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  • Ken Ilgunas

Chechaquo in the wilderness: Encounters with beaver and wolf

While assembling our tent, just twenty feet away, a wild animal hunched in a shallow brook stared at the strange bipedal green-and-grey-clad hominids who were setting up camp along his creek.

He seemed indifferent to the short expanse of space between us and him, confidently inspecting our every move. While Lucy, my patrolmate and fellow ranger, slung the poles through the lining of our tent, I stood agape, deliriously captivated with this unexpectedly close brush with a wild animal.

As I mesmerized the plump mound of fur in front of me, I whispered to Lucy, in grave monosyllables: “Oh. My. God.” She shot me a frantic look; the sort of frantic look that says, “Please don’t tell me there’s a bear in our camp.” Even better. It was a beaver and it was ogling us with the same intensity of wonder and curiosity with which I looked upon it.

Lucy, a Fairbanks resident who has seen her fair share of beavers, teased me for being so fascinated with what is so common to her.

Still, I couldn’t look away. Right in front of me, just a few steps away, was wild nature; a creature that may have never set its eyes on mankind before. Deeming neither I nor Lucy a threat—and rightfully so—it waddled to the lake where it swam to and fro, always with one eye locked in on us.

There was something confident, even conniving about him. It was as if he knew something that we didn’t. Given our relative inexposure to the arctic, this could have very well been the case.

Though I’ve lived up in the arctic for a few summers, I am still in many ways a chechaquo—a term used by the natives during the gold rush to describe a newcomer, tenderfoot, or someone who, more or less, doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing.

While I like to consider myself a step above a chechaquo, I don’t pretend to know much of anything about the country. It’s easy for me to admit that I know far less than the beaver whose life is intricately connected to the complexities of the ecosystem and whose ancestors have called this lake home for centuries.

What was going through the beaver’s head while it stared at us? In the last few centuries, North Americans have devastated beaver populations in quest of pelts that were perennially in vogue. Why—as it ambled just feet away from me—didn’t it view me as a predator too? What is life like spent under water. How do they stay warm in winter? The beaver could have very well swam away with as many questions as I had. Still, I relished our little parley and, to our good fortune, it would not be our only encounter with a wild animal who knew more than we did.

Lucy and I went on a five-day patrol on and around a little lake on the south side of the Brooks Range.

Our job duties are fairly minimal: basically, we explore the country at whim, talk to visitors about leave-no-trace and bear safety (though it’s exceedingly improbable that we’ll see anybody), and clean up any trash or “human impact” that we may come across.

This may sound like a dream job to some, and in many cases it is. But we do work in conditions that many Americans would deem inhumane at worst, masochistic at best.

When walking with a 60 lbs pack through clouds of mosquitoes and over miles of tussocks (“nature’s herpes,” or big round mounds of sedge that are impossible to walk over)—conditions that might elicit sympathy from Sherpas, pyramid slave laborers, and third-world textile workers—sometimes, for just a glimmer of a second, the job loses its luster. But, for the majority of the time, I am everlastingly grateful to get paid to do something I love.

While paddling across the lake we happened upon a rusty 55-gallon drum submerged in muck along the shore, probably left by some chechaquo decades before me. Coming across garbage or any sign of human habitation is rare as well, so I hoisted the barrel out of the mud with gusto, knowing that I’d leave the park a little cleaner.

Later, in lieu of proper tools, I beat the hell out of the barrel with a log I extricated from the ground, hoping to impound it flat so that we could fly it away on our float plane.

A few days later we paddled across the lake, hacked our way through dense alder thickets, sidled along creek canyons and glided over aufice to a wide river valley where we set up a new camp.

We decided to climb a large hill just in front of us—a plump green mound with a bald, treeless top that probably wasn’t any taller than 3,000 feet.

Halfway up, we heard barks and howls in the distance. We were hundreds of miles from roads, trails, and civilization. There was no question that it was a wolf. This time, we were both enchanted with our brush with the wild.

We continued hiking upwards. But as the howls got louder and more discernable in pitch, our fascination was supplanted with anxiety. Was it just a lone wolf? Was there a pack? And, worst of all, were they hungry?

I reminded Lucy that a local just told us that wolves are no threats to humans up here. Allegedly, there has never been a recorded instance of a wolf killing a human. But then I remembered how the local also mentioned that a wolf’s jaws are powerful enough to snap a femur with ease. Concerned for the health of my femurs, I did my best to mask my apprehension in a ludicrous façade of bravado and self-confidence.

We were ensconced in a thick brush of willows and dwarf birch; we couldn’t see anything, but the wolf’s howl seemed so loud it felt like it might be just around the corner, perhaps a mere twenty yards away.

I started going over the steps to discharge the shotgun I carried. It should have put me at ease knowing that I held a deadly weapon in hand, but keep in mind that I’m a mere chechaquo whose only shooting experience has been in the controlled conditions of a shooting range. Never have I shot a living thing, let alone a rapacious, femur-crushing, wolf, charging at thirty miles an hour, who may wish to set a precedent as the first man-killer up in the arctic.

I imagined that the howling wolf was playing decoy, as other, more silent, stealthy, salivating wolves, watched us from all sides, waiting to pull some Jurassic Park, velociraptor-shit where they’d attack us on our flanks right before I, out of respect for their superior intelligence and hunting prowess, respectfully remark, with my last words, “clever girl.”

We scurried above treeline and looked down into the river valleys on each side of the mountain. Lucy wanted to confront it; I wanted to get the hell off the mountain: both plans had their merits. We opted to go with hers, so we yelled and yelled, hoping to scare it off.

Then we saw it. It was a lone white wolf. It was down below us on the path that we had just traversed. It had a speckled grey mane and was running away from us. It stopped every ten yards or so, looked at us, barked, then howled.

From our humble experiences up in the high north, this was, to us, exceptionally strange animal behavior. We weren’t sure what the wolf was trying to do exactly. Regardless, we were relieved that it was going away rather than toward us. Invigorated, I let out a few barbarian roars to celebrate our victory.

We decided to finish our mountain climb, by heading up a game trail. However, we soon stopped dead in our tracks when we noticed that all along the trail, every fifteen feet or so, was wolf fur and wolf scat. The wolf’s ghostly howls still echoed through the valleys, lifting languid neck hair into fields of bristling barbs.

There could be a den or a whole pack up there, we worried. We quickly decided to go with Plan B: to get the fuck off the mountain as quickly as possible. Lucy told me that her adrenaline was pumping and suggested that we keep a conversation going. I pulled out some of my A-material, sharing some erectile dysfunction stories that had us laughing and forgetting about the wolf in no time.

We propelled down the mountain—ducking and weaving through thick brush en route to a wide-open river valley where we knew we could see around us and feel safer. When we got to the river, relieved, we began retelling the story, laughing at our “close call.” It was already a story we couldn’t wait to share with the rangers back at base.

Then, just from the edge of the woods that we escaped from, the wolf unleashed another shrill, ear-piercing wail.

For the rest of our hike, we walked in a defensive formation, always looking behind, in front, and to the sides of us, unsure of where the attack would come from. But luckily there was no attack. The wolf, I think, was merely saying, “Stay off my mountain and out of my country. This is my home; go back to yours.”

And that’s just what we did.


Our ride

Our outdoor patio to evade bugs.

Wolf print.


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