Getting lost amid the magic of wolves

Vivienne Kocina plays with the wolves at Shadowland Foundation in Lake Hughes. She and her family are regular visitors to the sanctuary.
(Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times)

I’ve been feeling out of sorts lately — cranky, anxious, insecure — and not sure what to blame.

My youngest daughter thinks Mercury might still be in retrograde. Her sister blames the recent swarm of earthquakes for my angst. And my eldest daughter suggests it’s my advancing age; older people have more trouble adapting to daylight savings time, she says.

They want me to figure it out soon so I can stop moping around.

That’s why last week’s invitation for spiritual healing at a wolf preserve sounded like something I needed.


The Rev. Colette Duvall Pondella hosts Wolf Wisdom services on Sundays at her Shadowland Foundation ranch. “Come experience the serenity and sanctuary only nature has to offer,” her email promised.

I got in the car and set out for Lake Hughes, a 50-mile trek. The trip took longer than I expected; a consequence of the fallibility of Siri.

I cruised past tract homes and chain restaurants in suburban Santa Clarita, then crawled up narrow, winding roads through the Angeles National Forest.

Roadside signs prepped me for hazards: ice, floods, wandering deer, falling rocks, street closures. It was a trip that required both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road; no fiddling with the radio or checking my phone.

But it also left me feeling surprisingly refreshed: a beautiful day and an empty road.

Even in gridlocked Los Angeles, wilderness is only an hour away.


I parked on a grassy lot and joined a dozen other worshipers in a converted garage suffused with the scent of burning sage and the sound of howling wolves from the gated compound outside.

The ranch is “an education and spiritual healing center for humans and animals,” said the Rev. Colette, who lives there with her husband, Paul Pondella, and their pack of nine wolves and wolf-hybrids.

During the service, one of those wolves wandered between our seats, sniffing shoes and rubbing against knees. Its piercing gold eyes gave me the creeps — until the reverend got to the part about embracing our vulnerability.

She relies on the animals for her weekly sermons. “I feature a wolf and the lesson it’s taught me,” she said. “That helps people relate, through the animal, to those traits in themselves.”

After the service, guests gather on her fenced-in patio to commune with the wolves up close.

Some people visit regularly to support Shadowland’s mission: educating the public about the dwindling number of wolves in the wild and the contribution they make to our ecosystem.

“This feels like church to me,” said Mari Martin of Palmdale. She once owned a wolf-hybrid with her husband, Doug. “You feel the free spirit of these animals here.”

And some are simply curious about a creature that’s been both feared and glorified by tradition and mythology.

Petr and Jana Kocina visit regularly with their daughter, Vivienne, who is almost 3. She was 13 months old the first time they came; a shy child with a sensitive streak. “But there was no fear on her part,” Jana said.

“We were so surprised.... She just walked right up and they surrounded her. Now she is so comfortable, she’s like one of their puppies.”

They don’t mind the long drive from their Glendale home. “At the beginning, you are anxious and stressed,” Jana said. “By the time you get here, it is a beautiful day.

“There’s something magic in the canyons. Everything else just melts away.”


I’m not ready to call it magic, but I did feel lighter and not so stressed by the time my visit with the wolves was done.

There’s something about flirting with life in the wild that puts everyday worries in check. Whether it’s whale watching, swimming with dolphins or a Serengeti safari, the elemental mix of danger and trust is singularly liberating.

I felt reconnected to the natural world as I ambled out of the wolves’ lair, brushed the clumps of fur from my jeans and got in my car for the long ride home.

That lasted until I reached for my phone and realized the battery had died: No GPS and no idea which mountain route would carry me back to civilization.

I turned right on the first road I approached, but the farther I traveled the less familiar everything looked. My eyes had been so glued to the road, I hadn’t noted any landmarks on the trip up.

So there was nothing I could do but relax; there were no gas stations, no stores, no one to ask. I drove for almost 20 miles before I even encountered another car.

I passed tree trunks blackened and warped by last year’s fire, and fields ablaze with newly blooming poppies. I steered around piles of fallen rocks, stared up at mountains and down into canyons and said a prayer as I passed a roadside shrine to a driver who might have taken a curve too fast.

It was spectacular, scary, humbling — and exactly what the grouch in me needed.