Inside the harsh lives of wolves living at the top of the world

Our writer spent 30 hours travelling with arctic wolves and gained a new appreciation for these predators of the tundra.Thursday, 8 August 2019

By Neil Shea
Photographs By Ronan Donovan

In the blue light of an early Arctic morning, seven wolves slid across a frozen pond, yipping and squealing and chasing a chunk of ice about the size of a hockey puck.

The pond was opalescent at that hour, a mirror of the universe, and the wolves also seemed otherworldly in their happiness. Back and forth across the pond they chased, four pups scrambling after the puck and three older wolves knocking them down, chucking their little bodies into frozen grass at the shore. In my notebook, in letters made nearly illegible by my shivering, I wrote the word “goofy.”

The largest wolf, a yearling male, was a bully at 70 pounds or so. The smallest, the runt of that year’s litter, was hardly bigger than a throw pillow, her eyes lined in black. A pair of ravens sailed overhead, and apart from their jeering, there was no sound on the tundra but the voices of wolves and the click of claws on the ice. Eventually the puck skittered into the grass, and the largest pup chased it down and chomped it to pieces.

The rest stood watching, heads cocked to the side. As though they were stunned by the rudeness of it. Then, one by one, the wolves turned and looked at me.

This is a difficult sensation to describe—the lock-on moment when a group of predators sights you and holds your gaze for a dozen heartbeats. Humans aren’t usually the objects of such appraisal, though my body seemed to recognise it way down beyond thought. I shivered again, and this time it wasn’t from the cold. However playful they’d appeared a few minutes before, these were wild wolves. Their white coats were dark with gore. The carcass they’d been feeding on, a muskox many times larger than me, lay nearby with its rib cage cracked open, the bones splayed like a fan against the sky.

The wolves watched me silently, but they were talking to each other with flicks of their ears, the posture of their tails. They were making decisions. And after a few moments they decided to come closer.

There is probably no other place on Earth where this would happen. It’s why I travelled to Ellesmere Island, high in the Canadian Arctic, joining a documentary film crew. The landscape is so remote, and in winter so cold, that humans rarely visit. A weather station named Eureka is pinned to the west coast and maintains a year-round staff of about eight. Otherwise the nearest community (population 129) is Grise Fiord, 250 miles to the south. A thousand miles past that stands the nearest plant you would actually recognise as a tree.

What this means is that the wolves in this part of Ellesmere—the same species of grey wolf (Canis lupus) that lives in the northern Rockies, much of Canada, and small, scattered populations across Europe and Asia—have never been hunted, never chased away by development, never poisoned or snared by ranchers. Cars don’t crush them; fickle legislation doesn’t protect them one year and endanger them the next. Only a few scientists have ever studied them. Even among the Inuit I know, whose ancestors have inhabited this region for millennia, these wolves stand apart.

This isn’t to say that the Ellesmere wolves never encounter people. Beginning in 1986, the legendary biologist L. David Mech spent 25 summers observing wolves here. Weather station personnel see them often, and large groups of wolves have been reported wandering through the station grounds.

And my friends on the film crew had essentially embedded with the pack I came to know for a few weeks, using ATVs to follow their relentless movement.

Did this human contact somehow make them less wild? Is the measure of an animal’s wildness equal to the distance it keeps from humans? The Ellesmere wolves are separated from their relatives living on much tamer landscapes to the south, such as Idaho or Montana, by far more than distance. Up here, wolves were never driven to the edge of extinction by humans. Here they live so far beyond the human shadow, they aren’t necessarily frightened of it, of us. To visit them is to surrender control and enter another world.

On the frozen pond that day, the pack approached slowly, heads low, noses gathering scent. It was early September, -2°C. The brief Arctic summer had ended, though the sun still lingered in the sky each day for 20 hours or so. True night, the winter night that would last four months and see temperatures fall to 60 below, was still a few weeks away.

I was alone, unarmed. I would eventually rendezvous with my friends, but for now they were about five miles south. I sat on the ice, thinking that a few times in my life I had been this solitary, but never so vulnerable.

The wolves parted around me like smoke. Their winter coats were coming in. As they passed, markings that had distinguished them during our filming loomed into close-up view—the yearling male with gray hairs in his ruff, the female whose left eyeball had been punctured, probably during battle with a muskox. Black tips on the pups’ tails that would soon turn white. I could smell the gravy of muskox blood they’d been rolling in.

The pups loped past at a distance, clumsy on their enormous paws. But the older wolves drew nearer. A bold female, probably two or three years old, walked up and stood at arm’s length. Her eyes were bright amber, her snout darkened with old blood or perhaps burned trash from Eureka’s dump, which the wolves were known to visit.

It was a jarring thought—she might have a mustache of melted plastic—but it vanished into the moment: A couple of feet away a wild wolf was staring at me. I decided to keep still and watched, enthralled.

I could hear gastric sounds, the wet squeeze of a roiling stomach. She looked me up and down, her nose ticking through the air as though she were sketching. Then she stepped nearer, and suddenly pressed her nose to my elbow. It was electric—and I twitched. The wolf leaped away and trotted onward, unhurried, glancing over her shoulder as she joined the rest of her family, busy burying their faces in leftover muskox.

It’s tempting to think of wolves as we do dogs—companionable, limited, even cartoonish in their appetites or tendencies. Partly this is because they are visibly similar; partly it’s because the comparison puts us at ease in the presence of a creature that for ages has been mythologised as a heedless killer. My encounter with the Ellesmere wolves erased any lingering thoughts of dogs. The bright-eyed female had examined me methodically. Calmly. She barely broke eye contact, and I glimpsed a radiant intelligence far beyond anything I’d known in another animal. There was an unmistakable sense that, in the depths of our coding, we knew each other.

I don’t mean any sort of personal connection. She was not my spirit animal. I’m talking about genetic blueprinting, a species-level familiarity. Wolves are slightly older than modern humans, and so were fully formed when Homo sapiens emerged. It is no great stretch to believe that in our youth, we watched wolves hunt and learned from them, even while some became our pets.

Wolves, like humans, are also one of the most successful and versatile predators on the planet, and they live in family groups that are, by some measures, more similar to human families than even those of our closest primate relatives are. As climate change transforms the Arctic into a warmer, less predictable frontier, wolves will probably adapt the way we would—by exploiting new advantages and, if things go to hell, by migrating somewhere else.

Shortly before I arrived on Ellesmere, the pack lost its mother. She had been maybe five or six years old, thin in the hips, slow to rise, and yet so firmly in charge that when my friends encountered her, in August, they didn’t notice her frailty. She was likely mother to every wolf in the pack except her mate, a slender male with a bright white coat. He was the group’s lead hunter, but she was its centre. There seemed no question about who led.

The matriarch hadn’t shown much interest in my friends and their cameras, though she allowed them intimately near her newborns, setting a tone that would carry over into the pack’s tolerance toward me. The crew told me her final act, a week or so earlier, had been one of unexpected devotion.

After several failed hunts (wolf hunts often do not succeed), the pack managed to drag down a muskox calf weighing about 200 pounds. They hadn’t eaten a large meal for a while, and the wolves gathered around, panting, exhausted, ravenous. But the matriarch stood beside the carcass and fended off her older children, allowing only the four pups to eat.

The older wolves begged, whined, shimmied forward on their bellies, hoping for a mouthful. She held firm, snapping and growling, while the pups gorged, until their bellies swelled to the size of bowling balls. It was probably their first meal of fresh meat.

Eventually everyone was allowed into the feed. The animals stuffed themselves and fell into the wolf version of a food coma. At some point after that, the matriarch vanished. She never returned, and we never learned what became of her.

By the time I sat alone with the pack, they were still in disarray. It wasn’t clear who would lead or whether the family would hunt well together. Winter was just weeks away, the starving time. The young bright-eyed female who’d nudged my elbow seemed eager to fill her mother’s role, though she cared little for nurturing the pups. And during her first attempt at leading a hunt with the pack’s elder male, she’d been flattened by a muskox.

A few hundred yards away I had watched as the big beast lowered its head and dug at her with its horns. I thought she’d been gored. Instead, she bounced up and skittered away, tail between her legs, and the hunt fell apart.

I sat with the wolves by the pond for nearly 30 hours, unable to tear myself away, unwilling for it to end. Whatever decisions or stress the pack faced, it was a happy time. They played, napped, nuzzled. I tried to keep them at a distance, but the wolves routinely wandered over to inspect me. I could smell their awful breath, hear their awful farts.

Their interest slowly faded, but it was so cold that every hour I was forced to stand and do a warm-up session of shadowboxing and jumping jacks. My flapping and panting always lured the wolves back. They would surround me, cockeyed and curious, and they must have sensed I was nervous.

At a certain point, I set up a tent a distance away to get a few hours of sleep. While I was off melting ice to make drinking water, the one-eyed female approached and surgically slit open the tent. She hauled all of my possessions onto the barren ground, arranged them in a neat row, then ran off with my inflatable pillow.

Eventually, the wolves lay down, and the pups piled together in a downy mess. While they slept, I wandered. The migrant birds had flown south; foxes and ravens were silent. Strands of muskox hair, shed during the summer and smelling sweet as fresh-cut grass, streamed across the plain. Here and there ancient muskox skulls sank into the soil, the thick bone yellowed with lichen, the horns curling toward the sky. I felt like a trespasser drifting through the rooms of an empty house.

Hours later, the pack awoke and gathered in their usual post-nap huddle, with lots of face licking and tail wagging. It went on like this for a while, love at the end of the Earth, until the older wolves trotted off, heading west toward prime hunting ground, leaving the four pups alone with me. It seemed to confuse them, and me. This was not necessarily trust, more like nonchalance. I was neither prey nor threat but some third thing, and the older wolves understood this.

I can’t tell you which members of the family survived winter, or whether they learned to hunt together again. Odds are good they did, just as odds are poor that all the pups lived. After the last of the older wolves dropped out of sight that day, the pups decided to get up and lope after them. I followed, and soon all five of us were lost. We wandered for an hour, and then along some nameless ridge, the pups sat down and began to howl, their little voices tumbling over the rocks.

Author Neil Shea and photographer Ronan Donovan were part of a team of filmmakers who documented Ellesmere Island’s arctic wolves for National Geographic WILD.
Read More