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Camping With Wolves

by Alden West

    I filled the truck with gas in Fort St. John, made a quick stop at Safeway and turned North on the Alaska Highway. Destination: Sikanni Chief River. According to the Forestry Service ranger I spoke with in Fort St. John, there are between forty and sixty wolves living in this river drainage. Theyíre bold wolves, too. A week ago he was in that area and when he returned to his truck there were wolf footprints on the sides where a wolf had stood up against it to look inside. Wolves! Iím alive with anticipation as I cover the miles. Wolves! I hope I see one.

The Three Stooges - Alden West with his huskies Tuk and Toolie     When I reach Sikanni Chief I turn West off the highway onto an oil patch road. Iím seventeen kilometers from the highway when I park. Itís the end of the road. It feels like the beginning of my journey. I get set for the night and after supper I take the dogs for a short stroll up the road simply inhaling the solitude.

    In the morning Iím up early. By 9:45 the sleds are loaded, the dogs harnessed. I sit and linger over a cup of coffee while enjoying the sunrise. Sunrise occurs today at 10:02. A broad expanse of brilliant colors spreads over the entire southeastern horizon. Behind me, to the north, the clouds reflect the purple hues. Itís as though Iím directly in the center of the sunrise, the center of the universe. It all revolves around this little spot in the Canadian wilds.

    Today I'll ski out into the bush. We haven't covered half a mile when I see wolf tracks. It snowed overnight; these tracks are fresh. But there's no further sign of the wolves. The cutlines I'm following are wide and smooth but breaking trail is tiresome. By two oíclock weíve covered eight miles. The sun will set soon; when it does the temperature will drop quickly. This is where we'll camp.

    I quickly pitch the tent and prepare dinner accompanied by the sound of a moose. Trumpeting. Often and loudly. Both dogs have eaten and are content to sleep, ears twitching. The sun dips below the horizon not long after three p.m. Twilight lingers for a couple of hours, but by five itís dark and I retire for the night.

    Tonight the sounds are unsettling. Tonight itís not the distant call of a lonesome wolf; itís the bright, crisp howl of a next door neighbor. Both dogs bolt upright and erect. Tuk woofs and grunts. Toolie sits erect, ears pulled back. The wolf howls again. Tuk bolts outside, Toolie follows. With my heart pounding, I pull on my boots and jacket and scramble outside. Thereís no moon. Itís Arctic Dark. I see shapes moving across the snow. Itís the dogs. I know itís the dogs. But my heart is pounding. This wolf was close enough to practically rattle the tent when he howled. This wolf is close.

Sunrise through 'The Bush'     In the morning Iím anxious to head out for a ski tour of the surrounding area. Weíve barely begun, weíre less than a quarter mile from camp when I get confirmation that last nightís wolf howl was directed at us. Wolf tracks. As clear as can possibly be crossing the cutline and crossing the path we left on our 'stroll' yesterday evening. When we continue Iím more alert. At 1:30 I check my watch and conclude we must have covered between four and five miles. Thatís enough. Time now to head back to camp. Once again savoring the wild spirit of the land as I ski, we retrace our tracks in the snow back to camp.

    As I crest the next rise a lightning bolt shoots up my spine. I stop dead still. Under my breath I call the dogs. Up ahead, perhaps a quarter mile off, are two dark canine shapes standing in the cutline. Too far off to be able to see detail - just two silhouettes. One head-on, the other in profile. I struggle with my heavy mitts to unsling my rifle, which has snagged on the hood of my parka. Off come my gloves. Cold fingers now fumble to free the rifle while my attention remains focused up the cutline. An eternity later I have the rifle in my hands. They havenít moved. I breathe deep breaths to calm myself. I donít pump the lever; I donít chamber a round. I just hold it and keep whispering to the dogs. The one that had been standing in profile turns to face me, then freezes. OK, that answers that question. They see me, too. I hold my ground and in a couple of minutes, two black canine shapes turn and disappear into the trees.

    I pick my gloves up from where I dropped them and stand for perhaps another five minutes before continuing towards camp. My eyes are intently darting back and forth through the trees searching for movement. As we near the area where Iíd seen them, I pump the lever on my rifle. The action chambers a round. The only time my eyes leave the trees is to check, then recheck to make certain my finger is on the trigger guard, and not on the trigger itself.

    When we reach their tracks itís clear. No coyote has feet that big. These were wolves. My guess is this is the same pair that left the tracks I saw yesterday. One set of prints is larger, the other a bit smaller, both sets disappear into the trees at the point Iíd seen wolf tracks a couple of hours ago. Must be a male and a female. And probably these two account for our midnight visit last night.

    During the next four days, I see the wolves again three more times. Not just their tracks, I see them. Never just one, always the pair. Standing back behind us in the cutline, standing in a clearing over there, standing in a clearing over here, all the while patiently waiting and watching. Never very close, never any real danger, never any sign of a threat. Making no effort to conceal their presence - to the contrary - sending a clear message to let us know that theyíre keeping an eye on us. Always wary, always cautious, and always lurking just around the corner.

    Itís early morning - the twilight hour before sunrise. Iím awake, but last night was cold (-36F) and Iím content to lie in my bag and stare at the frost on the tent. Suddenly Toolie sits upright, ears twitching. Then Tuk jerks to his feet. Somethingís out there!

Huskies in the snow     Iím still putting on my socks when it begins: close range howling. Very close range. A mix of howls and short, high-pitched yelps. Wolves! Tuk is through the door of the tent before I have any hope of grabbing him, I lunge for Toolieís collar and miss. I stab my bare feet into my boots, grab my rifle and dive headfirst outside the tent. The dogs are standing about twenty yards up the cutline, alternately woofing and barking. Tuk, now silently snarling with hackles raised, lowers his head and slowly moves twenty feet forward. Toolie also advances and stops two paces past Tuk. Teeth bared, hackles raised, theyíre both snarling viciously.

    I shuffle across the snow as fast as I can in my loose boots for a better view. Itís the black pair. Sixty yards away. Maybe less. They stand facing the dogs and me. The larger one bares his teeth in a silent threat. The smaller one bares her teeth for a moment, then drops her lip. A few seconds later she half-heartedly sends her message again. Teeth bared, head lowered, ears pulled forward. It lasts only a moment before she relaxes again. All the while the male, head lowered, neck extended, teeth bared continues to snarl.

    As I stand, rifle aimed, eyes focused down the muzzle, I realize that what Iím witnessing here is a territorial thing. Dogs versus wolves. The wolves evidently donít appreciate our intrusion. The dogs, advancing to the limit of what they consider to be their turf, have taken a stand. Toolie is taking charge. He responds to each silent snarl with a vicious snarl of his own, accompanied by a guttural growl. Tuk has taken up a position to the side, and slightly to the rear of Toolie. He snarls, too. Neither of them relaxes for so much as an instant. The large wolf silently repeats his warning, curling his lip, rippling his muzzle, and baring his teeth, then relaxing with just the tip of his lip curled, revealing his impressive teeth. The smaller wolf, which I presume to be a female, doesnít show her teeth now. Now her head is lowered submissively, her back is low, the tip of her tail curled between her hind legs. Her ears are out flat to the sides. She appears to view this as a ĎMan thingí and is content to merely stand by his side as he sends another warning. She doesnít want a fight.

    I consider firing a warning shot. I choose to wait. The next minute consumes the next hour of my consciousness. The large wolf begins to move. I begin to squeeze off a warning shot. No, wait. He raises his right hind leg almost imperceptibly. Heís marking territory. She nuzzles the side of his neck, then with tail tucked low, far between her legs now; she slinks off and disappears into the brush. One final display of his impressive canine teeth and the male follows.

    Heart pounding, legs rubbery, I sit in the snow. I want an unobstructed view up the cutline. My hands are trembling and I rest the rifle across my knees. Breathe deeply, Alden. Breathe deeply. I try, but breaths come only in short gasps. Itís cold. I need my parka. I need my boot liners. I need gloves. I stare intently and listen with all my might for any hint of their return. Nothing. Finally I can bear the cold no longer and I return to the tent, glancing back over my shoulder with every three or four steps. The dogs, no longer snarling, sit erect. Their attention remains fully focused up the cutline.

    With parka, gloves and proper boots in place, as I pace the cutline from one side to the other, then back again I re-play the scene in my mind. Itís clear that weíve been given fair warning. This is their territory and weíre intruders. Now what do I do? Should I pack up and leave? Should I stay? Should I move my camp to a different area? I certainly donít want a confrontation with these wolves. What should I do?

    I decide to stay put in camp today. If those wolves are roaming out there, I donít care to cross their path. Not today. Not after that little territorial display. I spend a little time reading, but most of the day is spent sitting, staring back up the cutline for any sign of the wolves. I donít see them again, but just after dark, I hear them. At least I think itís them. The eerie, lonesome howl of a wolf. Near, but not in the immediate vicinity. It takes me a long time to fall asleep tonight. They donít want us here. Thatís very clear. This is their land, their home. I am the trespasser. Before I fall asleep I conclude that I should leave. There are plenty of places to pitch a tent. If this is an area the wolves consider intrusive, Iíll find someplace else to camp.

The author/photographer, Alden West, used to operate Aurora Adventures, offering mushing introductions and expeditions from a base in Fairbanks. He condensed his original 12,000-word story down to 2,000 words for posting here - we hope that you enjoyed reading it.