Another clear, luminous day. We sit at our observation point surrounded by books, backpacks, notebooks, and assorted gear. We are strict about staying together and about a minimum of moving about. When we do talk, we keep our voices low.
Edgar has greeted us along upon our arrival along with Redneck who has been left on duty as babysitter while the other 6 adults, including Mother, are at the carcass – wherever that is – retrieving leftovers or hunting a fresh meal. The five youngsters are in a puppy pile, fast asleep in the sun. They get up intermittently to play under the watchful eye of Redneck who grudgingly stands up every now and then to harass Edgar as he marches about like a miniature Napoleon. Edgar knows just how far to push his luck – we hope. He stays just out of reach of Red who, it appears, is not particularly interested in picking a quarrel with Edgar but simply in asserting herself as Officer in Charge.
The musk oxen seemed plentiful at first but we soon conclude that we are probably watching many of the same animals in different locations each day. Still, there are more than there were just a few years ago. In August of 1997, winter arrived early in the form of accumulating snow. The following summer, Dave found lots of dead musk oxen and no calves. Missing also were leverets, young arctic hares. He found only two wolves. Again in the summer of 2000, snow came early and continued to pile up. The following year, once again there was no evidence of musk oxen calves or arctic hares. As for the wolves, Dave discovered one set of tracks, and in 2002, no wolves appeared. These cycles and fluctuations are not unusual in the arctic. Walter Medwid has said it well: “It’s life at the edge . . . so hardy and diverse yet so vulnerable to extreme conditions."
We are fortunate. The summer of 2006 is a year of plenty. Musk oxen calves graze beside their huge, shaggy mothers. The massive bulls often stray some distance from the cows and the new crop of calves. The herds are large – 13, 17, 23! We have fun counting. Arctic hares are more abundant this year too. They bound through the boulder spills or huddle rigid and immobile as we pass them. We love their antics – hopping like kangaroos on their hind legs, leaping suddenly into the air, rolling over and dashing madly for several strides, then stopping, hunched in frozen immobility.
Four herds of musk oxen were visible yesterday from our vantage point. The wolves do not display much interest in testing the herds in the vicinity of the den, although one fascinating encounter has taken place that Dave plans to write about. Perhaps these local behemoths are accustomed to the wolves and are, therefore, wary. Thus the wolves must range farther away in order to be successful at making a kill.
Mother naps undisturbed in the warmth of the sun, impervious to the wind that would chill us if it were not for our layers of insulation. The hills remind me of taffy, unfolding in endless shades of caramel and umber and gold. There is nothing benign about this vast landscape. It puts us humans firmly in our place in the grand scheme of things. In the distance, icebergs dot the fjord, and the smaller ice floes drift along like dollops of whipped cream. We are now accustomed to the 24 hours of daylight. In the distance, the forbidding Sawtooth Mountains shine in the sunlight.
The evening drifts by. Redneck sleeps on the rocks that serve as the roof of the den. She shows no signs of restlessness as perhaps she would if the pack were headed home, though they often come in by ones and twos, not as a group. The sky is a wonder. Cirrus clouds, usually so wispy in the southern latitudes, are spectacular here. Above us now is one that looks like the streaming hair of some mythical inhabitant of the sky – or maybe like the shed-out wolf fur that rolls along like white tumbleweed across the wrinkled and deeply fissured land.
Edgar, having departed on a brief reconnaissance to parts unknown, soars in like a winged black phantom. Airborne, he is regal and elegant. On the ground, he is a klutzy martinet. Dave affectionately calls him as “our little chicken.” Edgar is interested in Nancy’s and my salmon salad sandwiches. He croaks and fusses and complains about our woeful lack of hospitality until we give in and share a few bites of our meal with him. Mother returns sometime after 6:00. We conclude that she may have visited day-before-yesterday’s carcass. Her belly is full, and the pups know it. They rush out to greet her, and she indulges them by allowing them to nurse. Then she regurgitates, unloading her grocery basket. The pups gobble up the solid food and then pester Mother for another round of milk.
We have two-way radios with us, walkie-talkies, which we have not used until today. We have stayed together to minimize stress for the wolves. But Mother and Redneck are here with the pups, and neither adult exhibits any signs of nervousness. Quite the opposite, in fact. They either ignore us and sleep or play with the pups, or, if they are bored, they stroll over and stare at us as though they are trying to figure out why we find them so interesting. Dave decides to go to another vantage point for some observations. He stations himself on his ATV about 50 yards away and radios us. Nancy responds. During this exchange, Mom and Redneck are in front of Nancy and me. When Dave radios, the two wolves become suddenly agitated. They pace back and forth, huffing. Red barks sharply. Both appear confused and alarmed. The wolves circle toward Dave, and at the sound of Nancy’s voice on his radio, the anxiety escalates. We immediately stop the transmissions, and Dave comes back so we can figure out what has happened. The wolves settle down, but we are eager to hear Dave’s explanation for what may have triggered the hyperactivity and anxiety. Dave notes the wolves have displayed all the signs of the stress they exhibit when a strange wolf or wolf pack is nearby. Mother and Red perceived a threat, and they were looking for the “other wolf or wolves” their senses told them were present. Was it something in the frequency on the radios? We don’t know for sure. But something in the radio transmission signaled danger.
The night moves on, and we pack up. Mother and Red are asleep, stretched out in the swale among the clusters of arctic poppies and the waving cotton grass. The pups are still romping along the face of the rock outcropping. Mother and Red alternately raise their heads and check on the youngsters before going back to sleep. There is no sign of the other adults. It’s easy to understand why the wolves choose this place to den. But they don’t always. This morning we hiked over to a pit den used in 1990 and 1991 by the original “Mom”and her daughter, Whitey. Whitey had 1 pup in 1991 and 2 pups in 1992. She and her mother moved the two pups to the rock den in 1992. It is puzzling why they were not born here. Perhaps, Dave says, there was ice in the rock den when the pups were due to be born. It’s impossible to know for certain.