Wolf at the door


It’s still ten below here in the valley most mornings but the days are getting longer, the sun has been out almost continuously, and the wolves are abroad in numbers.

It seems that wherever you turn there is the rumour and sign of their passing.

Olli, our septuagenarian German neighbour who has spent more than 20 years up here in the bush, reports three wolf kills on his 500-acre plot.

Across the river from us there is another kill and Ed and Lynda have seen the coyotes and eagles scavenging what the wolves have left behind just across from their house.

Today, for the second time in a week, I crossed the river to investigate. There are no houses over there and the wild animals run just a little freer than on our lightly homesteaded western bank.

Taking the two dogs – German Shepherds, our own two socialised wolflets – I set off through the three-foot deep snow.

It was fairly warm out and the snow was heavy and cloying. With not a single snowfall in the last three weeks every track stood out firm and strong.

At first I traced my own footsteps – made last weekend on a first foray – but after a few hundred feet I branched off to the right and upwards.

It was heavy going, I had stripped my snowshoes down to their minimum and I sunk ever deeper as I struggled upwards. Every now and then I stopped to catch my breath.

After a few minutes I came across the first wolf tracks. Just one lone little trail. Then another trail joined in. Then another.

Soon I was walking on what can only be described as a wolf highway. I looked for signs of humans but there were none. Once or twice there was a larger tracks – probably elk or moose.

And then we came across the first wolf scat – a fairly compact dog-like turd but packed with hair.

My two charges looked alarmed. Until then they had happily snuffled along in the snow, sniffing at this and that, content in the belief that their omnipotent master was with them.

Now they looked at me – unarmed, red-faced and breathing heavily – and I could see the thought cross even their dull canine minds: will he really be able to see off a pack of wild wolves?

Of course the brave duo had chased townie doggies around Anchorage last winter but now they were up against real lupine hillbillies that feast on live animals and drink the blood of ungulates.

They looked worried. Then we saw another wolf scat, and another. As if to the fall of an invisible conductor’s baton, they both arched their backs and pinched off their own rather less fearsome looking product.

I was not sure if it was one of those dog scent-marking moments or perhaps the prospect of a face-to-face meeting with their undomesticated brethren that had loosened their bowels.

Of course, I have always wanted to see a wolf, but so far my efforts have been barren. Since arriving in wolf country it seems that everyone has seen one except me.

Last year while out guiding, the guests in Gillian’s car (Gillian is our excellent, second guide) twice saw wolves – once a lone animal and another time a small group of four or five on a magical frosty late autumn morning.

We have even had a guest who took a close-up snapshot of a wolf, not a mile from our house. At first she thought it was a neighbour’s dog, it stood so still and calm.

When the photo arrived in our email box one morning – the guest had been leaving when she took the photo – there it was: a magnificent black wolf, with piercing green eyes.

There was one time, driving near the ranch late at night, when I fancied I spied a wolf in the headlights but it may have been a coyote, an animal we see fairly frequently.

With only one recorded human death at the hands of wolves in north America in the last 100 years, I was willing to take the chance of running into a whole pack of them.

The dogs, I suspect, were not, and they stuck to me like barnacles for the next half hour or so as we passed several more hairy turds and pools of blood in the snow.

At the bottom of one incline there were the remains of what looked like an elk. The wolves had done themselves proud.

All that was left of the unfortunate was fur and the herbivorous contents of it’s stomach.

Tramping through the snow on a sunny day is only one of many delights we have discovered in our first full winter in the valley.

We did, however, cheat a little over Christmas and visited Europe for six weeks since my last posting.

We travelled to England, Wales, Hungary and Estonia and spent a wonderful time traipsing around cafes and restaurants and catching up with family and friends.

Of course with the trip came jetlag – and an opportunity to catch up on some of the European reading we miss so much here in the New World.

Both Kristin and I read Charlotte Hobson’s beautifully-narrated account of a year spent in a provincial Russian town the year that Communism fell.

I also read Arkady Babchenko’s brutal account of fighting in Chechnya. But the find of the trip was Patrick Bishop’s A Good War.

Patrick was once my foreign editor at the Daily Telegraph. Since then he has gone on to greater things with the publication of three non-fiction books in as many years.

A Good War is his exceptional first novel. It is so much more than just a good war story.

I don’t usually plug products in this blog – especially not those written by my friends – it would somehow seem wrong.

But both Kristin and I enjoyed the book so much I have to mention it. So, next time you’re looking for something for a winter evening by the fire, that’s our recommendation.

When we finally got back to north America the ranch was buried under three feet of iced, crusted snow.

Far too tall an order for our feeble catalogue snow plough, we called on the services of neighbour Ed who ploughed a small path to our front door with his yellow digger.

Once we had the water working and the house heated – which took the best part of 48 hours – the next task was to clear the snow off the roofs of the outbuildings.

During our first two winters we have both times lost structures to the weight of the snow and were determined to avoid the same this year.

For days on end I stood on the roofs and shoveled, no mechanical shortcut available.

For the wolflets – now three years old and no smarter than the day they were born – this was a pleasure almost too much to bear.

For hours at a time they stood below and fought over the flying chunks, growling, barking and snapping at each other as if each icy missile was the juiciest, meatiest morsel.