Wolf -- Gates, Part 2

Continued from last week's post:  Arctic Loneliness -- Gates, Part 1.

After my son and I, and Brian and Diane Okonek, were dropped off at Chandler Lake, the consensus was to leave our big packs for a while and explore the south and east shores of the lake with just our personal gear:  snacks, binoculars, rain jackets and the like.  A narrow gravel beach ran along the edge of the lake, bordered here and there by a brief thicket of dwarf willows that quickly gave way to the rolling tundra beyond.

We meandered individually along the shore, looking for animal tracks and scats, and stopping now and then to examine the scattered bones of small mammals as well as antler sheds and wispy tufts of white or tawny caribou hair.  Some time went by and I was starting to think about lunch, when Diane whispered her imperative, “Quick!  Everyone get down!”

We sprawled prone on the damp ground, perhaps 50 feet from the water’s edge.  In hushed tones, Diane explained that she had glimpsed an animal, most likely a wolf, through an opening in the willow shrubs to our right.  It was moving across the open tundra toward the lake and she did not think it had seen us due to the screening copse of willows.  We waited expectantly, keeping our profiles low and making no further sound. 

Soon enough, our patience was rewarded.  A large wolf, dark gray in color, trotted into view as he reached the water’s edge about fifty yards to our right and turned toward us.  If my friend Jerry had been with us, he would have whispered, “Cue the wolf.”

There is no more iconic symbol of wilderness than a wolf, and I was thrilled to see this animal so soon after our arrival in the Gates.  He was a robust and solidly muscled adult male, in prime condition.  The animal was unaware of our presence because Diane’s attentiveness had allowed us to take cover and also because a light breeze was blowing at an angle from our right, wafting our scent away as he started in our direction.

Our encounter was far and away the longest, most intimate wolf observation I have personally made.  Oblivious to our spying eyes, and seeming to be in no particular hurry, the animal moved at a leisurely pace on long legs that made him loom large despite a slender torso.  His heavily muscled neck and shoulders hinted at reserves of power, but he was remarkably light on his feet, almost cavorting along the gravelly beach and flitting nimbly this way and that, sometimes twisting to chase his tail in nearly a complete circle. 

The wolf sniffed, pawed and licked at various and sundry objects of apparent interest.  He brought to mind some young children I can remember, exploring shiny pebbles, wild flowers, small frogs and minnows, and the many other wonders that can be found beside a north country lake to offer a measure of distraction from the tedium of a long day of fishing with Dad. 

There are many pitfalls involved in anthropomorphizing animal behavior.  I can’t possibly know how a member of another species experiences the world or in what manner it can be said to think.  But sometimes a projection just can’t be helped.  The wolf’s antics were so nonchalant and playful that I was compelled to believe he was simply having fun, enjoying himself much as we had been doing just a few minutes earlier.  Although separated by untold eons of evolutionary divergence, was it not possible that we shared a similar primeval delight in exploring this isolated shoreline on such a fine arctic day?

Movement was out of the question and the soft click of a camera shutter would have ended the encounter instantly, so we lay still and quiet, scarcely breathing as the animal picked his way down the shore, drawing closer and closer.  When he passed directly in front of us, about midway to the lake, I concentrated as intently as possible. 

I wanted to imprint every aspect of the moment into the memory banks of my mind.  What was the color of his eyes?  Amber, almost gold; not the green fire that Aldo Leopold so regretted extinguishing.  Did his tongue loll, his breath pant?  How did he hold the long tail, creamy white on the bottom, dark gray on top?  Could I distinguish the unique tones of his scent over the fresh arctic breeze and the damp, vegetal odors of the tundra?  No, that was far beyond my olfactory power.  What soft sound did the pads of his feet make on the pebbles and stones of the beach?  And how could those broad feet seem so delicate and diminutive at the end of the long angular legs?

But my most deeply felt impression was the spirit of the moment, not the specific physical attributes of the animal.  It was the wolf’s sprightly dance, his obvious curiosity and contentment with the day, and my own sense of privilege and awe to be so intimately in his presence that I recall most vividly.

After several minutes of close observation a predictable event occurred.  If I had thought to do so, I could have triangulated the precise geometric point at which the quartering wind blowing over our right shoulders would cross the animal’s path along the lake. 

When his course reached the intersection with our drifting scent, he froze to a standstill.  He raised his head, lifting his nose higher and drinking deeply of the human odor.  A heartbeat later, the wolf took flight across the tundra, bolting for the safety of the foothills and mountain ridges beyond.

Only when the animal had vanished as completely as the plane that had dropped us off did we break into whoops and exclamations of excitement.  What an animal!  What an encounter!  What a day!  How glorious!  This was the very thing for which we had ventured into the Gates.  We had been on the ground less than two hours and our trip was a success already.

When I think back on that day from the distance of a dozen years, I am mindful of Wordsworth's poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, also known as Daffodils.  The poet vividly recalls the host of flowers he once encountered along the margin of a distant bay.  Forever after, when he is "in vacant or in pensive mood, they flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude; and then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils."  And so too with the wolf at Chandler Lake.

This is the second post in a series about a 2002 hike from Chandler Lake to Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park.