Caught by the River


12th March 2023

An extract from Erica Berry’s ‘Wolfish’ — a consideration of what our stories about the wolf reveal about our relationships with one another and ourselves.

It was winter when she crossed. Maybe she found a bridge of ice, maybe she snuck across Brownlee Dam, or maybe there was only current. Maybe she just swam. At the depths of Hells Canyon, the river that separates Idaho and Oregon is milky and knotted with rapids. At one end, over the reservoirs just south of the dam, the water is nearly a mile wide. The wolf would have chosen her path carefully. She did not flirt with risk, not like a coyote; she knew what she could do. A wolf can swim up to eight miles at a time, paddling like a dog after a stick, the skin between her toes enough webbing to help push her through a current. The Snake is the largest tributary to the Columbia River, its waters an echo of the agriculture it has slipped through heading west from Wyoming.The wolf could not know it, but all through the river there were traces of cow. Fertilizer, sediment, manure. Water that had once been blue was now often sea-glass green with algae.

It was 1999, and the wolf was in the belly of Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, 2,000 feet deeper in some places than the Grand Canyon. From the sprawling plateaus and high pastures above, the canyon feels unfathomable, as if the northeastern border of Oregon has just unzipped rocky, sagebrush-strewn cliffs to reveal a world over a mile deep beneath mud-slick layers of limestone and lava, 300-million-year-old products of underwater volcanoes. This is the homeland of the Nez Perce, the Nimiipuu, who know the canyon as a place of shelter carved by Coyote. Their stories tell how Creator made wry Coyote the teacher of human beings, but the wolf, hi miin, belonged here too. This was her land. When white men appeared—those who would later hunt the region’s wolves to extinction—they had taken this same route, and the Nez Perce named them for it. Sooyáapoo, they called the invaders. Across-the-water people.

As the wolf shook the river from her back, droplets constellated in the frozen air. She was a yearling, nearly full grown, the runt of her litter. Almost waist high on a grown man, her weight around sixty-five pounds, her coat the gradient of stone, the color, perhaps, of that day’s January sky. Her winter underfur was so thick the cold did not even reach her bones. She was a descendant of the Canadian wolves reintroduced to Idaho just a couple of years earlier as part of an effort to restore the American gray wolf populations that had been slaughtered to extinction in the early twentieth century. Around her neck, the radio collar given by the Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife (IDFW) was a dull and nearly forgotten weight. B-45. That’s what they were calling her. The forty-fifth wolf to be collared in Idaho, one node of a federal wolf recovery program that the Nez Perce tribe was working with the IDFW to implement.

With each step, her saucer-sized paws splintered the lattice of icy crystals that frosted the earth. Turning tail to the river, she climbed into the snow and the vanilla-scented air of hundred-year-old Ponderosa pines. If a bald eagle cut the sky above her, she heard it. If a rabbit threw itself into a snowy burrow, she smelled it. A wolf can average eight to ten hours a day of travel, often moving in the seams between night and day. Ten miles, twenty, thirty, forty, more. She had left her family in east-central Idaho to look for the three things any young wolf needed to survive—a mate, a meal, and defensible territory—and she did not know that in climbing onto this far shore of the Snake, she had crossed a border. Not just a state line, but a line of history. Because she had been fitted a year earlier with a radio collar, her movements were legible to humans, and she was now superlative: the first known member of her species to step into Oregon in over fifty years. As in much of continental America, wolves had not lived here since the state’s last wolf bounty was paid to a trapper in the 1940s. When B-45 arrived, she came as both the dawn of the future and a relic from the past. “[B-45] seems to me a title ill-suited for a majestic animal, and more appropriate for a chemical used to color breakfast cereal,” wrote one skeptical editor of an eastern Oregon newspaper. When the Nez Perce tribe and an environmental conservation group held a contest to name her, “Freedom” won. A local conservationist began to call her “Eve.”

Though gray wolves were protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1974, law is a conceptual shield. It can mean very little in the quiet of America’s trees, where the “3S treatment”—“Shoot, shovel, and shut up”—can reign. But B-45 was lucky. Even as she made headlines, she traveled on, leaving her scent against trees, telephone poles, and fence posts. She walked a hundred miles from the state line, up and over the snow-clotted forests of the Blue Mountains, back and forth across Interstate 84, somehow, then toward the headwaters of the John Day River. “She appears to be doing normal wolf stuff,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Rocky Mountain wolf specialist Ed Bangs told the Oregonian.

It should have been no surprise wolves would reenter the state the way B-45 did, just as guests will enter a house party if a door is ajar. Nearly a century earlier, after elk were driven almost to extinction by white settlers, their repopulation had caused a similar spectacle. “His place is in parks and museums, preserving the memory of Oregon undeveloped,” wrote one northeastern Oregon sheep rancher in 1912. “Civilization and savagery cannot occupy common ground. The one must give way to the other.” It had taken time—wariness from sheep farmers who worried about competition for their herds—but eventually, the elk had been reaccepted: a cherished Oregon citizen. Now the wolf was the trespasser. Specifically, B-45.

Looking back, Oregon biologist Mark Henjum saw her arrival as a turning point, not just for wolves but for how people talked about them. “[B-45] really tipped the scales to where wolves became a real issue,” he told a reporter. Local officials struggled to know how to react. Could an animal be invasive if it had once called a landscape home? “She presents a somewhat odd situation for us because Oregon is not part of the wolf recovery effort,” another ODFW biologist told a local newspaper. Officially, the state wasn’t anti-wolf, but they weren’t pro-wolf either. They urged caution: this wolf could get in the cyanide traps ranchers used for coyotes, or could mate with a dog, spawning a potentially dangerous dog-wolf hybrid. There was no management plan, but to do nothing, said livestock producers, was to let a predator walk free—toward their cattle, toward their lambs.

When B-45 stepped through the mountains, I was an elementary-schooler across the state in Portland, all braids and freckles and red Converse high-tops. I did not know a wolf had come back into Oregon because it had never occurred to me they had ever disappeared, that we had ever killed them off. In her New York Times Magazine article about mass insect extinctions, journalist Brooke Jarvis quotes a Danish bug-counting survey that describes the disorienting, in- describable sense that “something from the past is missing from the present.” I wish I could say I felt the loss of predators from the forest, but born into the loss, I accepted it as the norm. We do not grieve the things we have never learned to love. Scientists call this inability to register change “baseline theory.” Because I did not understand the ecosystems I hiked through with my family had been curated by a government-funded extermination campaign of native predators, I assumed wolves were out there in some distant shaggy forest, waiting with owls and bears beneath a peachy moon. The animals’ presence seemed both distant and guaranteed. Like a soulmate, I assumed one day our paths would cross.

Fifteen years later, when I began researching the wolf, I felt motivated by a handful of factors, but none was instinctual awe about the animal. Mostly I had become jumpy, and because I did not trust my fear, I was ashamed of it. It struck me as supremely unfair that in so many stories and sayings, the wolf had been made shorthand for the threat.

The French have an old saying, Entre chien et loup, which refers to that dawn-or-dusk hour when it becomes hard to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. That time when you cannot tell if the shadow on the road before you is familiar or strange, if it poses a threat. With roots in the Latin expression inter canem et lupum— that time “when the dog sleeps, and the wolf seeks his prey,” as a seventeenth-century English treatise described it—the phrase connotes a threshold between known and unknown, that liminal zone where anxieties may be rational or unfounded. In the moment of entre chien et loup, it seems to me, the journey is as internal as it is external. What you see on the path is shaped not only by your eyes, but also by your mind: stories you have inherited, experiences you have accumulated, beliefs you carry about how the world will treat you. I began to suspect I would not see the wolf, never mind the fears it conjured within us, without first zooming in on this moment of identification. Every day we trace the contours of fear in our own lives, squinting for its shapes, listening for its creaks, evaluating if our hearts are right to pound. This is the tipping point where one creature might be tagged as predator and one as prey. It is the moment our eyes might first get it wrong.

Initially I believed I would be a good arbiter of entre chien et loup. Surely I could tell a dog from a wolf! I was mildly nearsighted but neurotic about detail. Rational, or at least attuned to the prospect of my irrationality. At the time, I was encountering stories about wolves both real and imagined with the cool, smug distance of a reader who could flip to the ending or turn away. But as I continued my research, driving into the mountains, sharpening pencils into little spears to take into the archives, I began to see that even if the stories I had heard about wolves were collected in the pages of folktales and old newspapers, their undercurrents were enacted in the pages of our lives. I wanted to consider the theater of predator and prey from the remove of my laptop screen. Life got in the way.

I had been studying the subject on and off for a few years when the jury of an artist residency granted me a cabin in the woods to write about it. I decided to travel west by train, alone. My second year of graduate school at the University of Minnesota was done and my students’ grades were submitted. The Wi-Fi on the tracks would be bad. For thirty-six hours, I thought, I could disappear. Nobody would be able to ask anything of me. Like B-45, I imagined myself crossing the border into Oregon undetected.


‘Wolfish’ is newly published by Canongate. Buy a copy here (£16.14).