Wolf of the north
BY MICHAEL ENGELHARD
My cross-sountry skis hiss against the surface glare, slicing mile after mile of snowy back-of-beyond. Only the panting of huskies and the crunching of sled runners add to their sound. We are on our annual spring break trip, this time tracking the drifted-in road to Wonder Lake into Denali National Park. Twilight overtakes our dog team and skiers early on this bluebird March day. When the chill starts to bite through layers of down and wool and all color drains from the land, we pull over to camp in a copse of white spruce.
“High-pitched wailing rivets me to the spot. It seems to flow from nowhere and all places at once, piercing the night and my soul.”
After dinner in our wall tent, kept cozy by a small twig-burning stove, I step outside. The ghostly, cold fire of northern lights plays overhead, fluttering veils of neon-green gauze. I stretch my sore shoulders, and my senses strain into the calm. Our goal is to scout a route for an outdoor education course, but I secretly hope for a run-in with the most evasive denizen of these frozen wastes: the gray wolf.
High-pitched wailing rivets me to the spot. It seems to flow from nowhere and all places at once, piercing the night and my soul. More voices soon mix with the lone lament to mesh the pack’s desire.
Our sled dogs briefly raise their heads but remain eerily silent. Curled up again, noses tucked under tails, they disregard their cousins’ wild song. A breeze has sprung up, ruffling the fur on my parka hood. It’s a strip of wolf pelt, much coveted, because it does not frost up easily when breathed upon. It is silken and rich with memories.
Some years ago, I attended a memorial potlatch in the Koyukon Indian settlement of Huslia. After a series of speeches and songs to honor Sophie Sam, an elder who’d passed away, her family handed out beaver skins, wads of cash, rifles, blankets, beaded buckskin gloves, and household goods. I received one of many strips cut from a wolf fleece, which my mother later sewed onto the parka hood.
I had learned much about wolves from one Koyukon elder in Allakaket, astride the Arctic Circle. On maps I spread on his kitchen table, he outlined his hunting and trapping excursions, which had taken him into Brooks Range valleys and as far south as the Yukon River. In the mountains and plains to the north, bands of semi-nomadic Koyukon had hunted Dall sheep and caribou for thousands of years in competition with wolves. With a callused finger, he tapped on den sites he knew. His eyes took on a distant expression, as if he were reliving each mile on the trail. “That teekkona, he keeps caribou strong.”
An ecological understanding equaling Western science showed in that statement. Wolves evolved in tandem with caribou, weeding out the old, sick, and injured. Fangs had shaped hooves, eyesight honed sense of smell. A life of observing the animals had made this man an expert and better hunter. In soft, lilting village English he recalled a rare black one he’d caught as a young man. He traded its pelt and others in Kotzebue for his first decent gun. I sensed admiration for the sleek, efficient predators beneath his words.
The elder spoke at great length about the web of taboos surrounding this animal, whose role equals that of bear or wolverine. To appease the spirit of a wolf killed, a choice piece of caribou backstrap should be burned as an offering. Disrespect unfailingly brought bad luck, injury, disease, or even death to the hunter or his family.
The pact binding teekkona and the Koyukon is ancient. When such things were still possible, a wolf-man lived among them, sharing their homes, participating in their hunts. Before he left to rejoin his own kind, he promised that wolves would sometimes leave food for people, grateful for the hospitality he’d received. So, to this day, Koyukon men coming upon a fresh wolf kill may take what they need.
When my ruff turned ratty, I stored my old parka in a cardboard box. At the time, I no longer lived in Alaska, but near the Grand Canyon, where the last native wolf was killed over seven decades ago.
Winter nights in Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks can be crisp and studded with stars—but they are devoid of wolves serenading. No longer can tan-and-gray mists be glimpsed from the corners of your eyes. No new stories re-forge ties between them and us. The price of a few cows and sheep seems small compared to the loss pervading these woods.
Still, there is reason to hope. For 20 years, White Mountain Apaches, southern kin of the Koyukon, have been releasing Mexican wolves on tribal lands. And in 2015, a Wyoming stray explored the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. After an absence of nearly a lifetime, wildness had returned.
Michael Engelhard values the unappreciated, the underdog. He has always rooted for Manuelito over Kit Carson, coyotes over Chihuahuas, Trickster over the Trinity, and black widows over Black Diamond.