How Whales and Wolves Taught Me the Importance of Nature

The year that I turned 13 my family was living in Laie, a sleepy country town not far from the island of Oahu’s famous North Shore. On one edge of town were the beaches — Temple Beach, Hukilau, and Pounders — and on the other were the steep, green Ko’olau Mountains, the jagged eroded remains of an ancient shield volcano. Set largely in what seemed to be a boundless natural campus, this was the year that planted the seed that began to grow into the kind of person I would become over the following decades. My family wouldn’t move to Utah for another eight months, so I hadn’t yet developed an identity as a Westerner, but I was already spending all my free time outside, in nature. I went to the beach almost every afternoon, surfing, body boarding, and snorkeling. I learned to identify dozens of species of fish, eels, and other critters, and I knew how to read the water to tell what kind of waves were going to break that day. My hair turned blond from the sun and salt. I felt a comfortable and profound sense of freedom on the edge of the ocean.

One weekend, my parents suggested that we go on a whale-watching tour. I had mixed feelings. I knew it would be a “structured” activity, as opposed to my usual running around town barefoot with my wild friends. On the other hand, it meant experiencing what it was like to be out on the deep, open water, something that intrigued and terrified me. I agreed, as if I had a choice.

I expected to go out on the kind of big, fancy boat that I had seen on TV, one where sunburned tourists from Minnesota and Tokyo stood around a buffet table on the lower deck. I was surprised that we instead ended up in a small, musty room in a rundown building on the North Shore. The guide who met us there was a real salty dog, maybe in his mid-twenties, dreadlocks hanging halfway down his back. He grinned, straddled a beat-up folding chair backwards, and started listing off everything he knew about humpback whales, about their migrations, their weird surface behaviors, and the complex songs they sing. Next, he showed us gory footage from whaling ships and then pictures of Sea Shepherd activists, looking somber on their inflatable zodiac boats, waving their black and tattered flag in defense of these amazing creatures.

Soon, we were onboard the same kind of zodiac that the whale warriors used, launching off the waves, zooming out to the spot where the giant cetaceans had last been spotted. The water was deep and dark, and the trees on shore faded to indistinguishable green splotches in the distance. This was the farthest out that I had ever been, and my heart raced.

After only a few minutes, our guide’s face lit up, and he pointed at the water. I turned, and sure enough, not 15 feet away, was the broad dorsal side of a humpback whale. Huge, but gentle, emitting an indescribable sense of peace. Intelligent and beautiful, she didn’t seem to mind our presence.

What I was experiencing in that moment suddenly made the videos that the guide had shown us sink in. I began to understand why the slaughter of these creatures was so abhorrent and why people worked so hard to protect them. My awe must have been tangible, because the guide grinned, knowing that in less than an hour he had taught me more than a lifetime of sitting in classrooms ever could.


Somehow, 15 years later, I found myself in a similar role, but I occupied an opposite landscape. These were the foothills of Southern Colorado’s Wet Mountains, which, despite the name, is a vast dry place full of rabbit brush, ponderosa pines, and aspen groves. By this time, I too had long hair and a bushy beard. I was a tour guide-slash-activist, leading tour groups through Mission: Wolf, a refuge for dozens of rescued wolves and wolf-dog hybrids.

This time, the group that followed me around the remote facility was a troop of Boy Scouts and their leaders. I told them the stories of each wolf that called this place home. The animals had come from the movie industry, roadside zoos, Craigslist breeders, or people who mistakenly believed that a wolf might make a good pet. There was Zeab, a dopey and doglike black timber wolf who would come up and lick your face; Max, who was terrified of humans and wouldn’t come out from his hiding spots, even for food, unless he thought no one was watching; graying, 14-year old Daisy, who had gone blind as a result of the malnutrition inherent in the vegan, corn-based diet that her previous owner had given her. Some of the wolves were funny, some were sweet, some scared, some scary, but each was an individual with their own quirks and personality.

I explained how these animals, for their own safety, could never be released back into the wild. It was too bad. They had come to recognize humans as a source of food. This was behavior could never be unlearned and would only lead to them getting shot or hit by a car. I described how important wild wolves and other apex predators were in keeping ecosystems balanced and healthy, and I told stories of ranchers gunning down entire packs of these elegant canines from helicopters, motivated by a mistaken belief that these animals would systematically destroy all of their cattle.

The Boy Scouts and their leaders nodded, but it wasn’t until they first came face-to-face with one of the wolves that what I had been saying began to resonate. Looking into those vibrant yellow eyes, some of them started giggling. Others wept. They hadn’t expected the poignancy of what they were experiencing.

For young people the age of these Boy Scouts, there is value in listening to a teacher, someone who cares enough about a subject to take the time to explain it to people who know nothing about it, who might not actually care all that much to begin with. Certainly, this method of education can change lives, but it is mild and ineffective compared to the power of a firsthand experience. Meeting a wolf, or a whale, looking into their eyes, listening to the sound of their hot breath, maybe even touching their fur or skin, is essential to understanding that they are individuals with individual personalities and value, unique strengths and quirks, just like humans are.

If we’re going to save this world and the wildest ones in it, we must sever ties with sterile classrooms, and instead foster connections to mountains, the ocean, animals, and plants. We must immerse ourselves in the beauty and wonder of nature, learn how to fish, forage, and hike under the light of a waxing moon. Like I was so fortunate to be able to do at a young age, people need the chance to develop their own nature literacy, on their own terms, through a combination of solo exploration and the kind of raw and wild experiential education to which they wouldn’t have access if weren’t for someone to facilitate it for them.

American West

Essays, reporting, travel writing, reviews and more.

Nathaniel Kennon Perkins

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Publisher, bookseller, and writer. Author of CACTUS. Preorder my new book, THE WAY CITIES FEEL TO US NOW https://thewaycitiesfeeltousnow.maudlinhouse.net

American West

Essays, reporting, travel writing, reviews and more.

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