July 11, 2010

A Grueling Journey

Heading out on our ATVs on July 5, we were anxious to arrive at our first cluster of locations that we hoped would indicate a kill. The first hour or so of driving was easy, for it was over sandy river flats with relatively few bumps or impediments. The river weaved back and forth through the flats, so we had to cross it several times, but it was low, and crossing it was no problem. When we arrived at where we had to head inland,  then the "fun" began.

The Ellesmere land surface and topography varies considerably, from flat bare gravel to hilly terrain blanketed with hummocks of various sizes. We found some of the broadest areas and largest hummocks. Wheeled ATV's such as ours can only crawl over the hummocks, and each hummock thoroughly rattles the entire body. We bounced across literally hundreds of thousands of them, many on the way to just Cluster 1 of 5 location clusters that we hoped to check during this day (or night). 

As we approached the first location cluster, our excitement grew. Would we find kill remains?  What would be left there? Would the remains be from a muskox, as we expected, or would they be from a Peary caribou, rather rare in this area? Each of us wanted to be the first to announce "Here it is!"  However, because of the terrain, we had to park our machines and walk for the last several meters, and we did so from different directions. Suddenly Dan MacNulty, always on the lookout with his binoculars, shouted "There!"  

Dean and I rushed over as we too spotted the arched, white backbone. A huge, horned head instantly confirmed it was a bull muskox. With a hatchet, we were able to chop out a piece of the lower jaw with incisors and molars for later aging. But the tooth wear itself told us the bull was old. As we recorded data and collected specimens, elated over the fact that our first check of a hoped-for kill cluster of Brutus' locations was successful, Dan picked up a tuft of stiff white hairs.  "What is this?"

We all pondered the question, for the tuft looked most like caribou hair. We tested it by breaking it, and each hair snapped, confirming it must have been from a caribou. Glancing around the area, we then spotted a large batch of similar tufts only 30 or so meters away. Dan headed right over and picked up a pelvis and upper leg bone of a caribou. Had the wolves killed both a muskox and a caribou here at the same time?  Highly unlikely.

A quick check of Brutus' location data yielded the answer. We noticed that about 3 weeks after the pack's first visit to this site they made another visit and stayed for a shorter period. We had assumed the wolves had revisited the first kill, as they often do. However, a better interpretation was that the second visit to this spot represented a time when they had killed the caribou. It was still quite a coincidence that the pack had made 2 kills in the same basic location.

We were ecstatic! One first check of a kill cluster and we had 2 kills. And one was a caribou.  They are so rare here that we had not expected to find any remains of them at a kill site.

Bouncing millions of times over vast fields of hummocks in only first and second gears, we headed to all the remaining clusters in the batch of clusters we could reach on this trip. Not every cluster yielded kill remains. One was at an old 1970s research shack where we could just envision the wolves gathered around checking it out and then settling in for a long sleep, leaving us with a spurious result. But that was why we were examining so many clusters -- to see what we could learn from them and how many of them represented kills.

We had started on this ATV trip at 2:45 pm.  We returned at 4:45 a.m., 14 hours of grueling bouncing over the tundra, highly satisfied but very, very tired.  And sore. We had visited as many location clusters as we could from the ground. The rest would have to be checked via helicopter. While much less grueling, that would be more challenging, for there would be little time (at $45/minute) to search for remains. Nevertheless, we were anxious to try.



  1. Why do the caribou hairs snap? Is it because the white hairs lack pigment in the shaft and so are hollow and therefore, snap more easily?

  2. Shannon,
    Probably because they are stiff and hollow.