– 80 degrees North Latitude
Cold arctic air does not hold much water vapor, so the High Arctic is one of the driest regions in the world. The islands of the far north are classified as deserts, but the area around the government weather station (one of several thermal oases on Ellesmere) is alive with wildlife and rich with a wide variety of shallow-rooted plants, some of which produce beautiful brilliant flowers. Purple saxifrage, arctic poppies, lousewort, daisies and arctic willow enliven the landscape, and cotton grass carpets the boggy areas where the permafrost restricts drainage. Gentle rolling hills surround the weather station, but to the north looms Blacktop Ridge, and to the east rise the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Sawtooth Range. Axel Heiberg Island with its ice fields shining like polished mirrors and its soaring mountains lies just to the west, about 18 miles across a frozen span of water. Incredible numbers of birds nest here or stop on their way to destinations to the north or south. Long-tailed jaegers wheel and cry and swoop down for dropped tidbits of food. There are arctic terns, snow buntings, gulls, ptarmigan, snowy owls, ruddy turnstones, ducks, hawks and a few ravens. The area is home to seals and, occasionally, polar bears. Arctic hares and foxes, musk oxen and a few Peary caribou live here, too, along with lemmings, weasels and ermine.
And the region is home to Canis lupus arctos – the arctic wolf.
Except for the 8-person weather station staff, a few military personnel and small teams of scientists that come and go, the animals here are unaccustomed to people. And although the first settlers of the far north and later the pre-Dorset, the Dorset and the Thule people hunted caribou and musk oxen, the wolves have never been harassed or persecuted. Thus, they are curious in the presence of humans, and they often approach, all the while keeping some margin of distance. Their level of wariness may depend on their individual personalities, but they typically exhibit no anxiety that people will harm them.
They are, however, wild animals and they are predators. We remind ourselves of that in the days ahead when the wolves lie sleeping close by and when they float along with their tireless trot as they accompany us across the tundra - and when they bring the pups out to romp in the meadow in full view of us as we huddle, bundled like mummies to ward off the cutting wind.
The day is clear and bright for our flight from Resolute to Ellesmere. As we approach the island from the south, we become increasingly aware of the reality of its size (about the same area as the state of Minnesota). The Arctic Ocean is sheeted with ice, and the mountains of Ellesmere point their blinding white peaks at the plane as we press our faces to the windows. Below, the tongues of glaciers glisten in the brilliant arctic sunshine. Dave has seen all this scores of times over the past 20 years, but he watches intently and points out landmarks. We are alternately speechless and wild with awestruck exclamations. The Himalayan splendor of the shining Sawtooth Range just ahead is our beacon to the gravel landing field at the weather station.
After a smooth landing and an hour or two to get settled, Ted and I receive lessons in operating 4-wheelers which we will need in some places where there is a prescribed route for these vehicles. Since Nancy Gibson has done this before, she gets a refresher course. It isn’t hard, but it does help to have had driving experience with standard shift vehicles and 4-wheel drive. Tonight, Ted elects to take a turn at staying behind since we have 3 ATV's and 4 people. So about 9:00 p.m., Dave, Nancy and I head out in the direction of the rock den for which Dave has the government research permit. This is the den featured in the 1988 National Geographic documentary White Wolf and in Dave’s books about the long-term study of wolves in the high arctic. This site, a beautiful rock outcropping with a meadow on the east side, has no doubt been used for centuries as a natal den by countless generations of arctic wolves. Some years, it stands vacant, though, for reasons we can only guess. But this year, we anticipate that it is home to a wolf family, and our eagerness to confirm this is reflected in the haste with which we prepare our first visit to the vicinity of the pack’s summer base.
We crawl along on our ATV’s beside a bubbling creek. I am concentrating hard when suddenly Dave alerts us by pointing to the west. Headed straight toward us is a wolf, trotting effortlessly down the slope of the hill, its lean body suspended almost motionlessly above the long legs and the flicking feet.
I am incredulous. I have seen the documentary film White Wolf literally hundreds of times. I used to show it to my students – every year, 5 periods a day for 12 years. I have convinced myself that I am prepared for the arctic wolf’s absence of fear in the presence of humans. But it turns out I am not. The emotional impact is greater than anything I have anticipated, and I am overwhelmed with – what? Joy? Something like that. I am at a loss for words. Dave and Nancy smile. They know the feeling.
The first wolf is joined by 4 others, and they escort us to a vantage point behind and well to one side of the rock outcropping where we find a place to discretely watch the wolf pack. We are careful not to get close to the den, not to intrude. We sit close together and quietly wait. Noses twitching, eyes locked on us, the wolves come close, some perhaps 20 feet from us. We can hear the pebbles skittering under their blocky feet, hear them breathing, sniffing. They are curious, watchful, intent and self-possessed. The pups are not in view. No doubt they are inside the rock den. We make no effort to position ourselves so we can see the mouth of the cave entrance. That could stress the family, and they might move the pups to another location. Dave is watchful for any signs of fear or nervousness – huffing, barking, hiding and peeking over a rock with ears pricked forward. Those are the obvious signals of distress. There are other, more subtle clues, ones that Dave has learned from years of intense observation. We would leave immediately at the first sign of anxiety, but there is no evidence that the wolves are apprehensive. By 1:00 a.m., the pups are still not in view, but we don’t want to overstay our welcome. We head away, the sky luminous with light as the sun does its lazy circle above our heads in the arctic summer. Seasons here are not designated winter, spring, summer, autumn. It’s “the light time” and “the dark time.”