Encountering a wolf -- from a safe distance -- is a thrilling experience. That you can see one during a bike ride within city limits is a benefit of Anchorage's "Big. Wild. Life."
It's not just we humans who are beginning to venture out and about now that spring has begun its tediously slow arrival.
Every morning, I notice the sled dogs are stretched out on the thawing snow around their doghouses rather than tucked inside on their straw beds, as they are in winter.
The birds at the feeder seem livelier, too, and rather than the endless procession of chickadees that dominate during winter, I'm now seeing other colors and shapes joining the ranks.
And just last week, as I enjoyed my first outdoor road-bike ride of the season with some friends, a wolf wandered across the road right in front of me, on the prowl for something that had caught its attention up in the trees.
Of course, wolves are active all winter, and recently, Southcentral Alaskans got their fill of them as they boldly approached pets and people.
But that was, hopefully, an isolated series of events, prompted by a lack of snow that allowed one of their main sources of food -- moose -- to elude them. Once the snow arrived and winter was as it should be, the balance of nature seemed to return to normal and the wolves disappeared.
So this encounter, on the backside of Potter Marsh in the middle of the day, was a real treat. I've seen wolves from afar, in the middle of nowhere, where one might expect to find them. But right in Anchorage, only a few hundred yards from the nearest house, and only a quarter-mile from the highway?
Some may fret and worry and think the wolf doesn't belong. But to me, it was a memorable way to kick off the cycling season.
Riding from the south end of the road, I pedaled hard and fast, timing myself for two minutes. Then I turned around to head back and do it again. That's when I spotted a gray-brown bulk in the middle of the road, standing statue-still and looking into the woods on the hillside.
From a distance, it looked like a coyote, perhaps, with a long, bushy tail and slender build. That wouldn't be unusual, I thought. But the closer I got, the bigger it grew. Its close-set eyes, lanky legs and big feet confirmed it was no coyote.
When it looked toward me as I pedaled closer, its demeanor changed and it trotted off into the marsh. I slowed and watched it blend with the branches and disappear into the brush.
Wow. I continued pedaling, but for some reason the sighting intensified the moment. I kept glancing back, wondering if I had perhaps imagined it or maybe confused it with a dog. Shaking it off, I continued the ride.
Near the turnaround, I began the second interval, two more minutes of intense, fast pedaling. But only 30 seconds into it, there the wolf was again, this time standing on the marsh side of the road but looking across the road at something in the woods.
I didn't want to interrupt my interval, but I was going fast and wasn't sure that riding straight at a wild Canis lupus was the wisest move.
Then the animal noticed me, turned its head deliberately and looked straight at me. I kept pedaling. Our eyes locked. This time, it took a step or two my way -- not aggressively, just purposefully.
So I gently hit the brakes, slowing just enough to give me a second or two to consider what to do next.
Fortunately, the wolf backed down first in this human- canine version of chicken. It made an odd hop that virtually changed its orientation so its head was now toward the marsh. It looked at me, glanced toward the other side of the road, then back at me. It was almost funny -- a classic look of indecision.
Then it disappeared back into the marsh.
I immediately sped back up, trying to keep my momentum going, this time not even glancing into the marsh. But as soon as the interval was over, I turned around and headed back to our meeting spot, hoping for another glimpse.
Just then Matt rode up, checking to see where I had gone.
"Did you see the wolf?" was the first thing I asked, hoping to verify that I had not inadvertently pushed too hard on those intervals and was hallucinating.
"No," he said. We pedaled back by, and I craned my neck to find it, but the animal was gone. I did three more intervals, each time wondering if it would return. It didn't.
After climbing the Potter Valley Road hill a couple of times, we returned on the marsh road back toward a friend's house.
I silently tried to will the creature back out on the road so my friends could see it. I wanted somebody else to be able to share this story.
But it was gone.
A week later, I'm still thinking of that wolf, remembering its yellowish-brown eyes and its deliberate movements. Despite their recent portrayal as villains preying on house pets, I'm glad Anchorage is still a place where wolves -- and bear and moose, for that matter -- can still roam.
As a co-worker said when I told him about the encounter, "It puts the 'wild' in 'Big. Wild. Life.' "
* Play outdoor columnist Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at adn.com/contact/mdevaughn or call 257-4482.