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Alaska wildlife, animals in Alaska

 

Whisper the white wolf

(Don't skip this story just because there are no photos - it's one of the best stories on the website!)

 

It’s around 10 pm, the sun is setting, my husband John is napping in the tent, and I’m lured onto the beach by puffy, pink cumulous clouds hovering low over ocean.  I scan the beach and the mud flats that reach far out into the sea at low tide, and I’m disappointed not to see a single bear.  Even the resident bald eagle pair is absent from one of their favorite perches on the tip of the bluff, and I settle in for a “boring” evening of watching the sunset.  I walk slowly out onto the flats.  The mud is littered with hundreds of halves of clams, the sand speckled white from shells.  It strikes me that these would make great spoons, since I had forgotten to pack our silverware and had resorted to eating with chop sticks made out of tent stakes.  I gather up four clam shells of teaspoon to tablespoon size, and kneel down by a small stream of water being pulled out with the tide.  I begin washing the thin scum of green algae from their smooth inner shells, scraping with globs of sand, and rinsing in the shallow trickle of salt water.

I glance over my shoulder for no conscious reason and what I see doesn’t seem real.  There’s a white wolf trotting straight towards me.  I stay kneeling, not wanting to frighten her away, and expect a timid and disappointing retreat.  But she keeps jogging straight for me, with no apparent intention of stopping.  When she reaches five feet away from my face I bolt upright and she backs off slightly.  She trots around me in a perfect half circle, staring with complete concentration and focus. 

She is simply stunning and has white, long hair streaked with a pale, orange-tinted cream.  Strands of hair clumped from water shake and sway as she walks back and forth, sizing me up.  She is as tall as my waist, moving on long, lean legs, her size resembling a pony more than a dog.  Her paws are huge like bread plates and pat, pat, pat across the slick sheen of water that puddles over the mud.  Her face is unusual, not pointed like all the wolf pictures I’ve seen, but blocky and square jawed. Her face and forehead are composed of sharp angles rather than the point of a streamlined snout.  Then she lunges. 

She leaps towards me, shoulders hunkered low, pushing her front paws into the sand a few feet from where I stand.  She jumps backwards after her lunge and trots in a perfect half circle staring up into my face. Suddenly, she lunges again, her wide paws landing inches from my feet and pushing deep into the sand.  She continues to trot and lunge, lunge and trot over and over again, occasionally clacking her jaws together with a loud snap.  Let me be clear – she was never trying to bite me.  She reminds me of the bears, who make teeth clacking noises as a type of communication- not as any type of biting behavior.  Unnerved, I try to read her body language while becoming acutely aware of the sound of my own heart pumping in thunderclaps behind in my ears. 

I remind myself that there has never been a documented case of a wolf attacking a human while grabbing my flare from my waist belt and flicking open the cap that releases the ignition string (we carry marine flares instead of bear spray as a safety precaution).  A clam shell, one of my “spoons”, crunches loud under my feet, and I realize I’m unconsciously backing away ever so slightly – a sure sign of submission.  As she continues to lunge and circle, circle and lunge, I realize this is not a typical wolf encounter, and I need to become calm, assertive and dominant.  I ignore the sound of my heart, puff up my chest, breathe a deep calm breath, and shout “No” in a stern voice while pointing at her.  She startles for a moment, but resumes the lunging dance almost immediately.  It is hard to gage time in moments like these, when fear and wonder mix to suspend time’s usual markings.  Reflecting afterwards, she seemed to be circling and lunging at me for five to ten minutes, however my sense of time was somewhat unreliable.

I scan her body for clues – she isn’t emaciated, her fur is healthy, her teeth are smooth, undamaged, and a gleaming white – telling me she isn’t old, ill or starving which could lead to aberrant behavior.  I notice a pup with her, hanging back on the beach, and wonder if she is being protective?  But the pup appears too far off to be a factor.  I yell “No” once again, and this time I take a step towards her.  She backs off and the lunging game ceases as suddenly as it began.  She half-circles a few times staring and thinking, turns her back to me, and trots off in an unspoken truce. 

Startled by her retreat, two bald eagles (who must have landed to watch our exchange) soar upwards from the flats right behind her.  Pink light refracts off miles of mud – the ocean floor revealed and now sparkling in a golden hue reserved solely for sunset.  The wolf’s white fur glows and I drink in her gait amidst the backdrop of a gleaming glacier and jagged, stone peaks.  I’m caught inside this most “surreal” of scenes, privileged to see the very real world as it is, was, and would be without humans.  I’ve wept for this world, but tonight my heart bursts at the seams from being treated not as an observer, but rather a participant, inside this powerful, pristine and primordial moment. 

I slowly walk off the flats and onto the sandy shore, moving at an angle from the wolf so I don’t appear to be making a complete and passive retreat.  She and the pup head quickly towards the berm where they will shortly disappear from view, so I kneel down in the sand, hoping not to scare her off.  Upon seeing me kneel, she runs straight at me, and once again begins lunging.  I continue to try and decipher her behavior.  Her tail is neither down nor up, but neutral.  She isn’t furling her lips, nor snarling, or bearing her teeth, but occasionally bites the air causing a teeth snapping noise.  I take a step in her direction and she backs off immediately and trots once again to the berm.  She tiptoes through tangles of driftwood and disappears over the berm’s tall hump of sand filled with grass.  I walk quickly to the trail that crosses the berm, hoping to alert my husband John before the wolf disappears altogether. 

She now sits on the hump of the second berm, head poking up from wild celery stalks and the sway of tall, fat fronds of sea grass, and I holler, “JOHN, JOHN”.  I hear him faintly call something back, so I just yell, “WOLF, WOLF, WOLF!”  The pup bounds through meadow grass that is taller than her body, parallel to our camp.  John emerges from the tent, and with bleary eyes makes his way down the path towards me.  The wolf stays seated, but then moves back towards the beach.  We follow, and sitting on logs smoothed white by the sea she runs past us down the beach.  Shortly thereafter we spot a bear ambling from around the bluff, heading straight towards the wolf who remains standing in the sand.  When they approach each other the bear doesn’t look any bigger than the wolf – either a testament to the largeness of the wolf or the smallness of the bear.  From our angle they appear to touch noses, exchanging sniffs and all the information that entails.  Casual and calm, the bear continues walking on her way.  What a brave wolf.  Taking on humans and bears, she sure is confident.  She turns, and trots once again by us on the beach and over the berm.  We follow on foot and stare as she bounds through the meadow and disappears silently into the willows. 

I spend the next day replaying in my head the encounter with the white wolf.  I come to the conclusion that she thought that I, stooped down and splashing in a stream, had caught a fish that she could perhaps steal.  Kneeling down, washing clam shells with sand, I very much resembled an animal in the act of eating a fresh catch, and maybe the white wolf wanted to see if she could get a bite too.  My remembrance of the eagles furthers this theory.  They had landed sometime during our interchange, in the same fashion that they, along with the gulls, descend and gather in wait for salmon scraps left behind by fishing bears.  Perhaps the birds likewise thought I looked like an animal feasting on fish and hoped the ensuing “battle” between fisherman and wolf would land them a fleshy, torn apart meal.  While I’ll never know for sure the divinations of the white wolf, what ran through her mind, I do know that she saw me as part of her world.  Not realizing the impossibility of my slow hands and dull nose to ever catch a salmon swimming in a stream, this wolf saw me as an animal participating in the ecosystem in which she hunts and steals.  I speak later that week to a guide in the area who was familiar with a white wolf from the nearby bay.  He says she is the alpha female and a competent fish thief.  I feel privileged to have had this type of encounter with any animal, let alone an alpha wolf. 

I also believe that after she realized I didn’t have a fish, she was trying to get me to play.  Like the body language of domestic dogs, she lowered her front legs, dipping down with her butt in the air, which is an invitation to play.  Her lunges looked exactly like my new puppy who playfully pounces at me and our older dog in the very same way.  In retrospect I wish I had known how to appropriately respond, and wonder if I could have engaged in a friendly game of chase with a wild wolf.  The ability for animals to reach out and invite humans into their lives is astonishing and a testament to how special wild spaces can be when they are free from the violence of hunting.

That night my intentions to watch and wait for wolves on the beach at sunset are thwarted by the grip of exhaustion from walking all day in the sun.  I retire early to the tent, drained from last night’s adrenaline filled activities.  Hours later I’m awakened, snug in my sleeping bag, by the long, loud howl of a wolf on the beach.  She sings alone, and the howl soars twice through a long scale of notes.  The song is coming from nearby, and I fall back asleep to the image, so clear to my closed eyes, of the square jawed and splendid white wolf. 

 

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© 2008 Jessica Teel