Thu, 27 Jun 2013 16:46:27 EDT
The Mournful Voice of the Wilderness
By Tom Lounsbury
The wolf truly epitomizes the wilderness. Nothing can reach deep into your soul and revive primitive feelings you never knew you had, such as actually hearing the mournful howl of a wolf in a wilderness setting. Listening to a wolf howling on the television doesn’t even hold a candle to the real thing. I will never forget standing in front of the cook tent and sipping hot tea from a steaming mug one evening during a bowhunt for caribou in the Artic. The northern lights were dancing and flickering like lime-green fireworks over the mountaintops to the steady accompaniment chorus of wolves singing out all around the camp. It was truly a primitive moment I savored and will never forget.
During these modern times the wolf has become a very debatable topic. There are those who want to see it back in full force, and those who had rather not see that happen at all. The wolf is painted as both a symbol of the wild and a villain with an uncontrolled blood lust. On a personal level, I have mixed emotions on the topic. I see the wolf as an asset in some settings, and no longer belonging in others. The wolf clearly is a victim of civilization, and by its nature doesn’t adapt well without a lot of elbowroom around human habitation (another example of this is the grizzly bear that I much admire as well).
Not that many years ago wolf proponents liked to point out that there was no documentation of the wolf having ever attacked or killed a human in North America, but during the same timeframe I talked to Native American guides in Canadian wilderness areas that scoffed at those claims. It was clear to them that the wolf was a large predator and if it was a choice between starving or not, the wolf wouldn’t go hungry as meat was meat even if it was you. One guide also related some history to me such as about the uncle that was tracking a moose during a lean, mean winter during the 1930’s when he realized he was being stalked by a pack of wolves. He was lucky to be able to put his back up against the top of a railroad bridge crossing a deep gorge, and shot the most aggressive wolf closing in on him, and while it was being devoured by its starving companions he made his escape across the bridge. Was that fact or fiction? Personally, I believe him. I also believed the same stories another guide related to me about the wolves having the advantage when some Native American tribes were knocked down by disease epidemics brought to these shores by Europeans.
The same story could be said of the wolf found in Europe and Asia where between wars and disease epidemics, it left a lot of unburied bodies out to the elements. In many ways the wolf can’t be blamed for opportunities, especially when the human inhabitants had run off or destroyed most of the game in a given locale. The old stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Peter and the Wolf” were designed originally to make children aware of wolves, or so I read once. The wolf found in Europe and Asia is pretty much the same wolf we have in North America.
Here in America, the wolf quickly became enemy number one. No doubt some of the old European beliefs came across the Atlantic, but also the wolves didn’t differentiate between wild game and the often easier to obtain transplanted European livestock. The wolf became a target in the American West when the wild bison it depended upon was abruptly eliminated and replaced by cattle. Cattle then became the wolves’ primary food source for survival much to the dismay of the cattlemen. Personally I don’t blame the wolf or the cattleman for those circumstances, as they both had to do what they had to in order to survive. The wolf of course ended up being on the short end of the stick due to encroaching civilization. And so it has been down through history.
The first official report of wolves attacking and killing a human in this country occurred in 2010 in Alaska when a 32 year old woman (a special education teacher) was attacked and killed by four wolves.
My only real tense, personal moment with wolves occurred in the Artic on my first bowhunt for caribou. Early in the hunt, another hunter and I decided to try for a pair of large caribou bulls at two different spots on a mountain towering over the fjord we were on. Our Inuit guides let us know we’d have to hike 5 miles to a pickup point after our stalk due the fast dropping tide, and warned us that they had spotted a polar bear not long ago on that particular mountain. My companion went his way up the mountain and I went mine. Both of our stalks proved futile due to the rough terrain and my companion and I met at the predetermined spot by a small waterfall just before sunset.
My hunting companion however had to jump across a 6 ft gap, which wasn’t difficult, but if he miscued, it was a 300 ft fall to the rocks below. I was in the process of casting him a safety line when my extended left foot slipped on a wet, moss-covered rock. With a heavy pack on my back, I ended up tearing and nearly severing a tendon in my left knee. I managed to cast the line and secured it and my hunting companion made the jump, and had quite a concerned look on his face, as my condition wasn’t the best to be in 5 miles from our pickup point in the middle of nowhere, especially with a polar bear lurking about in the near neighborhood.
As I regained my composure and assessed my situation, he asked if I thought I could walk, and that is when the first wolf howled nearby. My immediate response was; “Do you think you can keep up?” And then I got up and started hobbling down off the mountain. During the process, when I didn’t think I had anymore to give, a wolf would howl nearby and be answered by another, sometimes even closer. That’s when I discovered I had plenty more to give. Whether or not the wolves were following our progress out of curiosity (and interest) due to my limping mode, or just heading the same way, I will never know, and during that moment I didn’t want to find out (my instincts told me I was “fresh meat” if I went down and gave up, and at one point I counted five wolves spread out here and there and shadowing our trail).
My hunting companion and I made it to the pickup point in about an hour and a half (which was pretty good time in rough country, I believe, with a bum leg) and darkness had settled in. We signaled with a flashlight across the fast moving river that fed into the fjord at that given spot and soon sighted an Inuit guide paddling a canoe across to pick us up. I was pondering on how I was going to kneel in the canoe that had no seats, and with a swollen and stiff leg, when a wolf howled close by, right behind us, and I soon found myself in the bow of the canoe paddling across the fast current for all I was worth.
In reality I owe those wolves a lot of gratitude for giving me plenty of initiative to get myself out of a tight spot. My main concern when I first became injured was my having to spend the night on that mountaintop alone after my hunting companion went for help (which he would have had to do), and without a fire (there wasn’t any wood to burn on that treeless mountain) with the possible aspect of a polar bear scenting me out. My longbow and six arrows seemed about as effective as a simple stick and string right then. The wolves certainly added some very primitive and truly humbling realism to the scene.
Recent efforts to reestablish a wolf presence in this country have been very successful, and the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service removed it from the endangered species list on January 27, 2012. Of course this caused a lot of controversy, with wolf proponents exclaiming foul and wolf opponents saying it is about time. The delisting now puts wolf management into the hands of state agencies and some states have recently held wolf hunting seasons to bring expanding wolf populations back into check with the environment. The Michigan Legislature passed a bill in December 2012 that listed the wolf as a game animal, and it was signed by the governor, although no move has yet been made to establish a wolf hunting season (Michigan reached and exceeded its wolf recovery goal more than five years ago).
I enjoy (and respect) the presence of wolves in a properly managed (science/biology and not emotions) situation, and hopefully there will always be places for it to thrive and send out its memorable and mournful howl to thrill future generations.
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