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Getting up close and personal with North America’s alpha predator.
THE WOLF TRACKS — large, wide paws about the size of an NBA player’s fist, claws digging into the frozen ground — are fresh, likely made just minutes earlier. Kneeling down to get a better look, our guides estimate a dozen wolves could be traversing this lonely stretch of wilderness just west of Canada’s frozen Hudson Bay. The chase is on.
A few yards away, I scan the horizon over the pine and barren willow trees for the wolf pack I traveled nearly 2,000 miles to see. I’d been told you can’t get closer to wild wolves anywhere in the world than this remote wilderness in northern Manitoba, and am anxious to find out if that is true.
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After following the tracks for several more miles, one of our guides, National Geographic photographer Jad Davenport, glimpses the wolf pack in his binoculars; they stretch out 11 deep and trot along the well-worn snow-machine path heading for the frozen bay. Both the paths and sea ice act as interstates for the local wildlife, especially the wolves, allowing them to bypass the often hip-deep snow.
Davenport and another guide, Boomer Jerritt, drive snow machines, each towing a sled called a komatik that’s filled with visitors — myself included. A third guide, Butch Saunders of the York Factory Cree First Nations, is leading a Nat Geo film crew elsewhere. It’s a jarring ride; every time the snow machine hits a large bump, the other komatik occupants and I launch nearly a foot into the air.
When we eventually catch up to the wolves a few miles later, we quickly pass them, making sure to give them a wide berth. We ditch the snow machines and walk out onto the ice, 50 yards or so off the wolves' projected path. It would be up to the wolves if they want to get closer to us. Most of them don’t, as they separate into two groups, one passing to the north and another to the south. But a few brave wolves decide to get a closer look at us, as if to divine our intentions. One gets to about 12–15 feet away, so close I can see the raised hackles on his neck — asserting his dominant status. He silently appraises us as he walks past, barely breaking stride.
Humans have long had a fascination with wolves, and I’m no exception. Perhaps it’s the dichotomy of the wolf that attracts us: Wolves represent all the best aspects of humanity — highly intelligent, loyal, strong, inquisitive — while being truly wild animals. The gray wolf (scientific name: Canis lupus) may be the most widespread mammal in the world, with an estimated population of 250,000 worldwide, with 57,000 in Canada alone.
But they’re also among the most misunderstood and feared. “People want to either cuddle or kill them,” says Davenport, who resembles a younger, more handsome Jeremy Clarkson. “There’s not a lot of in between.”
Because wolves are so often hunted by people, they typically steer clear of humans — except in the area sometimes referred to as the Kaska Coast, where the Opoyastin pack roam a massive stretch of subarctic Canada about 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. (Opoyastin is Cree for “big wind,” and also the name of a nearby river.) The ancestors of these wolves — also called cloud wolves — were hunted many decades ago by the York Factory Cree First Nations tribe. But processing the hides was too much hassle for too little money, so the hunts stopped. In the years since, an interesting dynamic has sprung up.
The cloud wolves keep a watchful eye on Cree hunting camps. When hunters field dress their moose kills, unwanted parts are buried, like the legs and intestines, only to be later dug up and gobbled down by the opportunistic scavengers. It’s similar to how ancient wolves were domesticated by our ancestors 130,000 years ago (eventually evolving into today’s dogs), although the Opoyastin wolves remain entirely wild. They do seem to be as intrigued by the two-legged interlopers on their land as we are by them.
The Opoyastin pack wolves are estimated to be about 30 percent larger than those in Yellowstone — some potentially reaching nearly 200 pounds — and are known for hunting moose, and even the occasional polar bear. On our first day observing the pack, we see them harassing and chasing another wolf that has wandered into their territory.
Perhaps more interesting is the Opoyastin pack’s behavior among each other. Through the spotting scope, we watch pack members play, wrestle, lick, and cuddle one another. I try not to anthropomorphize these animals, but they do seem to show a tremendous amount of love and affection toward their pack mates. It’s hard not to feel a kinship.
I arrived on a Cessna prop plane from the small town of Churchill days earlier, landing on a dirt airstrip in front of the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, our home base for the next week. The Kaska Coast is true wilderness; the only way to get there is by plane, boat, or snowmobile. The closest hospital is more than 125 miles away in Churchill, a fact I became keenly aware of when I signed up for special medevac insurance. Other than the few outbuildings surrounding the lodge, this is the only semblance of civilization for many, many miles.
Our individual rooms are fairly sparse, but the spacious main gathering area gives off vintage hunting lodge vibes. I imagine Ernest Hemingway gulping down coffee in front of the fireplace, watching through the huge picture windows for his next trophy. Thankfully, we’d be hunting our prey with cameras, not rifles. Tour company Churchill Wild has run polar-bear photography trips for years in this area, but only recently began doing similar trips for the Opoyastin wolves after discovering just how unique the wolf pack is. Given the terrain, tours mostly happen during the winter when the ground and rivers are frozen. Temperatures can fall well below freezing, but we remain relatively toasty thanks to heavy-duty outerwear and the liberal use of Little Hottie heat packs. Churchill Wild provides each of us with a Quartz Vostok expedition parka, FXR Team FX Pant, and Baffin Impact Boots. I also have a couple of different sock hats, both fleece and wool, ski socks I usually double up on, and varied gloves depending on the conditions. Typically I wear a pair of HEAD Ultrafit gloves under a pair of larger gloves; when snapping photos, I take off the larger pair and keep on the thinner.
The Opoyastin pack wolves are estimated to be about 30 percent larger than those in Yellowstone and are known for hunting moose, and even the occasional polar bear.
As the largest landmark in the surrounding area (not to mention the appetizing smells emanating from it), the lodge seems to be used as a marker by the wolves. It’s not unusual to capture a few shots of them walking around the perimeter, and we even witness the pack en masse chasing a fleeing, frightened rabbit past the front of the lodge. On several nights, the northern lights illuminate the sky over the lodge, and my biggest regret is not getting a wolf to pose for me while taking in the show.
The trip brings guests from as far away as Switzerland and Singapore, the allure of wolves knowing no national boundaries. Group sizes are kept small, both to be less unwieldy for the guides and less intimidating for the wolves. Being one of the largest members of the group, and definitely the hairiest, I feel a bit of added trepidation — the wolves might easily mistake me for a moose.
But this trip isn’t just about getting close-up selfies with the wolves. Davenport and the other trip leaders hope to gather data to help wildlife biologists and other experts learn more about the species as a whole, and the Opoyastin pack in particular. That means setting up trail cameras, getting video of the wolves howling (individual wolves can be identified by their howl), and gathering scat and hair samples.
Our first day at the lodge is spent testing out gear and setting out trail cameras. A week before, the wolves chewed up a camera and dropped it near the lodge’s water hole several hundred yards away. During the latter part of our visit, a member of the Nat Geo crew left a pair of binoculars on the ground; they were found the next day, covered in urine. The wolf pack left no doubt as to who was in charge here.
We post trail cameras throughout the pack’s known range, in which lies a moose carcass they’re slowly devouring near the Mistikokan River. The average adult wolf eats up to 35 pounds of meat a day, so the remains of that 1,200-pound moose will likely feed the pack for multiple days. Each time we enter the area to swap out memory cards, we fill with anxiety. I hate having my dinner interrupted; how would multiple 200-pound wolves with razor-sharp canines react? Luckily we avoid barging in on brunch, and are able to watch the remains dwindle down to a skull and a few fragmented bones during our week.
Although we have multiple close encounters with the Opoyastin pack, one in particular sticks out in my mind. After watching the pack slumber on the ice — the reflective surface of the ice actually helps warm them — we move on until spotting a dark fleck on the horizon. We stop and watch as the fleck stirs, and then begins walking toward us. I expect the wolf to veer off, but Lip Lip — so named because of a scar on his muzzle — walks up to within just feet of us, his inquisitive nature shining through. We all stand motionless, trying not to spook him. If a wolf could look like he was ordered directly from central casting, it’s Lip Lip — thick, gorgeous fur that’s beige, black, and white; wide muzzle; deep hazel eyes.
After a few moments, Lip Lip attempts to circle around behind us, his massive paws crunching the hard-packed snow. Jerritt turns as well, keeping an eye on him and a hand on the rifle slung over his shoulder.
“For those three minutes, the wolf and I were silently communicating with one another, trying to understand what the other was doing and why,” Jerritt says afterward. “He kept trying to push boundaries, to see what he could do. I felt like I needed to keep him somewhat off guard, not allowing him to focus on any one thing or person, which could cause a problem.”
I don’t sense any malicious intent emanating from Lip Lip, merely curiosity. (Of course if I were alone and he not gorged with moose flesh, it very likely could have been a different story.) Despite being mere feet away from an alpha predator, I only feel excited and awestruck. Lip Lip studies each of us for a few all-too-brief moments, then trots away. As we watch him become a fleck yet again, Jerritt admits that was the closest he’d ever been to one of the Opoyastin wolves. Locking eyes with the creature was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
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After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, Robert Annis broke free of the shackles of gainful employment to become an award-winning outdoor travel journalist. His byline has appeared in numerous publications and websites, including National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Hemispheres, Lonely Planet, the Chicago Tribune, and Hidden Compass.
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