There was a girl who met up with a wolf, back in Distant Time, when wolves were human. The wolf wanted her for his wife, even though he had two wives already. When he took her home, his two wives smelled her and knew she was human. After a while she had a child – a boy – and the wolf decided to kill his other two wives. He did that, but afterward, the spirits of those two wolf wives killed his human wife and ate up her insides. Since then, women are never supposed to kill wolves, and they should not work with wolf hides until the animal has been dead for a while. They must follow these rules until they are too old to have children.
– Koyukon Indian tale
My cross-country skis hiss against the surface glare, slicing mile after mile of the snowy expanse. Only the panting of huskies and the crunching of sled runners augment their noise. We are on our annual spring break trip, this time tracking the drifted-over road to Wonder Lake into the heart of Denali National Park. Twilight overtakes our dog team and skiers early on this brisk March day. When the cold starts to bite through thick layers of wool and down and all color drains from the land, we pull over to camp in a copse of white spruce.
After dinner in our wall tent – kept cozy by a small wood-burning stove – I step outside. By now, the cold fire of northern lights plays overhead, fluttering in curtains of neon-green gauze. They easily blot out the pinpricks of stars. I stretch my sore shoulders, and my senses release to the calm. The alleged purpose of this venture is to scout a route for a National Outdoor Leadership School course; but I really hope for a run-in with the most secretive denizen of these frozen wastes: Alaska’s gray wolf.
In all my time in the Last Frontier state, only once has a wolf graced my life with its brief presence. I was solo-kayaking the Noatak River, gliding through blanketing brush fires that pulverized tundra and shrouded silt-and-clay cutbanks. As the smoke screen lifted momentarily, I glimpsed a large canine standing still, blending in perfectly with the surrounding ashes. It appeared like a northern mirage: a creature like smoke itself. The solitary wolf on the riverbank gazed at me without curiosity or concern. He then turned and trotted away, quickly dropping from sight. I had felt strangely abandoned.
A high-pitched wailing pulls me back into the present. It wavers, rises and falls, in sync with the ghosting band above. It seems to come from nowhere and all places at once, piercing the night and my soul. Others soon join the lone voice, meshing the pack’s desire.
Like humans, wolf packs develop their own ‘culture’, a culture that survives the death of its individuals.
These must be the wolves of the East Fork of the Toklat River studied by Adolph Murie, a Minnesota wildlife biologist, between 1939 and 1941 and more recently, by the late Gordon Haber – who died nearby in a plane crash, en route to check on the pack. This pioneer of wolf studies found that, like humans, packs develop their own “culture,” a culture that survives the death of its individuals. Thus the Toklat bunch has occupied the same dens and hunting grounds, possibly since long before World War II. It also has learned to remain largely invisible.
Our sled dogs briefly raise their heads, but remain eerily silent. They curl up again – noses buried under tails – disregarding the song of their wild cousins. A breeze has picked up, ruffling the fur on my parka hood. The ruff is a strip from a wolf pelt, much coveted, since it does not frost-up easily when breathed upon. It is silken, and rich with memories.
Years before, I attended a memorial potlatch in the Koyukon Indian settlement of Huslia. The entire village had gathered in the octagonal community hall built from logs. The women wore shawls and colorful calico dresses in the traditional style, many of the men knee-high mukluks made from the leg skin of Caribous. Scores of children were buzzing around the hall. After a series of speeches to honor Sophie Sam – an elder who had passed away a year before – the singing began. Men and women took turns at the microphone, with songs composed specifically for the occasion. The rhythm hammered out on a hand-held frame drum with a padded stick filled the indoor space. The singers’ voices were heavy with grief but marked by a passion that defied death’s finality. Afterwards, Sophie Sam’s relatives gave gifts to the crowd. They handed out beaver skins, wads of cash, rifles, blankets, beaded buckskin gloves, and an assortment of household goods. I received one of many strips cut from a wolf pelt, which my mother later sewed onto the parka hood. This token not only embodied the sharing of responsibilities, but also deep bonds between wolves and a human community.
The evening ended in a form of communion; long tables bent under homemade casseroles, stews, bread and muffins; “Eskimo ice-cream,” had been whipped into a fluff, from sugar, oil, blueberries and pounded whitefish. Most important though, were meat and fish taken from the land, the true foods ascertaining Athabaskan identity: Moose, Caribou, wild sheep, and salmon – baked, boiled, canned, or smoked. According to tradition, the elders were served first.
I had learned much about wolves from one such elder in Allakaket, north of the Arctic Circle. When I visited for the first time, I had found his mudroom cluttered with the implements of a bush life. There were slumping hip waders, foul-weather gear, snow machine parts, dip nets, a shotgun, beaver skin mittens dangling from a nail, and a motor saw with a chain that needed tightening. Two wolf pelts flowed from the rafters – complete with tail, legs, ears, and muzzle. Before I knocked on the inner door, I had reached out and stroked the silver-tipped fur. The gaping eyeholes and the hide’s flattened appearance had left me slightly unsettled.
In the mountains and plains to the north, bands of semi-nomadic Koyukon had hunted sheep and caribous for thousands of years, in friendly competition with packs of wolves.
A dead beaver lay on the kitchen floor, half-skinned and placed on a piece of cardboard, to keep the meat clean and blood off the linoleum. The elder invited me to sit. But before I unrolled my maps on the table, we snacked on dried Caribou dipped in seal oil. (A delicacy traded from coastal Inupiat.) His wife meanwhile busied herself quietly with a pot of Caribou tongue soup bubbling on the stove.
The National Park Service wanted to know which areas of Kobuk River and Gates of the Arctic National Parks these hunters and gatherers traditionally used. If they could prove prior use, the Koyukon would still be entitled to hunt there, and even to trap wolves.
The old man pointed out the routes of his hunting and trapping expeditions. His forays had taken him way above timberline, into the snowy crags of the Brooks Range, and as far south as the willow-choked banks of the Yukon River. In the mountains and plains to the north, bands of semi-nomadic Koyukon had hunted Dall’s sheep and caribous for thousands of years, in friendly competition with packs of wolves. The meanders he drew on my maps, with felt pens of various colors, resembled the maze of wolf wanderings and territories wildlife biologists chart on their maps. The elder’s eyes took on a distant expression, as if he were re-living each mile on the trail. His crinkled, leathery face relaxed.
“That teekkona, he keeps caribou strong.” An ecological understanding at least equaling that of western science found expression in those few words. A lifetime observing the animals under natural conditions had made this man a wolf expert and better hunter. I sensed admiration for the closely bonded predators under his words. With a callused finger, he tapped on wolf den sites, and those of bears – black and brown. He shared that the quality of pelts – fox, mink, marten, lynx, otter, beaver, wolverine, and wolf – was best in January and February, when temperatures plummeted, and the animals grew coats dense and shiny. Though he was too old now to go on long trips, he remembered how to intercept wolves near their kills, which bait to use and how to set and disguise traps. “They are smart, just like us,” he chuckled.
Wolf pelts are still valued highly. They can bring 450 dollars or more at the fur exchange in Fairbanks or Anchorage.
In his soft, lilting village English laced with Koyukon vocabulary, he recalled a rare black wolf he had caught more than four decades ago. He had traded its pelt together with other furs in Kotzebue, at the Bering Strait coast, for his first decent gun. Wolf pelts are still valued highly. They can bring 450 dollars or more at the fur exchange in Fairbanks or Anchorage, cash that is needed for outboard motors, rifles, four-wheelers, and snowmachines.
This man spoke at great length about respect. He told me about the web of taboos surrounding this animal, an animal whose spiritual power is only rivaled by that of Wolverine and bear. I had read in an early ethnographic account that in pre-mission days, Athabaskan hunters honored a killed wolf like a chief. They carried it to camp on their shoulders. Then, they brought it inside the hunter’s home, propped it up as if alive, and a shaman would set a potlatch-style banquet before it, to which the entire village contributed. When the wolf-guest had eaten its fill, the men took their share.
When I mentioned practices and beliefs I had come across in my research, the elder became serious, nodding in recognition of an age-old kinship. Currently passing on his knowledge to a grandson, he stressed the rules that guide contact with wolves. A rifle used to shoot one should always be left in the front of the house, and for four days afterwards. To appease the departed spirit, a chunk of dried fish should be put into the dead wolf’s mouth, or a choice piece of caribou backstrap fat burned as an offering. “If you don’t do this,” he concluded, “he will turn on you.” Disregard of the rules of conduct will unfailingly bring bad luck, injury, disease, or even death, to the hunter or his family.
According to another Distant Time tale, the pact binding Koyukon and wolves is ancient: long ago, when such things were still possible, a wolf-man lived among humans. He shared their lives, participating in their hunts. When he left the people to return to his own, he promised that wolves would sometimes leave kills for them. They would drive caribous toward human hunters, in exchange for favors received while they were still human. And thus, to this day, Koyukon men who come upon a fresh wolf kill are entitled to take what they need.
Brother Wolf finds himself ensnared once again in the agendas of game managers, ranchers, hunters, politicians, and environmentalists.
These days, my old down parka is stored away in a box. Its wolf ruff has turned a bit ratty. I no longer live in Alaska, but in Utah, where the last wolf was killed more than seventy years ago. In my new home state, a debate rages about the reintroduction of wolves. Brother Wolf finds himself ensnared once again in the agendas of game managers, ranchers, hunters, politicians, and environmentalists.
Winter nights in the Wasatch Mountains can be crisp and clear and studded with stars, like up north. But they are devoid of the serenading of wolves. No longer can tan-and-gray mists be glimpsed from the corners of your eyes. No new stories take shape, renewing blood ties between them and us. Like grizzlies, wolves have been banned from this part of their native range. The price of a few cows and sheep – or even deer – seems small compared to the loss pervading these forests.
There is reason to hope, though.
On November 27, 2002, a black male wolf was trapped near Ogden, Utah. Tracks of a mate were found nearby. The radio-collared animal turned out to be a stray from a Yellowstone pack two hundred miles north, seeking to expand its territory. After an absence of nearly a lifetime, wildness had returned.
At times I feel tempted to relocate to Alaska, to a place where the voice of the forest can be heard in the night. I still stay put, believing that perhaps, like the Koyukon, we can learn to live with teekkona.
Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska again and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.
Image credit: James Kivetoruk Moses, Wolf Dance in Northwestern Alaska, ca. 1940-1960. Courtesy of Anchorage Museum.
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.