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My wilderness awakening to the way of the wolf

CONOR NOLAN/The Globe and Mail

Mariette and I first heard the wolves on a black November night soon after we arrived in northern British Columbia's Kispiox Valley. They were spread out on the far side of Tenas Lake. Led by one wolf, the pack howled for a minute or two then took a break before singing again. Their exotic music floated across the forest top to reach our cabin a kilometre to the east.

Human inhabitants of the Kispiox Valley have forged into a harsh land. If a man loses his way in the bush he can wander in circles for days and never be found. The deep valleys and soaring mountains of this northern wilderness make traversing by foot almost impossible, but wolves have roamed freely across the territory for thousands of years.

Our ranching neighbours, Dave and Bernice, had always lived with wolves nearby. Mariette and I, raised in Vancouver and in awe of the North, were included in their circle of generosity. Coffee was on the stove and freshly baked cake appeared on the table the instant a visitor drove into the yard. After a winter snowfall the whole valley waited to be ploughed out, but Dave and Bernice's road was always cleared just before noon because the plough operator knew a hot lunch waited for him in their kitchen. This generosity toward humans contrasted with their hatred of wolves. A wall in their kitchen, dedicated to wolf attacks, contained pictures of bloody calf carcasses, a cow, still standing, with her udder torn open and another with a rip in her haunch showing the muscles underneath. Any wolf venturing onto their property was shot.

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Their ranch lay at the foot of Tenas Mountain where the south-facing slopes made a perfect wintering ground for mule deer. With the deer came the wolves and those wolves preyed on Dave and Bernice's cattle. "That's why I leave the horns on my cows," Dave explained over sips of coffee. "A cow will fight to save her calf. It's usually the first-time mothers that lose their calves to wolves." My respect for cows shot up. Most of my knowledge of wolves came from reading Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. I had also viewed appalling films of gleeful hunters running down wolves on snowmobiles. Dave's words seemed extreme. I wanted to state that wolves have had a bad rap in our culture and their destructiveness is exaggerated. They hunt to eat and there are no documented cases of them killing men. When Dave referred to Farley Mowat as "Hardly Knows It," I decided to keep my mouth shut and enjoy the chocolate-chip cookies.

It was unusually mild for our first November in the Kispiox and snow had not covered the valley bottom. In the greying light of late afternoon, I walked with Taffy, my cocker spaniel, through our neighbour's roughly cleared grazing lease. A swampy patch of snarled trees lay to the south. Taffy had long, puffy blond hair that made her look like a fading Hollywood starlet and she lived a similarly pampered life. I spent lots of time in the outdoors, hiking, fishing and canoeing, but unlike many of the old hands in the valley I never carried a rifle.

We neared the edge of the lease where a herd of about 40 cattle grazed on the other side of a barbwire fence. Taffy, 50 metres ahead of me, swept back and forth over the undulating land, her nose millimetres off the ground. Seconds after she disappeared over a rise, I heard frantic squealing that rose in pitch and intensity. I sprinted forward thinking that Taffy had encountered a porcupine or was being attacked by a wild animal. Cresting the rise I could see that she was snared by something and pulling backward like a fish on a line. As I approached I realized that she was caught in a leg-hold trap that clasped her top lip. While she yelped, I took hold of the rusted trap and squeezed hard on the spring to ease the jaws open. Blood dripped from the scrape on the top of her nose and her squeals continued to float across the fields for several minutes.

As Taffy quieted down, I heard an unusual sound in the swamp to the south, part snort, part bark. I thought, What's a dog doing here, kilometres from the nearest farm? Then the half bark drew into the long clear howl of a wolf, followed by another and another. The cattle thundered toward Dave and Bernice's ranch buildings, a kilometre across the pasture. I was alone with the rhythmic howling of an unseen wolf. There were some scrub poplars 50 metres to the north and I considered making a dash for them but few looked climbable, and although a survival instinct was driving my actions, I could not abandon Taffy. Far away from safety, I recited Farley Mowat's words of assurance over again in my mind until I realized that they didn't mean a damned thing to a wolf. At that moment I would have been far more confident alongside Dave and his rifle. Perhaps I should have turned to face the wolf and avoid any activity to trigger his instinct to run down prey but instead I picked up Taffy and sprinted away.

Fifteen minutes later I arrived safely home. Fire crackled in the stove. Mariette chopped vegetables for dinner and listened to music on CBC Radio. Outside, the spruce forest stood silent against a darkening sky.

Doug MacLeod lives in North Vancouver.

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