As a very young lad, my ﬁrst exposure to the ways of wolves was lying wide-eyed and listening to my mother, Elly, reading the adventures of Little Red Riding Hood. You know the one. She doesn’t listen to Mom’s warnings, gets tracked in the woods by the neighbourhood wolf, which then devours both the sick grandmother and, subsequently, her too. Being of German descent, it was only natural that our version of the tale was by the Brothers Grimm, rather than the original Charles Perrault. As such, a gallant huntsman, rather than a woodcutter, came to the ladies’ rescue.
Perhaps a decade later, Farley Mowat’s, Never Cry Wolf, came to my attention. You know the one. Wolves only eat things sick and weak and seem to prefer mice over caribou. I believe it was a best-seller, certainly extremely popular, so it had to be factual, right? Not exactly. Also, as we all now know, the story of the Big Bad Wolf eating folks was just a fairy tale. Or was it? Try telling that to the human victims of wolf predation throughout European and Asian history. Garth Brooks sings about, “The Ones The Wolves Pulled Down.” Dr. Zhivago shivers hearing howls in the frozen, Russian night. Woodcuts, tapestries, and other art forms depict packs of brazen, winter-starved Siberian wolves attacking people in horse drawn sleighs. Wikipedia describes more wolf attacks in India in 1928 than by boars, bears, leopards and tigers combined. Strangely, North American attacks are rather infrequent, although not unknown. Throughout recent history, various forms of media have shown a fascination with violent wolf encounters. They have all put their spin on it. I fully anticipate documentaries before too long, about cuddly vegan wolves rescuing schoolchildren lost in the woods. Everyone has had a crack at this story. This is mine.
I consider myself fortunate to have shared wilderness game ﬁelds with that other apex predator for most of my lifetime. We know of each other by scent, sight, and sound, but have crossed paths infrequently. Rarity makes things memorable and precious. We are both brothers and competitors in our pursuit of prey. And yes, even predators can become the prey of other predators. Do I fear him? On a conscious level, with my superior intellect, ﬁrearms and bravado, no. On a primordial level, perhaps. Why else would those howls send such a tingle along this naked ape’s spine? Do I think wolf populations, combined with other large predators, have risen to such an extent as to threaten western ungulate numbers? Absolutely. Would I like to see wolves exterminated? Never. Only prudently managed, as they are a vital component and barometer of the wilderness mosaic. Are they bad? No. Just wolves. Did I want to hunt and shoot one? Yes, in a heartbeat. They are one of the smartest, handsomest and, in my experience, luckiest animals I’ve had the pleasure to match wits with. Now on to the story…or in this case stories.
The kerosene heater softly pinged and radiated both welcome warmth and a subdued glow. I lay cocooned in the down mummy bag silently arguing with my bladder. Three other hunters and the camp manager, all strangers, slept snoring up a symphony. The latest blizzard had subsided, so now it was as still and cold as only midwinter in the Northwest Territories could be. It was so long ago that even the name hadn’t yet been changed to Nunavut and the term climate change hadn’t been invented. The luminous hands on my wristwatch promised a long wait until daylight. My bladder won and, clad only in one-piece, red, ﬂannel long johns (base layers also hadn’t come around yet) I silently shuffled through the wall tent’s canvas door. Though night, it was inﬁnitely brighter outside. In the dry, pollution free heavens, an enormous silver full moon haloed by sparkling ice crystals illuminated the snow drifted barrens with a trillion lumen. Blinking, while turning the snow yellow, I looked up to see a ghostly, also silver, arctic wolf intently sizing me up. Surprised I was. Almost as surprised as a couple of days before when I purchased my muskox license and was told by the F&W clerk that no non-resident wolf permits were allowed for that region. Perhaps this lobo had never seen a human before. Indeed, this was my ﬁrst wolf. While I crunched the short distance to the Inuit guide’s tent, the hungry canine remained within shotgun range. Noah was the ﬁrst to wake. He grabbed his riﬂe and shot to where I was pointing. I wished it could have been me. The shot had not been fatal and I was surprised when no immediate follow up occurred. “We go back to sleep, ﬁnd in morning,” came the conﬁdent, pragmatic reply. The hide and hence the memories I could buy from my native guide.
Many years later, when my father, Fritz, was still alive, we were hunting familiar haunts in Alberta’s Highwood Range in the Rockies. I had my bow and bull elk was the goal. Dad was along, just riding shotgun, literally, in case my elk calling brought in unwanted attention. In this same muskeg we repossessed the buried under debris bull moose carcass that two grizzlies had stolen from Dad. As is obligatory with all bear stories, one was huge and the other even larger. Since daybreak, we’d slowly been calling and angling up the valley using the cool night-time thermals to our advantage. The beauty of the awakening drainage and the camaraderie with Dad, more than made up for the lack of action. Around 9:00 a.m., and nearing the pass signalling the end of the valley, I started losing concentration and intensity. A September sun had crested the eastern ridge, and was transforming white, frosted grasses to yellow, wet strands. That the thermals would soon switch was inevitable. Randomly daydreaming, I envisioned rank, mud caked wapiti bulls sneaking back into the black timber and heard my stomach grumble. I also reﬂected, for no good reason, that it had been a long time since I’d seen that arctic wolf. Ten half-hearted steps farther and here comes a pair of unaware grey wolves. Shaking the fog out of my daydreaming head, I realized they were homing in on my cow elk chirping. What to do?
Immediately ahead was a tangle of chest high willows that would make a perfect blind for one. Not having enough conﬁdence in my archery abilities, I slipped into the thicket while trading weapons with Dad. He lay down outside. Both hidden now, I called softly and the pair cautiously locked onto me. 60 paces ahead they steadily advanced their searching noses into the now nonexistent breeze. Hot damn! I started to shake and not because I thought they were going to eat me. Another mew and obeying that sixth sense born from time in the woods, I broke contact with them and swivelled to look over my right shoulder. Four more, ﬂanking us and trotting even closer. The ugly, black 12 gauge Winchester Defender with only a pistol grip stock is made to be shot from the hip, thus impossible in my willow blind. I stretched out my arms and shotgun as far as possible, at shoulder height, and sighted along the barrel. Shooting 3” magnum 00 buckshot, I pumped three rounds in their direction. The recoil of each split my lips and loosened teeth. They were coming so nicely, I should have held my ﬁre longer. The only blood spilled that day was mine. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
The years pass far too quickly, boy meets girl, and you know how that goes. Brigitte and I named our little one, Savanna. With Brigitte being a good, German mom, I’m sure the Grimm boys’ fairy tale, Rotkäppchen, got read. We live rurally, so, to prevent Savanna from wandering off, Brigitte reminds the toddler to always obey her mother, or else the coyotes might get her and we all know coyotes are kind of like little wolves. Savanna is twenty now. An awesome, accomplished huntress in her own right, yet even the antidote of shooting coyotes hasn’t completely cured her. So, she’s probably psychologically scarred for life, but you couldn’t ask for a more obedient, cheerful and responsible young adult. Famed paediatrician Dr. Spock and Brigitte probably wouldn’t have gotten along. We were all on a family road trip one day when both a black and a cream coloured wolf crossed the pavement. Shortly thereafter an intense, even in daylight, green- tailed shooting star streaked across the sky. You can imagine my wish.
Asian wolves are signiﬁcantly smaller than our Canadian wolves, but just as hungry. That point was emphasized when I had the good fortune to tag along on a friend’s Tajikistan Marco Polo sheep hunt. His ram had been hit three times, but still managed to top over a 17,000 foot ridge. Being late in the day and the rareﬁed November atmosphere becoming more frigid by the second, recovery was postponed until the following morning. Then, three much younger, acclimatized local guides found the ram, but not before the wolves did. All that they brought off the mountain was the impressive skull and horns, with an intact, freshly gnawed to the bone, snake-like spine attached.
Another sheep hunt, on a different continent, found Brigitte and I in the remote Mackenzie Mountains. One of my favourite memories of that adventure is the ever present, liberating feeling of total independence, mixed with utter vulnerability. Screw up here and the odds of making it out alive are pretty darn slim. Game had been scarce and a late in the hunt location change took this game down to the wire. When weary guide, Lindsay, and I returned to base camp, we brought along white caped, golden horned, mountain royalty. Maybe not a king, but certainly a crown prince. As we rode in, Brigitte hoisted her own white trophy pelt. While I had the Dall’s and caribou tags, Brigitte only had a token wolf license to make her not feel left out. As it was, she was the only hunter of that outﬁt’s entire season who scored on a wolf. The ancient, tooth-worn, lone bitch had picked the wrong day to wander through camp. After the initial shock of realizing this wasn’t the hobbled horse, Whitey, Brigitte dispatched the wolf while taking a steady rest on the hitching rail. What a lady.
All one summer I would hear howling from across the James River on our north quarter. “They’ve got a den up on the ridge,” I surmised. I didn’t get up there often and, when I did, never considered a hunt because of the pups. When we spent New Year’s Eve there trying to heat up the thirty degrees below cabin, the drawn out, mournful howling outside ﬂipped a light switch. Time to try some wolf baiting. Never one to do things half way, a plenitude of meat was obtained. Brigitte helped me drag it over the frozen river, through knee-deep snow, into a miniature meadow below the timbered ridge that the wolves called home. A silent approach was cleared, a tripod shooting tower hidden on the clearing’s edge and the party was ready to begin. That was early January. Twice a week I would drive the hour from home to check progress. Snow piled up higher and, apart from those of grouse and snowshoe hare, remained trackless both at the bait and in the local vicinity. All lonesome howling had ceased. “Daddy’s Great Canadian Wolf Hunt”, teasingly became one of the girls’ favourite topics. Finally, late in March, just before I had to legally remove the bait, black bear tracks appeared and soon the meat scraps were no more. Thank goodness, as asking Brigitte to help drag it all back would have added insult to injury.
Last winter Savanna’s boyfriend, Philipp, travelled from Germany to accompany his American buddy who was looking for cougar and wolves in Montana. “Yeah right,” I chuckled to myself. Montana wolves are mostly the ﬂourishing descendants of the 31 cagey Alberta wolves that were reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem in the year Savanna was born. Knowing what I did, no mere mortal American stood a chance. It was my turn to eat crow when a picture arrived showing Philipp hoisting a huge male that their lanky guide had tracked and walked down. The guide got another one this year, making it six consecutive years of success. I hear game populations have been hit pretty hard by the numerous packs now south of the border. I’ve watched as America, under the guise of environmentalism, has slyly outmanoeuvred and stalled Canadian petroleum interests, while bolstering their own. Lately, I’ve been thinking that if Washington doesn’t want our pipelines and oil, maybe it’s time to share some more of our surplus wolves, but I digress.
Two seasons ago, one of our sheep hunting buddies, Michael, was lying prone in a saddle glassing while Savanna and I did the same one peak over. It was the day prior to sheep, and also wolf, season opening. He heard a low growl ten steps behind him as if to say, “Humans should be upright, not pretending they are animals.” He got a video of this and three other sheep seeking pack members. Two days later it was almost my turn on a nearby different saddle and perhaps with one of the same wolves. Having killed an Alberta bighorn the previous year I was not eligible for another tag and hence unarmed. Savanna was in the lead with me puffing up close behind when topping out she spotted a single black wolf roughly one hundred paces to our left. Knowing how much I wanted a wolf she dropped low and silently pointed out the stationary broadside opportunity while passing me her 7mm-08. Quickly struggling out of my pack and then throwing it down to use as a rest, I don’t know if I was too slow or the wolf too fast. Literally two seconds more time and he wouldn’t have been able to slip over the rise and out of our lives.
This year, in an adjacent drainage, Philipp, Savanna and I were moving camp and had just descended to and entered timberline when unarmed Philipp, in the lead, exploded. Bolts quickly chambered rounds as grizzlies are always present in our ram country. It turned out to be a white wolf jumping up from its nap at twenty yards. As (bad) luck would have it, I was again bringing up the rear and never did see him. I spent four separate weeks hunting Alberta bighorns this year, mostly solo. I know, I am blessed. In two out of four of my favourite ranges wolves were either seen or heard. Not surprisingly, I got skunked.
Brigitte ﬁnally drew a much coveted Kananaskis Country, Alberta, bull moose tag. The strategy was to return to a foothills swamp that had been good to both of us in the past. Plans changed at the last minute when one of the massage therapists from my clinic showed pictures of a mighty bull she had taken while hiking the day before. I coaxed the location from her and happened to also know that alpine pass intimately. It, too, was a good rutting area. Brigitte and I, travelling nocturnally, went in, checked it unsuccessfully and we were coming out as the ﬁrst brightly clad hikers showed up. One elderly gentleman noticing the riﬂe asked if we’d seen any pheasants. Other French tourists who asked what we were hunting understood our reply as “mice” and “mousse”. Well, it is a multiuse area. Opening morning was now history, but, for the evening, we returned to the original plan. Long before we reached the swamp my stomach dropped. Every raven for miles around was circling, diving or cawing in the swamp. While we had been chasing a phantom, someone had shot up our swamp. Gaining a ridge top, we observed the noisy black devils working a feed in the muskeg way below. Trudging out in the dark I commented, “Strange that we didn’t cross paths with that lucky hunter. Wonder what he got?”
We were back by next daybreak and so were the birds. Periodically I would leave Brigitte to glass other swamps. On one return she excitedly related that three grey wolves came from the kill site, crossed the swamp and entered a nearby timbered ridge. Killing time and dozing away the afternoon in the welcome sunshine, we were surprised to be entertained by a long, spooky howl from that direction. On a whim I mouth called back and darned if several didn’t reply. Then another pack joined the chorus from the far side of the drainage. The plot was thickening. The sun had long before dropped behind the ridges when one by one our pack cautiously appeared. All were greyish, but of different relative sizes, as per age and gender. Although different trails had brought them to the muskeg’s edge, they now coordinated onto a common path towards their kill. It was pretty cool to watch and we silently smiled at each other. The last, the smartest, was of course an alpha male monster. With ﬁve minutes of legal shooting time remaining, I ranged him at 415 yards. Even with a prized wolf hanging in the balance, I wasn’t comfortable taking that shot at that time. As Scarlett said, “After all, tomorrow is another day,” and so we too were gone with the evening wind.
The curtain, like the dawn, rose on the natural, amphitheater stage half an hour before the next sunrise. All the actors, and then some, were present. I was glassing several moose as Brigitte focused on wolves. “One, two, three…” All the way to, “Ten.” “Oh my God,” she trembled. A hasty plan evolved. She would remain on the ridge top, watching. I would slip down through the lodgepoles, cutting the range, as they would be out of sight behind a ﬁnger of tamaracks and I’d train crosshairs on yesterday’s kill access trail. This time it was a comfortable 200 yards in broad daylight. After three hours my excitement ebbed and I returned to Brigitte. She shook her head and related how after a very long feed they departed in an unanticipated direction. “At one point all 10 were frolicking in a kitchen sized circle. I thought about ﬂock shooting,” she conﬁded, but then remembered she is a sensible girl.
2015 was a banner season, with Brigitte getting her bull moose, myself a bull of the elk persuasion and both of us nice whitetail bucks. Then came the post hunting season blues. You know how that goes. Too much time at the computer, daydreaming, etc. A whole avalanche of wolf hunting trophy postings started appearing on my newly set up Facebook. Of course I was envious, but then got to thinking. “Will I ever get my wolf surﬁng the net? Not bloody likely.”
As I now write, the local, migratory herd of around 50 head of elk feeds just over my fence-line. Indeed, in years gone by, a neighbour shot two wolves right there. Someday there will be others. Hope springs eternal and every morning, before coffee, I glass in that direction. Yet I realized my chances were better in a wilderness setting. Abundant prey was a requirement and combining Google Earth with boot leather I found an isolated, but nearby, ungulate winter range. I used both a predator call and also thrilled at hearing my own howling voice echo off the ridges and up the waking muskeg. Late February/ early March marks the beginning of the wolves’ breeding season in our area. The only thing I like as much as hunting familiar grounds, is developing new opportunities. I was stretching my legs, breathing clean air, dodging cyber waves and scaring all manner of moose, deer and wild horses. It was just a matter of time.
One beautiful, calm, spring-like winter day, I was anxious to share my newly discovered Eden with Brigitte. The added allure of shed hunting clinched the deal. Strolling on the frozen muskeg Brigitte remarked, “Awesome to get back in here. In summer or early fall it would be impossible without hip boots and bug spray.” Indeed. We climbed a low island of sparse timber and photographed a couple of Northern Hawk Owls who were also feeling spring’s enticement. Out of the corner of an eye I thought I saw something grey cross a distant seismic cutline. We raised binoculars but found only swamp. “I must have imagined it,” I conceded. Brigitte who tends to see the world more in black and white countered, “Ridiculous, if you think you saw movement then you did. Try howling.”
Nothing answered from the cutline, but behind us came a distant, yet unmistakable, reply. Even my shot out ears could hear it. Moments later I moaned again and got an answer, this time from much closer. Across the vast expanse of scrub birch, willows and red osier dogwood, only momentarily a black dot appeared in Brigitte’s binoculars. I shifted 50 yards to the left to get a better angle through the pines. We found each other’s movement at the same time, separated only by a few branches and a hundred or so yards. Eager, yet ever cautious, the shiny black wolf sought a mate. In ﬂuid motion I dropped my binoculars and my right hand instinctively sought my riﬂe sling. My brain, being smarter than my right hand, yet dumber than a sack full of hammers, modiﬁed the action by reminding me that there was no riﬂe. This was just a Sunday stroll in a swamp with my sweetheart, and I’d left my trusty shooting stick behind. Continuing its arc the hand beaconed Brigitte who arrived just in time to see the black wolf turn and depart forever.
A welcome snow squall passed through last night and I was out, again, this morning, howling and checking for fresh tracks, of which there were none. I think the horses and moose are getting used to me, but the whitetails still raise their ﬂags and bound away. It might be time to pack it in for the season. English language fairy tales all have similar, optimistic, “sunny ways” endings. You know how that goes, “And they lived happily ever after.” For some reason German fairy tales end with, “And if they didn’t die, they are still alive today.” I’ll end my story with, “And if he is still alive, he is still hunting for his wolf.”