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Sandra Sallin Headshot

I Was Kissed By Wolves

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©Robert Sallin

No, not the whistling kind. These were real wolves with raw chicken breath from their latest meal.

It all began many years ago in Sun Valley, Idaho. I was walking through our condo grounds and there was a man barbecuing  on his deck. We chatted and it turned out that he had two children and so did we. His name was Jim Dutcher, a nature film documentarian and photographer. He was a filmmaker and so was my husband and we instantly became great friends. Years later, and many films later, we are still very close. There is a informative interview and video with Jim and his wife Jamie at: Boise State Radio

Over the years, Jim and my husband would sit in the editing room and talk about shots, storyline and structure on many of Dutcher's films. They both enjoyed the creative collaboration. Jim has since received many awards for his films on sea life, cougars and beavers. He received three Emmys for his documentaries, Living With Wolves and Wolves At Our Door, including an Emmy for his wife, Jamie for her recordings of the wolves' howls and sounds in the solitude of the Sawtooth mountains.

Jim surprised us one day by inviting us to visit his Wolf Camp, where he was beginning to make the first of his two films about the lives of wolves. It was a process that would take him over six years!

The compound was 130 miles north of Sun Valley near Stanley, Idaho, population 79. It's one of the coldest places in the continental United States. Would you believe minus 52.6 degrees fahrenheit? The town is located in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by the White Clouds, Boulders and Sawtooth Mountain ranges with peaks that reach over 10,000 feet -- a magnificent setting.
 
I knew this was going to be a unique experience because so few people had ever been inside the wolf compound. Among them were the late John Kennedy, Jr. and his wife, and former Senator John Kerry and his wife. Now, we were to be included in this very exclusive club!

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©Jim and Jaime Dutcher/National Geographic

The Dutchers built their compound for the wolves in a very remote location five miles North of Stanley, Idaho, which is over an hour away from Sun Valley. It was in an isolated, secret location created to replicate a natural habitat for the wolves. Jim fenced in 25 acres for the wolves and then built a yurt for his wife, Jamie, and himself to live and work in. This was not your casual yurt. He included many amenities such as a fireplace, comfortable kitchen and dining room, all decorated in high mountain fashion. It was really a home away from home except that you still had to go outside to the separate bathroom. Since Stanley is one of the coldest places in the US., you can imagine what it must have been like for them to go to the bathroom outside their yurt in the middle of a winter's night, or even a summer's night.

On a bright, sunny, cold day, my husband and I drove north on a very winding highway over Galena summit, elevation 8,900 feet, towards Stanley, Idaho and our first face-to-face meeting with real wolves.

When we arrived in Stanley, Jim checked us out on how to drive a snowmobile. We zoomed along in pristine snow for about five miles to the secret entrance of Wolf Camp. Jamie then instructed both of us on how to behave with the wolves. She told us to remove anything shiny because wolves are attracted to anything that glitters. So, earrings off, rings off, bracelets off and watches off. Glitter-free, we entered the compound.

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©Robert Sallin

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©Robert Sallin

Venturing into the wolf enclosure, we were told not to be afraid because the wolves had just been fed. Great. That certainly put my mind at ease. Yes, our soon-to-be furry friends had just feasted on buckets of raw chicken parts. Today, they didn't have road kill (their usual menu) so they had to feed the wolves raw chicken. Those fowl tidbits may have been just dandy for the wolves, but it gave them a strain of halitosis that even Listerine wouldn't have covered up. Usually, the wolves were fed road kill (animals that were run over on the local highways). The Idaho Highway Patrol would bring all the road kill to Jim's house in Ketchum, where he would freeze it until he brought it up to Wolf Camp for a lupine feast.

We learned some interesting facts about wolves and their behavior. There is always an Alpha wolf in the pack. He rules. He does not want you to stand above him. Our Alpha stood up with his paws on my shoulders and pushed me down to be lower than he was. "Get down," he was saying, "I rule!" Yes, sir! Don't mess around, just bend your knees and follow instructions.

Also, the wolves are very curious creatures. At the same time I was being shown what my place was by the Alpha, the other wolves sniffed, licked, pushed and investigated my nose, ears, fingers and hair. I don't know what they were looking for, but after a while, they seemed satisfied and allowed me to join their circle.

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©Robert Sallin

This was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Looking back, I wonder why wasn't I more scared? I mean what would have happened if...?

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©Robert Sallin

Jim and Jaime Dutcher's latest book is The Hidden Life of Wolves. Please visit their website Living With Wolves.

Here's a delightful and informative video that tells about making their documentary.