The coyotes stayed behind us, howling singly, then in chorus, seldom silent for more than a few seconds at a time. We looked back often enough, but of course we never saw one.
The road curves two miles up through Douglas fir to a bowl that offers ideal skiing over smooth low slopes of virgin powder. We were wearing only light shirts under nylon Windbreakers, and the temperature was at least 15� below freezing, but the hard uphill skiing had us sweating by the time we reached the bowl.
And at some point during the exertion of that climb we forgot to be frightened. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we remembered that we knew better. The coyote, whether alone or in company, often performs a nocturnal serenade consisting of barks, yaps and a whine that escalates into a howl. To my knowledge, there are no recorded instances of coyotes attacking humans. I reminded Hilde that the coyotes we often saw on our daytime hikes had shown us only cautious curiosity. They were every bit as shy as deer. So it wasn't really a threatening sound behind us. We had always loved coyotes, and we listened to them now for half an hour as we skied the bowl, traversing the slopes, cutting zig-zag patterns from top to bottom at moderate speed.
Then we split a candy bar and started the three-mile trip back. Soon we realized that the pack had either waited in the woods for us to pass, or had made a loop to get behind us again.
We skied hard to the car to stay warm, and the coyotes were with us all the way. It wasn't until the skis were lashed to the roof rack that they finally fell silent. We drank some hot coffee from a thermos, with a little bourbon in it, then ate dried fruit from a plastic bag. Even though the temperature had dropped another 5�, we were reluctant to leave. Shivering, we stood beside the car for a minute or two. Far off a lone coyote howled, and another answered. No sound on earth could be wilder, freer, lovelier than what we heard that January night. Now, whenever conditions are right for it—full moon, clear sky and new powder snow—we ski at night, and we have heard coyotes often, though never so near.
Although Hilde and I are the legal owners of no land other than the lot our house sits on, we have already skied with a sense of ownership as strong as if the mountains had been deeded to us. On daytime trips, once we are well off the road, we feel that the places we ski are ours. Of course, this sense of ownership is an illusion. Coyotes really own the mountains—they have been in North America for a million years and likely will remain after we have gone—and on moonlit winter nights when they howl, the fact that we are only guests seems very clear, and quite appropriate.