WOLF! There is something about that word that reeks of wild places and lonely dark nights by the fire. The image of a dark wolf vaguely seen at the outer limits of the firelight, or the sound of a howling pack hunting in the night must have some kind of an atavistic memory in me because it somehow makes me feel vulnerable and alone.
I was trapping on the Donjek River in central Yukon Territory in Canada back in the seventies, and was out one afternoon in December scouting the country for lynx tracks. It was almost fifty-below zero and I was snowshoeing as the snow lay about three feet deep in the open meadows and on the creek ice I was traveling on. I’d just come down off of a steep mountain from the high country and was now in the spruce bottom that ran parallel to the river. I wasn’t particularly cold as I kept moving until I would hit a fresh lynx track. Then I’d study it for a while to see what he’d been up to. I wasn’t setting any traps this day, only getting a feel for the lynx population in this area. I had found a fresh lynx track and stopped to look at where he’d investigated a pile of brush. Suddenly about a mile or so back up my trail and on higher ground, came that long, low, and deep howl of a mature timber wolf.
I’ve heard wolves howling at various times so that wasn’t anything new. What made me pay attention was because it was so close. It was joined by another deep howl, and then another. There was what I guessed to be seven wolves all yelling and raising hell up there behind me on the mountain. I believe what was happening was that these wolves were coming along the side of the mountain where I had traveled, and hit my snowshoe trail. They probably didn’t have a clue what it was as I was in a very remote area here and humans are scarce. Especially ones leaving these huge tracks! So I figured they were howling out of curiosity. It made me stop and think for a moment to know there were six or seven of these big wild guys right on my back trail though.
The air was full of tiny ice crystals and I could hear my breath freeze when I exhaled because it was so cold. Having stopped for a few minutes to listen to the wolves and check out the lynx tracks, I was cooling off so I started up the creek toward where the tent was pitched about two miles away. The wind had packed the snow hard along here and it was fast and easy going, which was good because it was getting on to about 2:30 PM and the winter days are short this far north. I continued to snowshoe steadily without too much trouble from soft drifts or overflow until I came to a place that had glaciered up bad. The glacier had pushed up chunks of blue ice creating what looked like a frozen waterfall, and I had to swing off the creek into the spruce trees to go around it. I turned to the left and climbed up the bank and had just entered the bush when something caught my eye off to the left and back down the creek.
Slowly I turned my head and saw a good sized black wolf coming straight down my snowshoe track, maybe one hundred and fifty yards back. I know he hadn’t seen me yet because of the way he was moving with his nose on the trail and his tail low to the ground. I watched him come but I made sure the clip was in the rifle just the same. Suddenly, he sat down right there in the middle of the creek and raising his nose to the sky, let out that mournful howl they have. Well, it raises the hair on your head, believe me, and as if that wasn’t enough to do it, there came an answering call not one hundred yards away in the other direction-ahead of me just up the creek. My first thought was that I was surrounded here on the creek bank by wolves but then my second thought was equally alarming: “Where are the other four or five of them?”
I was standing beside a good sized spruce tree about two and a half feet in diameter and it didn’t take me long to get my back against it and check that I had a shell in the chamber of my 6mm Remington, safety on, muzzle clear of any snow or ice, scope turned to its lowest power ... Then they came. The other wolves, yes five of them, which made seven in this pack, started speaking up from various directions. Two were across the creek and back in the bush a bit, and one was down the creek but farther back than the first one I’d seen. The other two were on my side of the creek in the bush to my left. This did not look good. Here I was literally surrounded by a bunch of curious wolves.
At least I hoped they were only curious. I’d seen wolves hunt before and had always admired the way they traveled through the country and never seemed to miss any game at all. But when you are the one being hunted- for whatever reason - well, I don’t think admiration was the feeling I had at the moment. I didn’t feel particularly scared. Apprehensive would be a better word. Excited too! This wasn’t something that happened every day to people. At least not to me. I felt sharp. Alive! Charged with adrenalin, I felt like I could whip anything coming at me at that moment and was almost eager for the challenge. I also remember thinking “Thank God I’m not hurt and bleeding.”
The wolf directly up the creek ahead of me made a noise again, almost a yapping sound, and when I looked in that direction I could see him through the willows coming back down the creek toward me to stand on the ice upstream from the glacier. It just stood there, looking at its companion coming up the creek from the other direction. Suddenly, I heard a rustling in the bush off to my left and the other two, one gray and one black, went trotting past me about thirty yards away and crossed through the willows onto the creek to join the one ahead of me.
They sniffed noses and did little circles for a moment or two, and then all three sat down and howled together. What a great sight that was! They were not fifty yards away, completely unaware of my location and singing up a storm. I think what they were doings was telling the other four wolves that my trail hadn’t come this far and that they had lost me.
The black wolf that I had first seen behind me was now close to where I had turned off of the creek. Although he had stopped for a moment when the others howled, he was again walking up my trail into the bush and was close enough now hit with a rock. I could hear the snow squeaking from his weight as he slowly came toward me. For some reason I didn’t want to shoot him. I’ve shot plenty of wolves in my time on the trapline and I can’t explain my reluctance to shoot this one, although I had a feeling that the blast of a rifle in this scene would be like making a loud noise in church-it just did not belong there. I didn’t feel in any danger, and I believed that these wolves weren’t hunting for meat so much as they were merely trying to identify what I was. So I stood very still and watched that big black male walk toward me.
I have seen where wolves have taken big-game animals down; strong and healthy moose and caribou. It is wrong to think that wolves kill only the sick and the weak because if enough wolves get together at any one time, they can kill anything they want to. They are a tremendously strong animal and I have seen those big leg bones from a moose cracked right in half from a wolf bite. It is always incredible to me how they can kill a moose but I’ve seen enough places where they’ve done it to know that wolves usually gets what they are after. A wolf has a chest with big lungs like a greyhound, and he can run a long way when he’s chasing something. Then, when he does get to it, he’s got the weight and size to handle almost any game he’s after. For prey that is too big like a moose, he simply buddies up with some help. Wolves are tough and smart enough to increase the odds in their own favor.
So here I was-my back to the spruce tree, rifle in hand ready to go, but me not wanting to use it, when that big black bugger stepped up over the bank walking on my snowshoe trail with his nose down and his eyes on the trail.
“Hey you.” I said in a real low voice, “What do you want?”
He stopped alright. Boy did he stop! He never moved a hair either, he just stood and stared at me staring at him. Those eyes can look right through you and see what is on the other side. Pale and unblinking, they seem to come from a ghost or a spirit world. They acknowledge a different reality. I don’t think he knew exactly what I was ... he had a ‘how’d I get this close?’ kind of look on his face. He didn’t growl or make a sound, but I noticed the ruff on his neck rise and his ears go back a little. We stared at each other for what seemed perhaps half of a minute, then he evaporated! He was there and then he was gone. He was standing there, my heart beat, and he was gone.
The tracks later showed that he had jumped to the side of the snowshoe trail in the direction of the other three wolves that had howled. The first steps he’d made were ten feet from where he had left the ground.
I don’t know what he said to the other wolves when he got there, but none of them ever even glanced back as they bolted across the creek and into the timber beyond at a flat out run. I never did see the other three wolves that were still down the creek, nor did I hear from them again.
Funny, but I was breathing hard, as if I’d been the one galloping across the creek. I could feel my heartbeat too. Fast. But I felt totally exhilarated! What an experience that was! How often do you get to be alone in the middle of a pack of wolves a hundred miles from the nearest person and in the dead of winter?
Why didn’t I shoot one or more of them? I don’t know. I could easily have had half a month’s wages in pelts right there if I had chosen to.
But then ... maybe there’s just some things that are worth a lot more than money.