There are legends from various parts of the world of places where bones of many, many individuals of the same animal species are found–elephants in Africa, mammoths in Siberia, and so on. Some such places are probably the remnants of human butchery; in others, causes of death are not so clear. Over time these places have become known as “graveyards” or “places where [name the species] go to die”.
There’s a story of such a place where wolves went to die. It comes from south-central Ohio, where the gray wolf once roamed, but was wiped out in the early nineteenth century by settlers.
I was reminded of it, last night, by a program on National Geographic Wild Channel about the extinction of the giant Ice Age predator the dire wolf.
Originally, the dying place of wolves–a flat-topped granite hill in Pike County, Ohio–was known as Great Buzzard’s Rock. Perhaps that was too much of a mouthful to say, for eventually its name was shortened to Big Rock. It was a strange place, where no settler and no dog liked to go, for on its flat top were scattered the bones of many, many gray wolves, some of them obviously centuries old.
As settlers moved into southern Ohio, bringing along cattle and killing deer–the natural prey of wolves–, the wolves in the region began taking cattle for food. And, of course, the settlers retaliated. With dogs and guns they hunted down and fatally wounded many wolves who, dying, made their way to Big Rock.
By 1796, only one pack was left in the area: a pack led by an almost humanly intelligent alpha male they called Old Raridan. Huge, old, and preternaturally observant, he, his mate and their pack eluded dogs and guns for nearly five years.
Unfortunately, for all his smarts, Old Raridan was facing an opponent who had smarts, dogs, guns–
and was too damned stubborn to quit.
By 1801, only Old Raridan and his mate remained of a pack that had been the terror of cattle throughout the region.
And the stubborn settlers, knowing they now had the upper hand once and for all, went after wolf and mate with renewed fury.
They brought Old Raridan and his mate to bay a short distance from Big Rock.
Up to that point it had been a running battle, begun in low hills near the river. Both Old Raridan and his mate were wounded, but Old Raridan had killed a number of hounds.
He seemed to know, though, that the end was not far off, and he and his grievously wounded mate began to make their way toward Big Rock.
Surrounded, near its base, by a circle of hounds, his mate dying and himself torn nearly to pieces, Old Raridan made his last stand. He threw back his head and, with a howl of pure rage that terrified both settlers and dogs, rushed the hounds.
He hadn’t a chance in hell of survival, but suddenly the hunters realized what he was doing: as he fought, he was backing up to the path that led to the top of Big Rock–
a path where no man or dog would dare to follow him.
A single shot finally killed his mate. That shot was followed by one that inflicted a last wound on Old Raridan from which he could never recover: his right hip was blown to shards of bone.
He stood there for a moment, staring at hunters and dogs, his back to Big Rock. Before that stare, and facing the dying place of wolves, men and hounds fell back.
Old Raridan raised his head and one last time gave a long, lonesome howl.
OOOOOOooooooowwwwwwwhhhhhhhoooooooooooo. . .
To the hunters’ amazement, that howl was answered.
Somewhere above them, on Big Rock, an answering howl came, from a place where no living wolf ever walked.
ooooooooowwwwwwwhhhhhhooooooo. . .
Old Raridan didn’t leave his dead mate, even then; he caught her by the scruff of the neck and, limping as he went, dragged her into the brush at the foot of Big Rock.
Not one hunter, nor one dog, stirred to follow him.
They say, even now, two centuries and more after his last battle, Old Raridan’s howl can be heard on the wind.
And sometimes, they say, you can look up at the night sky, when the moon rides full over Big Rock, and see the silhouette of a giant wolf: Old Raridan, king of the dying place of wolves.
The story of the dying place of wolves and Old Raridan’s fight to the death comes from Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s book Haunted Heartland (1985).