An Alaska Wolf’s Final Journey

On the peaks above the Coleen and Sheenjek Rivers, where patches of bare ground dotted the south-facing hillsides and meltwater plunged toward both rivers, hardy Pasque flowers swayed in the breeze. Golden eagles, having returned from southern wintering areas, circled the summits seeking ptarmigan camouflaged in the rocks. A few ground squirrels, fresh out of hibernation, skittered their alarm calls as the wolf trotted by on the trails carved by migrating caribou. The wind carried the scent of grizzly bears, awake from their long winter sleep. Now the wolf had more competition to consider; the scent of winterkill was irresistible to bears and wolves alike. 

Wolves’ strength, intelligence, and curiosity combine to make it North America’s apex predator.
Tom Walker

By now the Wanderer had already traversed the territory of many other wolves, crossing the tracks and trails of hunting wolves several times on his journey into the snowy mountains. Each time, he stopped to investigate the scent, looking for clues that would alter his journey and life. Each splash of urine revealed hints as to the gender of the maker and the possibility of a mate and perhaps warned of danger. Sometimes he added his urine to the mix. He could’ve howled to signal to a potential mate, or answered distant howls, but that would have betrayed his location when he most needed stealth. So far, he’d been adept—or lucky—enough to avoid potentially violent contact. 

Late breakup and fierce storms sometimes delay or alter the direction of the caribou migration, and this year was no different. In most years, they migrate up both the Coleen and Sheenjek Rivers, but because of a tardy breakup north of the Porcupine, the herds veered to the east, seeking easier going and exposed forage. Even in optimal conditions, the journey exacts a physical toll on caribou with fatigue and injury common. There are always more miles to cross with no time to recuperate. Many stragglers die enroute, feeding countless meat eaters. 

As the days slipped by, the migration intensified. Long skeins of caribou streamed up the Coleen and many more on the Firth River in the northeast. The Wanderer, constantly in search of food, tested several and ignored others. Wolves seem to be able to quickly weigh their chances to determine if a chase will produce a meal or result in wasted energy or injury. Even in the best situations, most chases come up empty. On the open slopes and tundra north of the tree line, the Wanderer was almost always exposed and easily spotted by traveling or resting herds. The terrain, however, was broken and rocky, the folds and drainages providing cover that he used to draw close to his quarry before initiating a charge. As he moved farther into the rugged mountains, the Wanderer exerted more energy, apparently without acquiring the nutrition to compensate. Likely he caught an unwary ptarmigan or two or tore at the bones of old winterkills, but he needed more. 

Sheep Slot Rapids on the Firth River in Canada’s Ivvavik National Park. 
Courtesy Daniel Case, Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the tree line, there was no shelter from the weather. Bitter winds of nascent storms broke over the hills and valleys, heavy and laden with freezing rains. Periodic snow squalls cloaked the summits, then evaporated hours later under bright sun. One moment the Wanderer flinched against the pounding wind, and the next he floundered in sun-softened snow. In a storm the Wanderer again crossed the Coleen and passed over the Continental Divide to the headwaters of the Firth River, moving fifty-five air miles in two days. To get there, he’d trespassed through other wolves’ home ranges, as well as the trapping territory of Heimo Korth and his family, among the few permanent residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In another season, baited traps would have awaited him. 

In the headwaters of the Firth, caribou were increasingly abundant and a powerful lure for the young wolf, but he was finding them difficult to catch. Because they evolved with wolves, much of their behavior developed as a result of that relationship. It was their association with wolves that shaped their gregarious movements as a defense against attack. Caribou employ other strategies to avoid them as well. Recent research shows that caribou can detect wolves on snow with the aid of UV light. Because wolf fur absorbs UV light and snow reflects it, they appear dark to caribou, thus stripping even all-white wolves of their camouflage against the snow. To date, the Wanderer had fared poorly in his hunts. At top speed, a caribou can run thirty miles per hour, and he’d struggled, and failed, to overtake healthy adults. Over good ground, he could match or even exceed their speed, but only for short bursts, not extended chases. Calving season, however, was only a few short days away, and the vulnerable newborns would be easy prey for a desperate wolf. 

 In Canada’s Ivvavik National Park, the Firth River, a major caribou migration corridor, often remains frozen well into caribou calving season in late May.  Courtesy Parks Canada

The Wanderer continued on, passing through the heart of the eastern Brooks Range. On May 16, he made a kill, either a sheep or a caribou, high on the north slope of Peak 4262. Two days later, five miles to the north, he made another kill, or found carrion, on the frozen margin of Joe Creek, a major tributary of the Firth River and just three miles from the border. Four days later, he again crossed into Canada, descending to the upper reaches of the Firth. He was now in Ivvavik National Park, 250 miles as the raven flies north of the Yukon River. Through constant travel, risky moves, and fruitless detours, the Wanderer had emerged into the very heart of the Porcupine Herd’s spring calving grounds. Freshly broken trails and vivid scents had lured him to the boreal ridges and tundra slopes where more than one hundred thousand caribou were now converging. Even a sore and weary wolf traversing unknown country should be able to find food here, though the competition could be dangerous.

Spring is the best time of year in the north, both for people and animals. Moderate temperatures and increasing daylight vanquish the snow; rivers rage with runoff as if impatient for open, wild-flowing water. When the wind dies, the warm sun eases bodies long tensed against the cold. A vernal blush colors the catkins swaying in the breeze, and Pasque flowers bloom on south-facing slopes. Seldom is it quiet. The first insects buzz in the sun and the calls of varied thrush echo in the trees. At no other time of year is there as much life in the taiga and on the tundra. Great flocks of geese and ducks whistle down on the thawing lakes and ponds, their throng soon joined by a multitude of breeding shorebirds and songbirds. By early June, the first broods of ptarmigan peck for food in the willows, and grouse chicks totter in the forest. Hare leverets sit and blink in the bright light. Moose and caribou calves trail their mothers; Dall sheep lambs traverse the talus. Foxes, coyotes, and wolves give birth, and tiny bear cubs emerge from natal dens. In trees or on cliffs, great horned owls, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons tend to their hatchlings. The incredible surge in life is leveraged to take full advantage of summer’s brief bounty and offer sufficient time for the young to grow strong before winter again grips the land. 

Caribou face many hazards during migration, including inclement weather—and wolves.
Tom Walker

Spring’s munificence also provides an abundance of prey for predators, especially so for a lone wolf entering unknown country. Hungry meat eaters aren’t picky; they’ll devour whatever they catch or find—it’s all food. In the mountains of northeast Alaska and northern Yukon Territory, however, winter refused to relinquish its hold. The Wanderer’s swift journey north led him back into snow squalls and subfreezing temperatures. The rocky, austere paths he traversed offered little shelter from the northeast winds. And the sun, even though it circled the steel-gray sky for more than twenty-two hours, had no power; only the month’s end would bring temperatures into the upper forties. These mountains were carved by the cold—hewn by wind and ice, freeze and thaw—and for much of the year devoid of life. Now, the scent of countless caribou propelled the Wanderer northeast, deeper into the Firth River valley. On the high trails he followed, crusty snow and coarse stones bruised his pads, yet he never slowed, driven ever onward.  

Author Tom Walker

The Wanderer, An Alaska wolf’s final Journey by Tom Walker can be purchased HERE.


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