Ghost Dogs of the South
Five Frozen Days in Search of the Last Red Wolves in the Wild
We could barely hear each other over the high whistle of the wind coming off the sound; it had the distinct tenor of a banshee, wailing like a lost soul and intermittently whipping sharp flecks of ice at our prone faces— the only body parts not wrapped in several layers to stop the cold. We’d come out here to see the camping site we’d paid for— it had been impossible to find it in the dark the night before— and as we stood now on the sandy banks of the Albermarle Peninsula getting hit by the icy wind and chunks of snow coming off the frozen shallows, I’d have to say we weren’t all that disappointed that the night before had found us at the Rodeway Inn. I said a couple dozen curse words and left the beach, heading back up to the shelter of the car at a trot before I lost my fingers.
We’d come up here looking for wolves. A few years ago, if somebody would have told me that, I would have called them stupid and told them that there weren’t any wolves left in the south— that they were thinking of coyotes and that they should have paid more attention in Biology. But there are wolves here, a few; though there may not be for long.
The Red Wolf once had a historic range that stretched all across the country, from Pennsylvania down to Florida and moving as far west as Texas. But human impact in the early twentieth century drove the canid to the brink of extinction, and today, the less than twenty-five wild individuals have been relegated to a small patch of wilderness near the Outer Banks of North Carolina. People say that if you’re dedicated, and if your luck is right, you might see the Milltail Pack out enjoying the sunshine on a winter day deep inside the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. With a handful of free days between Christmas morning and the beginning of the spring semester, I joined my twin brother Kyle to spend the better part of our winter break in sub-arctic conditions looking for little red needles in a haystack. It was basically the beach, we told ourselves; how bad could it be?
A few years ago, we had tried something similar; in our senior year of college, mind- numbed by nineteen years of school, we conned our way into approval of an independent study that took us down into the Florida Everglades in search of American Crocodiles. From where we stood, it seemed like a win-win; we’d be sitting in kayaks instead of those left-handed desks in the English building; looking for dangerous animals would impress the ladies who had, so far, remained decidedly unimpressed; northern South Carolina was cold in the winter, but Florida would be nice and warm. The morning that we left, record low temperatures descended on northern Florida, and we spent the first few nights of our road trip shivering in our sleeping bags and wishing we’d brought coats. The ladies were, astoundingly, unimpressed.
When we left home on new year’s day of 2018 to start our search for the Red Wolf, it became clear fairly early on that we were destined to uphold the tradition. Perfectly in sync with our expedition, we watched helplessly as a “thirty-year cold snap” (citation: my father, via text message) descended upon eastern North Carolina, freezing beaches and throwing wrenches into plans; northern Florida, I imagine, was very nice that time of year.
We spent the first few days of the expedition talking with the local experts, men and women who had devoted the better part of their lives to the protection of the Red Wolf. The once-successful management program by the US Fish and Wildlife Service had, over the last few years, buckled under federal mismanagement and local resistance from landowners. When Kim Wheeler, the Executive Director of the Red Wolf Coalition, told us that Red Wolves were “one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet,” it wasn’t an exaggeration; over the last few decades, these wolves have faced questions from existential skeptics about their legitimacy as a unique species, criticism from hunters who claim that the wolves have thinned local deer populations, and pushback from the vocal minority of landowners who— for motives founded on prejudice and misconceptions— just want the wolves gone.
“It’s a prime example of... a skewed mentality toward canids in general,” Heather Clarkson, the Southeast Program Outreach Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, told us. “They have always been persecuted.”
Today, the reintroduction populations that thrived at the turn of the century with numbers close to 300 have diminished to less than 30, making them possibly the planet’s most endangered canid. But the vast majority of US citizens— including me, a number of years ago— do not even know that the animal exists. So we decided to drive my mom’s car up into the Outer Banks to try to encounter one of the shy, rarely-sighted packs of Red Wolves for ourselves; we brought the video cameras along just in case.
By day three, we had finished most of our interviews and our trip was coming to a close. The expedition dates, already narrow due to school commitments and our relationship with money (we liked it but it didn’t like us), had been constricted even further due to the sudden illness of our team members. Effectively, we had one day left in the Refuge before we would have to load the car and start the drive back home. We had not yet seen a wolf.
We had, however, seen some wolf scat. We’d spent the morning driving the Refuge with Kim Wheeler in her “WOLFNANNY” plated SUV, and she had pointed out the scat and showed us the place where, a few days earlier, a lucky photographer had caught the Milltail Pack on film. When she dropped us off in the parking lot that afternoon and drove back into town, we threw our gear into our car and made a beeline back the way we’d come. With the sun starting its descent, we knew our opportunities were limited. It would have to be now, or it would be never.
At first, it seemed we might not find our way back to our objective; the intersections inside the Refuge were barely marked, essentially a maze of dusty roads that would occasionally take you were you meant to go, but more often spat you out the way you’d come or would end abruptly at a locked metallic gate. Navigating off our chicken-scratch directions we had scribbled in the backseat of the SUV, I felt like Alan Ruck in Twister; “I’ve got to find this road,” I muttered as we passed a too-familiar obstruction, “it’s like Bob’s road...”
Eventually, we made it back to the place that we had found the scat, and where the Milltail Pack was rumored to, occasionally and unreliably, emerge from the wall of forest to sit in the sun and pose for people who weren’t us. We put on our hats and our gloves, unfroze the on/off switches on our cameras, and split up in different directions to try our luck with the wolves. We agreed that Kyle and his partner Alannah would do a short circuit up and down the dirt roads that reached out from our position, and that I would set off east down the trail and into the forest in hopes of encountering the den. We wished each other luck and parted ways.
Alone in the forest, hidden from the sun, the cold began to bum me out. This was type two fun at its best, and some classic category two suffering, but I’d caught the fever that was spreading through our ranks and suddenly the middle of the woods on the far end of a cold snap was not the place that I wanted to be. I tried to talk myself back into a state of semi-stockage, reminding myself what this whole thing had been about— why we had come up here in the dead of winter, the story that was waiting to be told. I had almost succeeded when I emerged into a small clearing, the kind of place that one might picture a family of red wolves preparing to den up for the evening. Instead, I found nothing but a few sticks stacked together at odd and interesting angles, lashed to stand by one another with thin strips of bark tied and twisted like rope. It looked like I’d walked into the Blair Witch Project when I’d been looking for Balto. In the failing light, I wondered if there were still witches in these less-traveled sections of the south, perhaps watching over the final remnants of a dying species in a forest rarely entered. I decided that I didn’t really care to find out one way or the other, so I turned around and walked back to the road.
There, I discovered the time-stamped traces of the Red Wolves that we had come up here to find. All along the muddy road, wolf tracks traversed the line, great enough in numbers and in size to indicate a family group, almost certainly the Milltail Pack; they had, it seems, been walking down the road only a few hours earlier. Their ephemeral forms and mine, cautious and respectful, studied one another through the ghostly span of hours, separated by nothing more than time. I wished that I could tell them what I thought of them before they disappeared.
By the time I made it back to the car— fingers numb, eyes red and stinging from the wind— Kyle and Alannah were nowhere to be found. I looked up and down the long horizon but they had disappeared entirely, perhaps stolen away into the twilight by the stealthy members of the Milltail Pack, not to be eaten but to be reasoned with, to be appealed to for some deeper kind of understanding, even though they were dogs and we were not and we would never, as much as we would like to, truly understand each other. The car was locked and I didn’t have the keys.
When the pair returned a few dozen minutes later, they found me frozen to the hood of the car like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining—my arms folded across my chest to keep my heart from stopping and my eyes narrowed in an accusatory gaze— the sun had started to dip below the western crop fields and the stars were coming out.
“Hey amigo,” Kyle started, “we got distracted following this bird...” but he trailed off when he saw that my mouth was frozen shut and I couldn’t answer him if I wanted to.
“Hust hunhock huh harrrr,” I said through gritted teeth, and he unlocked the Accord and we turned the heat up to 100 to start to thaw me out.