week’s work at the sanctuary.
The people along the coast of Oregon that I had the pleasure to meet had a key similarity that I noticed; they all cared greatly about the environment they live in and took immense pride in it. I really liked that about them; they reminded me of a lot of kiwis I know and made me feel even more at home in this new place. It was very clear that the little community of Yachats were passionate about their town and its history – the information center has a wealth of learning material and advice on things to do. Hiking through the local forests and exploring the beaches became my two favourite things – that, and visiting the fabulous Drift Inn regularly to catch up with the staff I got to know there and enjoy their absolutely delicious food, not to mention the frequent musicians they have for entertainment. Yachats really is a beautiful, vibrant place.
But I was itching to get out to the sanctuary. The one detail I had not organised along with everything else was transport. The White Wolf Sanctuary boasts that it lies several miles up a forested mountain. The private track winding up the mountain is only suitable for certain types of vehicles; as I was unsure of what exactly ‘suitable’ meant I didn’t want to leave it to chance. My wonderful Oregonian family offered to take me to the bottom of the mountain and Lois would pick me up at the arranged time. I was so excited, so nervous; so many things I couldn’t explain at once.
The sanctuary sits across from the Alsea River and is a few miles out of Waldport. It was a beautiful quiet drive from Ocean Haven and although the trip took close to an hour I knew doing it daily wouldn’t bother me at all. The scenery along the way was all part of it. Drivers also seemed to be more relaxed on the roads compared to those in Auckland – nobody is in a rush to go anywhere and I embraced this. It was lovely not having people drive up the backside of your car or cut you off when pulling out of roads. Thinking back, the beautiful scenery, the great little community, the opportunity to work for a cause I was absolutely passionate about – I really do miss it so, so much.
We parked by the old gas station that is a landmark for sanctuary tour groups to meet at. I could see why tours were only run once per day; the road to the sanctuary is fairly invisible when you don’t know where to look and it would be impossible for volunteers to drive groups up and down the mountain all day long. At once I caught sight of the White Wolf Sanctuary’s sturdy four-wheel-drive truck. Lois stepped out, smiling, and told me “I knew you’d make it.”
The way up the mountain was spectacular. You lost sight of the highway immediately and were transported into lush forest. Bears, elk, foxes, deer, coyotes and all kinds of species roamed the wilderness around the sanctuary. Even mountain lions weren’t unheard of(!) – but I’m glad I never saw one of those. Most of the land up the mountain is used for forestry and large chunks of the landscape seemed to have been scraped over with a clay brush – it was still beautiful, but huge squares of missing trees made you remember that this ‘wilderness’ was still human owned and operated. The trail wound up and up, potholes puncturing the track on one side and sheer drops down the mountain fell on the other. More than one steep hill up loose gravel and dust made it clear why many vehicles would not be sufficient. I was grateful for Lois meeting me this time around and taking me up in the truck – it’s a fairly intimidating drive when you don’t know where you’re going!
Before long we reached a point of the track where it was lined with a tall mesh fence on one side. This, I knew, must be it. Behind the fence was an exhibit indistinguishable from the rest of the mountain’s forest, apart from an odd picnic table sitting out in a small clearing by a large double gate. Suddenly, I saw a white blur. I caught my breath. Out of the trees came a sleek, graceful arctic wolf. She ran along beside the truck as we made our way further up the mountain. She – was – beautiful, a delicate white ghost gliding over grass and pine needles as she followed us. Caught in the moment, my eyes welled with quiet tears – I couldn’t help it; I was overwhelmed. She was just as I thought they would be.
The truck manoeuvred around a corner and now I could see exhibits on either side. It was bigger than I had imagined; the fences went so far back into the forest that I lost sight of them. There were giant water troughs, cute little wooden cabins, open spaces with tall grass and flowers and one habitat had a natural pool for the wolves to swim in. As we came up to the main parking area I was able to see the layout more: The habitats were centered around Lois’ house/office block and could be connected by large double gates which, when pulled open, would give the wolves access to different areas. Lois explained that when all these gates were open all the habitats could be connected in almost a full circle.
I saw wolves in most of the areas. They were separated into male/female pairs – when the pack was younger they were able to run together, but with the current demographics it would be dangerous to keep them in the same group. If they were in the wild, the younger males would challenge the more elderly wolves for stronger hierarchy in the pack – often this results in weaker wolves being forced out of the group. However, in captivity with nowhere to retreat to, such challenges could be disastrous. And they seemed happy (if I’m to be anthropomorphic, which a lot of this blog is!) in their pairs; they still had interactions with each other through the fence lines, but it was much safer for them with this set-up.
Lois parked, we had a chat and then Lois said she wanted to see how I’d go with meeting the wolves up at the fence. I was slightly stunned, I thought I would have to at least ignore them for a few days while they got used to me walking around the sanctuary. A big male arctic was hanging about the fence nearest us, and Lois began to approach him. A bout of nerves kicked in again; what if I mucked it up somehow? However, Lois demonstrated for me – she walked up to the fence as normal but at an angle so she was not coming directly towards the wolf. She knelt down so that she was at his eye level, and put the back of her hand against the wire. She motioned for me to come over, too, explaining that often people try to walk extremely slowly so as not to frighten the wolves but they actually perceive it as being stalked – being sure-footed, confident, standing up straight and not staring them down is the best way to approach. I was reluctant, though; I had not been told anything about this male’s demeanor let alone the personalities and backgrounds of any of the wolves, and was not sure what sort of reaction I might cause. Nevertheless I bent down beside Lois, put my hand up and let the beautiful beast sniff me through the fence. He immediately turned his face side-on and pushed it against the wire. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, but was confused as to what this meant.
“He wants you to scratch him,” Lois clarified. “This is Odot, the alpha – this is amazing, he never does this with strangers.”
Needless to say, I was over the moon, and gave Odot what he wanted.
The first day was spent getting familiar with the sanctuary, learning about my duties and watching a tour. At this stage I really couldn’t tell many of the wolves apart, but looked forward to the day that I knew them and their stories more. That evening I went home on an elated high and said a silent thank you to whatever allowed me to be lucky enough to be here. I couldn’t wait to do it all again tomorrow.