Canis lupus occidentalis, the Northwestern Gray Wolf. Although seldom seen, wolves are fairly common in the Chigniks, as is evidenced by their numerous tracks in the area.
A little over a month ago with darkness still falling early and Chignik Lake yet locked in ice, we were engaged in a familiar evening time routine. Standing at the dining room windows with binoculars pressed to her eyes, Barbra was scanning a patch of open water for ducks, seals and otters as well as the frozen lake and shoreline for foxes, moose and whatever else might happen along. Meanwhile, I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. In fact I already had the broiling griddle preheating in the oven for the marinated pork which would become the night’s pulled pork sandwiches. Deep into my own thoughts, I only half heard Barbra’s musing as she glassed the lake, words along the lines of…
Something’s making tracks on the ice. What is that? What would a dog be doing… WOOOLLLFFF!
That last word caught my full attention. I let the wooden spoon I was mixing barbecue sauce with fall into the bowl, ran to the window, grabbed the other pair of binoculars and squeezed in next to Barbra. “Cap this lens!” I bellowed as I removed the 70-200 from the D5 and attached the camera body to the 600mm lens, which was already on the tripod with the 1.4 TC mounted. I briefly debated switching to the 2.0 TC, but figured every second might be precious. The previous week I’d seen this same wolf, but by the time I got outside it had vanished.
I commanded like a crazed navy captain shouting orders in a hurricane. The chaotic scene was vaguely reminiscent of the time I nearly got Barbra drowned
Blowing down from the Bering Sea to the north, a sharp breeze pushed the wolf’s fur.
Tripod, camera and lens slung over my shoulder, I slipped into my Muck Boots and gingerly ran toward the beach. The wolf was still there! I quickly set up and got a handful of “record” shots, then kept proceeding out onto the ice, which, this late in the season, was significantly rotten in places. By this time, Barbra – who had had the sense to don coat, hat and gloves – had caught up. “Be careful!” She whisper-shouted at my back as I edged out onto the ice.
The wolf was behaving calmly on the far side of the lake, a wide wedge of open water separating us. “He won’t spook as long as I’m on this side,” I reckoned. About 100 meters out, I very carefully stepped over a six-inch, water-filled seam between separated ice sheets and proceeded another 30 meters to the edge of open water. Ironically, in this process I got closer to Mergansers than I’ve ever been in my life… so tempted to shoot them, but, Stay Focused Jack! I grabbed a few more photos of the wolf. “Closer!” I was thinking. “How do I get closer!?”
I cautiously worked my way up the lake, hoping the ice was as solid as I thought it was, in the process skirting a large patch of rotten slush. “His tracks! Wow! No mistaking those for a fox!” Uncertain of the quality of the ice and cognizant of the fact that the wolf could now close the distance between us in seconds (and I didn’t even have bear spray) I kept moving forward, 30 steps at a time. He was very aware of me but didn’t seem overly concerned. “Young… and not getting enough to eat. Probably a male kicked out of his pack.” His demeanor looked calm, non-threatening… I figured I was close enough.
He may have missed a few meals this past winter – one of the harshest in recent years – but this young Gray Wolf is nonetheless a formidable, magnificent being.
A few snowflakes were blowing in on a stiff breeze out of the north and the sun had already set behind the snow-shouldered mountains rimming the lake. For a while the wolf lay down, chin on his paws, the sharp wind pushing his fur as he watched a group of mergansers diving for fish at the edge of the ice. He lifted his head when a harbor seal popped up, the two of them exchanging uneasy glances before the seal disappeared. He stood and looked – wistfully, it seemed -, down the lake, across the patch of open water toward the river that joins the sea a few miles below the village.
One last look down the lake…
And then he looked straight at me. We held each other’s gaze for seconds that seemed much longer. Finally he turned and began casually jogging up the lake, his massive paws kicking up powdery snow. At one point he altered his course, veering toward me. I stood up tall, spread my arms wide and he abruptly returned to his original course and continued up the lake.
In a few weeks, there will be a surfeit of salmon, young hares, voles, newborn moose and caribou and more. But March is the thick of tough times.
In a shirt, jeans and Muck Boots, I’d been out on the windblown lake for a good half hour. But it was only when the wolf faded into the muted grays of winter bare willows and scrub alder that I felt cold. Suddenly I was aware that it was all I could do to move my numbed fingers. With a hard shiver I turned and headed back across the ice to shore where Barbra had been waiting and watching.
That was amazing we both agreed.
Fortunately I hadn’t yet put the pork into the oven, but a trace of ambient grease on the broiling griddle had resulted in one smoked up kitchen. Famished, I made short work of three heaping pulled pork sandwiches and two of Barbra’s dark amber beers, lifting the first in a toast with a paraphrase from the last stanza of D. H. Lawrence’s poem, Mountain Lion:
And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a gray wolf…
Set in a vast, remote, rugged landscape, the tiny village of Chignik Lake sits below a large water tower that is a mere cylindrical dot in this photo – one third in from the left, a little higher than center, atop a brown hill. The village arcs along the shore of the eponymous lake in a land of eagles, wild swans, salmon, bears, wolverines, caribou, moose and wolves.