Sense of Place: How did Wolf Creek get its name?

Wolf Creek, in the county’s northwestern corner, is a tributary of the Gualala River. Whether the name has any connection with a real wolf is an open question.

Though distinctively different species, wolves and coyotes are sometimes confused - an exceptionally large coyote can be nearly as big as a small gray wolf.

Today there are no wolves in Sonoma County, but 200 years ago there may have been. Two of our indigenous languages, Coast Miwok and Pomo, have separate words for “wolf” and “coyote.”

In the historical record, a Russian party near Bodega came upon “two great shaggy white wolves, hunting a herd of small deer” in 1824. Likewise, George Simpson, of the Hudson’s Bay Co., mentions wolves in Sonoma Valley in 1842. In both cases there’s no way to be sure the animals were not coyotes.

The strongest evidence for local wolves comes from newspaper accounts. In 1861, the Argus reported that two Petaluma hunters brought down “a monster of a wolf” measuring 6 feet, 6 inches. Even if that included the tail, it was still a foot longer than the upper limit for a coyote.

In 1874, the Sonoma Democrat described how “a grey wolf, which had been raiding on flocks and herds in the vicinity of Duncan’s Mill” was killed “after a severe struggle with the dogs.”

An 1875 article lists both wolves and coyotes among the county’s “flesh-eating animals.”

Four years later a wolf was reported in Rincon Valley. Its appearance surprised “most of the residents,” suggesting that wolves (if that’s what it was) were rare by that time. Nevertheless, a lamb carcass laced with strychnine was put out and the animal poisoned. Citizens hoped that “the last of them will soon be exterminated.” As it turned out, that was the last time the Democrat reported a local animal identified as a wolf.

Judging by its first appearance on an 1898 map, Wolf Creek was named not long after that incident - so it’s plausible that it was known as a refuge for the county’s last surviving wolves. Until recently, the last time a wolf had been seen in California was in 1924 in the southern Sierra. Then, in December 2011, a wolf from Oregon crossed over the state line.

Today, there are wolf packs roaming Siskiyou, Shasta, ?Lassen and Plumas counties. Ranchers in those areas are nervous about the reappearance of a predator that sometimes kills livestock.

On the positive side, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone significantly improved the ecological health of that national park. Elsewhere, wildlife advocates are working on ways to allow wolves and livestock to share the land.

There is only one Wolf Creek. But due to the fame of Jack London, whose best-selling books included “Call of the Wild,” “Son of the Wolf” and “The Sea-Wolf,” imaginary wolves seem to hover near his former Glen Ellen home. There is London’s Wolf House and a road called Wolf Run.

Some locals swear they’ve glimpsed an unusual looking canine with yellow wolf-like eyes that disappears when approached. London’s ghost perhaps? Or just a skittish coyote?

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