The All Wolf Opera – Yukon Territory, Canada, North America
The following story is excerpted from the book Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents by Marty Essen
We continued west and once again had the Campbell Highway [a dirt road in Canada's Yukon Territory] to ourselves. I was enjoying the fall colors on a long straightaway when I noticed an animal standing in the middle of the road. "Is that a dog?" I asked.
"How could a dog get out here?" said Deb.
"Maybe someone dumped it."
"No, I think it's a bear."
I slowed the truck as we neared. The animal dashed into the woods!
"It's a wolf!" we yelled in unison.
What threw us off was that this wolf didn't have the familiar salt-and-pepper fur with a hint of brown. Instead, he was black.
Wolves are one of my favorite animals. They're highly intelligent, mysteriously secretive, and greatly misunderstood. When we were leaving Montana, I mentioned to Deb that seeing wolves up close during the day and hearing them howl near our tent at night were among the experiences I most desired on our trip. She felt the same way. She loves wolves as much as I do.
I pulled the truck even with where the wolf had entered the woods, hoping to catch another glimpse-nothing. The forest on both sides of the road was thick. The wolf could have been watching us from ten feet away and we wouldn't have seen him. My heart sank. While I had technically achieved my desired wolf sighting, I had envisioned the experience lasting longer.
Since wolves travel in packs, I eased the truck forward while watching the road in my rearview mirror. "There's another wolf!" I shouted.
"Where?" asked Deb.
"She crossed right behind us-a gray one."
"Ah, I missed her!"
"If there are two, there should be more. I'm gonna drive down the road a bit and park."
I proceeded about a hundred feet and U-turned to face where the wolves had been. "Where's my camera?" I asked.
"Right here," said Deb, handing it to me.
"Damn! Wrong lens." I sifted through my daypack until finding my largest zoom lens. When not in a hurry, I can switch lenses instantly. Now, I fumbled about, nearly breaking my camera in the process.
Finally successful, I turned to my wife. "Are you coming?"
"No, I'll wait for you here."
"Okay, keep the dogs from barking if you can."
I opened the door as quietly as possible-Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
I snatched the keys from the ignition and stuffed them into my pocket.
Between the ignition alarm and the time lost changing lenses, my klutziness had likely cost me the opportunity to see another wolf. Still, on the slim chance the pack wasn't already halfway to the Arctic Circle, I carefully shut the door and tiptoed down the center of the road.
With each step, I scanned the forest for movement and listened for a crackle or a snap. Stillness and silence prevailed. I knew wolf attacks on people were grossly blown out of proportion, but at 130 feet from the truck I began to wonder, "Should I feel uneasy?"
Ooooooooooooo. A wolf howled! I spun toward the sound but saw only a wall of trees. Wherever the wolf was, it was close, very close.
Ooooooooooooo. The second howl came from the opposite direction. I spun again and gazed into the shadowy forest.
Ooooooooooooo. Ooooooooooooo. Ooooooooooooo. The rest of the pack joined in.
I was surrounded!
When I turned to face Deb, sunlight glared back at me from the windshield. While I couldn't see either my wife or the wolves, I knew they could see me just fine. Whether I should feel uneasy was no longer a question. I felt exhilarated!
Ooooooooooooo. I cupped my hand to my left ear and leaned toward the howl.
Ooooooooooooo. I cupped my hand to my right ear and leaned again.
Suddenly I was the conductor of an all-wolf opera, leaning with each successive howl. Left, right, together! At least six wolves sang solos, and when they sang as a chorus, their howls blended into an eerie song.
Thoughts whisked through my head as I conducted: Right! "This is so cool!" Forward! "I can't believe how loud they are." Left! "Why hasn't Deb come out to join me?" Together!-
The truck door popped open. "Behind you!" yelled Deb.
I pivoted just in time to see the black wolf dart down the road and cut left toward the forest. I lifted my camera to locate him in the viewfinder-nothing.
I lowered my camera and spotted him again. Instead of disappearing into the woods, he had changed his course and was running along the inner edge of the forest-toward me!
I raised my camera. He was at 120 feet and closing fast! Each time I glimpsed him in the viewfinder a tree promptly obstructed my shot. I chanced a look to the side. He was headed toward an opening. I'd have the perfect shot! My finger tensed on the shutter button. . . .
He was gone!
Though I'd lost the photo opportunity, it was a minor disappointment compared to the thrill of being so close to the pack. I jogged back to the truck to share the experience with Deb.
"Couldn't you see me?" she asked as I climbed into the cab.
"No, all I could see was sunshine reflecting off the windshield."
"The wolf was standing directly behind you! I kept waving to get your attention. I knew if I opened the door I'd frighten the wolf, and I couldn't roll down the [electric] windows because the truck was off and you had the keys."
"How close was he?"
"Oh, he was close-about fifteen feet."
"Wowwww! How long was he there?"
"At least twenty seconds. He stood with his tail held low, staring at you curiously."
Now my feelings were truly mixed. Although I had just enjoyed a once in a lifetime experience, I had not only failed to get a wolf on film, but I had also missed out on a possible extended close-range encounter. What would the wolf have done if I had slowly turned around before Deb's shout frightened him? He wasn't being aggressive.
In less than fifteen minutes I had seen either two or three wolves, depending on if I had seen two individual black wolves or the same one twice. Though the howling had ceased, and the chances of seeing another wolf were slim, I felt like an addict. Just one more hit of Canis lupus and I'd have my fix.
Since the last howl came from behind the truck, I walked in that direction. Fifty feet later, I stopped and waited. The forest was silent. Eventually I gave up and turned to walk back toward-another wolf! The gray and white beauty was crossing the road near where I had been conducting the opera of howls. I snapped a quick photo before she vanished. Because of distance and camera shake, I knew my shot would be blurry, but at least I had something.
Now, if I could just get a close up wolf photo, I'd have my fix. . . .
Before we move on, I'd like to step away from our story to address wolves' undeserved bad reputation. Throughout history, wolves have been victimized by both inaccurate human interpretations of their behavior and outright lies.
Few things upset me more than when anti-wolf groups use the media to stir up fear with comments such as, "Our children won't be safe as long as wolves are in the area." What they're doing is resurrecting the big bad wolf from the bedtime stories most of us grew up with. Unfortunately, when these groups spew forth their disinformation, a large unquestioning segment of the populace is all too willing to believe.
In truth, research has shown that wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. To find a documented fatal attack in North America you'd have to go back more than one hundred years. Even those who dispute that claim must admit that the chances of being killed by a wolf are substantially less than being killed by lightning, horses, hunters, or bees.
One of the reasons I felt exhilarated standing in the midst of the pack was because I was personally demonstrating that healthy wild wolves are not a threat to humans. I wasn't carrying a weapon or pepper spray (I also wasn't stupidly waving a slab of bloody meat). If they had wanted to kill me, they could have done so easily.
What people need to recognize is that individuals and groups who demonize wolves usually have an ulterior motive. They may say they're concerned about wolf attacks on humans, but what really concerns them is that wolves might make them work a little harder. For instance, some ranchers want to run their cattle on public lands-our lands-without having to watch over their herds, and some hunters don't want anything competing with their chance for an easy kill during deer- or elk-hunting season. Regarding the ranchers, the thought that a domestic cow grazing on public wildlands should take precedence over a wolf is preposterous. As for the hunters, they needn't worry about wolves. While most hunters prefer killing the big and healthy animals, wolves prefer to subsist on the weak.
Wolves, sadly, won't overcome their long history of human prejudice until more people remove their emotional blinders and look at the facts. What does it say about us as a society when George W. Bush can run an atrocious television commercial using wolves as symbols for terrorists and have it turn out to be one of the most effective ads of his presidential reelection campaign?