The Boy Who Cried Balto

A "courageous" case of mistaken identity

I am probably the only person on Earth who can tell a story about smacking a wolf, and still manage to come across as soft.

Pine Creek Lake and Jewel Lake, resting high in the Absaroka Range, have got to be among the most beautiful places in the world. The lakes are connected by waterfalls and pools full of cutthroats, big and beautiful like the surrounding mountains. The trail up is only four miles, but it’s a real bear. Whoever cut the trail knew that people tend to destroy the things they love—and nobody could resist loving this place—so they built a trail so steep and discouraging that if you does manage to reach the top, you’ll be too tired to do much more than sit back and enjoy the grandeur before beginning the long slog back down.

One recent summer, my friends and I were camped out at Jewel Lake, on the main trail to Pine Creek Lake. Our campsite sat between rocky shores on one side and a towering cliff with a 500-foot waterfall on the other. We could see down the canyon into Paradise Valley, the Gallatin Range pushing into the sky beyond, and the Yellowstone River looking like a delicate blue ribbon folded over a blanket of hills.

We had trout cooking on the fire. As we warmed our hands, a middle-aged couple came walking down the trail. We said our hellos and they kept moving, heading towards the upper lake. I noticed the lady peering back towards our campsite. I followed her gaze and saw four huge wolves charging over a small knoll dropping down towards the water.

These things were moving full-bore, kicking up dust and coming straight down the trail toward us. And as they hurled by—no more than ten feet away—we could feel the breeze kicked up in their wake. They were like a bolt of lightning: one moment filling the air, beautiful and powerful, then gone in a flash. The wolves disappeared among the boulders, heading towards the mountains, the clouds, the gathering darkness. And much like the reaction to a good bolt of lightning, we were all too amazed to muster anything other than a shocked “whoa!” and “did you see that?”

Later, I lay warm and dry in my tent, reading a book, listening to the soft chatter of my friends in their nearby tent. With the occasional gust of wind and fire crackling in the background, I was as content as a man can be. Then… squish, squish, squish. I heard the sound of smooth steps moving over sodden earth. I knew it was the wolves again, and everything else seemed to know as well. My friends went quiet, the wind paused, even the fire seemed to stop crackling. Squish, squish, squish. The feet were right outside my tent.

Then came the squish of all squishes: the one that came within inches of my head. The only thing between my noggin and the jowls of a wolf was a paper-thin piece of nylon. I decided that this was the best time to stop reading and prepare for action.

Before I’d even had time to assess my options, one of the audacious beasts shoved its snout into the tent fabric, bonking me lightly on the head, and began sniffing like I was the butt of the new bitch in town. This irritated me—I was tired and comfortable, had been at a good part of my book, and who did this wolf think he was, barging into my tent? Without thinking, I did the same thing my kid does when I try to wake him up for daycare: I rolled over, slapped at the closest body part, and said the adult equivalent of my child’s morning refusals: “Fuck off.”

Squish, squish, squish, went the feet, heading off down the trail away from camp. I picked up my book and continued reading. Wolf crisis abated.

I wish I could leave it at that. I mean, if there’s a list of things that qualify as badass, “Punching Wolf in Face” must be near the top. But there’s another half to this story—a better half, you could say.

If we were sitting at a bar and I was telling this story, my fiancé would appear out of thin air at this point and say, “Well, tell them.” And I would feign obliviousness and say, “Tell them what?” She would roll her eyes and say, “That you all thought those big bad wolves were nothing more than huskies.” She would laugh and I’d get red and avoid the eyes of my audience. She’d continue, “You guys thought they were huskies belonging to the hikers. You twits didn’t put it together until Kevin read the article in National Geographic about Montana wolf packs, and learned there was a pack in the next drainage. When ol’ Beowulf here,” and she would point to me with her thumb, “tells you he was smacking some wolf around, he thought he was smacking the nose of some pesky pup.”

And that’s it. That’s the truth.

I read somewhere that the difference between bravery and courage is that courageous people are those who willingly enter perilous situations of which they’re ignorant of the dangers, while brave people are those who enter the same situation fully aware of the hazards. I suppose if I can’t be defined as a badass, courageous will have to do.