Sisters author children’s book based on study of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park
SALISBURY — Some sisters like to run or walk together. Maybe they go shopping or antiquing. Or they might use their time to visit other family members.
When Gail McDiarmid and Marilyn McGee get together, they often dance with the wolves — more specifically, the gray wolves of Yellowstone National Park.
Over the past nine years, the sisters’ affection for and research into the wolves of the Northern Rockies blossomed into a children’s book, “Running for Home,” and their personal efforts to educate others on the ecological importance of bringing back and maintaining wolf populations.
The sisters — McGee is a second-grade teacher in Stokes County; McDiarmid, an employee of Furman University in Greenville, S.C. — will be attending the Simple Living Festival on Saturday at Dan Nicholas Park’s Nature Center.
Outside the Nature Center, the women will have an exhibit sharing information on both gray and red wolves. At 1 and 3 p.m., they will be giving programs inside the center.
McGee and McDiarmid have rescued dogs for years, and that was one of the reasons nine years ago, on a summer trip to Yellowstone National Park, they expressed interest in seeing a wolf.
“The one thing we wanted to see the most was a wolf in the wild,” McDiarmid recalled.
On their last day, after making connections with wolf watchers, the sisters rose at 4 a.m. and traveled to a spot from which they could see the wolves miles in the distance through a high-powered scope.
McDiarmid said it was a life-changing experience for them.
But the better time to see gray wolves in Yellowstone is in the winter, when the elk migrate into the valley and the wolves follow this main food supply.
McGee and McDiarmid debated at first whether they were equipped to return to Yellowstone in the winter, when temperatures often range from minus 30 to 0 degrees.
But they collected plenty of winter gear, bundled up and made the trip. It paid off handsomely. They were able to see the wolves with their naked eyes — another amazing experience, McDiarmid said.
In years to come, the sisters kept returning to Yellowstone — sometimes twice a year — and learning more about the wolves. They made connections with the Yellowstone Park Foundation, an educational arm of the national park, and met personally with the Yellowstone Wolf Project’s lead biologist, Doug Smith.
At first, they were surprised at the outright hatred many locals in the area held for wolves — a fear, the sisters came to believe, based on long-held attitudes and stereotypes, not on science or knowledge of the wolves’ importance as natural predators.
The sisters’ idea for the children’s book eventually took root. If children learned early on how important wolves were to the overal ecosystem, they concluded, maybe the culture could change.
The book was an additional four years in the making. They had to start over at one point with a new illustrator, do the writing and editing and find a publisher, who would recommended more changes.
The authors consider the final product “informational fiction,” with everything having a basis in science. But the story is told through the adventures of Chinook, a wolf; Wapiti, an elk; and Mochni, a raven.
McGee and McDiarmid think it’s a good read for both children and their parents, as it touches on science and natural history, with a cliff hanger at the end of each chapter.
Every illustrated page, including the cover, has at least one hidden animal for readers to search for.
Sundog Enterprises sells the 74-page “Running for Home” on Amazon.com for $15.95.
“It’s been a fabulous journey for the two of us,” said McGee, an elementary school teacher for 29 years.
She said the book is geared toward the independent reading level of 8- and 9-year-olds, but she has found some of her second-graders doing well with it.
McGee said she hopes readers will appreciate the layers of complexity to the book and how it touches on disciplines such as ecology, geography, geology, biology and environmental studies, to name a few.
“The book has a lot of teaching opportunities,” McGee added.
On a personal note, McGee said the research and writing of a book taught the sisters that if you have a dream, follow it, no matter your age.
“It’s never too late to start something new and to keep learning,” McGee said.
The sisters think story about the restoration of wolves in the Northern Rockies has important connections to bringing back the red wolf population in North Carolina.
By 1926, wolves had disappeared from the continental United States, and it wasn’t until 1995-96 that 31 wolves from Canada were reintroduced and released into Yellowstone, which encompasses some 2.2 million acres.
At the end of 2011, at least 98 wolves in 10 packs, plus two loners occupied Yellowstone National Park, according to the park’s website.
But the wolf population on the northern range had declined by about 60 percent since 2007, mostly because of a decline in the elk population. “The interior wolf population has declined less, probably because they augment their diet with bison,” the website says.
If you understand the life cycle of the gray wolf, it easily can be translated into what faces the red wolves, which only recently returned to living in the wild in North Carolina, thanks to the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge.
Red wolves have been reintroduced into five northeastern N.C. counties, but the numbers are low, and they are “the most critically endangered species” in North Carolina, McDiarmid said.
On Saturday, the sisters will be in a tent outside Dan Nicholas Park’s red wolf habitat. The park has what the women would call “ambassador” wolves, used for educational purposes.
McGee and McDiarmid will have copies of “Running for Home” for sale.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.