by THEODORA C. STANWELL-FLETCHER
BRITISH Columbia is supposed to be one of the few places left in North America where the timber wolf still exists in fair-sized numbers. But when we ask the Indians about wolves they all say:—
“ By gosh, lots of wolf. Mebbe some day you see him, but not much I think. Wolf very wise, just like man. I think you neber see him in sticks [forest], only open country — sometimes.”
They’ve told us various anecdotes which point to a remarkable intelligence on the part of the wolves: their cleverness in avoiding traps, in hunting moose, how they follow human beings for miles, how they are able to distinguish an armed man from an unarmed one, — with whom they are distinctly bolder, — and so on. Though the Indians respect the wolves, apparently they aren’t much afraid of them. They can cite no cases of men having been attacked by wolves, although wolves sometimes kill their dogs.
As a matter of fact, we have been able to discover no authentic instances in British Columbia, or elsewhere in North America, of wolves having ever attacked man unless the wolves were trapped or cornered, or in rare cases when they were afflicted with rabies. Although they’re primarily flesh eaters, wolves evidently do not like human flesh. Bodies of men who have died in the wilderness are cleaned invariably by maggots and various insects, not by wolves or coyotes.
“Do wolves ever come around Tetana or the Driftwood River?” we asked. “Oh, yes, lots, sometimes. Pretty soon you see tracks, mebbe.”
But it was not until February that we found any fresh signs. Then, as we were taking a snowshoe ramble a quarter of a mile from the cabin, we came suddenly on new wolf tracks, so big that J., who is familiar with the smaller wolves of the Arctic, whistled loudly. The prints of a single foot measured five to six inches across. The tracks are more numerous now each day. Whether they are made by a few individuals hunting all over this territory, or whether they mean that the actual numbers of wolves are increasing, we have no means of telling. The snow, although much more solid than in December, is still so soft in most places that their long legs sink far below the surface, and it must take considerable strength for them to plow their way through.
A mile and a half northeast of Tetana is Wolf Lake, newly christened by us because it appears to be a favorite haunt of the wolves. It is a deep, narrow little stretch of water, bordered east and west by high hills and cliffs. The hill on the west sticks up from the surrounding country like a giant camel hump and is higher and more open than any other hill within miles. One of our favorite trails leads to the top, where we can look over the whole Driftwood Valley and view six great mountain ranges. The wolves come down the high lake bank on the northeast, making long wide slides in the snowdrifts; their tracks cross and recross the flat lake surface in every direction. They also frequently climb to our pet lookouts on the hill.
Last night, February 15, we heard the love song of the wolf ! There had been fresh snow followed by clear sky and a full brilliant moon. Our thermometer stood at 24 below. I proposed a snowshoe hike to Wolf Hill on the chance that we might be able to observe wolves down on the lake. J. scouted the notion of actually seeing them, but the night was so beautiful that he couldn’t resist the idea any more than I could.
We stepped out in a dazzling world. At least a foot of powdery new snow covered the firm six-foot snow level and made ideal snowshoeing. We traveled swiftly and silently through silver glens and black shadows. Our snowshoes kicked up feathery clouds that twinkled like quicksilver. Our breath froze over jackets and caps and hair so that we were dressed from head to toe in white crystals.
When we reached the top of Wolf Hill, all below us spread the Driftwood Valley, clear as noontime, lit by the moon for a hundred miles, still and primeval as in the days before the few men who know it now had ever seen it. Belts of dark forest were interspersed with willow swamps which, deeply buried, lay like open fields brushed with gold. To the south the mountains of Takla were faint blue in the distance. The jagged, tumbled Frypans jutted like silver spearheads into the deep amethyst, starstudded sky.
The Driftwoods, our own mountains, lay serene and golden, so close that we could almost reach out and touch them. The glacial-covered range far behind to the west showed distinctly, and the Bear Lake Mountains stood sharp and shining all round the northern horizon. Finally we moved across to the east side where a rock precipice falls down to Wolf Lake, crisscrossed with fresh black tracks, and looked on the miles of forested hills that rise gradually to the rolling Ominecas.
Utter silence, a deathlike hush over the land; and then, from somewhere below, came a sound that made our hearts stand still. Like a breath of wind, rising slowly, softly, clearly to a high, lovely note of sadness and longing; dying down on two distinct notes so low that our human ears could scarcely catch them. It rose and died, again and again. A wolf singing the beauty of the night, singing it as no human voice had ever done, calling on a mate to share the beauty of it with him, to come to him, to love him. Over and over it sang, so tenderly and exquisitely that it seemed as if the voice were calling to me and I could hardly keep from crying. The whole wilderness was musical with it.
After an interval, from far across the eastern hills came a soft, distinct, answering call. Three times more the wolf below us sang and was answered. Gradually the other voice grew nearer and nearer, until we thought that the two must have come together, for the sudden quiet was not broken again.
Then I knew that I was shivering like a leaf and my arm, which J. had been grasping, was almost paralyzed.
J. was saying: “Gad, what luck! What marvelous luck! I’ve heard wolves howling in India and the Arctic, but I never heard the like of that! Let’s go home— if we’re not too cold to move.”
On the west, Wolf Hill slopes steeply, almost perpendicularly, for several hundred feet and is clear of trees. Spurred to recklessness by the height of our emotions, we did something that we’ve never dared to do before. We sat on the crossed heels of our snowshoes and tobogganed down the icy slope at terrific speed. Powdered snow flew up in clouds and turned to rainbows where the moon shone through it. That we arrived, unscathed, in a drift below, instead of being smashed to bits against trees, was just a part of the magic of the night.
We reached the warm cabin after midnight, stoked up a roaring fire, and drank scalding cocoa. I hardly remember getting into bed and to sleep, but all night in my dreams I thought I could hear a wolf calling and singing and sobbing in a voice of exquisite tenderness.
BESTIAL is a commonly accepted term used by human beings to describe the very lowest type of human behavior. I dislike this. To say that bad men are like beasts is an insult to the beasts. I doubt whether animals are capable of the rottenness of which some men are capable. Possibly because man has risen higher in his mental powers he is able, therefore, to sink lower. But this greater mental ability, and power to reason, should make low behavior on man’s part far less excusable than low behavior in an animal.
The Indians of these regions agree with the scientists who say that in general wolves remain mated for life; a habit of behavior far above that of the domestic dog, which is notably promiscuous, and incidentally above a large percentage of human beings. The male and female wolf may be separated for a time each year, but come together again at the mating season in late winter or spring.
Wolves have been following us, even coming within three hundred yards of the cabin. They use our snowshoe trails and we’ve found places where they must have stood behind bushes as we went by. Careful examination of their tracks indicates that they were made at the same time ours were, and the Indians, who seem to bo almost infallible at trail reading, have confirmed this.
J. finds the power and endurance of the wolves remarkable.1 Once, for twenty-seven miles, he trailed two wolves that were breaking trail without a stop. Over the first twenty-two miles live bigger tracks were partly obscured by the smaller ones. Then the larger wolf moved to one side, with no perceptible change of pace, and dropped behind the smaller one. The snow was some six feet deep and quite soft. The trail of the wolves was a shallow trough sixteen inches wide and a foot deep, with foot and leg tracks going still deeper. The leading wolf simply pushed its way through.
Wolf tracks are common where snowshoe rabbits are thickest. Sometimes we find places where the wolves have dug up mice or lemmings. But in deep snow, the light snowshoe rabbit can usually evade the heavy wolf. Grouse, too, cannot be stalked easily by an animal that sinks to the belly or lower with every step. The moose, whose weight forces them to travel very slowly with bent forelegs, is the animal that can be hunted by wolves most successfully at this season. We’ve seen wolf trails leading through the forest near a moose yard where the moose feed on tall dead grasses under thick spruces. Here the ground is sometimes almost bare. Evidently the moose, as long as they keep in shallow snow, aren’t often attacked. When the moose has firm footing, its sharp hoofs are deadly. Though hunting moose at this time must be a necessity for the wolves, it must also be a precarious business.
From a son-in-law of Bear Lake Charlie, J. has bought the skull and skin of a beautiful, large, grayblack dog wolf which the Indian found alive. This wolf, with terrific wounds, broken ribs, and two shattered legs, had stood at bay against a tree surrounded by moose tracks, blood, and moose hair. He had been crippled in a great battle. Although very sick, according to the Indian, he fought his next enemy, the man, fiercely and bravely, never yielding an inch, until a merciful shot at last ended his life.
The Indians have told us of similar cases in which a single wolf has attacked a moose. But in general, the wolves attack in families, outrun the moose, and surround it. They leap at the legs to hamstring them and force the moose down, when they finish it by tearing at the throat. This process has been described to us by Charlie, Sapolio, Michelle, and a plane pilot, all of whom claim to have seen it on open lakes or swamps. It must be a fierce and thrilling business.
On Sapolio’s last visit to his trap line (he comes about once a month), he told us that six or eight miles north of Tetana, five moose have been recently killed by wolves. The moose are about a mile apart and very little of them has as yet been eaten. But Sapolio declares that later the wolves will return and finish each one off to the last scrap and bone. He says they never waste any.
One can’t feel anger at the wolves. They do not, like sportsmen, kill for the sake of killing, but for food. Unlike man, they apparently never waste meat or kill unless necessary. So far wo have not found any instances or heard of any kills which have been made and then neglected. Every scrap of the dead animal, except the fur, is eventually eaten by the wolves. Even the fur is put to good use by squirrels, mice, and birds in nest building.
We have also heard reports of wolf bands having been seen on Bear Lake, and in the open plateau country farther north. Charlie’s boys recently saw two packs of wolves crossing Bear Lake. In the first they counted thirly-one; in the other, fifteen.
Scientists disagree as to the numbers of individual wolves in a company. The Indians here consider thirty in one group to be not especially large. Several trappers of the Hudson Bay country told J. of counting two hundred or more arctic wolves together in one bunch. On one occasion, J. himself counted a hundred and sixty-seven following a large herd of caribou.
J. HAS made one thorough attempt to trap a wolf here, in order to obtain a specimen for the British Columbia Provincial Museum, to which all our specimens are going.2 He hadn’t much hope of success after what we’d heard from the experienced Indian hunters, the most clever of whom are not able apparently to catch wolves except on rather rare occasions. But last week he put a big Number 3 steel trap on a point along the shore of Wolf Lake. Here the wolves that travel over the ice invariably go out of their way to sprinkle a mound. J. set the trap with greatest care — he wouldn’t let me come anywhere near that end of the lake. He wore gloves and concealed the trap with snow, and covered his own snowshoe prints completely as he back tracked away.
Late that afternoon there was a wind, very unusual here in winter, and when we went back to Wolf Lake next day J.’s tracks, and the trap set, and all human signs were completely obliterated by hard-blown snow. New wolf tracks, made in the night or early morning, were all across the lake, but for the first time they made a wide circle around their customary stopping place. Nor have they ever gone near the point since the trap was put there, though they continue to frequent Wolf Lake and Wolf Hill as much as ever.
I’m glad! It has made me sick to think of catching some wolf with a beautiful voice, perhaps the very one we listened to on that wonderful night. It made J. sick too, for he finally took up the trap and decided to obtain any necessary skins or skulls from the Indians.
It’s interesting to me to watch the transformation in J.’s views about trapping and hunting. Although he has trapped in the Arctic and been a more than successful hunter of big game, he now strongly dislikes trapping the larger mammals, or killing them, except in cases of necessity. From boyhood he has been crazy about wild things, but since he has begun to study their lives and habits, he has acquired such a feeling for them as individuals that the desire to take life from them has become more and more distasteful.
If we feel a strong repugnance for the trapping of the smaller mammals like marten and mink and beaver, how much more strongly do we feel it in the case of creatures as highly developed as the wolves. There are various authentic instances, reported by reputable scientists and hunters, which show that wolves which have been caught in traps for a few days, or even hours, although in superb physical condition and very little hurt, died in a short time, apparently from sheer agony of mind rather than from any physical injury. The expression in the eyes of these wolves and their whole appearance have been so heart-rending that even the most hardened hunters have expressed wonder and pity.
We have seen a dozen or so wolf pelts at the trading posts, but apparently most of these wolves had been killed with a gun in open country farther north or south of the Driftwood and Bear Lake regions. Some of the pelts were eight feet long from nose tip to tail tip, though the majority were six to seven feet. The larger wolves were said to weigh around 130 pounds. There was a remarkable variation in color. They were gray-white, blue-gray, yellow, and sometimes all black.
The occasional talk about an actual extermination of wolves here or in Alaska, on the ground that unless wolves are done away with there will be no game animals left, fills us with helpless wrath. Control of certain so-called predators, or bad individuals, in restricted localities, is one thing; extermination of a whole race or species is another. Long before man, himself the greatest predator of them all, came on the scene, wolves and big game — the deer and moose and caribou — existed in apparently healthy proportion side by side.
You have only to examine certain areas in the United States where cougars and bobcats and wolves have been exterminated to see what has happened to the deer: overpopulation of the range, consequent overgrazing, and decimation of disease-ridden animals no longer kept down in the proper proportion by their natural enemies who generally destroyed the unfit and left the strong. It would seem from the facts that man, in this, as in so many other respects, is not able to improve on Nature.
Moreover, by what right does man, who, after all, forms only one small branch of all the great world of vertebrate and invertebrate animals decree that another form, because it must prey for its livelihood on other live things, shall no longer exist? Man who, himself, as William James puts it, “biologically considered ... is the most formidable of all the beasts of prey, and indeed the,only one that preys systematically on his own species.”
Here there is another factor which helps to safeguard the wolves. This is a superstition or taboo that prevents certain Indians of this region from killing or catching wolves. We don’t clearly understand why this taboo applies to some Indians and not to others, nor how strictly it prevents them from obtaining wolf pelts if opportunity offers. Bear Lake Charlie is one of the tribe who dares not kill a wolf. This applies to his sons, except Michelle, the oldest, who is the inheritor on the maternal side, and whose mother, Selina, does not belong to the wolf taboo company.
“The gun that kills a wolf,” Charlie told us, “will one day kill a man. I neber kill the wolf myself, see? And my boys, only Michelle, cannot kill the wolf.”
It is interesting that this traditional respect for wolves, the taboo against killing them, and various other ideas are found among these North American Indians as well as among the ancient peoples of India and Europe. Perhaps all this has arisen partly from inherited fear and partly from admiration for an animal whose brains and personality have for centuries successfully contested man and his ways. Man’s respect for the wolf comes from knowledge of the wolf’s character and strength; the taboos may be a sop to man’s ego.
IT WAS after three years in the Driftwood Valley, just as we were about to take our departure, that there occurred the adventure with wolves for which we had longed, but which we never dared to dream would actually happen. We had acquired during our first year in the wilderness two beloved comrades and helpers—Wahoo, a hundred-pound pack dog, and Rex, a pure-bred Alsatian. Later, for the summer months of travel and work on the mountain ranges, we also obtained two fine pack horses.
One afternoon late in mid-August J. and I were surprised to hear a tremendous chorus of coyotes barely half a mile away from our cabin. Their shrill barks were mingled with a few smooth wolf howls. The noise waxed louder and louder until eventually the wolves drowned out the coyotes. What in the world had happened to call them forth and make them give voice so lustily at this season, and so near our cabin?
Seizing cameras and guns, we hurried off. When we had gone only a little distance, the noise was shut off with sudden and complete abruptness, and we could find no trace of wolves in the thick spruce and swamps next the river. A few well-posted sentries had obviously announced our start and progress and, at the proper moment, bid the others shut down. When we got back to the cabin, J. prepared to pole up the river in the skiff, thinking that a more roundabout and silent approach might yield better results.
As the skiff is too small for two of us on such a dangerous trip, and as the horses had to be watered and taken to the meadow for the night, I, alas, had to be the one to stay home and attend to evening chores. Later, leading the horses, with Rex and Wahoo running ahead, I was halfway to the meadow when I heard wolves howling again — no coyotes this time — from the same direction over by the river, and I wondered anxiously if J. had reached his destination in time.
After a laborious hour of hunting for two places where Baldy and Lassie could find a sufficient quantity of the late grass and would not get tangled in bushes, I tied them both. I was just leaving, with many an anxious backward glance, hoping they would be safe, when Wahoo, chasing Rex in a wild game of tag, barged into me from behind and knocked my legs clean out from under me. One knee must have been put almost out of joint, for it hurt frightfully.
As I rolled, moaning, on the grass, with Wahoo’s huge pink tongue darting out contrite kisses from above, I heard a loud shot from J.’s big rifle. This scared me stiff, for I knew that he would shoot only if he was being attacked. I thought at once of a grizzly.
The spot where I supposed J. to be was, as the crow flies, a mile and a half from the cabin. To get there by boat it was necessary, after leaving the lake outlet, to turn northwestward up the river and follow the shallow rapids, deep eddies, and winding willow-bordered stream to a V-shaped bend, where tall spruce hid the mountains on one side and dense willows overhung the bank on the other.
At the shot, the wolf chorus had stopped dead. I was just starting toward home when, on the still sunset air, there came a sound that made me cold and almost stopped my heart. It was the horrible, low, wailing moan of something or someone in mortal agony. It sounded exactly as J. had at the time of his accident at home when, after a terrible operation, he had been wheeled up from the operating room. Could it be the cry of a wolf? If a wolf, it was unlike any wolf note I’d ever heard before, and I thought I had run the gamut of all wolf noises.
In the gathering dusk I limped slowly along the path, stopping now and then to rub my knee and listen. Just as I reached the cabin the cry came again, repeated twice. This time, because it was nearer, it was even more horrible. And then, most terrifying of all, the loud, wailing, always musical chorus of wolf voices began again. They had not even been scared off by the shot. Were they singing over J.’s dead or mangled body?
I’d had a faint hope that during the hours I’d been gone J. might have returned, but the cabin was dark and empty. There was not a sign of him or the boat.
I crouched on the bank of the lake, straining every nerve for some sound of J., for it was so dark I could no longer see. The howling of the wolves, so near and loud and triumphant and continuous, unnerved me completely. The dogs, by this time thoroughly frightened by my fright, crouched beside me. When I wasn’t listening, I know I was praying. It was ninethirty. At ten I would start out through the big swamps toward the river and the wolves. And then, ‘way down the lake, came a faint creak. It stopped. I had only imagined it. It came again, clear and unmistakable, the creak of oars. It was J. He was safe.
When, tired, hungry, and exalted, J. reached the bank, he found, to his consternation, two frantic dogs and his wife, that weak and silly creature, drowned in tears, sobbing incoherently!
THIS was the story he recounted: He had hurried down the lake and out through the outlet into the river. It was tough work poling up against the current and trying to do it quietly. By the time he got up, there wasn’t a sound of the wolves, but there were dozens of wolf tracks, newly made, along the shore and sand bar. The river was thick with kokanee salmon. Some were dead. J. waited an hour or so by a bank under thick willows. And then a black bear, with its cub, came from bushes on the opposite shore forty feet away. For a few minutes they caught kokanees in shallow water, catching them up in their mouths and swallowing them at a gulp.
The light was very bad. It didn’t look as though J. could gel a thing, but he was going to take some feet with the movie, anyhow, when suddenly he saw a big gray-black wolf standing in the middle of the river. How he got there J. didn t know. ("He just appeared, that’s all!”) He looked twice the size of Wahoo and must have weighed 120 pounds. The wolf and the bears stared at each other for a minute; then they turned away and began to hunt fish “as unconcerned as you please.”After a bit the wolf saw the boat about thirty feet away. He stood like a statue (“Gad, what a sight!”) and then he loped slowly — he didn’t seem to hurry — and smoothly and gracefully off across the river and disappeared in the willows.
Daylight was going fast by then, but J. could see the willows shaking in places. There was something moving behind them. Then they were still and the bears had gone too — just melted off-and there wasn’t a sound anywhere. And right then wolves began to sing in the willows just opposite. There must have been ten or twelve of them, judging from the noise and different voices. They didn’t move around, just kept still and sang. Each outburst was started by one wolf, who had the lowest and most dirge-like note J. ever heard.
He said, “I tell you my hair stood right up straight! Don’t believe anyone ever heard what I heard — that close.”
And he had parked the boat just below the opening of a game trail! It was covered up with hanging willows and he’d never seen the trail at all. It was almost dark when there was a crash above, and there was a grizzly and its cub just about to climb down on him. Apparently they had no idea that J. was there — perhaps his scent was carried away under the bank. He fired just over their heads (“The flash must have singed ‘em”) and they were scared stiff and backed off in a hurry. If they’d gone one foot farther they wouldn’t have been able to turn back and would have been down right on top of him.
“Jumping Joseph!” J. said. “Was I scared! And I thought that all this would have scared off the wolves, but blest if they didn’t start singing again right away, softly at first, and then after a bit that sad-voiced one (must have been the one that scared you-it sure had the most hair-raising notes I ever heard) set ‘em off and they were at it as loud as ever. Must have known I was there all along and weren’t a bit scared of me. Can’t understand it! If you were scared hearing ‘em a mile away, you ought to have been right beside ‘em. I tell you it was all I could do to keep my nerve up. Never thought of moving or starting home till about half an hour later, though I’d meant to get down before it got pitch-dark. Don’t believe anyone on earth has heard what I did. If you’d only been there—”
For days after this we explored up and down the river, and found signs of wolves and bears and coyotes and lesser animals everywhere. They were one and all making the most of the kokanee run and enjoying a regular fish banquet. Around sundown, and soon after dawn, we often listened to short songs and calls of the wolves. Sometimes near-by, sometimes far off. The loud horse bells and the barking of the dogs did not seem to scare them in the least. But we never heard the high, fierce hunting chorus typical of late winter and early spring. In summer, when food is so much more easily obtained, the wolves seldom need to join forces in order to hunt.
Intent on getting pictures, J. twice more tried the same spot up the river but never saw a wolf. At last he fixed on our favorite fishing pool a half mile down the river from Tetana. Numerous tracks on the wide gravel and sand bars by the pool indicated that This was frequented by the wolves; and a deep, still backwater, bordered on one side by willows, would, we thought, make an excellent parking place for the boat.
SO, nearly every morning for several weeks, J. has got up before 3.00 A.M. and, loaded with cameras, guns, and a thermos of coffee, has floated off in the cold dark night in order to be well established by daybreak. He has always stuck it out until late morning, sometimes noon or afternoon, when he returns almost too tired to be able to tumble into bed. I’ve spent hours trying to straighten out the cramps which, after he’s been sitting still for six or ten hours at a stretch, have attacked him in every limb.
But his perseverance has been amply rewarded, for at least half the time he has seen wolves face to face! He has taken hundreds of feet of moving pictures, some of which we can only pray may be good. The wolves have appeared nearly always in the early morning when light has been poor and the river full of mist. The weather too, though it has not actually rained, has been overcast rather than bright. The early mornings have been cold, with the thermometer down to 18 and 15 degrees.
J. has proved that here in this region, during certain seasons, fish form the wolves’ chief food. The Indians confirm this, for they have reported that wolves not only spend some time getting fish in the rivers when the runs are on, but also come around the large lakes when dead bodies of the big sockeyes are beginning to line the shores.
I have just been out of luck, for the few occasions when I’ve gone with J. have been the very times when the wolves did not appear. Being cramped up in the tiny boat with J. was bad, not only because it’s dangerous going down and up river, but where there is just room enough for one person to stretch his legs in order to avoid serious cramps, two can hardly move at all. And, though we’ve considered it, my going alone has seemed a bit too risky and foolhardy. I’m not strong enough to manage the boat safely on the river; and going by boat is the only way to reach the parking spot where one can get a clear view of the sand bar which the wolves frequent. So I have just had to be content with hearing them — and I’ve heard plenty!
We seem to be surrounded by wolves that have, for the time being, taken up their abode in the Tetana territory. Though the real song choruses are in the evenings and early mornings, at almost any time of the day or night we can hear howls and yawns from young and old. When I walk with Rex and Wahoo, I am certain that sometimes wolves walk with us. There is a slight stirring of bushes and when I go to look at the spot, a little hesitantly and fearfully, but quite unable to resist, there is moss springing slowly up from the depression made by a heavy foot, or there are big fresh droppings, or a sprinkle on a log not yet dried. And there is a very strong smell, not a dog smell! Rex and Wahoo must see the wolves, for they often come back to me all ruffled and bristling, just as though they’d encountered another dog. I wonder what they all think of each other?
During the past few weeks, J. has seen from his river parking place sixteen wolves at distances from fifteen to seventy-five feet. The very first morning, when he had sat shivering for two hours after dawn, a spot in the pool about thirty feet off, which had been still and empty, suddenly held a gray wolf. He was standing knee-deep with a flapping little kokanee in his mouth. How he got there J. didn’t know, because he supposed his own eyes had been glued to the pool every minute. The boat moved a trifle and the wolf saw it instantly. For a second he was motionless; then he lowered his head eight inches and the hairs on his shoulders rose stiffly. In another second, before J. even had time to start the camera, he had loped away.
For three more mornings J. saw nothing, and then on the fourth, a large yellowish wolf appeared on the gravel bar. It moved to the water’s edge without a sound, gliding along with the stiff-legged, yet lithe, cat-like gait which J. now knows to be characteristic of wolves. It pounced on a little kokanee and then, at the slight sound of the camera, stopped dead. The head lowered and the ruff stood up straight. J. instantly stopped the camera, the wolf relaxed a little; a single movement of a cramped finger and he was off!
On other mornings three more wolves came, but the light was much too weak for pictures. They all appeared silently and were, as usual, well out into the open before J. was even aware of their presence. They vanished as silently, stepping always over the small stones of the gravel bar as though they walked on broken glass.
From the Omineca Mountains J. brought home the fatty linings of several goat stomachs. These had not been touched except with sterilized rubber gloves. One morning, as he drifted by in the boat, he dropped three pieces on the gravel bar. At four-fifteen a wolf appeared. With head low, moving from side to side, it looked at the meat from a distance. Then it backed carefully away into the willows and vanished. Sometime afterward a low howl came from bushes behind the boat and J. was sure that he was being watched. When the sun was well up, crows came and took all the bait.
The next morning at six, with a cold clammy mist lying over the water, a large coal-black bitch appeared. She was thin and very hungry. J. had the impression that she was quite old and without young. She paused to sprinkle on the sand and then, moving leisurely up the gravel bar, she stopped several times to catch a kokanee struggling in the shallows. Without apparently having scented a fresh piece of goat stomach, put there that morning, she came on it suddenly and ate it without hesitation. After which she went to the river again and caught three more kokanee in rapid succession.
A few minutes later she vanished, but returned in fifteen minutes or so, examined the place where the bait had been, and once more entered the river. At that moment a number of wolves, possibly a family gathering, began a song near-by. There were voices of young pups-high quavery notesstriving to compete with the louder, more mellow ones of the elders. On hearing them the black wolf waded across a little rapid to within twenty feet of J., leaped up the bank, which was only three feet high at that point, and sat down in tall grass. Just a vague outline of her body showed; and she began to sing in a low, vibrating dirge. She sat there for nearly an hour, sometimes quiet, sometimes singing mournfully. Then she jumped down into the water and, approaching to within fifteen feet of the boat, submerged her head to the shoulders to catch a fish.
A moment later she heard the camera going, and for several minutes she and J. stared at each other. Her wonderful golden eyes were wide and unblinking. These, with the white and gray whiskers of her muzzle, were the only touches of color in all her coalblack body. Finally she turned slowly, forded the river to the gravel bar, stood where the bait had been, and once more, with those wonderful unfathomable eyes of hers, looked long at J., who, with hands shaking from cold and excitement, was trying to expose as much film as possible.
BY August 20 only a few live kokanee were left in the river. The run this year occurred earlier than usual, possibly owing to the exceptionally early flood season. The fish seemed to have been mostly picked up, and only one or two here and there still struggled in shallow pools. Some days went by without J.’s seeing any wolves, though we heard them occasionally. Bears crashed around in search of berries. We saw an otter in the river below the lake, and two coyotes. Also large numbers of muskrats.
Then again, for several days in succession, J. watched some wolf pups. One was a young male, wellfed and strong, about the size and shape of a fullgrown Norwegian elkhound. His belly bulged. He moved slowly but gracefully, and with an air of abandon, just like a cat. Approaching within thirty feet of the camera, he saw the boat and stopped, leaped back a dozen yards, and then sat down to watch. After a few minutes he came on again, head lowered, ears pricked forward. He sat down again and peered this way and that, head low, then high, staring at the boat with the greatest interest. He was cute enough to hug. J. said “Hello!" and he bounced in the air. For a while he played hide-and-seek with J., in and out of the willows, once interrupting the game for a good long scratch. Then he vanished in the bushes and began to circle the boat. Three times his head peeked out at different places.
Several days later J. saw twice what he was sure was the same pup. On the last occasion he was amused and almost chagrined at the little wolf’s complete disregard of his presence. The young chap fished and amused himself happily until a call, which must have been from home, came from ‘way down the river, and off he ran into the forest.
One day, farther down the river, J. also watched another wolf pup who was much thinner and more timorous than the cute little fat one.
Ever since we began to be aware of the constant presence of wolves and bears, we’ve kept the horses belled and tied up at night on the east grassy marsh of Tetana. But even the loud ringing of big bells, plus Wahoo’s big voice, doesn’t scare the wolves. Instead it is likely to start them off on a mighty and thrilling chorus, exactly as a big company of Husky dogs gives voice at the evening ringing of the mission bell in a little Arctic settlement.
J. and I have pooled our ideas about these wild comrades of ours. We have come to the conclusion that the wolves are well aware of our presence and habits, and like us! They even allow their young to be near us. With their remarkable gift of understanding, they have apparently come to realize that there is nothing to fear from us, that we like them, that we are interested in their welfare. Not only do we hear and see them down the river a mile away to the south, but we hear them from the west toward the log jam, from the north around the meadow, from the east toward Trail Lake. They have shown no sign of harming us, our dogs, or our horses.
It seems a fitting fulfillment of our greatest desires that the most intelligent of our wilderness companions have reached this basis of tolerance toward us. They are beginning to understand that the Tetana area can be a place where man and beast may live side by side, unhampered one by the other, respecting one another’s rights and habits; and realize that there is room for us all so long as we are fair and just and keep the laws of the wild.
(To be continued)
- “Three Years in the Wolves Wilderness” by John P. StanwellFletcher, Natural History Magazine, March, 1942.↩
- Occasional Papers of the British Columbia Provincial Museum, Number 4, May, 1943, “Some Accounts of the Flora and Fauna of the Driftwood Valley Region of North Central British Columbia,” by John F. and Theodora C. Stanwell-Fletcher,↩