“I have the power of grape juice and I’m not afraid to use it!” Littleton Academy fifth grader AJ exclaimed Saturday morning as an animated group of 19 prepared for a day with the rescued wolves at Mission:Wolf. A lot of work had taken place leading up to that moment of anticipation, arriving at and connecting with this beautiful place in Huerfano County with majestic views of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Soon it would be time to meet the wolves that the group had heard overnight, howling in the distance.
Upon arrival on Friday afternoon the students spent some time using all their senses to take in this beautiful place that the Ute, Comanche, and Apache people were the first to call home. They then set up camp.
“When we were setting up our tents,” student Tuscan said afterwards, “I learned to appreciate the plants and animals while I was looking for a place I wouldn’t disturb a lot of plants and animal homes.”
After these temporary homes were constructed and filled with personal items, Mission:Wolf guide Sven met the students around the fire ring to welcome them and discuss the history of the sanctuary, wolves in North America, and the activities that the next day would include.
“Looking at a chihuahua and a wolf it is easy to tell them apart, but if you just look at their DNA it would be very difficult to know the difference,” said Sven. Many of the wolves at Mission:Wolf are wolfdogs, some being more wolf-like and some being more dog-like.
“Longer and thicker fur helps wolves survive in cold weather,” added Lucas. “And smaller ears trap in more heat,” contributed Mo.
Following the discussion with Sven, the class split into two teams to share responsibility for camp duties like preparing meals and doing dishes, so that other students could work on learning valuable camping skills like fire building and knife safety. The first night’s cooking group worked together to prepare tasty burrito bowls, while the fire-building crew successfully started a fire using flint and steel. After a few stories around the campfire, everyone retired to their sleeping bags.
Saturday morning, everyone awoke to the resounding bellowing, mooing, and grunting of the herd of cows that also live on the Mission:Wolf land. The group ate breakfast, packed, stretched, then started the trek up the hill to meet Sven and the wolves. Sven led the group on a tour of the enclosures to meet many of the wolves who have been rescued by Kent, the founder of Mission:Wolf, and his team of volunteers.
The group watched Illiana, Soleil, Abraham, Aria, Saurya, Nashira, Zeab, Tiger and others lounge, howl, and pace in anticipation of the food they knew they would be receiving later that day. At one point, the students were even able to inspire an echo of wolf howls across the sanctuary (see video). The day also included a trip to one of the greenhouses on the property that provides fresh food for the employees. “Because this is Mission:Wolf,” Noelle pointed out, “the growing beds are shaped like a paw.”
After lunch and before the visit with the Ambassador Wolves, the group reviewed the 7 principles of Leave No Trace (LNT) and enjoyed some personal time in stillness and silence—a Cottonwood Institute staple fondly referred to as a sit-spot. Afterwards, the students quietly regrouped and a few shared their reflections.
“This is just unreal—the view, the mountains, and being here with the wolves. It is just so cool,” Ava shared in a tone of wonderment.
“At first I didn’t notice some flowers,” Sadie said. “I think I accidentally walked over them. But after sitting quietly then walking back I noticed some beautiful flowers.”
Now in a grounded state, the group went to meet Kent who would prepare them for their interaction with the ambassador wolves.
“Well, if you can survive the tour you can stay the night,” he began. “If you survive the night you can meet the wolves. If you survive the wolves you can stay a week. If you survive the staff you can stay two weeks. If you survive two weeks you can stay in a teepee. If you survive a month you get fed…Hi, I’m Kent and that is kind of how we have run this place for the last 30 years.”
When in the enclosure with the wolves (Nashira, Zeab, and Abraham), it was important to walk with confidence and a seeming lack of interest in them before sitting down. Then, on the wolves’ terms, it was okay to pet them. Zeab took a special liking to Nick, one of the chaperones, and his son Tuscan, who were even able to get him to kick his leg with an enamored scratch reflex.
With stars in their eyes, the students left the enclosure and lined up along a fence outside the ambassadors’ enclosure to watch them eat 60 burgers’ worth of meat in 30 seconds!
With gratitude to Kent and the staff, the group made its way down the hill a short distance to the site of a building being constructed completely by volunteers, that will eventually house a welcome center, veterinary room, garage, art space, and showers for staff and long term volunteers. Students happily contributed to the project to complete the service element of their trip. With short breaks to wait out a rainstorm, they prepared a section of the construction site that was ready to be revegetated with local grasses. They added soil, raked the area to smooth it out, sprinkled seeds and covered the seeds with a light layer of hay to help keep them in place until they took to the earth. Upon finishing the project Mo reflected on their work. “It is really important what we did today,” he said, “Because someday we are going to come back and see the plants we just seeded.”
Along the walk back to camp some of the group took a detour to carcass canyon to see the bones of animals that have provided food for the wolves over the years. Students were both shocked and dazzled by the bull and horse skulls, cow bones, and deer vertebrae that had piled up over the years and years of feeding the resident wolves.
The evening then resumed with a fun camp dinner of corn on the cob and hot dogs cooked over a fire built by the students and using skewers many of them had whittled. Songs around the campfire and s’mores warmed everyone up for a good night’s rest after a long day. A few members of the group went on a short night hike with Zach before going to sleep.
On Sunday morning, the group had a filling breakfast of bagels and fruit after getting their tents and personal gear packed. Then in quick time the rest of the group gear was packed and everything was arranged into the three vehicles.
Before departing, students reflected one final time on the opportunities and growth they experienced at Mission:Wolf.
“I learned that you can find a state of peace out here even if you are sad or mad,” Amber shared.
“I learned to appreciate the silence,” said Sadie. “At first I found it a little eerie, but then came to like how I could notice the sounds of planes and wildlife ulike I can in the city.”
“I realize how distracted I am in the city with all the noise,” Eliza agreed.
See you next time Mission:Wolf! Special thanks to Kent and the staff at M:W, and Littleton Academy fifth graders and parents, especially our great chaperones Nick, Mike, and Rob.
Written by Cottonwood Institute Instructor Eva Rain.
See more photos and videos from the trip here!