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.

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