She has raced across scorched deserts with herds of mustangs, tracked deer through Florida mangroves -- as swarms of mosquitoes darkened the sun -- and lived for weeks with wild coyotes in the bitter winter of Yellowstone National Park.

A friend tells how wild wolves stroll up and lick her face.

In the lore of wildlife conservation, Hope Ryden stories abound. Marlin Perkins would know her name. John Q. Public wouldn't. A Smithsonian magazine article reports that "this elegant, attractive woman" can gaze at horses on a hillside two miles away and describe their colors -- in detail.

Yet when Ryden returns home to New York City, she is, she says, no superwoman. Just a mild-mannered writer, photographer and filmmaker-turned-conservationist who makes camp in her East Side apartment to crank out her firsthand observations of America's endangered species. She has, however, been known to lose her manners defending them.

Described as "pushin' 49" but looking 10 years younger, Ryden is as likely to stand up for creatures in a congressional hearing as in the pages of her prize-winning books.

"Hope has been called on to testify in Washington so many times that she knows the senators by their first names," says New York businessman Hugh Paulk, a friend of Ryden's for 25 years. "She knows they're loaded for bear when it comes to conservationists. They try to make 'em look foolish. She's always prepared."

Although she was afraid of neighborhood dogs as a toddler, crossing paths with one of the last remaining wolves in the northernmost woods of Wisconsin struck a "deep and lasting note" in a lonely 9-year-old girl vacationing with her parents.

"Wild animals have attracted me almost from the cradle," Ryden says in a pre-dawn telephone conversation from Nevada, where she prepared for a cold day of photographing illegal traps that had been snaring bobcats and eagles. "Nobody is monitoring it," she says of the traps. "There may be a lawsuit out here. Photos are evidence."

If Ryden's fascination for wild creatures came early in life, her career as a wildlife activist and "bedroll naturalist" didn't.

After graduating from the University of Iowa, where she studied playwriting, Ryden became an airline stewardess: "The adventuresome girl got out of college and wanted to see the world. It was the pre-jet days, so layovers on international flights were long. I'd have four and five days at a time in Africa and Asia. My objective was to see the animals of those continents."

Soon, Ryden started tracking down a different career. Graduate work at Columbia University led to making documentary films -- another profession that took her around the world. By the early 1960s, she was one of the pioneering filmmakers funded by Time/Life Inc., who "transformed the old staged documentaries into the cine'ma ve'rite'" we know today. Her work ranged from coverage of the Kennedy-Wallace confrontation over school integration to Jane Fonda's first acting experience.

By the late '60s, Ryden became a feature film producer for ABC-TV Network Evening News. "I was successful prior to the women's movement, when the press was laughing about the women's movement," says the Emmy Award winner with faint scorn. "I did twice as much work and produced twice as many films as anybody else there, and I was getting half as much salary. It didn't add up the way I thought it should."

In 1968, ABC sent Ryden to Wyoming to film an eight-minute feature on the wild mustang, one of the last vestiges of the Old West. She found wild horses on public land being used for target practice, sadists in helicopters running the horses to death and dog-food manufacturers exploiting them.

"There was nothing protecting the horses," says Ryden. "I decided there was a long story to tell." The network granted her a six-month leave of absence to write a book. That turned into a second leave of absence. "Finally I realized I wasn't going back."

During the next three years, she lived off and on in the wilderness with the mustangs and produced three books, several magazine articles and three book awards. Ryden's testimony before Congress helped to pass a 1971 bill "protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros." When the act was challenged, she defended the law before the Supreme Court and its constitutionality was upheld.

Since then, her fieldwork has continued to reshape her life.

Ryden spent seven weeks trudging through blizzards in Wyoming and Yellowstone studying coyotes, the "most persecuted" animal, she says, in the United States. Her book, God's Dog, titled after the Navajo name for coyotes, won the Library Journal Best 50 Books Award in 1975.

She recently completed her study of the bald eagle in northern Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest. America's Bald Eagle (Putnam) will be released in March.

Ryden's current night treks into the Jersey Pine Barrens and New York State's Harriman Park to study beavers are typical of her strategy for studying wild animals by adapting to their habitat. She camps wherever she finds tracks or signs.

"You can't hide from an animal," says Ryden, "so I don't try. I let them do their study on me first. After a while, they'll show themselves."

It took the beavers three or four weeks before they accepted her. The reclusive bobcats didn't show themselves for nearly a year, although a number of times in retracing her steps, she found fresh cat prints on top of her incoming tracks. The bobcats, in other words, were tracking her.

When she finally saw her first bobcat, it emerged from behind a bush, looked her over casually, stretched and gave a long curled-tongue yawn: a signal of appeasement in cats. Ryden mimicked the yawn. The cat nonchalantly groomed itself and sauntered off.

"Animals sense your attitude," says Ryden, who never carries a gun for protection. "When you have a gun, you are the dominant animal. You walk differently. You don't become part of their community.

"Animals are quite accepting of other species. Even wolves and moose will hang around with each other if the wolf isn't on the hunt. Animals sense a predator, and they sense when you're benign."

Ryden became a vegetarian for the same reason. She says she never cooks in the wild, living instead on granola, cheese and occasional handouts from friendly ranchers.

Money is tight, she admits. Her books receive more kudos than royalties. She takes on occasional free-lance film projects and a growing number of lectures to bankroll her work.

But Ryden scoffs at the difficulties. All but one: keeping quiet in the field.

"It's not easy for me. I love cities and cultural activities. When I move from the city to the wilderness, I'm quite agitated. It takes me days to adjust. When I've been out there a long time, like when I spent weeks with the coyotes, I can't stop talking when I get back. If I had died, my tongue would've still been wagging."

Friends are apt to dispute that. "She really lives out in the field," says Paulk, who takes care of Ryden's dogs when she's away. "That's her life. That's where she comes alive."