Wolves, dog star in true arctic adventure

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2004

Wolves are controversial, yet most people agree that they are intriguing but elusive creatures. Observing them at length in the wild is a rare opportunity, and some of the best books about the far north have dealt with such privileged experiences.

Now explorer Helen Thayer has added to the genre with "Three Among the Wolves," the firsthand account of a year spent close to wolf packs in the western Canadian arctic. The author previously wrote about her 1988 solo trek to the magnetic North Pole. For the wolf watching, she traveled with her husband, Bill, and her favorite dog, Charlie.

Charlie was no mere sidekick. Born in an arctic village, he entered Thayer's life at the start of the earlier trek with the recommendation that he would protect her against polar bears. Both imposing and calm, he had the northern wilderness equivalent of street smarts.

"Perhaps we could depend on Charlie's insight into wolf life, his inherited wolf nature, and his proud alpha bearing which resembled the best in wolf behavior to impress a wild wolf family and earn its respect," she writes in her introduction.

Her plan was to study wolf pack's natural behavior, with an emphasis on their interactions with other predators such as bears. Part of the plan was to use Charlie as a go-between.

After careful planning, the threesome left their Washington home and drove up the Dempster Highway to the Richardson Mountains in the Yukon, then backpacked for six days to an area with minimal human impact where they had previously scouted out a wolf den.

When they meet a pack and quietly set up camp next to its den, the story becomes truly fascinating. Drawing on her daily field notes, Thayer describes the wolves with detail and enthusiasm, conveying her thrill to the reader. Here is their first meeting with the leader of the pack:

"The big black male took a few challenging strides toward us, then stopped in a stare-down, his piercing yellow eyes contrasting with his rich black coat. His proud, authoritative attitude and calm posture showed him to be the alpha male who reigned over the entire wolf family."

From the first, the wolves seem far more interested in Charlie than in his human companions, and Thayer is convinced that the dog's instinct for canine communications is vital to their expedition's success.

The three spend half a year with the pack near the treeline. They return to the region the following winter to observe other wolves' seasonal activities in the Northwest Territories. This portion of the adventure includes a ski trek across the pack ice just off the MacKenzie River Delta and an extended camping trip near a pack in north of Inuvik.

During their expeditions, the Thayers witnessed remarkable scenes of wolf life, such as adults training pups and a lone wolf attempting to join a new pack. Equally remarkable are their own interactions with the wildlife, such as when very young wolf pups climb onto Charlie and the

rest of the pack acts as if such contact were routine. And studying the interactions of various predator species, they conclude that other wild hunters may cooperate, rather than compete, with wolves.

Thayer is upfront about her opinions on human-wolf interactions. She views wolves as intelligent, even enlightened, beings and objects strenuously to predator control and especially aerial wolf hunts.

Sometimes her affection for these animals gets in the way of her objectivity, and the book tends to humanize the wolves. A generation ago, this would have been seen as shameless anthropomorphizing. But recent advances in animal behavior science suggest that complex animals such as wolves have intelligence and emotions we are only starting to understand. Such intriguing uncertainties put writers like Thayer into a gray area, but she strains credibility when she describes wolfish expressions with terms such as fond, or having low self-esteem.

At her most dubious, she gets touchy-feely, analyzing individual wolf personalities and reading into their action's biographies and motivations that are only educated speculation. The reader has to wonder if Thayer, in her heart of hearts, would prefer that wolves eat tofu when she says:

"Whenever we watched a hunt it was always a heart-wrenching experience to see magnificent animals die so violently. However, our sadness was always tempered by the knowledge that death had come quickly and the family needed the food to survive."

The strengths of Thayer's observations and storytelling, however, override the few cloying lapses. She is a skilled writer and, although others have described these landscapes before, her anecdotes of adventure and animals are real page-turners.

Enhancing the book are photographs taken in the field. Many are remarkable images of wolves and bears. All in all, the book is put together with the same professionalism and attention to detail that has served Thayer well on her impressive wilderness expeditions.

This book provides a rare look at an intimate and positive interaction of wolves, humans and dogs. It becomes also an unusual dog story, starring the impressive Charlie, and an inspiration for older nature lovers, as the Thayers spend their autumn years on treks that would intimidate many far younger.

"Three Among the Wolves," despite its prejudices, is a riveting adventure tale and a charming insight into the secret lives of one of the world's most complex animals.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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