October 31, 2006

Ellesmere Island Journal & Field Notes

For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

From The Outermost House by Henry Beston

"It was the highlight of my life. Hundreds of miles north of Hudson Bay, a thousand or more from the nearest city, I stood alone in the High Arctic – surrounded by wolves." Thus begins Dave Mech's account in his book The Arctic Wolf – Living with the Pack of what he called his lifetime dream – to travel to Ellesmere, one of the huge islands that lies between the north edge of the continent and the North Pole, and study the wolves that live in this remote and harsh environment where humans have not established any permanent habitations.

Because the wolves of the high arctic have never been harassed or persecuted by humans, they are not secretive and afraid of people the way wolves are in the southern latitudes. Thus, for 20 summers, Dave Mech has been granted a research permit from the territorial government in Canada and has been able to observe the wolves for weeks at a time, traveling with them, watching them hunt their natural prey and recording their behavior as they rear their pups and interact with one another as a family unit. Over the course of 20 years, he has seen the prey populations flourish and w
ane and bound back again. The wolf numbers fluctuate, too. Some years the pack is large – several adults and numerous offspring. Other years, only 1 pup is produced - or none. And sometimes there are no wolves at all to be found.

In the summer of 2006, three International Wolf Center board members, Nancy Gibson, Cornelia Hutt and Ted Spaulding, accompanied Dave on his annual expedition to Ellesmere Island. He was able to secure the requisite permits for the three to be informal members of his team,
and all sponsored themselves on the trip.

This journal serves two purposes. The first is personal. It is a record of an unforgettable odyssey to a place few people go. Moreover, it is an attempt to preserve images and events that will forever be a part of each of us, to be nurtured and reflected upon every day of our lives. The second is more encompassing. The journal is a celebration of 20 years and countless hours of research and data collection which have served not only science but the general public as well. Dave Mech wrote that he hoped he could “. . .help other people to see the wolf for what it is: one more magnificent species, superbly adapted to contend with its harsh environment, and highly deserving of our understanding and acceptance.” He has succeeded far beyond his expectations and his hopes.

Photography by Nancy Gibson and L. David Mech.

Scroll to the bottom of this blog to begin reading the daily journal of this
unforgettable odyssey.

A Reflection on Ellesmere Island

“A big part of the island’s magic for me is the sense I get from the landscape. It is as if the glaciers recently left, and all sorts of life forms are moving in to occupy the newly available habitat. It’s also about the fossils that reminded me of the remarkable story of an environment long ago that was very different from what is there today. I half expected to see a mastodon come round one of the hills. It is life at the edge . . . so hardy and diverse, yet so vulnerable to the extreme conditions.”

A Reflection on Ellesmere Island
Summer of 2005
Walter Medwid, Executive Director
International Wolf Center

July 12, 2006

The Last Day – (Day 14)

We pack up. Our charter flight back to Resolute Bay will arrive at 10:00 the next morning. The weather is good, so there is no reason to think the flight will be delayed. Edgar hangs around, but the mystery of where he came from remains. He has become a virtual mascot at the weather station, however, and the staff will take care of him through the long dark winter.

We head for the den to say our farewells. Life will
go on for the wolf pack – the pups and Mother and Brutus, Grayback and Dirt Ball, Redneck and Bottle Brush and Gimpy. Leaving them is terribly hard, but it is good to know they are healthy and thriving. Maybe they will be here next summer when Dave returns to continue his study of the wolves of the High Arctic and to share his discoveries with the scientific community and the general public as well.

July 11, 2006

Edgar Follows Us

Day 13

And he is! Just before noon, there is Edgar fussing and croaking and strutting around. We are ecstatic. Nancy has raised birds, and she reminds us that baby birds are quickly imprinted by the first thing they see when their eyes open. Whatever that is becomes their “mother,” and they follow it relentlessly. Perhaps Edgar’s first visual impression was a human. It’s a bit of a leap to say Edgar thinks he is a person, but it’s tempting to suppose that he does!

July 10, 2006

The Enchanted Valley

Blacktop Ridge – (Day 12)

After breakfast, we head for Blacktop.
It looks much closer than it is. It takes us fully 2 hours of bouncing along, splashing back and forth through Blacktop Creek as Dave scouts for a safe route. “This is spectacular,” I say, and it is. “The best is yet to come,” Dave replies. He’s right. At the base of Blacktop is a narrow valley between two sheer rock walls that remind me of the descent into the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. The valley floor is a wonderland of cotton grass dotted with wildflowers of every color. It is pure enchantment, another place on Ellesmere touched with magic. We unload the quads and climb a steep hill, settling on the flank of the ridge to scan for herds of musk oxen. The wind is fierce, and the sky boils with dark clouds.

We retrace our route and wait until 8:00 before heading to the den. The rain stops, and we start the long trek out to the den where Bottle Brush and Grayback, the nannies on duty, take turns entertaining the pups and playing with them.

Edgar Comes Home

It is very late when we head back - early morning, if one goes by clock time. Pausing on a ridgeline to rest, we glance back, and what to our wondering eyes should appear but a miniature black speck in the distant sky. You guessed it. It’s Edgar. He sails in for a landing beside us, looking deeply offended and put out with all of us. We head back in stages, pausing every so often to let Edgar get over his fits of pique and catch up. Eventually he strays off into the sparse underbrush and obstinately refuses to come farther. But we console ourselves with the certainty that he knows how to find us. Nonetheless, we sound like grumbling parents complaining about a teenager who is late coming home. "He'll be here later!" we reassure one another.

July 09, 2006

Hike to the Rock Garden – (Day 11)

Walter Medwid talks about a place on Ellesmere he calls the rock garden. His eyes are misty and his tone is reverent as he speaks of this spot, still so clearly etched in his memory. The rock garden is a pit den used by wolves long ago. Dave has given detailed directions, and as I top the ridge, I consider my options. I walk along a shallow drainage and then turn west. Ahead of me is a jumble of boulders, and I head for that. Perhaps the den is there. I climb up on the rocks and look down, and I know immediately that I have found the place. It is littered with well-gnawed bones, some very large, and among the fragments are clumps of saxifrage and lousewort and bright yellow poppies. I skirt around the end of the rock spill and descend. The hollow earth den is evident, and the little caves and recesses in the rocks are filled with miniature arctic flowers. It is a magical place. I am reminded of illustrations in a book I loved as a child, and I can’t think what the title was or even what the book was about. No wonder Walter remembers so vividly and yearns to return to this spot. To the west, the ice fields of Axel Heiberg shimmer in the perpetual summer sunshine. To the north are the brooding flanks of Blacktop Ridge where we will go tomorrow for the musk oxen count. I find a smooth rock and eat supper – or is it lunch? Whatever. A snow bunting joins me – good company.

July 08, 2006

A Quiet Day at the Den and a Thrill Ride to the Astrolab – (Day 10)

Today is Grayback’s turn to be the nanny. This begs the question: How is the nanny-for-the-day chosen? Or is he/she chosen? This family seems to take turns with the role of babysitter. Gray takes the job seriously. The pups are eager to play, and their wishes are indulged. We leave the den late in the evening and soon head back out, down the gravel road on ATV's. This time our destination is a state-of-the-art atmospheric research lab located at the summit of a high and precipitously steep hill. Getting there entails a harrowing ride – the climb is formidable but safe enough if done slowly. The ride down is even more of a theme park thrill! This is why low gear was invented.

The purpose of this midnight ride is the annual hare indexing. Dave does this count each year at exactly the same place. The same method is used for the musk oxen. In this manner, he can compare the numbers between and among years. This year, he counts 23 hares on the climb up the hill from the water’s edge to the astrolab. That’s fairly close to last year’s count. The breathtaking panorama of Axel Heiberg Island just to the west is worth the trip. Mountains slice through the clouds, their peaks never free of snow. Stories about the petrified forest there intrigue me. This region was once tropical, believe it or not. Volcanic activity warmed the region, and it was lush with plants and animals long vanished.

July 07, 2006

A Hike – (Day 9)

It is not possible we have been here a week, but we have. Everywhere else seems light years away both in time and distance. Dave, Nancy and Ted head out to the rock den, and I hike. I pause on a ridgeline to eat lunch and take in the view. The wind riffles the pages of my notebook, and the sun feels like a warm hand. Long feathers of cirrus clouds stream across the immense sky. Are we in for a change in the weather? I hope not. We have been so fortunate with the crystal clear days. There is no night. Dave and Nancy reflect on how chilly and dreary it can be when it rains. I can imagine wind-driven rain downpours and penetrating cold. We have not heard a forecast, nor have we picked up any world news. It’s hard to care. This is our world right now.

Brutus the Thief

We gather late for dinner as we always do. Dave, Nancy and Ted get in around midnight. The report from the field is pretty funny. It seems that Ted had his backpack nearby for easy access to the contents. Brutus roused himself from a nap and strolled over for one of his periodic inspections of the odd creatures who can find nothing better to do but sit and stare. Without preamble, Brutus grabbed the backpack and carried it triumphantly off to the meadow. He and 3 other adults opened the zipper closing and systematically removed all the contents. Nancy got some pictures of the heist. This incident clearly illustrates the personality of Brutus. He is fearless, and he does exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it.

July 06, 2006

A Tasty Entrée

The Wolf Den – (Day 8)

Six adults are at the den when we arrive, including Dirt Ball whom we alternately call Muddy and Pigpen. These are not romantic names for a wolf, but this critter is so encrusted with mud and so oblivious to its appearance that no other names will do. Dirt Ball has brought in the head of a musk ox calf. A little later, Brutus (who has a fresh wound on his left hind leg – looks like he got hooked by a musk oxen horn) brings the head out, and Mot
her goes into full food-begging mode. Brutus resists relinquishing the head. This is unusual. It is his job to feed Mother while she is confined to the den by the pups. Later, it will be his job to feed the kids. Mother asserts herself, and snarling, she insists on having the calf head. Brutus relents (smart one, he is!) and gives her the gory trophy which she carries off.

A Pup Gets Lost – To the Rescue!

We read and doze and watch the wolves snooze and cavort with the increasingly rambunctious pups. Suddenly, we hear whimpering and puppy howls from somewhere behind us. The napping adults leap to their feet and rush toward the sound. Games are suspended as the playground wolves join their pack mates in the search. It takes them no time to find the vagabond pup and herd it along toward the family circle. The pup has other ideas, though. It keeps diverging from the direct route, so the adults attempt the pick-up-and-carry maneuver. But the pup is too big and too squirmy, so the big wolves resort to nosing the wanderer along to safety.

The Radio – Part II

Dave decides to conduct an experiment with the walkie-talkie radios. Across the swale is a low ridge topped with rocks and boulders. It is not far – maybe 100 yards as the crow flies – or as the raven flies in our case. After hiding one of the radios
under a pile of rocks, Nancy begins talking. Four wolves instantly go on full red alert. They leap to their feet and trot across the meadow and up to the ridge top where they spend a few minutes diligently searching for the disembodied voice. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out where the radio lies hidden. One wolf (we think it is Mother) seizes the radio and heads down the hill with it clamped firmly in her powerful jaws. The three other wolves follow eagerly, trying to get a look at the new toy with the little rubber-covered antenna that looks like a wiggling tail. Since the wolves are clearly enjoying themselves with this diversion, Dave decides to have a little fun. “Say ‘Boo!’” he instructs Nancy. “Boo!” she says into the transmitting radio in her hand. The wolf carrying the radio reacts like it has been stuck with a cattle prod. It drops the radio, and all 4 wolves gather in a circle to stare intently. Then the daring wolf that carried the radio down the hill grabs it again. “Boo!” says Nancy. Once again the wolf drops the radio like the proverbial hot potato. The shock of the fall kills the radio, or somehow the wolf has turned it off. In any case, the radio is now a toss-and-catch form of amusement. Then the wolf who has taken possession settles down to gnaw on its prize. On our way home, we retrieve the radio where the wolves abandonened their game, and lo and behold, even though it is mangled beyond recognition, it still works! Sort of.

July 05, 2006

Family Life, Edgar and a Radio

The Wolf Den – (Day 7)

Another clear, luminous day. We sit at our observation point surrounded by books, backpacks, notebooks, and assorted gear. We are strict about staying tog
ether and about a minimum of moving about. When we do talk, we keep our voices low.

Edgar has greeted us along upon our arrival along with Redneck who has been left on duty as babysitter while the other 6 adults, including Mother, are at the carcass – wherever that is – retrieving leftovers or hunting a fresh meal. The five youngsters are in a puppy pile, fast asleep in the sun. They get up intermittently to play under the watchful eye of Redneck who grudgingly stands up every now and then to harass Edgar as he marches about like a miniature Napoleon. Edgar knows just how far to push his luck – we hope. He stays just out of reach of Red who, it appears, is not particularly interested in picking a quarrel with Edgar but simply in asserting herself as Officer in Charge.

The Musk Oxen

The musk oxen seemed plentiful at first but we soon conclude that we are probably watching many of the same animals in different locations each day. Still, there are more than there were just a few years ago. In August of 1997, winter arrived early in the form of accumulating snow. The following summer, Dave found lots of dead musk oxen and no calves. Missing also were leverets, young arctic hares. He found only two wolves. Again in the summer of 2000, snow came early and continued to pile up. The following year, once again there was no evidence of musk oxen calves or arctic hares. As for the wolves, Dave discovered one set of tracks, and in 2002, no wolves appeared. These cycles and fluctuations are not unusual in the arctic. Walter Medwid has said it well: “It’s life at the edge . . . so hardy and diverse yet so vulnerable to extreme conditions."

We are fortunate. The summer of 2006 is a year of plenty. Musk oxen calves graze beside their huge, shaggy mothers. The massive bulls often stray some distance from the cows and the new crop of calves. The herds are large – 13, 17, 23! We have fun counting. Arctic hares are more abundant this year too. They bound through the boulder spills or huddle rigid and immobile as we pass them. We love their antics – hopping like kangaroos on their hind legs, leaping suddenly into the air, rolling over and dashing madly for several strides, then stopping, hunched in frozen immobility.

Four herds of musk oxen were visible yesterday from our vantage point. The wolves do not display much interest in testing the herds in the vicinity of the den, although one fascinating encounter has taken place that Dave plans to write about. Perhaps these local behemoths are accustomed to the wolves and are, therefore, wary. Thus the wolves must range farther away in order to be successful at making a kill.

Mother naps undisturbed in the warmth of the sun, impervious to the wind that would chill us if it were not for our layers of insulation. The hills remind me of taffy, unfolding in endless shades of caramel and umber and gold. There is nothing benign about this vast landscape. It puts us humans firmly in our place in the grand scheme of things. In the distance, icebergs dot the fjord, and the smaller ice floes drift along like dollops of whipped cream. We are now accustomed to the 24 hours of daylight. In the distance, the forbidding Sawtooth Mountains shine in the sunlight.

The evening drifts by. Redneck sleeps on the rocks that serve as the roof of the den. She shows no signs of restlessness as perhaps she would if the pack were headed home, though they often come in by ones and twos, not as a group. The sky is a wonder. Cirrus clouds, usually so wispy in the southern latitudes, are spectacular here. Above us now is one that looks like the streaming hair of some mythical inhabitant of the sky – or maybe like the shed-out wolf fur that rolls along like white tumbleweed across the wrinkled and deeply fissured land.

Edgar, having departed on a brief reconnaissance to parts unknown, soars in like a winged black phantom. Airborne, he is regal and elegant. On the ground, he is a klutzy martinet. Dave affectionately calls him as “our little chicken.” Edgar is interested in Nancy’s and my salmon salad sandwiches. He croaks and fusses and complains about our woeful lack of hospitality until we give in and share a few bites of our meal with him. Mother returns sometime after 6:00. We conclude that she may have visited day-before-yesterday’s carcass. Her belly is full, and the pups know it. They rush out to greet her, and she indulges them by allowing them to nurse. Then she regurgitates, unloading her grocery basket. The pups gobble up the solid food and then pester Mother for another round of milk.

The Radio

We have two-way radios with us, walkie-talkies, which we have not used until today. We have stayed together to minimize stress for the wolves. But Mother and Redneck are here with the
pups, and neither adult exhibits any signs of nervousness. Quite the opposite, in fact. They either ignore us and sleep or play with the pups, or, if they are bored, they stroll over and stare at us as though they are trying to figure out why we find them so interesting. Dave decides to go to another vantage point for some observations. He stations himself on his ATV about 50 yards away and radios us. Nancy responds. During this exchange, Mom and Redneck are in front of Nancy and me. When Dave radios, the two wolves become suddenly agitated. They pace back and forth, huffing. Red barks sharply. Both appear confused and alarmed. The wolves circle toward Dave, and at the sound of Nancy’s voice on his radio, the anxiety escalates. We immediately stop the transmissions, and Dave comes back so we can figure out what has happened. The wolves settle down, but we are eager to hear Dave’s explanation for what may have triggered the hyperactivity and anxiety. Dave notes the wolves have displayed all the signs of the stress they exhibit when a strange wolf or wolf pack is nearby. Mother and Red perceived a threat, and they were looking for the “other wolf or wolves” their senses told them were present. Was it something in the frequency on the radios? We don’t know for sure. But something in the radio transmission signaled danger.

The night moves on, and we pack up. Mother and Red are asleep, stretched out in the swale among the clusters of arctic poppies and the waving cotton grass. The pups are still romping along the face of the rock outcropping. Mother and Red alternately raise their heads and check on the youngsters before going back to sleep. There is no sign of the other adults. It’s easy to understand why the wolves choose this place to den. But they don’t always. This morning we hiked over to a pit den used in 1990 and 1991 by the original “Mom”and her daughter, Whitey. Whitey had 1 pup in 1991 and 2 pups in 1992. She and her mother moved the two pups to the rock den in 1992. It is puzzling why they were not born here. Perhaps, Dave says, there was ice in the rock den when the pups were due to be born. It’s impossible to know for certain.

July 04, 2006

Portrait of a Wolf Family

The Rock Den – (Day 6)

We eat breakfast – kashi, cranberries, juice, egg-beaters, crackers and cheese. We have devised a way to cook the eggs-in-a-carton by immersing the slightly-open box in boiling water on the one-burner Coleman stove. No mess, no skillet to wash.

We arrive at the den at midday. All the wolves have returned, bloody-faced, bellies bloated. Meat drunk and lethargic, they lie along the jumbled rocks of the outcropping behind the den entrance. But they rise to greet us, circling us as we approach our lookout spot. All 7 adults are here, and we go to work figuring out which is male, which is female, who is who. The one we call Grayback is easy because of its distinctive grayish-white shawl. Redneck wears a matted collar of dark dried blood, no doubt residue from a musk oxen calf the wolves managed to catch and kill. Because the stain will wear off in a few days, we need something more definitive. One wolf, Gimpy for now, has a slight limp – right hind, we think. The breeding male (whom we call “Brutus”) is distinctive mostly because of his demeanor. This wolf has Big Time Attitude. He is bold and assertive, an imperious “Mr. Cool.” Unlike the other wolves who are tolerant but slightly wary, Brutus evidences no cautious hesitation whatever. He strolls over, treats us to a no-nonsense appraisal and saunters back to his napping spot against the rocks where he flops down and resumes his long summer's nap.

The Pups!

The pups (there are five of them!) are out at last, romping in the sunny swale to the east of the den. They have emerged one by one late in the afternoon, balls of buff-colored fur with short stocky legs. Dave estimates they are 5 weeks old. They are losing that “kitten” appearance as their noses elongate. One is noticeably darker than its brothers and sisters. One is very pale, almost cream-colored. They are all robust and energetic, and it is sheer joy to watch them tumble and roughhouse with the young adults. A piece of musk ox hide is the contested prize in a fierce game of tug of war. The pups growl and maul their toy. One pup turns its attention to an adult wolf’s tail and tugs as though determined to detach it from its indulgent owner. They growl ferociously, their puppy snarls carrying on the wind that blows almost constantly. Mother is content to let the aunts and uncles (last year’s pups, this year’s babysitters) entertain the lively youngsters. Bottle Brush, whose tail has shed out so it resembles a long-handled scrubbing appliance, plays endlessly with the pups. They chew the big wolf’s tail and climb on its belly, growling ferociously at their indulgent relative.

A wolf pack is an extended family – Mother, Father and the kids of this year and previous years. This scene underscores that fact and makes it real. Everyone is full of food, the sun is out and the meadow is ablaze with flowers and waving cotton grass. It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy – or as easy as life ever gets for a wild wolf.

Mother ambles down the slope in preparation for a long summer’s nap. She is a dutiful mother but not one to indulge the kids with endless maternal adoration and attention. She makes it clear that her job is to be the feeding station, although she is probably trying to wean the voracious pups. They are eating regurgitated food now, and this pestering Mother for milk will end soon. The other adults, excluding Brutus, have been assigned babysitting and entertainment duty. Brutus remains comatose from last night’s feast. His job is to sleep undisturbed by his rambunctious offspring. He gets up once in awhile, circles and flops back down again with no more regard for us than he has for the mosquitoes that buzz around his ears. Mother sprawls on her back in the meadow, all four legs splayed out, utterly relaxed.

Avian Antics

As if the pups aren’t enough entertainment, another drama begins with the arrival of Edgar. Ravens are fairly rare this far north, so we notice the big black bird’s arrival right away. It comes swooping in and lands on the richly colored rocks, regarding us with bright-eyed interest. Like the long-tailed jaegers that sit on our heads if we place a bit of bread there, ravens are opportunistic diners. They will eat just about anything, and they can be brazen, scavenging at wolf kills, keeping one eye on the great predators and the other on their meal.

But this raven gives a hop, flaps its wings a few times and promptly lands right beside us, whereupon it struts about like a barnyard chicken, looking up quizzically at us as if to say, “So where’s lunch?” Not to be thought unmannerly, we share our meal – bits of bread, fruit, almonds and gummy bears. The raven is selective about gummy bear flavors. It prefers orange, rejects red. At this point, we name “him” Edgar. He is a young bird – still has downy featherson his chest and the yellow rim at the corner of his beak.

We are astounded. Edgar is tame. Why? Where did he come from? Clearly he has been raised by humans. He perches on the ATV handle bars, on our backpacks, our outstretched arms and on our laps. He tries to extract one of Dave’s stubby little pencils from a zip bag. Dave reaches out and tweaks the thief’s glossy neck. Edgar squawks in outraged indignation, and glaring at Dave, he drops the pencil onto the ground. He is not the least deterred by this attempt at discipline. He picks at any bright object that catches his attention and struts around with an air of self-importance, teasing the wolves and helping himself to any leftover scraps from their meal that he can find. We leave at 1:00 a.m., our shadows moving along beside us in the brilliant sunshine. Clock time means nothing.

July 03, 2006

Watching and Waiting – On Wolf Time

The Wolf Den – (Day 5)

"As is so often true in the natural world, nothing seems to happen. As though the land is the face of a giant clock, the sun traverses the sky, the shadows pivot, the wolves shift position, a musk ox in the distance descends the hill, crosses the river and ascends the other side of the valley. And everything remains as it was hours ago. Or a thousand years ago.”

Greg Breining – “In Wolf Country” (Article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about his trip with Dave Mech in the summer of 2003)

“Mother Wolf” is alone at the den when we arrive. Her winter coat is still long and luxuriant, and she is almost pure white. The dark teats identify her as the breeding female. She returned last night after we left, probably to bring the pups regurgitated meat to the pups and to nurse them. She is tolerant of our visit and seems relaxed. She comes near and inspects us, her golden eyes intense and fixed on us. Satisfied that we are trustworthy visitors, she settles down for a snooze, getting up periodically to disappear around the boulders to the front of the den where we can’t see her.

I attempt to calculate the hours Dave Mech has spent in watchful waiting over the course of this 20-year study. All the data that have been collected and distilled into scientific articles, popular articles, books and a film documentary are the result of patient observation and meticulous recording of behaviors, interactions, pup-rearing, hunting – all that and more. I give up with the mental arithmetic. The hours go by. We fall into a rhythm, heedless of the time. Is it 3:00? 5:00? 7:00? We don’t bother to check. We don’t care, and it doesn’t matter anyway. We read and doze and let our eyes rest on the distant hills and watch Mother. We don’t invade her privacy. We are willing to wait until she is comfortable enough to bring the pups out. The stark beauty of the contoured hills, the weight of the immense sky, the sounds of silence are enough.

July 02, 2006

As Guests of the Wolves

The Wolf Den – (Day 4)

We return to the den and resume yesterday’s slow and careful efforts to accustom the wolves to our presence. As good luck would have it, all seven adults are in residence. They greet us and once again, they accompany us to the hilltop behind the den. We begin the process of trying to sort them out by looking for some identifying characteristics – a scar, a color pattern, a whorl of hair, an injury. The five yearlings are in full shedding mode. Ragged strips of fur and guard hairs hang from their shoulders, backs and flanks, waving in the wind like banners. One wolf wears a silver gray mantle across its shoulders and down its back. The others are white, and it will be our job to find some distinguishing marks so we can tell them apart.

Late in the evening, 6 of the adults head out to hunt. A herd of musk oxen grazes placidly in the distance, and suspense builds as we watch the wolves split into two groups and stealthily approach these huge, shaggy beasts. The wolves ambush the herd, exploding from their hiding places like bullets, but the musk oxen react instantly by rushing together. Perhaps this herd is wary because they are used to being tested by the pack, and they are quick to form their defensive circle with the calves safely at the center. The wolves know their chances of catching an unguarded calf are next to zero. The jig is up, and they head off to the east. We find it remarkable that they can be miles away, yet we can still see them without the aid of binoculars. Like luminous dots on the sage green landscape, they trot tirelessly over the rough terrain, disappearing into gullies, popping up again as they traverse the higher ground.
No sign of the pups yet. We know they are hidden in the den, or they are simply out of sight behind the rocks at the front of the cave entrance. If there were no pups, the pack would not be together at this place. We take this as a signal that the adults are comfortable with us nearby, but they are not yet ready to bring the pups into view. We must be patient. We leave about 1:00 a.m.

July 01, 2006

The Arrival on Ellesmere Island

Resolute Bay to Ellesmere Island – (Day 3)
– 80 degrees North Latitude

Cold arctic air does not hold much water vapor, so the High Arctic is one of the driest regions in the world. The islands of the far north are classified as deserts, but the area around the government weather station (one of several thermal oases on Ellesmere) is alive with wildlife and rich with a wide variety of shallow-rooted plants, some of which produce beautiful brilliant flowers. Purple saxifrage, arctic poppies, lousewort, daisies and arctic willow enliven the landscape, and cotton grass carpets the boggy areas where the permafrost restricts drainage. Gentle rolling hills surround the weather station, but to the north looms Blacktop Ridge, and to the east rise the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Sawtooth Range. Axel Heiberg Island with its ice fields shining like polished mirrors and its soaring mountains lies just to the west, about 18 miles across a frozen span of water. Incredible numbers of birds nest here or stop on their way to destinations to the north or south. Long-tailed jaegers wheel and cry and swoop down for dropped tidbits of food. There are arctic terns, snow buntings, gulls, ptarmigan, snowy owls, ruddy turnstones, ducks, hawks and a few ravens. The area is home to seals and, occasionally, polar bears. Arctic hares and foxes, musk oxen and a few Peary caribou live here, too, along with lemmings, weasels and ermine.

And the region is home to Canis lupus arctos – the arctic wolf.

Except for the 8-person weather station staff, a few military personnel and small teams of scientists that come and go, the animals here are unaccustomed to people. And although the first settlers of the far north and later the pre-Dorset, the Dorset and the Thule people hunted caribou and musk oxen, the wolves have never been harassed or persecuted. Thus, they are curious in the presence of humans, and they often approach, all the while keeping some margin of distance. Their level of wariness may depend on their individual personalities, but they typically exhibit no anxiety that people will harm them.

They are, however, wild animals and they are predators. We remind ourselves of that in the days ahead when the wolves lie sleeping close by and when they float along with their tireless trot as they accompany us across the tundra - and when they bring the pups out to romp in the meadow in full view of us as we huddle, bundled like mummies to ward off the cutting wind.

The day is clear and bright for our flight from Resolute to Ellesmere. As we approach the island from the south, we become increasingly aware of the reality of its size (about the same area as the state of Minnesota). The Arctic Ocean is sheeted with ice, and the mountains of Ellesmere point their blinding white peaks at the plane as we press our faces to the windows. Below, the tongues of glaciers glisten in the brilliant arctic sunshine. Dave has seen all this scores of times over the past 20 years, but he watches intently and points out landmarks. We are alternately speechless and wild with awestruck exclamations. The Himalayan splendor of the shining Sawtooth Range just ahead is our beacon to the gravel landing field at the weather station.

After a smooth landing and an hour or two to get settled, Ted and I receive lessons in operating 4-wheelers which we will need in some places where there is a prescribed route for these vehicles. Since Nancy Gibson has done this before, she gets a refresher course. It isn’t hard, but it does help to have had driving experience with standard shift vehicles and 4-wheel drive. Tonight, Ted elects to take a turn at staying behind since we have 3 ATV's and 4 people. So about 9:00 p.m., Dave, Nancy and I head out in the direction of the rock den for which Dave has the government research permit. This is the den featured in the 1988 National Geographic documentary White Wolf and in Dave’s books about the long-term study of wolves in the high arctic. This site, a beautiful rock outcropping with a meadow on the east side, has no doubt been used for centuries as a natal den by countless generations of arctic wolves. Some years, it stands vacant, though, for reasons we can only guess. But this year, we anticipate that it is home to a wolf family, and our eagerness to confirm this is reflected in the haste with which we prepare our first visit to the vicinity of the pack’s summer base.

The Wolves Greet Us

We crawl along on our ATV’s beside a bubbling creek. I am concentrating hard when suddenly Dave alerts us by pointing to the west. Headed straight toward us is a wolf, trotting effortlessly down the slope of the hill, its lean body suspended almost motionlessly above the long legs and the flicking feet.

I am incredulous. I have seen the documentary film White Wolf literally hundreds of times. I used to show it to my students – every year, 5 periods a day for 12 years. I have convinced myself that I am prepared for the arctic wolf’s absence of fear in the presence of humans. But it turns out I am not. The emotional impact is greater than anything I have anticipated, and I am overwhelmed with – what? Joy? Something like that. I am at a loss for words. Dave and Nancy smile. They know the feeling.

The first wolf is joined by 4 others, and they escort us to a vantage point behind and well to one side of the rock outcropping where we find a place to discretely watch the wolf pack. We are careful not to get close to the den, not to intrude. We sit close together and quietly wait. Noses twitching, eyes locked on us, the wolves come close, some perhaps 20 feet from us. We can hear the pebbles skittering under their blocky feet, hear them breathing, sniffing. They are curious, watchful, intent and self-possessed. The pups are not in view. No doubt they are inside the rock den. We make no effort to position ourselves so we can see the mouth of the cave entrance. That could stress the family, and they might move the pups to another location. Dave is watchful for any signs of fear or nervousness – huffing, barking, hiding and peeking over a rock with ears pricked forward. Those are the obvious signals of distress. There are other, more subtle clues, ones that Dave has learned from years of intense observation. We would leave immediately at the first sign of anxiety, but there is no evidence that the wolves are apprehensive. By 1:00 a.m., the pups are still not in view, but we don’t want to overstay our welcome. We head away, the sky luminous with light as the sun does its lazy circle above our heads in the arctic summer. Seasons here are not designated winter, spring, summer, autumn. It’s “the light time” and “the dark time.”

June 30, 2006

The Journey to Ellesmere Island

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to Resolute Bay, Nunavut – (Day 2)

At 7:30, with rain threatening from an overcast sky, we get disconcerting news at the First Air cargo office. No way will the plane be able to take all our stuff the way we have it packed. Undaunted and determined, we get creative. We can each check 2 pieces of luggage, so we consolidate the food into three boxes. The stuff-able things like tuna-in-pouches and the bags of M and M’s get tucked into the pockets of polar fleece jackets and crammed into corners of the bulging duffel bags. And miraculously, it all fits. If anything bursts, we hope it will be the M and M’s and not the tuna. My scuffed old duffel is now strapped with duct tape to pinch hint for an over-stressed zipper that has finally given up.

Lugging our fat backpacks, we struggle onto the plane to Resolute Bay, our last commercial flight on our odyssey to the High Arctic. The final leg to Ellesmere Island must be by charter plane since no commercial flights span the hundreds of miles to this almost inaccessible destination. The charter flight is very costly, and weather conditions often make departures and arrivals difficult. Long delays, sometimes for days, can take place. Dave’s permit allows him to work in an area where there is a small weather station, and since this is a government facility, more paperwork and clearances are needed to allow the flight to land there.

The commercial plane to Resolute lands at Cambridge Bay for refueling and to take on passengers, but there’s a delay because of the need to change aircraft due to a mechanical problem. Another moment of mild panic – will our supply boxes get left behind? We try to watch the baggage carts as they load the replacement plane, but then we get fatalistic and figure what will be will be. We can survive without the tuna. The M and M’s are another matter altogether. M and M’s are a basic food group along with Werther’s caramels.

Resolute Bay, Nunavut

We (and the luggage!) arrive at Resolute late in the afternoon where we are greeted by Rhonda Peterson, the cheerful proprietor of a comfortable motel near the airport. We ask Rhonda how we can get into the hamlet of Resolute, a distance of 5 miles. Without a moment’s hesitation, she tosses us the keys to her vehicle. “Just leave ‘em in the ignition when you get back,” she says.

Resolute, established in the early 1950’s by the Canadian government when it relocated groups of Inuit from Baffin Island, hangs on determinedly despite its isolation and a struggling local economy. The children are beautiful, their faces alight with smiles. In a village of 150 people, it has not been necessary to instill in them a fear of strangers. They are openly curious about us, and with unabashed directness, they ask Nancy and Dave why they are so tall. Me they can relate to better in terms of adult height. During his 20 years of travel to Ellesmere, Dave has established some firm and lasting friendships. The proprietor of a local inn lends us parkas in anticipation of low temperatures and cold wind on Ellesmere. He insists there is no rental fee and waves away our protests and efforts to pay him. “Just bring ‘em back. You lose ‘em, you own ‘em!” he says with a smile. Another example of the hospitality and the generosity of people in Canada has just been logged onto our mental scorecard.

June 29, 2006

“Four to Get Ready, and Four to Go!”

Minneapolis, MN to Edmonton, Alberta to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada – (Day 1)

Getting to the High Arctic is a lot of fun – AND a lot of hassle. Flying to any destination these days has the potential to be chaotic in terms of delayed and cancelled flights, lost luggage and missed connections. But journeying to Ellesmere Island is a major challenge even for the most intrepid traveler. We figured that adopting a sense of humor would help us solve the problems that were sure to arise (and did!). For this reason, we start our trip journal by inviting readers to share some of the daunting details of the 2500-mile trek. But anyone who wants to skip the recorded events of “getting there” and head right to “got there” can bypass Days 1 and 2 and head directly for Sunday, July 1 – Day 3.

On the flight from Minneapolis to Edmonton, Alberta, we dig out the maps of Canada that Ted Spaulding has laminated for us and review our travel route. We are used to thinking of Minnesota as “up north,” and it is – especially if you live in Virginia. But we are headed for a destination 2500 miles north of the Twin Cities. An assortment of serious winter gear has our duffels straining at the seams and our arms aching from lugging these cumbersome bags around. It’s hard to get a mental grip on the prospect of cold weather with 90-degree temperatures and suffocating humidity, impossible to imagine we’ll soon need the warm clothes in our luggage - the long underwear and the insulation-lined boots, the wool socks and wind-stopper gloves.

We have a 7-hour layover in Edmonton, and we need every minute to shop for enough food for two weeks. This foray to the grocery store is organized and hilariously chaotic at the same time. Dave has a carefully-prepared list which includes everything from A to Z – Apples to Zip-lock bags. Ignoring the curious glances of passersby, we unload our grocery carts at the front of the store and pack our supplies into sturdy produce boxes.

But we run into a problem when we check in for our flight to Yellowknife – too much stuff. However, Canadians are willing and resourceful problem-solvers, and two airline agents at First Air knock themselves out helping us rearrange our gear so it can accompany us to Yellowknife. We are forewarned, though – getting everything on the plane for the once-weekly flight from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay, tomorrow’s layover on the long journey to the edge of the polar ice cap, might be a problem. That plane will be a turbo-prop, and it is fully booked with passengers bound for the remote Inuit hamlet on Cornwallis Island. We resign ourselves to the possibility that we may have to choose between ditching the Kool Aid or the carrots, the cookies or the salami.

Despite the late hour of our arrival in Yellowknife, Dean Cluff, the Regional Biologist for the Great Slave Region in Canada’s Northwest Territories, meets us at the airport. We are always so glad to see Dean with his infectious laugh and his cheerful warmth. We get to bed as early as we can, though. We will have to deal with this potential luggage problem at the crack of dawn. We decide to throw ourselves on the mercy of the cargo agents at First Air, one of Canada’s two airlines serving the far north. If all else fails, we will keep the bags of M and M’s and give the apples to the cargo agents.