The drive up the mountain in the dark predawn hours was amazing in itself. Although I love living in Kentucky now, I really get homesick for the mountains, and drink them in whenever I am there. It was chilly (as predawn temps are inclined to be, in Montana in September) but clear. We needed to be ready to shoot as the sun came up.
I had never touched a wolf before, or photographed them except from VERY far away in the Park and at the Wolf Center in West Yellowstone. I had already been told I was not allowed to touch or be near the wolves, liability and all that, disappointing but understandable.
We met Eddie, the handler we would be working with that day. He informed us it would just be him, instead of two handlers as per usual, as something had come up for the other one. The wolves were in the truck and we headed farther up the mountain, with Eddie's two Golden Retrievers in the front seat. I kept pinching myself, it was so surreal, and something I have dreamt of for so long.
Eddie let the wolves out on the hillside, a huge area fenced with a single strand of electric wire, which they respected. It was such a large space that they could run over the hill where I couldn't see them. They were beautiful! As they played, I waited for the sun. My hands were freezing even though I had arm/hand warmers on. Suddenly from below us, where the rest of the wolves were, a lone howl started. It was picked up and echoed by the rest of the pack, and Eddie answered them back. I will never forget what that sounded and felt like, it was incredible. To be in the cold air, on the side of a mountain, surrounded by more mountains, able to see for hundreds of miles, and listen to wolves as the sun is rising.... moment ingrained in my memory forever.
The light started touching the tops of the mountain, and the trees, and creeping it's way down, turning everything from the cool shades of ochre and gray to warm and vibrant reds, golds and green. The wolves would run from the shade to the increasing patches of light, and their coats would just illuminate unbelievably. I was in heaven.
I am snapping away, and Eddie, bless him, lets me come in the enclosure. I almost cried. I let the wolves sniff me and didn't let them jump on me (I have three German Shepherds, they reminded me so much of them). I knew it was important to be alpha. Even though they remind me of my Shepherds, there is no doubt in your mind that they are not dogs. I buried my hand in one of the wolf coats, warm and thick. I scratched their bellies as they rolled on their backs, Eddie and I laughed as they bounced up racing around us wanting to play. These are Eddie's kids, and it's obvious. I wanted to live on the side of that mountain.
My hand smells wild now, their scent is nothing like a dog.
The light is perfect, thank you Tim for getting me such a huge memory card for my camera. This is my favorite part of the painting process, before I attempt to recreate something, the paintings are beautiful and close to perfect in my head.
My time is up, and I have hundreds of photos. The sun is warm and it is going to be a beautiful day. I smell like wolves. Thank you, Eddie. We head down to Bozeman and have Banana Bread French Toast and hot coffee at the Cat Eye Cafe, a completely charming place (thank you Mary Brannaman).
Three weeks later, we learn that Eddie has been killed in a car accident. It still hurts me to write that. He and I were kindred spirits, I could just feel it. I believe Eddie could feel it, which is why he let me in that day. He made a dream come true for me, an experience branded in my mind forever. My wolf paintings from that morning will be full of Eddie and that cold Montana morning on the side of a mountain, the wild scent of wolves on my hands, the beauty of their eyes catching the light and hugging Eddie good by, thanking him for letting me love the wolves with him. He must be running with them, I have to believe.