September’s arrival has stirred thoughts of a remarkable experience I had nearly a decade ago, one that I’d like to recount here for my City Wilds readers.
On a crisp and clear fall afternoon in September 2012, I stood on a ridge high above Anchorage, right hand clutching a plastic bag and mind filled with vivid, bittersweet memories.
Named Rusty Point, the rocky ledge on which I was perched lies at the western end of a mountain spine that drops from the summit of Wolverine Peak, a prominent mountain in the Chugach Front Range.
My thoughts were pulled to a summer three years earlier, when I walked this untrailed and rubbly ridgeline with my 8½-year-old collie mix, Coya. Though I’ve been a “dog person” all my life, Coya was the first I had made my own. Not long after our lives intersected, it became clear that she loved to roam the hills as much as I. And in the years since then, the dog I affectionately called my “pound mutt” had proven to be as companionable and enthusiastic a hiking partner as any mountain rambler could ever want.
Sitting side by side while taking a snack break, we’d been stunned to watch a wolverine, engaged in its own alpine wanderings, step onto the ridge, no more than 10 yards away.
Apparently as shocked as Coya and I, the wolverine momentarily froze. Then the animal slowly circled us, showing no evidence of either fear or aggression, but rather curiosity. Meanwhile I held tightly onto my squirming dog. After her initial surprise, Coya clearly wished to give chase. That, I knew, could have ended badly, given wolverines’ fierce demeanor.
With Coya safely in my arms, she and I shared the wolverines’ remarkably calm company for the next quarter-hour, until the animal loped out of sight.
Over the years I’d shared many other memorable wildlife encounters with Coya, but nothing could match our 2009 meeting with wolverine, so rarely seen even where the species’ population is healthy.
Memories of that day still evoke wonder and delight. But in 2012 they’d been tempered by sadness and longing. In May my zestful, mountain-loving dog had become seriously ill with what her doctor described as a rare—and, it turned out, virulent—cancer. With Coya no longer able to venture into the hills or even go on extended walks in town, she and I had to settle for short neighborhood strolls and time spent lolling in front-yard sunshine. Less than three weeks after she first showed symptoms of the disease, I gently and sorrowfully held Coya in my arms one last time while she was injected with a euthanizing potion.
Now in September I had come to Rusty Point to leave a handful of Coya’s ashes. Other hikers rarely visit this location, so I would have all the time I needed to be alone and quietly reminisce, at a place rich with memories of our rambles together.
I’d brought my Chugach journal to record some notes. Browsing through it I noticed that Coya last journeyed here the previous fall. As usual, we’d had the spot all to ourselves.
My jottings reminded me that the day had been sunny and crisp, the autumn air made colder by a brisk northeast wind. A pair of ravens circled around us and I had found some late-blooming wildflowers up high, including an alpine forget-me-not with its petals still a deep and vibrant blue. Four Dall sheep grazed far below us on a south-facing hillside, while atop the ridge we’d come across a pile of wolfish scat, containing crowberries and light brown hair.
I set the journal aside. Then, whispering something like a prayer, I spread Coya’s dusty gray remains and tiny bone fragments among alpine plants and beneath a couple of lichen-crusted rocks, in places where I knew we once sat side by side. Then, in peaceful solitude, I reclined on the tundra beneath brilliantly blue heavens.
With the sun warm on my face, I closed my eyes and both mourned my loss and recalled the joy that Coya had brought me. I imagined her handsome body nestled affectionately against mine, mostly white with a few large brown patches along the side and back. Her head and smiling face were mostly brown, becoming black along the snout. There was a small, white, irregular splotch, freckled with black, just behind the nose that sniffed the air for alpine smells.
I lingered up high for more than an hour, thoughts of wolverine inevitably mixed with those of Coya. Our meeting along this ridge still struck me as an amazing thing.
After one last look around, I began an unhurried descent across untrailed tundra and twenty minutes later rejoined the heavily used path that hikers follow to Wolverine Peak’s summit. As usual, I carried binoculars. Noticing them, a middle-aged couple ascending the trail asked, “Seen any wildlife?”
“Not much today,” I replied. “A couple of distant moose, a soaring bald eagle, a few songbirds. That’s about it.”
A few minutes after that brief exchange, I happened to glance off to my left, toward a hillside Coya once routinely explored on our return to the Prospect Heights trailhead. I could still clearly picture her weaving back and forth, head bent and nose searching the tundra.
Movement high on the same slope Coya once loved to roam grabbed my attention. Crossing it at an unhurried pace was a slender, dark, long-tailed animal built low to the ground. Waves of recognition once more exploded through my body while my mind shouted, WOLVERINE!
Bursting to alert other hikers to the animal’s presence, I glanced up and down the trail, but no one was in sight. So I returned my gaze to the wolverine and stood absolutely still. This was a different one than the ear-tagged female Coya and I had met three years earlier. For reasons I can’t fully explain, it struck me as a young adult male.
Whether following a scent or otherwise preoccupied, the wolverine appeared unaware of my presence while zigzagging downhill in the sort of hop-stepping way that weasels move. Though coming steadily closer, he didn’t once look my way that I could tell.
Only upon reaching the trail—now a dozen feet from where I stood, maybe less—did the wolverine seem to notice me. He stood on his back legs and peered at me a few moments, then turned and began to retreat back uphill. But instead of racing away, he moved at a casual pace, even stopping now and then to gaze back in my direction.
Reaching the top of the rise, the wolverine loped out of sight. But a few seconds later he reappeared and again looked my way, still inquisitive. He then repeated this behavior a couple of more times. Not until the voices of approaching hikers broke the silence—and the spell—did he vanish.
No more than a mile from where Coya and I had met the other wolverine three years earlier, I remained still, mind and emotions churning.
It’s easy enough, in our modern Western culture, to consider this second wolverine’s appearance pure chance. But the details of the day and the circumstances of our encounter suggest to me that something more, something not easily explained or understood by the rational mind, may have been at play here.
The famed psychiatrist Carl Jung might have said I experienced synchronicity: a “meaningful coincidence” in which two events are linked by something other than cause and effect. Often an association is made between some aspect of a person’s inner life and an occurrence in the outer world.
There was no question that I felt a deep connection between this wolverine’s appearance and my earlier remembrance of Coya and the spreading of her ashes, the reason that I had returned to this mountain. The more intuitive part of me somehow understood—and continues to understand—that what happened on Wolverine Peak’s flanks was no simple coincidence, no accident.
While the notion of synchronicity seems to fit, the word, the idea, that flashed through my mind in those moments was “visitation.” I can’t say for sure that the wolverine carried some message or that Coya’s spirit was somehow present, but there’s no question I had been visited by something mysterious, something marvelous in nature.
Taking a deep breath, I glanced uphill one more time, toward the place I spotted this second wolverine. Then I resumed my own retreat to the trailhead, both shaken and exuberant.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com