Alone with Wolves

January 1, 2009

Appalachia, Winter/Spring 2009

Gudrun Pflueger sat alone in a meadow near the coast of the British Columbia rainforest, her knees bent in front, holding binoculars, scanning the fringes of the forest for coast wolves she hoped to glimpse. For several weeks, Pflueger and the scientist for whom she was working had been seeking signs of these predators that are so hard to spot in the coastal rainforest that researchers can only estimate their numbers. Pflueger, a former world champion trail runner and cross-country skier, had spent weeks on the wolves’ likely trails, eager to watch them on the move or at least to capture them on film.

Suddenly, her wish was granted so completely that she was in danger. Out of the forest, a small pack of wolves came trotting straight to Pflueger, circling her. She had no time to think. She already knew that at this time of year they were hungry because the nearby Salmon River had no fish. She believes that she smelled the animals. They definitely smelled her. They were curious. We can say this now calmly. But they were wolves. In coastal British Columbia, the bush is so thickly vegetated and no towns or settlements interrupt it, that it was possible that they hadn’t ever seen a human being. Pflueger sat very still and then, as they sniffed at her, lay down in the grass. At first, they looked and sniffed at her—her blond head, red sweater, leather vest, and black pants, her black pack. Then they ignored her. The wolves began to frolic around in the grass, two adults and a baby circling around Pflueger, who lay motionless in the soft, tall grass. Eventually and very slowly, she sat up and just watched them. They ran about for a long time before they ran off into the woods, clearly unconcerned about her. The whole scene was captured in the 2007 German documentary “Searching for the Coast Wolves,” directed by Richard Matthews.

Pflueger said that when she thought about her behavior and the wolves later, she felt that she had unconsciously drawn on an instinct that humans hardly ever call upon, but which she thinks lies buried somewhere in our natures. That is, an instinct to coexist with big potential predators.

With Pflueger, these wolves seemed to sense something unthreatening in her attitude, something that you can’t fake. They knew that she was not afraid and, therefore, that she was not going to hurt them. And that she was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t that she was chummy with wolves. It was that she showed a quiet reverence or respect.

“I think all our senses are really fine-tuned to the thousands of years of coexistence with potential big predators,” Pflueger told me during a long phone talk many months later. “For the last generation, we didn’t need to use that anymore. That’s why it was just an intensive, amazing, just beautiful, beautiful feeling. You feel so alive in this moment because all of your senses which could sleep for generations [as if they] had no more use had to, really….” She paused. “I smelled the wolf, I heard her, I felt her, a moist floor that was vibrating. I just wanted to let them know that there was no reason for fear from their side. I think how you approach someone, animals included, it will come back.”

There are many of us, probably most of humanity today, who, when faced with a small pack of wolves coming up to sniff them, would not feel concern for the wild animals’ feelings, as Pflueger did. Most people would not, when pushed into this situation, have thought to lie down passively, and then they would not have had a scrap of courage left to sit back up, secure in the knowledge that the wolves were unconcerned and were running circles around us just for fun. How did Gudrun Pflueger come to this moment in her life and find that these survival instincts, however long buried for the general population, lay near the surface of her reactions? The answer to this has to do with her comfort in the wild. This state of being began in the Alps, where she lived for the first 28 years of life.

Pflueger grew up playing in the mountains that were near her back door in the tiny town of Radstadt, about 80 kilometers south of Salzburg. Her father was an engineer who had built tunnels in a long highway constructed through the Alps. He also had grown up in that town, and he and his wife built a new house at the edge of it, backing up to a forest. Pflueger’s early years were marked by hours spent playing in the mountains with her brother, sister, and friends.

By the time she was 18, she wanted to study agriculture and would likely have gravitated to a big university in Vienna, but she stayed in the Alps to attend the University of Salzburg, for a big reason: she was a professional athlete. For the next ten years, she alternated her schooling with racing and training in cross-country skiing and mountain running. Even though by her interest she might have preferred studying in Vienna, she was by 18 skiing professionally for the Austrian national team. She didn’t want to leave the Alps.

In Vienna, “they don’t have snow,” she said. “I’m not a city person, anyway.” Her aversion to city life became more than a preference. She now says,

“The city jungle scares me more than the real jungle. People ask me that often: ‘Aren’t you afraid by yourself?’ and I say, ‘No, this is what I am familiar with.’ And I think that’s what it all comes down to. What you are familiar with, you won’t fear. On all different levels and paths of life.”

Pflueger’s recipe for feeling more at home in a dense forest than in a city is to take small steps, getting used to it from the beginning of your life. That is the life she led, starting from a very young age, exploring the woods and mountain paths near her neighborhood, learning how to navigate those routes until “it becomes such a part of you.”

She used to stay in shape for cross-country skiing by mountain running in the summer. Then she became a champion mountain runner. “I would start in the valley on the bottom of the mountain and really run up there. The finish is on the top of the mountain, on the summit—or down in the valley again; you have to run up or down. There are championships. It’s becoming more and more popular in America. I think it’s a very strange sport.”

She won the Mountain Running World Trophy in 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1997. In the winter, she was part of the Austrian National Cross-Country Ski Team, racing several World Cup races and taking part in two world championships in Canada and Sweden. When the limitations of the national team seemed too much, she became an independent racer, with sponsorship from Red Bull, the energy drink company. It took her nearly a decade to earn her university degree because of her intense athletic training. As satisfying as it all was, she reached a point where racing almost disheartened her. She realized that her life was revolving around racing, nerves, and recovering from races.
Christine Woodside is a writer and the editor-in-chief of Appalachia.

The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of Appalachia

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Christine Woodside

Editor of Appalachia, America’s longest-running journal of mountaineering and conservation.