As 2011 came to a close, a wolf that biologists call "OR-7" made history by loping across the Oregon border into Northern California, becoming the first wild wolf in that state since 1924.
But that's only one of OR-7's milestones. Two months earlier, he became the first wolf in over 50 years to roam the western Cascades. As he rambles on, he invites us to join him on a classic Western odyssey.
OR-7 is two and a half years old. He was born in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon, a member of the Imnaha Pack, one of Oregon's four reproducing packs. Last February, biologists fitted him with a GPS collar, and in September he left his family. By early 2012, he had walked close to 1,000 miles.
Biologists call him a "disperser," a youth so driven to find a mate that he leaves his natal pack. But as OR-7 keeps moving, it's easy to speculate that he's also driven by the kind of pioneering spirit that we celebrate in the West. As he faces down an unknown and dangerous landscape, we can imagine Lewis and Clark climbing the Bitterroots, Theodore Roosevelt braving North Dakota's stinging weather on horseback, Jack Kerouac balling a '49 Hudson for the Pacific Ocean. And don't forget traveling John Steinbeck and his wolf-descendent dog Charlie or the vision quests of young Native Americans, alone in the wilderness.
Many of us are transplants to the West, and in OR-7 we recognize the same restless spirit that brought us to this rugged and beautiful landscape. OR-7, you could say, sometimes reminds us of ourselves.
Don't doubt that his journey has been both difficult and courageous. When he left his family, he abandoned safety, food security and a dependable place to rest. From the bounty of the Wallowas, he wandered the hardscrabble dust and sage of eastern Oregon's desert. There were rattlesnakes, cougars and men with guns. Traversing a long loop, he probably survived on hares, grouse, maybe mice.
Southwest of Baker City, Ore., the wolf came upon Interstate 84, a deadly oasis. Wounded or dead deer lay by the roadside. And he could have been killed in a flash, suffering the same fate as the young Yellowstone wolf that wandered 1,000 miles to Colorado in 2004, only to be killed by vehicles on Interstate 70.
OR-7 made it across the interstate, perhaps a blur in someone's headlights. Moving south, he traversed the length of the Malheur National Forest. Mountainous and forested, it was familiar terrain. Maybe that's why he veered west near Burns, sticking to forest rather than venturing into the arid lands stretching south.
In October, he was back in the high desert, now southeast of Bend. He backtracked east 20 miles, then shot 40 miles south into Lake County before heading west again. Only he can explain the winding route. But it was hard, dry country, an extension of the Great Basin Desert, and like any of us, maybe he just wanted out of there.
Wolves live by smell, and something drew OR-7 toward that major north-south range, the Cascades. By Halloween, he was spending frosty nights above 4,000 feet. It was hunting season, and maybe he stood just beyond the glow of a campfire, listening to the stories. It was another warm fall in the Northwest, and successful hunters left behind plenty of meat for bears, cougars, magpies and perhaps a young wolf.
At the first snows, OR-7 climbed the high country near Crater Lake, not far from where the last wolf in the Oregon Cascades was shot in 1947. He lingered for weeks among soaring peaks and tall trees that hadn't seen a wolf in decades. In mid-December, a biologist reported that OR-7 fed on an elk tangled in a fence. Then, like many another Western folk hero, he was suddenly on the move again, wandering south into the Siskiyous of California.
Wherever OR-7 goes, he recalls the days of a wilder West. Trotting among tall trees, his presence causes elk to recede into thick timber, leaving streamside aspen shoots to grow tall, shading the water for fish and extending limbs to beavers. Wolves alter the land.
They also imprint our imaginations. So I say, you go, OR-7. Shine on, you crazy wolf. I hope you keep on running the gauntlet and eventually make it to paradise. That could be the Trinity Alps or the Lost Coast of Cape Mendocino, or maybe somewhere far inland, in the sugar pines of the Sierras. Perhaps you'll make it clear to New Mexico's Gila country, where you'll meet a female from one of those beleaguered packs of Mexican wolves.
That would really stir things up.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes from Girdwood, Alaska.