Special Guest Post by Brian Keating
I was using my elbows as a tripod, holding my binoculars and watching a pack of 7 Arctic wolves. After perhaps 30 joyful minutes of observing the chasing, scratching, sleeping, and general wolf playing around, I next did something I obviously didn’t think through.
But when you are 21 years old, all alone in Canada’s most expansive wilderness, with testosterone squirting from your ears, 1000 Km south of the North Pole and 2,500 Km north of parents, you don’t have to justify your behaviours.
I sat up, and I howled at the wolves.
I don’t know why I did it, and I certainly didn’t know what their reaction might be in response to my impulsive outburst. But at 21, I didn’t care.
Allow me to backtrack a bit. My parents didn’t know I had turned down a ‘career’ job with Parks to instead take a ‘handyman’ job at Eureka, halfway up Ellesmere Island at 80 degrees North.
I was enrolled in a two-year Fish & Wildlife course, and the objective of getting a relevant job during that first summer in between school years was to build experience. Theoretically, this would give me the necessary training to launch my own career in a full time job the following year.
I opted for a job offer that would take me to a northern wilderness rather than be a campground attendant in southern Alberta. And that gamble was the best thing I ever did. That summer up on Ellesmere Island is when I grew up and decided what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.
It was about 2 AM when I howled, under a brilliant midnight sun and blue sky. I had been hiking back to the Eureka weather station where I worked, to get at least a few hours of sleep before my shift started the next morning. My boss, the Officer in Charge, Tiny, (a huge man), constantly reminded me that I had the lowest job in the Arctic: cleaning the floors and urinals, emptying the ashtrays, and washing the dishes. But I knew I actually had the best job, because if I talked the right people into covering some of my daily mandatory work, I could escape for a few days to the vast expanse of the tundra to explore, photograph and experience this untouched wilderness.
And that’s what I was doing when I encountered the wolves. That night I wandered further than I had planned, but one hill led to the next, which led to the next, and you get the picture. So what did the wolves do? They ignored me. Totally. No reaction. Except one: it looked my way, stood up, performed a very satisfying stretch in classical dog fashion, and then sat down, pointed his nose to the sky, and howled back!
I will never forget that moment. We connected, or at least that’s the way I interpreted it. And from that moment onward, I have been hooked on wilderness exploration.
Wolves are top-level predators, whose presence signifies an intact, healthy ecosystem. Without wolves, in other words, the balance shifts, and there is a cascading effect down the entire food chain. This relationship has been honed over hundreds of generations of survival and fitness. In the high Arctic especially, there is a finely tuned equilibrium of predator, prey abundance, weather, and luck.
These white wolves belong to a special club, that of the high latitude large mammal survivors. They somehow manage to make a living in a landscape of sparse food resources, but their intelligence, stamina, and ability to take down prey from muskox to lemmings makes their survival possible. They live in small family groups and hunt in a well-organized pack, which increases their statistical hunting success. And the pack works together to sustain the pups, which are born to the alpha male and female. Arctic wolf survival is achieved under the harshest conditions imaginable: sub-zero temperatures and absolute darkness for as much as five months of the year.
That summer on the Fosheim Peninsula was a season of repeated wolf sightings, which now, after a half dozen hiking and kayaking expeditions to different parts of our higher latitudes, I realize was a time of wildlife watching to be cherished and remembered. So next time, I think I’ll still howl with the wolves.
Brian Keating has just retired from his role as Head of Conservation Outreach with the Calgary Zoological Society, and is now a professional speaker, TV and radio broadcaster, and trip leader, taking people to some of the best wildlife locations on the Planet, including our own high Arctic. You can join Brian this summer on a CMH Summer Adventure at the Bobbie Burns Lodge July 8 -12 and hike, walk and laugh with Brian and Dee, his wife and travelling companion.
Photo: Arctic Wolf, by Brian Keating.