Sponsored by Airbnbmag

CALIFORNIA SUNDAY AND AIRBNBMAG PRESENT

Guided by
the Pack

WALKING WITH THE WOLVES IN NORTHERN WASHINGTON

Photographs by Damien Maloney and David Elliott

At Predators of the Heart, a wildlife refuge north of Seattle, Dave Coleburn houses one of the largest wolf packs in the Pacific Northwest. And for the past few months, he’s allowed visitors to book experiences with his wolves through Airbnb. Airbnb experiences allow visitors to discover new places and activities through the eyes of locals—think improv workshops, whiskey tastings, private concerts, and whale watching. After Predators went up on the site, it quickly became one of the most popular options.

“When people leave here,” Dave says, “their whole worldview has changed.”

On the day I visit, we gather inside a cabin on the Predators property, in the forest near Anacortes. There, Dave explains the importance of wolves to the North American ecosystem,

“When people leave here their whole worldview has changed.”

describing the positive effects of the predators’ reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. Then we move inside a fenced enclosure and sit around picnic tables, while Dave and his daughter, Ashley, and their fellow wolf wrangler disappear for a moment. When they return they’re leading three gray wolves toward us on sturdy leashes.

Dave introduces them to our group. He and Ashley have raised these wolves almost since birth. Their size is breathtaking. My eyes go to their massive paws, then to their dense coats. Each one is as unique as a fingerprint. Even the puppies are enormous, each one nearly the size of a German Shepherd. When one stood on his hind legs to nuzzle a guest's ponytail, three erstwhile strangers joined forces to hug the pup and redirect his attention to more appropriate playthings.

Soon Dave will be building new and better homes for all his animals among the trees, and providing new ways for visitors to bond with the animals and each other.

When the wolves leap up onto the tables in front of us, I’m taken aback—but it turns out they’re just ready for attention. And it takes only a moment before we're connecting with them, and running our fingers through their thick fur.

Later, we head out onto a trail through the evergreens. “This is really special,” says Madeline, who’s visiting from California. It’s not just a glimpse from behind a fence—we’re meeting these animals face-to-face.

Dave reminds us that these are not pets. “If they let you in, it’s only because they respect you and trust you,” he says. It makes me think about how many generations it took for wild animals to become the companions we’re used to at home. In this forest in Washington, what once took generations now takes only a few minutes.

We spend some time getting to know each other, and then we and the wolves, still on their leashes, walk through the gates of the main enclosure and onto a short trail through the sweet-smelling evergreens that decorate the property. We pose for pictures with the wolves along the way. Max, the leader of the pack, who weighs about 130 pounds, lounges happily on the legs of two guests, Cali and Sasha.

Halfway through our walk, we pause for a group howl. The humans get it started, braying to the sky, and the wolves join in, all of us communing amid a primeval, wild sound.

“If you told me an hour ago I'd be howling in the woods with a bunch of strangers, I wouldn't have believed you," Presley from Oakland said. “But after petting wolf puppies and holding a massive gray wolf across a three-person lap I made with two people I just met, I think we humans felt like we had all joined the pack, too.”

“I can’t believe it,” Cali says. Visiting from Seattle, she’s never been this close to a wolf. Now she’s walking with a pack of them—the kind of thing that feels almost spiritual.

“I’m never going to be the same person again,” she says.

Dave owns ten acres here, most of it undeveloped. His plan is to use the space to build larger, more comfortable enclosures for all his animals, only a few of which are trained to mingle with people. The income from Airbnb bookings is helping him do that.

Halfway through our walk, we pause for a group howl. The humans get it started, braying to the sky, and the wolves join in, all of us communing amid a primeval, wild sound.

While these experiences are intended to have an impact on visitors, they perhaps have a bigger effect on the hosts. For Dave’s family, this arrangement has changed more than the way they run their business—it’s changed their lives, too.

Dave had been traveling the world giving wildlife-education presentations for decades, but he rarely made enough to pay himself much of a salary. Instead, it all went back into caring for the animals. Ashley has been working as his assistant since she was 12; the thought of hiring more help was a distant dream. “Lots of times, I’ve been out here by myself with a bucket, feeding the wolves until two in the morning,” Dave says. Ashley recounts her own memories of being up at 4 a.m., bottle-feeding baby animals.

Now, Dave has hired more help. The $5,000 worth of meat he feeds his carnivores each month has become less of a burden. Soon he’ll be building new and better homes for all his animals among the trees, and providing new ways for visitors to bond with the animals and each other.

That doesn’t mean he wants to become a large-scale attraction. His operation has never been open to big crowds, and he has no desire to change that, preferring to bring in small groups for intimate, up-close experiences. “Our real goal is to do something nobody else is doing,” he says. “The people who come here, they’re like our friends.”

Ashley radiates confidence, but tears well up in her eyes when she talks about the way the experiences have helped her father pursue his dreams. “There’s no way we would have been able to do this without the people who come here and support us on these experiences,” she says. “It’s amazing to see it become something real.”