Words and wolves

After two decades as a nurse and single mother, Beckie Elgin of Ashland has picked up the thread of two childhood passions — writing and wolves.

As one of the few people in the world who has raised wolves — at a zoo her father directed in Iowa — Elgin formed a bond with the animals that convinced her they are far from the Big Bad Wolf of folklore.

"They're shy, compassionate, affectionate," says Elgin, "and they care for one another."

As a teen, Elgin educated the public about animals and was surprised at the level of distrust directed at wolves.

"At the zoo, when I was taking care of the wolves, I would hear people say, 'They're ferocious, they'll bite you,' " Elgin says. "People really didn't understand them."

After earning a bachelor's degree in environmental science from Simpson College in Iowa, she got a job as a zookeeper in Anchorage, where she experienced more scorn toward wolves.

As Elgin's family grew, her passion for animals went on the back burner. She earned a nursing degree in Iowa and eventually moved with her three children to a Navaho reservation in Arizona to practice nursing.

The years in Arizona deepened their ties with the natural world, says Elgin. In 2002, the family moved to Ashland, and Elgin took writing classes at Southern Oregon University. One of her teachers was former Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada, and the embers of her childhood passion for words were relit.

"I really felt the writing begin to sink in," she says. "I knew I wanted to go for it and become a writer."

Elgin earned a bachelor's degree in English and a Master of Fine Arts from Pacific University in 2010. Her first short story, "Puppies" — an exploration of cruelty to dogs — was published in 2011 in Alabama's The Tusculum Review.

Then wolves burst into the local news in 2011 when a 2-year-old male wearing a GPS-collar dispersed from the Imnaha pack in northeastern Oregon and crossed the Cascade crest, making it the first wolf in western Oregon in 65 years.

Elgin seized the opportunity for a family road trip, with hopes of spotting the Imnaha pack. The family didn't see any wolves but found "sign" — a fresh paw print as big as Elgin's hand.

"When I saw that paw print, something in me shifted," says Elgin, who lives near Hyatt Lake. "Knowing a wolf was nearby energized me. They have such a strong hold on me."

That experience just fueled her desire to combine wolves and writing.

"Writing was a way for me to speak for the wolf and answer my own passion," says Elgin.

Enthused from her "wolf moment" in the Wallowas, Elgin created a blog, "Wolves and Writing," to educate people about the nature and news of wolves and to inform ranchers of nonlethal ways to deal with them. It attracts viewers from all over the world, she says, and has had 16,000 hits since its launch.

"It's really inspiring to see more people care about wolves than hate them," says Elgin.

The blog showcases four stories she has had published in The Oregonian, along with news she posts of OR-7, the lone wolf that dispersed from the Imnaha pack and made its way through Southern Oregon and parts of Northern California. OR-7 crossed back into Southern Oregon earlier this month.

"Journey (the name given to OR-7 by a wildlife group) has become a huge personal interest," says Elgin. "When I'm not (home-health nursing) I love to take off and search for him."

She journeyed to Yellowstone National Park in December 2012 and joined Wolves of the Rockies, a group that sets up spotting scopes and studies the wolves that roam the park. The Oregonian published her account of the trip.

"We saw wolves every day we were out," says Elgin. "It was amazing to be around so many people who care for wolves the same way I do."

For Elgin, wolves are more than a warm memory or a political cause.

"They are a symbol of true wilderness. If you live in the same place as they do, you should be proud to say you can hear wolves at night."

Colin Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at colinalexdarling@gmail.com.

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