Writer Nick Jans calls the years between 2003 and 2009 “a magical and transformative time” in Juneau’s history. It was during those years that a wild black wolf, who came to be known as Romeo, lived in the community, played with dogs and interacted with residents.
Jans spoke at the University of Alaska Southeast last week about his 2014 book “A Wolf Called Romeo.”
Nick Jans was living in a house near Mendenhall Glacier when he noticed tracks right outside his door “and out into the lake and at the end of those tracks was a wolf.”
Jans said it wasn’t just any wolf, “He’s like the combined version of the young Arnold Schwarzenegger wrapped up in the young Paul Newman of wolves.”
The wolf continued visiting Jans’ house.
“The old expression of a wolf at the door took on a completely new meaning,” Jans said. “I mean, how are we not going to interact with this wolf? (Be)cause there he is, practically every damn morning. We could stay inside the house and sometimes the tracks would lead right up to the door, literally.”
Jans said it was this social behavior that led to his naming. The wolf was fond of Jans’ yellow lab Dakotah, of whom Jans’ wife was very protective.
“It’s her child and the most precious thing in this universe so, of course, she’s concerned about who her child hangs out with. And one morning the wolf is curled up in the yard waiting for Dakotah to come out and take a pee, which sooner or later, she’s got to do, and my wife with her arms folded says, ‘There’s that Romeo wolf again,’” Jans said.
Dakotah was one of several dogs that Romeo interacted with socially. There was a Border Collie who’d run away with Romeo but always came back. Other dogs raced around the frozen lake with him.
“The wolf briefly took up the sport of pug bowling when, in the space of two weeks, he grabbed two different pugs owned by two different people on two different sides of the lake and ran with them for a short period in his mouth and dropped them,” Jans said. He suspected Romeo thought the dogs were puppies and was just trying to play with them.
Many people visited the glacier, where Romeo often spent time, in hopes of glimpsing him. Jans described him as the community wolf. He said Juneau was lucky to be able to know a wild animal so well.
“One of my fondest memories my whole time in Alaska was lying with my head on my pack, with my dog Gus’ head on my knee and the wolf lying 15 feet away, and we all took a nap out there on the ice. Everybody trusted each other enough to shut our eyes and just be,” Jans said.
He said several people in Juneau shared moments like that with Romeo. And many more heard his echoing howls.
“They’d travel for sometimes a couple miles at night and you could hear him on the far side of the lake. You could hear him sometimes way up the West Glacier Trail and they just filled the whole universe,” Jans said.
After six years in the community and interacting with hundreds of dogs, Romeo was killed in 2009. A plaque remembering him is affixed to a rock near the glacier. A Juneau Community Foundation fund is raising money to build an exhibit in his honor at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
“And it’ll be part of Juneau’s legacy and something that visitors and residents will be able to point to and to look at and to know that we didn’t somehow dream this up, that it was real,” Jans said.
Despite how he may have died, Jans doesn’t think the story of Romeo the wolf is a tragedy. He thinks it’s a triumph. It’s the magical story of a friendship between a wolf and a community.