“All I want for Christmas is to see a wolf.”
My research teammate said this repeatedly over the past few days as we braved the ice and snow of central Wisconsin, following gray wolf tracks through the forest. We examined scent markings wolves had used to announce their presence, set up acoustic recorders to collect their howls. We listened with bated breath to the silence under the stars, hoping to hear them sing.
On Christmas Eve, my teammate got her wish.
The night began with a howl survey. Such surveys involve driving a road in an area of likely wolf activity, howling into the darkness and waiting for replies. This was our third night of conducting such surveys, and no one on our team had yet received a response. For the first time, I was the howler, and I was incredibly nervous. I had practiced earlier that day, howling to myself while alone inside our team’s living quarters. I was worried I sounded like Scooby Doo with laryngitis, afraid I’d be the reason we wouldn’t find the wolves.
At the fourth stop along our route, I called out to the wilderness. My broken voice carried through the crisp, cold air. We listened intently to the perfect silence, waiting for an answer.
From across the distance, a chorus of coyotes cried out to us, their eerie, beautiful sounds giving us a glimpse into their wild, wandering lives. For a while, we relished the music.
And then the wolves sang too.
Low, mournful howls sent shivers down our spines. My teammate pointed a microphone in their direction as the songs rang out through time and space, connecting us briefly to a world that will never be ours. My heart soared as I savored the moment. For the rest of the night, I was floating on air.
Based on the direction of the howls, we placed a recorder at a new site in the forest. After a rendezvous with the rest of the team, we headed home. My teammate drove us carefully through the shadows and mist. And then, all of a sudden, she stammered and pulled over.
She’d seen a wolf. A wolf on Christmas Eve. Standing by the side of the road, staring right through her. We turned around and drove back, but we never found the wolf again. It vanished like a ghost. But it was there.
A Blackfoot legend refers to the Milky Way as the Wolf Trail. For the past year, I’ve wondered frequently about my place in the universe, whether I’m walking down the right path. But I think, like the wolves, we forge our own paths, carving trails through the snow to where we’re meant to be.
Sometimes, the stars align to reward us with a blessing that takes our breath away. Some call this God, or else fate, the auspices of the universe, or a mere result of stochastic events. Throughout the world, for thousands of years, humans have celebrated the triumph of light over darkness, the presence of hope and community amidst the loneliness of winter. Life’s myriad ways of persisting against impossible odds never fail to astound me. I will never forget Christmas Eve 2019, when the wolves sang to us. And I’ll never forget how my friend got her lupine miracle.