It was going to be a weekend about wolves as I packed swimsuits, rain gear, meals and the family into my trusty Siena van and embarked on a four-hour drive across the Pacific Northwest to Olympia, Wash.
After carefully perusing material from the Great Wolf Lodge, my husband and I had figured that despite the high price tag, we couldn't go wrong by taking our three children to this indoor waterpark for a couple of nights' getaway.
But I'm not much of a resort mom during the best of times, and I turned cold at the idea of a canned experience exactly like that of every other family at the Great Wolf Lodge. Though we decided to spend some time at the park, I stumbled across Wolf Haven International (www.wolf haven.org), a center aimed at educating the public about wolves, while Googling attractions not far from the resort's front door.
The sanctuary protects some 50-odd, displaced, captive-born wolves in Tenino, Wash. Since the Great Wolf Lodge offered only a token glimpse at the wolves that served as its namesake and logo, I figured that some real-life wolf education would inspire a little thought and reflection.
This is how we came to be driving through the rural countryside on a gray, wintry afternoon, with tired, damp-haired kids in the back seats, taking a winding, tree-lined road until we reached Wolf Haven.
The tour we signed up for promised that we'd learn about both the plight and the stories of wolves in North America. But the education began even as we bought our tickets. The cashier was gazing wistfully at a stack of photographs of a wolf, and my daughter Amy couldn't contain her curiosity. "Who's that?" she asked directly.
Turned out that the photos were of Zuni, a female wolf who had been euthanized a day earlier after it was discovered she was suffering from advanced cancer. The staff at Wolf Haven was still mourning the death of this animal they'd come to love, and though they tried to hide the death from their youngest guests, on that day, there was no fooling my kids.
No Strangers to Impact
They knew all about cancer, even at the tender age of 5. Their maternal grandmother had succumbed to the disease just a week after their birth, and their young childhood was filled with colorful stories of her warm personality, and remorse at never having known her. Cancer was an enemy they knew, and to encounter it at a wolf sanctuary was an experience that would stay with them long after the thrill of the waterpark slides wore off.
Clutching a photo of Zuni the cashier had given her — one that would become hotly contested by her siblings — Amy followed the tour quietly over the next hour as we walked around the barred enclosures. It was feeding time, and a volunteer was throwing the carcass of an entire chicken to each wolf.
Some devoured it in minutes, but the wolf that had until recently shared a cage with Zuni ignored his headless bird, pacing up and down, and staring at us sadly with dark eyes.
"He's not used to being on his own," our guide explained softly.
It always saddens me to see animals in captivity, and this case was no exception. Though their enclosures are large, the wolves remain behind bars, gazing at their human onlookers with a mixture of interest and boredom, depending on the day. Interestingly, captivity has dulled neither their hunting instincts nor their penchant for particular cuisine.
We learn of one family of wolves that, within a week of being released into the wild, hunted and killed an impressively large bull elk. The group of Mexican gray wolves in residence at the haven won't go near poultry, preferring venison. Luckily for them, there's no shortage of deer in the Pacific Northwest, and every time there's deer roadkill, Wolf Haven retrieves it, freezes it and feeds it to the pack.
The haven represents an unusual opportunity for visitors to learn about these animals, especially given the fact that in the United States, wolves are listed as an endangered species. Although they once roamed across the continent, many were hunted by fur traders and government eradication programs.
In Washington state, wolves were thought to be completely eliminated by the 1930s, with the exception of a few random sightings over the years. Only now are people beginning to understand the important role they play in the ecosystem, and are thus making efforts to reintroduce these magnificently handsome animals.
We returned to the chaos of the waterpark, and there were smiles all round as the family zipped down slides and succumbed to the temptations of this one-stop indoor holiday.
But long after we packed up, my children were still haunted by the story of Zuni's death, and stunned to learn that cancer could strike this quiet, forested sanctuary and terminate the life of a hungry-eyed wolf.
Amy clutched that photograph all through the weekend, while her brother insisted on borrowing it for "show and tell" at school.
It struck me, in the weeks that followed, how unpredictably wonderful travel is, particularly when you bring your kids with you. You leave home with preconceived ideas of the experiences you'll encounter along the way, but invariably return surprised at your misconceptions.