Drive north on Highway 75 into central Idaho, and you’ll soon find yourself winding up a steep mountain road toward Galena Pass. Beyond this threshold, the ground drops away into the Sawtooth Valley. The headwaters of the Salmon River trickle down these slopes and gather in the valley below. There, a few ranches nestle close to the river with their backs to the vast wilderness. Above it all, the craggy spine of the Sawtooth Mountains looms to the west. The Sawtooths shoot boldly out of the valley floor, soaring gray walls in a blazing blue sky. It’s a Wild West setting that rivals the more famous Grand Teton National Park.
Tucked away at the base of these mountains lies a bright ripar- ian meadow. Tiny braided streams course though the grass, nourishing stands of willow and aspen before flowing into a lively mountain brook. Thick stands of spruce and lodgepole pine guard the perimeter, break- ing just enough to reveal the Sawtooths in stunning backdrop. We had searched for the better part of a year for the perfect spot to create our wolf camp, facing a maddening list of criteria. It had to be far enough into the wilderness to avoid attracting attention or bothering the local resi- dents, but it had to be accessible by four-wheel drive in the summer and snowmobile in the winter. It also had to be an area that the U.S. Forest Service would allow us to use. Above all, it had to be suitable wolf habitat with fresh water, a mix of cover and open space, and good places for denning. The moment we set foot in this meadow, we knew we’d found the spot. From the hushed beauty of a spruce forest blanketed in new snow, to the pastel spray of spring wildflowers, to the bold reds and golds of autumn, it was all that we as filmmakers could have hoped for.
More important, the land offered everything a pack of wolves would need. There were dense patches of forest and a maze of willows where they could seclude themselves and feel safe. There was a pond of spring water to drink from and to splash in. Fallen trees offered a choice of denning sites, and a grassy meadow provided a sunny nursery for raising pups. The wolves genuinely seemed to love being there.
Wolf camp was an ever-evolving project. After securing permits from the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, we had to get permission from three local ranchers to cross their land. Wolf reintroduction was four years in the future, but it was already a contentious issue. During the autumn of 1990, we staked out 25 acres, creating the world’s largest wolf enclosure. Just outside the enclosure, we set up two sleeping tents and a round Mongolian-style yurt, which became a cook tent, a work- space, and the center of camp life.
Maintaining the camp and caring for the wolf pack was a seven-day-a-week job. The long Idaho winters were especially laborious. When three feet of snow piled up in a single day, we had to keep our tent roofs swept free, lest they collapse under the weight. We had to haul and chop a steady supply of firewood, especially for nights when temperatures dropped to 40° below zero. And we always made sure we had a clear path to the outhouse. Critically, we had to maintain contact with the local sheriff’s department. If a deer, elk, or antelope turned up dead on the highway, we had permission to collect it for wolf food.
A few seasons into the project, we made a simple alteration that proved revelatory. We built a platform eight feet off the ground inside the wolves’ territory, put the yurt on top, our sleeping tent on the ground beside it, and encircled it with chain-link fencing. Suddenly we were no longer entering and exiting the wolves’ space every day; we became a constant fixture within it. More than ever, the wolves just ignored us. By this time, the pack was a mature family of six males and two females, and they began to reveal their lives in rich detail. When we remember the Sawtooth Pack, we remember them most fondly from this time.