Alone with some Wolves (Fantasy Story)
The National Geographic reporter Ronan Donovan spent about 30 hours with a pack of wolves. His view of these predators on the tundra changed.
In the bluish light of arctic dawn, seven wolves cross a frozen pond, howling and yelping in pursuit of a chunk of ice the size of a hockey puck. At this hour, the opalescent surface of the pond holds up a mirror to the heavens, and the wolves' exuberance also appears supernatural. Four wolf cubs are running behind the puck before three older wolves knock them down and examine their small bodies in the frozen grass on the shore. In my notebook, I write the word "wacky" in almost illegible handwriting as my fingers shudder.
The biggest wolf is a 1 year old male, a brute of about 30 kg. All you can hear are the croaks of a couple of crows, the voices of wolves and the clicking of their claws on the ice. Eventually, the puck gets lost in the grass. The larger cubs find it and tear it to pieces. His fellow cubs look on in amazement at the outburst of violence. Then, one by one, the wolves turn towards me. They look at me.
The sensation is hard to describe - the precise moment when a pack of predators spots you and watches you for a few long heartbeats. Usually, humans are not subject to this kind of scrutiny. However, my body seems to be able to see it far beyond thought.
I'm shivering again - but this time no cold. As cheerful as they were a few minutes ago, they are indeed wild wolves. Blood darkens their white coats. They feed on a musk ox several times my size, whose corpse lies nearby, its rib cage open, its ribs fanned out under the sky. The wolves watch me silently, but the rapid movements of their ears and the position of their tails indicate that they are consulting each other. They're making decisions. After a few moments, they decide to approach.
There's probably no other place in the world where that could happen. And that's why I went to Ellesmere Island, in the far north of the Canadian Arctic, to join the film crew for a documentary. The place is so remote, and so cold in winter, that you rarely see humans there. A squad of about eight people operates a year-round weather station, Eureka, on the west coast of the island. The nearest village, Grise Fiord (129 souls), is 400 km to the south. And the first tree-like vegetation is 2,000 km away.
The wolves in this part of Ellesmere have never fallen victim to hunters, have never seen their territory nibbled by humans, or been poisoned or trapped by ranchers. They are not run over by cars, nor do they suffer from fickle legislation that fluctuates between protection and threat over time. Only a few scientists have studied them. They are grey wolves (Canis lupus) - the same species that lives in the northern Rocky Mountains, much of Canada, and in small populations scattered across Europe and Asia.
Even for the Inuit I know, whose ancestors have inhabited this region for thousands of years, these wolves are special. That does not mean they never encounter humans. Beginning in 1986, legendary biologist L. David Mech spent twenty-five summers observing wolves in the area. Weather station staff often spotted wolves, and large packs were reported wandering around the station's territory. Finally, my friends on the film crew were mostly interested in the pack, using quads to keep track of their incessant movements.
Did this contact with humans make the wolves less wild? Is it possible to evaluate the wild nature of an animal according to the space that separates it from humans? What distinguishes Ellesmere wolves from their cousins living in much less wild environments, such as Idaho or Montana, is not only the distance between them. Here, humans have never threatened wolves with extinction. Here, the human presence is felt so little that they are not necessarily afraid of it. To visit them is to enter another world, a world you give up control of.
That day, on the frozen pond, the pack slowly approaches. The wolves move forward, heads down, sense of smell alert. In early September the temperature is minus three degrees Celsius. The brief arctic summer is over, but each day the sun still lingers in the sky for about 20 hours. It will take a few weeks before we experience real nights, those of a four-month winter, when temperatures drop to -50°C. I am alone, unarmed. My friends are five miles away.
Sitting on the ice, I think that I have been so lonely before, but I have never been so vulnerable. The wolves scatter around me like a cloud of smoke. Their winter robes begin to grow back. As they pass, the details that the crew used to differentiate them on film appear in close-up. The ruff of the yearling male has grey hairs on his collar. The female has had her left eyeball punctured, presumably by confronting a musk ox. On the cubs' tails, black tips will soon become white. I can smell the blood of the musk ox they rolled in. The cubs stand at a distance, jumping awkwardly on their huge legs.
Older wolves come to me. A daring female, probably two or three years old, comes forward at arm's length. Her eyes are bright amber, and her snout is dark, due to the clotted blood or burnt garbage in the Eureka garbage dump, to which wolves are accustomed. Maybe she has a mustache of melted plastic, I thought. This incongruous thought vanished immediately. Less than six feet away, a wild she-wolf was staring at me. I decide to stand still and watch, fascinated. I hear the gurgling of a stomach in full digestion.
The wolf looks up and down at me, his nose wiggling in the air as if he were drawing. She walks forward and suddenly presses her nose against my elbow. It's like a shock of electricity, and I'm shaking. The she-wolf leaps away, then jogs forward, unhurriedly. She glances over her shoulder as she joins her family, whose members are busy plunging their mouths into the remains of the musk ox. The bright-eyed female examined me methodically. Calmly.
Her gaze barely turned away from mine, and I glimpsed a radiant intelligence far beyond anything I've ever seen in any other animal. There was an unmistakable sense that, in the depths of our genetic coding, we knew each other. I am not talking about a relationship that is even remotely personal. This is not my totem animal. I'm talking about genetic fingerprinting, familiarity at the species level. Wolves are a little older than modern humans. They reached maturity as a species when Homo sapiens appeared.
Wolves, like humans, are among the most efficient and inventive predators on the planet. They live in family groups that, in some respects, resemble human families more closely than those of our closest primate cousins. As climate change transforms the Arctic into a warmer, less contoured frontier region, wolves are likely to adapt as we would ourselves - by exploiting new advantages, and, if things get really bad, by migrating elsewhere.
Shortly before I arrived in Ellesmere, the pack lost its mother, perhaps five or six years old. Her hips were thin and she had difficulty getting up. Yet her authority was such that when my friends met her in August, they didn't notice her frailty. She was undoubtedly the mother of all the wolves in the pack, except for her male, a slender beast with a shiny white coat. If, when hunting, he was the leader of the pack, she was the heart of the pack. There was apparently no conflict of authority. The matriarch did not show much interest in my friends and their cameras, although she did let them get up close and personal with her cubs. In this way, she set the tone and I benefited from the pack's tolerance of me.
The documentary team told me about his latest event, which happened about a week earlier. After several unsuccessful hunts (which often happens with wolves), the pack managed to throw a small muskox of about 100 kg to the ground. The group hadn't enjoyed a solid meal for a long time. The adults crowded around the catch, short of breath, tired and hungry. But the matriarch stayed close to the corpse, repelling the onslaught of her older cubs, allowing only the four cubs to survive.
The older wolves begged, whimpered, wallowing belly-up to catch a bite. She held on, snapping her jaws and growling. The cubs gorged themselves until their bellies reached the volume of a bowling ball. This was to be their first meal of fresh meat. Finally, everyone was allowed to eat. The wolves, force-fed, then fell into the canine version of postprandial drowsiness.
The matriarch disappeared soon after. We never knew what became of her. The young female that hit me on the elbow seems to be trying to take over. But on her first day as a head hunter, aided by the older male, a musk ox routed her.
Unable to tear myself away from this place, I spend about thirty hours with the wolves in the pond. The pack may well live in indecision or stress, these are moments of happiness. The wolves play, take small snapshots, cuddle each other. I try to keep them at a distance. However, they invariably return to inspect me. I can smell their horrible breath and hear their equally vile farts. Their interest slowly fades. But it's so cold that every hour I have to engage in a warm-up session - boxing in a vacuum and jumping on the spot. My gesticulations and panting attract the wolves.
Curious, they circle me and give me sideways glances. They must sense that I am nervous. At one point, I set up a tent some distance away so that I can sleep for a few hours. While I'm outside melting ice for drinking water, the one-eyed female approaches and tears the tent with her paw. Then she carries all my belongings on the bare ground, arranges them in an orderly row, and runs away with my inflatable pillow.
In the end, the wolves lie down and the little ones form a sort of pyramid of fur. I wander around while they sleep. The migrating birds have already flown south; the foxes and crows are silent. Musk oxen have lost tufts of hair in the summer that bloom in the freshly cut grass and now fly across the plain, while the skulls of older individuals sink into the ground, the thick bones yellowed with lichens, the horns pointing upwards. I feel like an intruder wandering through the rooms of an empty house.
The pack wakes up a few hours later and performs its post-nap ritual: the reunion with face licking and tail wagging. It lasts a long time, a great manifestation of love. Then the older cubs trot off westwards to a prime hunting ground, leaving the four cubs alone in my company. The cubs seem baffled - and so do I! This is not necessarily a sign of trust, but rather of nonchalance. I am neither a prey nor a threat, but something else, and the older wolves have understood this.
Which family members will survive the winter? Will they learn to hunt together again? Impossible to say. There's a good chance they will, but not all the pups may make it. That day, after the last member of the elder group has disappeared, the cubs get up and run off in pursuit. I follow them. It doesn't take us long to get lost. We wander around for an hour. When we come to a kind of ridge, the cubs stop, start to scream, and their little voices get lost among the rocks below.