I was really, really hoping to get some wolf photos on this last trip. Just one would’ve been fine. Wolves aren’t as common in the southern reaches of the park, though they’re certainly around, so I was hoping to get lucky enough to maybe see, perchance to photograph, one on the north side of the park. The habitat on the south side isn’t (generally) as wolf friendly – more heavily forested, and lots of alpine mountain country, snow and ice. Dall sheep and moose are the main prey for wolves in that part of the park, and though there are a lot of sheep, the numbers are smaller than the herds of caribou that wander through the north part of the park in the fall and late winter/early spring. There are 2 caribou herds in this part of the park, both transients (and both dwindling). The Mentasta herd winter in the Copper River valley along the Nabesna Road, and they’re moving on at the moment towards their summer range further north. The Nelchina herd is larger, and they winter in Canada, but come through the area in early spring, headed for their calving grounds and summer range to the northeast of the park. They come back through Wrangell – St. Elias in the late fall, before winter.
This year there is quite a lot of snow on the ground in the north part of the park, and that’s been tough on the ungulates. The wolves move much easier over the snow than the moose and caribou do. I found 3 caribou carcasses and one moose carcass, and it seems the wolves are having a good year. I, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. I saw lots of sign of wolves, including the kills; wolf scat, wolf urine, wolf tracks, etc. Alas, all empty tracks. But let me tell you about the coolest wolf sign I ran across.
One night I set out to make some images, only to realize, upon setting up my gear, that I didn’t have my cable release with me. My camera won’t make an exposure longer than 30 seconds without either me holding the shutter release button down (which doesn’t work so well, because I shake, especially at 20 below zero, with a cold north wind just a whippin’) or using the cable. So, I wasn’t able to take any photos.
As I’m staring at my camera bag wondering ‘what kind of idiot would leave his cable release behind?’, and thinking more fondly of a warm sleeping bag a few miles away, I glance over to the north and see a soft green glow on the horizon, above the Mentasta Mountains. The aurora borealis, but faint, not enough to really photograph – just an eery, misty green haze. I pause to watch, but it’s cold; the glow is more a tease than a spectacle and I’m ready to head on t’ward bed. Shouldering my gear I begin to move off, when something holds me in place, and I wait, unsure, feeling the night. I don’t know what it is, but some voice tells me to wait. And I stand.
Within minutes, a lonely howl stirs out of the night, drifting through the dark cold air like a swirling ethereal fog, like the windblown snow flowing wraithlike over the open ground. An answering howl, mournful and plaintive, sounds, further to the east, through the invisible boreal forest. Behind me, to the west, a staccato yip, a pause, then a deep gravelly wail sweeps across the frozen expansive tundra. A discordant atonal cry, dripping with wildness, saturates the valley. Moments later, myriad scattered wolves take up the chorus, orchestrating their eternal song of the night from places unseen, undulating from unison cries and rich choral harmonies to dissonant temporal shifts not of this earth. The numberless spirits of the north are alive tonight.
The cry of the pack is a song of the wild, and tonight, a pitch Alaskan sky is the theater for this desolate opera. And operatic it is; 10 voices I hear now, in a 20 minute concerto that freezes me in place, in time, in my bones, freezes me in my self. The voices move, legato now, together, apart, together and alone. Each voice has its part, is its own song, and yet they merge, melting together in a raspy black chord, a rich harmonic kinship. A haunting key change and the soloist arises, center stage, the pack goes silent. His is a voice of the primordial, a kind of Pleistocene cry that resonates outside the moment, before time, and beyond time. The bull moose, deep in the forest, shivers, the snowshoe hare crouches lower beneath the thicket; even the aurora borealis retreats, slipping into the darkness beyond the trembled mountain horizon. What kind of creature silences a pack of howling wolves simply with his own voice? What manner of being draws forth a voice that stills the north wind and darkens the aurora?
The tenor of the alpha, alone now against the still silence, holds the world in his ferity. It’s not a challenge, but an unbridled expression of his being, an aural illustration of his wolf-ness;
“I am the wolf”, he proclaims; “Here I live, now, alive.”
THIS is the wild. Every note is complete, perfect, yet resounds with urgency; he knows the world so critically hinges upon his utterance that nothing is more vital than this moment. His drawn, booming cry is a call to gather, it seems, for as his final ghostly quavering notes sink into the shadows a new energy takes over and the chorus resumes; the song tightens, muscular now, a frenetic crescendo builds. The individuals are moving faster, phantoms against the night, and the various calls and howls are clearly drawing toward a smaller, unified stage. The songs of the wolves become the anthem of the pack, no longer many, but one, a melody of the whole. No longer does the song emanate from all directions for the pack is now drawn together, at forest’s edge, longing for the hunt.
Now THAT catches my attention. Perhaps nothing says more vividly ‘you’re in Alaska’ than this experience, standing alone in the forest at night, a chorus of wolves howling at the empty sky. I’m not sure if there’s enough megapixels in all the world that can photograph that. I got my wolf photo, but it’s not on any recorded medium. And I couldn’t be happier for it.