Day Two on LoA Trip (Part Two) – Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center | Great Sand Dunes National Park

They are a tribe, a family, a fierce confederacy. They are also an assembly of individual personalities, private desires and goals and inner lives largely unknown. They are a wolf pack howling. ― Jim Dutcher, The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons From the Sawtooth Pack

Wolf Center, Here We Come! (Continued) 

Ellie walking down long driveway

Ellie and I had walked down the long dirt driveway. Getting a sense of how large and how remote the wolf habitat was. We had garnered the attention of a couple of the wolves, in the pens closest to the parking area. I was unable to determine if Ellie looked like a snack or a play pal, so I did my best to hide her on the far side of the trailer from their sight. Though it should be noted, wolves have amazing senses of smell too, so what the fuck was putting her over there going to do? 

Since there was a picnic table near the trailer, I grabbed some snacks out of the cooler. Cut up sausage chunks and cut up cheese chunks. Ellie and I made a feast out of it. I got some water out for her and drank some myself. I was still hopped up on coffee from the independent shop where a patron stood inside of the six-foot proposal, that confused the barista. After the espresso drink, I commenced with my cold brew in my 20-ounce cup.  

Ellie and I hydrated, ate some victuals, and just relaxed in the cool sunlight. Cool as in temperature, not cool as in outstanding, though, I guess now that I think of it, perhaps it was a double entendre! My fingers work too fast sometimes. Ellie had piddled a bunch of times, now it was daddy’s turn to empty his kidneys.  

I put Ellie in her taco, locked the vehicle, and yes, I did lower some windows as well as crack the moon-roof, and located the bathroom on-premises. After I had my turn, I came outside and an elderly dog was laying outside. I, instinctively, knelt to let it sniff my hand, to make sure it was OK with me being so close to it. The old codger was amenable to getting attention, and I lavished it upon him.  

Once the dog was sated, I walked behind the bathroom, and there was a full-sized horse and a Shetland pony. I walked over to them both, being near the fence, held out my open palm for them to smell. I noticed the sign too late that the horse was a bit nippy. The full-sized horse did try to bite me, but I was able to see its intention and withdrew my hand easily. The Shetland pony didn’t have the same problem but was more intent on eating than getting human attention. Thus ended the short-lived encounter with the horses.  

A couple of foxes in their enclosure in a nice high-rise apartment

I walked down to what appeared to be the office, which allowed me to walk past the fox enclosures and bridge. A skyway-looking bridge that connected fox enclosures on either side of the path for humans to take to get to the gift shop and office. I walked into the gift shop, and they had so much stuff. They were a well-developed commerce site.  

The official SkyFox Freeway skyway system between fox enclosures

It should be noted, that with the many wolf habitats I have visited in North America, without fail, there are always ravens nearby. There is a symbiosis between the species. The ravens help guide the wolves to carrion, that they cannot tear into. Wolves open up a carcass, eat as much as they want, and then leave the carcass out, and the ravens come in and pick apart the scraps. Both species are incredibly smart and loyal.  

While at this wolf habitat, the scenario was no different. The ravens were everywhere. Cawing and communicating with their brethren, while keeping a watchful eye on the wolves. It was cool to see this consistency across the country. It is really interesting to see this working relationship, like a well-oiled machine.  

While I was in the gift shop/office, I got the attention of the person behind the plexiglass. I informed her I was there for a 2 p.m. tour. She let the handlers know the (only) 2 p.m. tour patron was there. A handler came out with a digital forehead thermometer and registered my temp. I passed the test. I was going to see wolves.  

It was about 20 minutes before the tour was to begin. What I didn’t know was that you go on a group tour of the premises, of which they had about 10 wolf enclosures, the 3 fox enclosures, and a red wolf enclosure (of which was monitored by the U.S. Government. Once the 2 o’clock tour commenced, about 15 people were amassed on the wooden deck. One of the handlers outlined the vitality of wolves, coyotes, and foxes. She articulated the recent horrendous allowed wolf hunt in Wisconsin, that took about 300 wild wolves out of the population. Recently, the grey wolf had been removed from the Endangered Species list.  

She went over the ecological change in Yellowstone from the reintroduction of wolves from Canada. Mind you, I had already been apprised of this amazing feat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department. A production company had a short clip that circulated on YouTube about this very subject. I had seen it multiple times along with reading complementary articles about this huge change in the National Park System.  

She also listed the currently known wolf populations in the lower 48 states, along with Alaska. The numbers were still fairly low, for this North American apex predator. This wolf habitat also had business cards with the information to contact politicians in Washington, D.C. They came to the game well prepared to educate. I kept my mouth shut about what I knew of wolves, during the question-answer session on the deck, so that others less knowledgeable could get their questions answered. Once we progressed through the history of wolves, the hunting, the reintroduction, and the current population stats, we then proceeded off the deck into the habitat itself.  

We were past the estrus, the annual breeding period for wolves, so they were able to be paired with their mates in each of the enclosures. We all got to see semi-docile wolves in their enclosures. There were only a couple of timid wolves that shied away from the front of the enclosure. I took very few pictures during the tour, just because I am not a fan of taking pictures of animals through a fence.  

I have always had an affinity for black wolves…

I did however capture the initiated habitat wolf howling, via humans. Once that was done, it was beautiful listening to them howling in unison, even though it was slightly cacophonous with the humans doing a lousy impression. The howling lasted about 4 minutes. What a great close to the group tour! We all headed to the same deck we started the informational tour from. The other group members went into the gift shop. I was asked to stay on the deck, to prepare for the introduction in a pen.  

Human induced howling at wolf habitat….

There were lockers outside. I was asked to empty all of my pockets, remove my hat, remove my reading glasses, and place them into the locker. Wolves are mischievous creatures. They have been known to abscond with people’s loose belongings, like everything listed that needed to go into the locker. They have been known to grab people’s cell phones too, which are extremely dangerous to wolves, as their jaws could easily crack one open. They even asked me to tuck in the strings of my hooded sweatshirt.  

Once all of the incidentals were out of the way, The two handlers asked if I was ready. I said, ‘Yes.’ They asked if I was excited, and my response was a sub-dramatic, ‘Yes.’ They asked one more question: “Are you nervous?” to which I gave a resounding ‘No!’ I had been waiting my whole life to be amidst wolves.  

Think both handlers were surprised at how unenthusiastic I seemed. It will be another blog post as to how much I identify with wolves, my inherent love for them, and my willingness to help fuel the re-education of people. For far too long, people have misunderstood the wolves, as well as many other animals. The Bible has helped some people feel they are to subjugate animals. Not sure if you fully understand my political stand regarding wolves, but I am PRO-WOLF.  

The handlers led me to the pen of one of the wolves who recently lost his mate. His name was Micah. He was a beautifully large wolf, who was lazy around the time we did the group tour. When they told me whose pen I would be going into, I remembered that he was the one who lazed around in his pen when we all went through. He was a curious soul.  

They had a double gate system to get into the pens, to help prevent any of the animals from ever getting out into the general area. The handlers had gone through the rules with me. Only allow them to open and close the gates. Allow the animal to come to me. Do not squat down, as that is seen as a challenge. Do not touch their paws, even when they claw at you. Do not put your hand in front of their face. Give them deep scratches on their shoulders. Check, Check, and Check.  

We are now in the pen of Micah. He comes to greet all three of us. He gives initial sniffs of the handlers, as he knew them better than me, believe it or not. They tried to guide him away from them, towards me. We all walked deeper into the pen, and they recommended I sit on the ground. Micah would come up to me, once sat down. Without hesitation, I reached my hand out to him, for him to determine what his next action would be. He stood by me. I started rubbing his front shoulders, which he really enjoyed.  

Micah getting his shoulder massaged, bastard didn’t even leave a tip…

I gravitated towards his neck and head, next. Giving him a deep massage around both sides of his head. The feel of a wolf between my own two hands was phenomenal. As with any animal, I was in my own world, with them. In this instance, I was in the midst of Micah. I revered him as much as the American Indigenous peoples have for eons. This creature was affording me a place at his temporal table.  

The feeling of his fur was unlike any other domesticated animal I had felt. I was entranced by this time with the wolf. I figured Micah would be smelling me, for traces of Ellie. I posited, that if he smelled her, that he would see me as a friend. The same tactic is used by other canines to determine if a human is a threat. Deciding if they like dogs or not.  

Micah kept moving around, and I was cognizant of my place next to him. As I tried to reach out to touch him, he was moving freely. I had to be wary of my movements, not to spook him. So, I stretched myself or slowly inched closer to him. Meanwhile, one of the handlers went into the pen with a DSLR camera to capture photos, which was part of the VIP package. What some of you may not understand is, I got the pen to myself with this wolf. I didn’t have to share my time.  

Micah kept moving around, I had to stretch to meet his demanding massage needs/wants…

The camera clicked and the handlers did their best when Micah was distracted by their presence, to lead him back to me. They did a fantastic job denying a monopoly of his time, while I was in the pen. As I had stated in the previous blog post, Part One, I felt the price was steep, but paid it for the experience. This moment here cemented the justification for that price. I was in a form of heaven few get to experience. My monies were going to protect Micah and his species.  

At about halfway through the 30 minutes in the pen, the handlers suggested something that was already going through my mind: there was a large rock up the hill, that seemed a nice photo opportunity position. We all traipsed up to the rock. They had me sit down on it and they lured Micah with treats to stand next to me. He dwarfed me, standing next to me on this rock. He was still mostly in his winter coat, so he was tremendously fluffy.  

Micah wasn’t eating my face. He was actually kissing it.

While on the rock, the handler without the camera handed me treats, to help position Micah for more great pictures. She warned me I may feel teeth graze against my skin. I was not fearful, I looked forward to feeling them. Sure enough, trying to lap up whatever remnants of the treats, I felt the light grazing of Micah’s teeth. He was gentle and only sought the treat.  

We posed for pics, I continued to pose with Micah for a few more minutes. He jumped down a couple of times to go be near the handlers and was drawn back up to the rock next to me. All in all, it was a great experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I am a friend of the wolf. I am kin to the wolf. My family is my wolf-pack.  

We vacated the pen, into the series of gates. Micah followed us past the first gate. He was immediately lured back into his pen, and then the gate to the pen was closed and locked. Then we proceeded out into the general pathways. We walked up to the deck, for me to retrieve my belongings from the locker. A second group tour was just starting to assemble. I grabbed my stuff and was told to hang out in the gift shop for a few moments as the pictures were processed.  

I ended up buying a metal piece, that was oblong and had a wolf paw print cut out of it, as the design. The item was bubble-wrapped for me. A few moments later, I was called upstairs to parse through the pics that were taken of Micah and me. They all looked good. The woman informed me they would be uploaded to Dropbox for me to download and share with others if I felt the need.  

Thus concluded the wolf habitat visit. If this were a Yelp review, I am sure you would see how I would word it. I got Ellie out of the taco and brought her to the dog relief area again and had her go potty while we played with her pickle. Had to get that energy out and also reinforce that daddy hadn’t deserted her.  

Onto the first National Park 

While playing with her, I looked up our next destination. I saw that there were 2 National Parks down in southern Colorado. The first one, which was going to be this evening’s destination was: Great Sand Dunes National Park. I hadn’t heard of this National Park before. I checked out the site to see if there may be some camping in the park, it seemed like it was a possibility.  

Loaded Ellie up, set the GPS for the Great Sand Dunes, and off we went. The experience with Micah was still fresh in my mind. We drove through some really pretty terrain. When I had made the turn onto the final main road, I could have sworn I saw the Sand Dunes in the mountains. My mind kept playing tricks on me, that no dunes could exist in a mountain range. My estimations approximated the dunes smack in the center of the range of mountains visible from this road.  

Zoomed in able to see what appear to be Sand Dunes in the mountain range

As we got closer, it became clearer that that was Sand Dunes Park. I paid attention to the temperature gauge inside the vehicle’s instrument cluster. It was pretty chilly. I worried that it may be too cold for our 3 season tent. We pulled up to the entrance of the park, and there was no ranger on duty. We drove through to the parking area. There were quite a few cars out.  

Ellie and Pickle showing off at a National Park

The sun was setting, so this would be a prime time to snap some pics and for Ellie and me to get out and hike. There were no signs that dogs were not allowed in the dunes. Ellie was a go! This will become a topic for a later blog post as I chatted with some rangers about this predicament. Ellie and I wandered out onto the dark sand desert. The dunes were high but still dwarfed by the mountains directly behind them. It was chilly, it was windy, yet the terrain was serene. I saw people strewn all over the desert. One family brought their German Shepherd and were playing with them in the sand.  

Few shoes are good to walk in a desert. The tennis shoes I had on, which were not laced up, for ease of putting on or taking off, were getting plenty of grains of sand inside. Ellie was not acclimated to the shifting soil under her paws, but she toiled on. We walked within a quarter-mile of the crest of the dunes. With the sun going down behind them, I realized it wasn’t worth our time trying to climb them. I set out to take plenty of sunset photos. As we walked back towards the parking lot, a few isolated items caught my photographic attention.  

Panorama of sunset at Great Sand Dunes National Park

I saw wind-blown patterns in the sand that no one had stepped onto. I saw isolated rocks and driftwood sitting in the sand. My newer phone had extra lenses built-in that gave the wide-angle view so elegantly. I stuck my phone in the sand to capture these moments. I went all artsy-fartsy, in a desert with dunes IN a mountain range. Couldn’t get any more surreal than that.  

Artsy-Fartsy pic at the Dunes
Random piece of driftwood or sandblown wood in the sand
Windswept patterns in the sand

After I had exhausted the sunset pictures, I pulled out Ellie’s water bowl and had her drink. We would be in the car for a while, as the signs into the park stated the campground was full. It didn’t matter, it was too chilly for Ellie and me to rough it in a light tent. I pulled my shoes off, one at a time, to remove all the grains of sand inside. Once that was completed, I made sure Ellie had her fill with water, then loaded her back into her taco. Put her water bowl away, and then got back into the driver’s seat.  

The only other national park in southern Colorado was Mesa Verde. I didn’t think we could make it to that park and camp. So, I set our destination for Durango, Colorado. I decided once we got into town, we could see if there was a campground or worse, get another hotel room. I worked for a boss while out in the Pacific Northwest who had lived in Durango. He loved that town. It rang with that familiarity.  

Check-in at hotel 

I drove through a ton of darkness to Durango from Sand Dune Park. While I was hauling a trailer, my vehicle was no slouch at acceleration up some of the major hills we traversed. The trailer followed the vehicle line so well, it was like it was one with the vehicle. I paid attention to the side marker lights on the trailer to confirm it was still behind us. We hit some hills hard. We out accelerated so many other vehicles heading in the same direction.  

I was honestly surprised to see so many folks with Colorado plates, that seemed familiar with the terrain to be so pokey. There were a few people who appeared to be decent at night driving and mountain driving. I even passed them in passing lanes that opened up as soon as I drove within their availability. Now, I would like to warn people, never drive outside of your vehicles or your driving abilities. What I wished people would take into consideration as I passed them with grace and ease, was that the motorcycle I was hauling on the trailer certain fed into my driving confidence.  

Ellie and I finally made it to Durango. I wasn’t able to find any campgrounds, and the temperature was below 40F, so that was asking for problems in a light tent. I pulled up my map and found there was a LaQuinta hotel right in Durango. It became the new GPS destination. We were not far from it. I drove right to it, yet it had some serious wonkiness to get into the parking lot if you missed the correct turn.  

I booked a room via the online app, from a mall parking lot down the street. Then I tried to outthink the road directions to get into the parking lot. Eventually, I decided to turn left where I was told explicitly not to. Who am I to give a fuck about arbitrary laws like that? I was not about to go out onto the highway to run 5 miles out of my way to follow the laws.  

I pulled under the awning of the hotel. I went inside to get Ellie and I fully checked in. Once I got the key card, I went up to the room to determine where I would need to park the vehicle. I had surveyed the lot, which was well-lit, and the hotel was in a nice spot and was built fairly recently. I felt far more comfortable with this place than I had in the previous two hotels.  

I nabbed Ellie from the car, brought her up to the room. I made another trip to grab our cooler and overnight bag. Once that was in the room, I went down to park the vehicle. I grabbed a couple of incidentals and made my way up to the room. I grabbed Ellie for one more potty run for the night. Once that was completed, we went up to the room for the night.  

I grabbed Ellie’s num-nums and got her fed. Made sure she had fresh water. I grabbed some sandwich fixings and made a couple for myself. It was a long day. Lots of driving, but moreover, one of the most exciting days I’ve had in my life for some time.  

While some of the driving gave me lots of time to think, I had been reflecting on the lifelong goal to touch a wolf. That left an indelible mark on my life. Micah, who incidentally, was a minor prophet in the Old Testament, became an important figure. I found that whenever I saw the insignia of the car my ex drove, I would utter: ‘Fuck you, cunt!’ as a means to force that association out of my mind. It was painful, I wanted to share my experiences with her, but I couldn’t. Being disposable feels like shit for a while. Other than that, I had few moments free to think of her or that whole debacle in general. Today had been a day that her dismissal had afforded me. The silver lining to the shit show! 

I will close here. As you can see, this became such a long blog entry that it could have been broken up into two other pieces. I wanted to complete it. The pain was still felt, but I mitigated it with some wafting of words to blow the memories out. Again, it was a great day. It was a worthwhile day. It was a reminder that even bad things will eventually turn good. We NEED these bad events to happen to us for us to fully appreciate the good that befalls us.  

As always, I welcome any constructive criticism, or complementary theories, analogies, anecdotes. I would love to hear if you find these edicts of challenge useful or utter horseshit. Similar to the ’90s when the catchphrase, ‘Be Kind, Rewind’ was hailed as a marketing genius. I need to come up with one that invites you to either subscribe, via WordPress or email, like posts or even comment on posts. Immediate feedback is useful for anyone. Thank you very much for reading through all of this drivel. Be well, stay safe, AND stay sane! 

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