I had a different kind of campsite in mind for tonight, one smack in the middle of a sunny alpine meadow, encircled by golden-leafed aspen, bustling with elk in rut and within earshot of the howling wolves that roam these mountains. There are plenty of places like that here in Arizona's Blue Range. Instead, I find myself setting down my pack in a dark, forested boneyard at the bottom of Grant Creek Canyon, the only flat spot for miles. All manner of gnawed ungulate body parts from at least half a dozen elk or deer are strewn about. Not only am I within likely earshot of wolves, it appears I am also in the middle of their mess hall. (I would find out later that the boneyard was a "rendezvous site" for the Cienega pack last spring. The alpha male and female dragged fresh kills to this spot to feed their pups.)
Even though most hikers head to the picture-postcard-perfect White Mountains next door, I have always been drawn to the Blue Range. After nearly a decade of backpacking trips in the 174,000-acre wilderness on the Arizona/New Mexico border-hiking from the 9,000-foot-high aspen and fir-forested peaks soggy with snowmelt down to the oak-covered foothills and cactus-studded canyon bottoms-I thought I knew these mountains. But I had no idea how much the endangered Mexican gray wolf (reintroduced in 1998) had reclaimed this land.
If Aldo Leopold were here today, he'd be pleased to see how well the 30-plus wolves are doing and how "primitive" the Blue Range Primitive Area (a wilderness he helped establish) remains. In 1908, while patrolling the Blue Range during the early years of his Forest Service career, Leopold had a wolf encounter that planted the seed for a conservation ethic that helped inspire our nation's environmental movement.
In Leopold's famous environmental treatise, A Sand County Almanac, he recalls the day when he and his coworkers were sitting on a canyon bluff and spotted a pack of wolves. Exterminating wolves, grizzly, and other "vermin" was part of their job, so they proceeded to pull out their rifles and fill the pack with lead. Leopold shot the alpha female.
"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes," he wrote. "I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, then no wolves would mean a hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." It took decades--and thousands of deer starved through overpopulation--for the federal government to agree with Leopold's assertion that wolves were essential to maintaining the ecology of wildlands.
There have been rumors of reintroduced wolves killed by area ranchers, but it would be hard for any animal not to thrive in these mountains. There is a force of nature here that emanates from the gurgling of every stream, every canyon bottom, every forested peak, every pile of bones. As Leopold found when he looked into the wolf's eyes, there's a wild energy hereabouts that's more powerful than anything human. I feel it as I crouch over my stove boiling water for dinner. Or is it the presence of wolves that is sending a chill down my spine?
A sound unlike any I've ever heard rises from the bluff behind me. It's not the hoot of an owl, but neither does it sound like a classic wolf howl. Then again, perhaps it is the "deep, chesty bawl...of wild defiant sorrow" that Leopold heard in the Blue Range. There is still much I have to learn from these mountains. As Leopold said, "Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf."
BLUE RANGE, AZ
Getting there: The Blue Range Primitive Area is located on the Arizona-New Mexico border, approximately 15 miles south of Alpine, Arizona, via AZ 191.
Route: An extensive network of trails offers a variety of loop routes with reliable water throughout much of the wilderness (uncommon in Arizona). Wolves are most often heard (occasionally seen) at higher elevations. Starting from the Hannagan Meadow trailhead off AZ 191, you can create a loop route from 10 to 40 miles long using the Grant Creek, Upper Grant Creek, and Steeple Trails.
Guides: Exploring Arizona's Wild Areas, by Scott Warren (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; $14.95). A map of the Blue Range Primitive Area can be purchased from the national forest (see Contact below) for $7.
Contact: Alpine Ranger District, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, (928) 339-4384; www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf