Spirit of Romeo rises over old roaming grounds

Posted: Sunday, November 21, 2010

The familiar howl came in Saturday afternoon's winter wind.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Low and lonely off the fields of ice, the wail pranced along the face of the glacier the Tlingit once called Sitaantaagu ("the Glacier Behind the Town") or Aak'wtaaksit ("the Glacier Behind the Little Lake").

The wild cry played upon the Mendenhall Glacier waters, searching for another to return its lament.

And on the shores of Mendenhall Lake, at the base of the Mendenhall Valley, in the capital city of Juneau, the weary soulful tune of the beloved black wolf Romeo found its love again.

Many loves, in fact, lined the shore to reflect the enrichment their lives had felt by interacting with the town's beloved mascot.

"So many have been touched by Romeo," Joel Bennett said from atop a large rock to a group of more than 75 people gathered on the shores of Mendenhall Lake near the West Glacier Trail. "This is a testament to that by the number of you who have gathered here."

Bennett mentioned the illness of his wife who, in her last days, was able to see Romeo from the lake edge.

"To see him from the shoreline," Bennett said. "She was energized and I know it prolonged her life."

Romeo once played with Harry Robinson's dog, smiled for author Nick Jans camera and followed Lin Davis across the frozen lakes and up the glacier trail.

"I lost a true companion as did all the dogs here today, his playmates," said Robinson, who founded Friends of Romeo. "Anyone that came out here to see him had a chance to see something special. It wasn't his fault he was born a big scary wolf."

Robinson said he would hike with Romeo for hours in the woods and Romeo would make "Wolf angels" in the snow. Robinson said one day a brown bear confronted he and his dog and Romeo rushed to sit by their side, growling until the bear was scared away.

Said Robinson, "Romeo was my friend. The lake is much emptier without him."

It was noted Romeo has a following in Japan and Sweden and that President Barack Obama has a framed portrait of the wolf.

Jans, an outdoorsman and author, said Romeo was about eight years old and weighed a little more than 140 pounds.

"He was more excitable in the mating season," Jans said. "But he was never seen with another wolf mate."

Jans also recounted what Eskimo elder Nellie Woods told him, "Animals have a soul just like you, just like me."

Jans said in the history of traditional hunting worldwide, hunters have always treated animals around them as equals.

"I have killed more things than I can remember," Jans said. "There is nothing wrong with hunting or subsistence. What is wrong is to lose respect for the wild animals you hunt."

Davis recounted her meetings with Romeo and said, "I have cried so many tears over this."

Tina Brown, president of the Southeast Chapter of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said, "Romeo brought us joy and reminded us who we are."

As the last recorded howls of Romeo were played at his glacier memorial Saturday morning, tears reminded those who gathered and leashed dogs raised their heads in soulful answer.

Romeo was remembered Saturday afternoon. However, judging by the response of those gathered, it seems unlikely his spirit ever will be laid to rest.

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@ juneauempire.com.

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