A conversation with author of A Wolf Called Romeo
Compiled by Nicole Rivard
A lone black wolf playing with local pets and running beside skiers during their daily exercises in a lake community outside of Juneau, Alaska. This might sound like a work of fiction, but for author Nick Jans, it was reality. And he documents his, and an Alaskan community’s, six-year friendship with this wolf, Romeo, in his latest book A Wolf Called Romeo, released July 1. Stay tuned for a book review in our fall edition of Action Line. In the meantime, you can get to know the author, a contributor to Alaska magazine, as well as author of numerous books including The Grizzly Maze, a little better with this Q&A.
Q. That’s quite a striking cover shot—a huge, wild Alaska wolf and a Labrador retriever facing each other. What’s the story on that?
A. That’s the actual photo from the opening scene of the book, the first time my wife, Sherrie, our dog, Dakotah, and I met the wolf, we’d come to call Romeo. He’s two years old there, full grown but still not filled out, totally relaxed with us standing there just a few feet away, shamelessly flirting with our dog, who’s pretty relaxed herself. Even with a picture to prove it really happened, this moment, and the years that followed, living near a wild, sociable and strangely gentle wolf, with a glacier-draped mountain backdrop, seems unreal, like something we dreamed, or a film we were watching. That’s the thing about the entire experience. Even with pictures to anchor our memories, it still feels as if our lives were folded into a story, a series of events too vivid, compressed, and emotion-laden to be real.
Q. You were obviously fascinated by this wolf. Have you had any other notable experiences with wild animals in general, and wolves in particular?
A. I’ve been fascinated by nature and wildlife since I was a toddler. No accident that 35 years ago, I threw my canoe on my grandfather’s beat-up Plymouth, drove five thousand miles to Fairbanks, Alaska, chartered a floatplane to drop me off at the headwaters of the Kobuk River in the northwest arctic, and ended up working for a big game guide and then teaching Eskimo kids for 20 years. I wanted to live in one of the last large-scale, relatively intact ecosystems on the planet; by intact I mean untouched by roads and lightly impacted by human development, a full complement of predators and prey wandering a landscape so large you could travel to the horizon in almost any direction and not encounter another person. A place that an explorer or Eskimo hunter from another century would recognize. And I pulled it off. If you had told me when I was 12 what I’d end up doing and seeing, I would have been totally thrilled.
I traveled huge chunks of country, sometimes in the company of Eskimo hunters, often alone; I lost track of the miles a long time ago—tens of thousands by canoe, small skiff, ski, snowmobile, and foot. I’ve also lost count of the wolves and bears, some at a distance, some close enough to touch. I’d originally set out to be a wildlife biologist; instead, I ended up as a self-taught naturalist and full-time writer and photographer, observing and interacting with wild creatures. Photography and observation took the place of hunting after I got so full of killing I couldn’t pull another trigger. My biggest regret is that it took me so long to grasp that killing what you love is a karmic dead end.
Q. So what was different about this one black wolf, the one you and others came to call Romeo?
A. He might as well have been a unicorn, or a character straight out of a Disney nature film. I mean, a 120-pound wild wolf just shows up one day, and wants to play with our dogs, and is tolerant of people in general, and even friendly to some. He’s super-intelligent and interactive and social, and we get to know him as an individual. Yet the whole time he remains a wild wolf, hunting for his own food. He didn’t become habituated to people; he arrived that way, as if he’d fallen from the sky. You could suppose he was the archetypal wolf that came to lie by our fire millennia ago and became, through domestication, man’s best friend. Despite constant threats, he managed to live in the collective shadow of 30,000 people for six years—and it would have been longer if not for the dark side of human nature, embodied by the two losers who killed him. Except for that last part, the entire story was magical, one of those experiences that transforms not just individuals, but an entire community. We’re talking about a wolf that ends up with two streets named after him, as well as a coffee and a beer. More than a hundred people showed up at his memorial service, and a plaque is erected in his memory. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen. But it did.
Q. It’s a standard question, but what was your purpose for writing this book?
A. First, this was a story I needed to tell—not only to others, but to myself. Writing has always been an exploratory process for me, a path toward understanding. Clarity of thought equals clarity of word, and vice versa. Finding the exact words to convey a narrative—and by that, I mean words that are so transparent and evocative that the reader is looking over your shoulder, experiencing what you see and hear, and sharing in your emotions as if present—is the ultimate therapy for me, a way to discover meaning. And this particular story, which spanned more than ten years, a major chunk of my adult life, seems to lie at the very core of my being, for better and worse. I needed to understand all I could about this wolf and the complex web of events that his appearance created, for my own sake. Romeo’s been gone for nearly five years, and I still find myself choking up at odd moments, waking up in the middle of the night, just lying there, thinking about him. It’s not one of those things you get over; the experience was too intense, the loss too great.
I feel, too, that this story is something others need to hear. It’s not a really a cautionary tale, as some have labeled it; more to the point, it contains a universal moment of our time on this rapidly shrinking world. We’re in the process of losing touch with the wild, as our inevitable expansion and electronic isolation allows fewer and fewer spaces for it to exist. What’s a world without tigers, polar bears, and wolves, without that sort of elemental connection that large wild carnivores offer us, the caretakers of this little rock, hurling through space? I’m afraid we’re well down the road to finding out. Probably too much to ask, but I do hold the profound hope this book will help make a difference. Without hope, nothing happens.
My final reason for writing this book is to bear witness to the life of this one wolf. As long as a single person reads, hears, or remembers his story, Romeo lives. Perhaps that’s what matters most of all.