(by Jim Brandenburg)

After you live with wolves for a while, you develop a sense for when something big is about to happen. I had spent a chilly night alone watching the wolves sleep under the midnight sun. Watching and waiting, hour after hour, can be more tiring than physical labor. By 6 a.m., I could hardly keep my eyes open anymore. I was about to head back to camp, but just as I started packing up my cameras, the alpha female awoke and began to howl.


A big hunt begins with a howling reveille.
Slowly, the wolves pick up the pace until they reach
a six m.p.h. trot that they will continue for hours.

The rest of the wolves, adults and pups alike, were scattered around the den site in various doglike states of repose. Midback's howling stirred them, and within minutes the whole pack was up and howling with her. The howls were as high-pitched as fire truck sirens; the chorus reminded me of a 12-alarm blaze.

One by one, they all began a long, deep, luxurious, flankin-the-sky canine stretch. I'd witnessed this ritual many times before: sustained sleep followed by a pep rally of howls and an athletic loosening of sleep-stiffened muscles. Except for occasional periods of goofing off, mostly with the pups, the adult wolves split their time between sleeping and hunting. The longer the sleep, it seemed, the greater the chance that a major hunt would follow. As the chorus reached a crescendo, I was sure all signs were pointing in this direction. The prospect was exhilarating; I found my own grogginess evaporating with theirs.

By now the wolves were prancing about, tails wagging furiously, licking and greeting each other in a massive display of hierarchical bonhomie. Like youngsters of many highly social species, the pups' behavior was a guileless, slightly rough copy of their adult role models. They cocked their puerile muzzles to the heavens and chirped out their contributions to the chorus. For ten minutes, this wake-up continued as sluggishness gradually gave way to great excitement. More and more, I could sense in the wolves a heightened focus and intensity. My own atavistic hackles, that is, puny goose bumps, rose on my skin in response.

Suddenly, Midback took off toward the east, quickly followed by a single-file parade of all the other adults in the pack. The pups watched and whined as their elders marched, at a deliberate trot, down the great valley that stretched out below the den. At the speed they were going, I knew they would quickly be out of sight.

I ran back to camp, shook Mech's tent, and began to gather together enough food and extra fuel to sustain what I expected to be a long trip. Since the wolves regularly disappeared for days at a time, I had no idea how long we'd be gone. I had always wondered where they went and what they did on these expeditions. Here, I knew, was a great chance to witness firsthand the way wild wolves make their living.

It took us less than ten minutes to load our ATVs and collect our gear, but even so the pack had disappeared from sight. We checked our odometers and headed in the direction they had taken, driving up to 30 miles per hour in an attempt to catch up. It took seven miles before we reached a high ridge that enabled us to spy the distant wolves through our binoculars. They were still moving fast and straight over rocky terrain that made travel on wheels very difficult. Once we caught up, we hung off to the side, like odd mechanical adjuncts to the pack. Even with the considerable advantages the vehicles lent us, it took all of our energy to keep up with the wolves. The steadiness of their gait over the uneven ground was amazing.

Throughout their march, the wolves ignored us. Occasionally they would close ranks around us, and we'd drive along side by side, as if for a few miles we had been granted cardcarrying pack status. These moments were quite stirring, and the sense of acceptance they brought me was almost dreamlike. But just as I was beginning to get into a kind of hunting wolf mind-set, they would veer off again, and Mech and I would have to scramble like laughable sidekicks to try to keep them in range.

The first musk ox herd they encountered consisted of ten animals, all adults in apparently healthy condition. As the wolves approached them, their trot gave way to a slow, deliberate stalk. The musk oxen, upon noticing the wolves, quickly went into their defensive circle. The wolves charged around them once in an attempt to worry the prey. Then, much more quickly than I would have imagined, they gave up and resumed their trot into the hinterlands.

Somehow the wolves had sensed that this herd was too healthy, too impenetrable to waste energy on. It has been estimated that a high percentage of wolf attacks on musk oxen herds prove unsuccessful. Nevertheless, they test many herds regularly, sometimes on a daily basis, hoping that injury or infirmity might have weakened an individual since the last test. Clearly, there is a strong adaptive advantage in being able quickly to size up one's adversary - and to avoid biting off more than one can chew.

After a half-hour, the pack happened upon a herd that looked more promising. This time, there were only three musk oxen, all adults. Too few in number to assume a classic defensive ring the beasts arranged themselves into a kind of triangle. The wolves worked the herd hard, circling tightly, darting in to nip at their flanks, barking, charging and feinting frontal attacks that stayed just outside the range of the horns. Though the wolves had been trotting for hours without showing any signs of fatigue, these short sprints quickly exhausted them. One by one, they lay down panting off to the side of the herd, but close enough to keep the pressure on. After resting, they would stand up and test the herd some more.

Finally, they gave up. We were, at this point, almost 20 miles from the den. It began to dawn on me just how many calories wolves must routinely expend. I had watched them go days without eating, becoming quite thin in the process. Though nature has provided the wolves with magnificent equipment for predation, nature has been equally kind to their prey. Even when game is plentiful, a successful hunting trip is by no means guaranteed. I began to wonder if the pack might eventually be forced to return to the pups without any meat for them, but the pack had no intention of giving up yet. After one more rest period, they were back on their feet and off again on their search for something vulnerable.

We had been on the move for another half-hour when the pack inadvertently scared up a weasel. This brownish little carnivore, about the size of a rat that's been fed through a pasta extruder, could not be much of a meal for an entire hungry pack, but the wolves seemed obsessed with catching the varmint. The weasel led the wolves on an incredible chase, zigzagging across the tundra with the frenetic pack at its heels. The straightaway sprints reminded me of greyhounds chasing an artificial rabbit around a racetrack. Then the weasel would change directions drastically, and the wolves would be scrambling, dust and gravel flying everywhere. After five minutes, the weasel was finally able to squirt into a rock pile and safety. The wolves took a short rest and were soon back on the trail again. I admired their tirelessness and persistence though the wisdom of their passion sometimes eluded me.

The pack moved into the outskirts of its considerable territory. If the den was at the center of their habitat, and this 35-mile radius was typical of the distances to which they would range, then the overall territory encompassed close to 4,000 square miles. No wonder they like to howl to one another and urinate on prominent spots. I found myself wishing for a Rand McNally of my own.

The wolves moved in a beeline up an inclined plain, their noses occasionally turned to the prevailing breeze. The directness of their march made me think that one of the might have made a scouting trip earlier. In any event, they seemed to have a definite sense of destination. Realizing that an encounter might await us over the ridge, I decided to run ahead. I wanted to have my movie camera ready to go.

Sure enough, a half-mile ahead I saw a herd of nearly dozen musk oxen grazing in a grassy valley. The herd, which included three vulnerable calves, was arrayed randomly across the broad valley. In the distance, several icebergs slow drifted in a fjord. This was one of the most beautiful setting I'd yet seen in Ellesmere: a perfect backdrop for whatever drama might develop. Moments after I had set up my tripod the wolves appeared on the top of the rise. Instantly they spotted the herd and froze. With Midback taking the lead, the pack crept forward, like cats stalking mice, each step delicate and deliberate. Closer and closer they approached, steadily increasing their pace, until suddenly they were charging full speed down the hillside in an attempt to catch the herd off guard.
The musk oxen were spread out some distance from one another in a very exposed position. This was prime grazing ground, low and boggy, but a lousy place for defense. Ideally musk oxen under attack prefer a high, rocky ridge, where their defensive posture becomes as impenetrable as a fortress. When the wolves had made it halfway down the slope, the musk oxen finally, saw them. They ran across the wet ground tow one another and gathered into a ring just as the wolves arrived Slipping into the inner sanctum of the ring the three calves but disappeared from view.

The expression in the dull eyes of their Parents all guardians was not, to my eye, one of panic. This visitation was probably just one of many disagreeable experiences they'd endured from wolves. After circling, the wolves charged a times, but the musk oxen held their ground. With so many homed adults to deal with, the wolves' prospects for success looked slim to me. The wolves seemed to agree. Once more they opted to give up before wasting much more energy. I was just starting to pack up my gear when the drama had a quick change of plot.

The alpha pair, Buster and Midback, are usually the first to strike.
Below, Mom awaits the stampeding herd.

As the wolves were trotting away, the herd bolted for high ground. Evidently, their instinctive discomfort at being trapped in boggy terrain was too much for them. Instead of waiting for the wolves to disappear, they began to gallop uphill. This stampede had a predictable effect on the wolves, which turned around and began to pursue the herd at great speed. This exacerbated the frenzy of the stampede, which by pure luck was heading straight toward the spot where I had set up my movie camera. It all happened so fast that I had little time to react. All I could do was hunker down, shoot the film, and hope to avoid being trampled.

As the herd broke around me, thundering by on both sides, one of the wolves grabbed a calf by its flank tore at it, and separated the calf from the herd. As the wolf held on with its jaws, the calf bucked and kicked fiercely, struggling to get loose. The two disappeared over a ridge far from the rest of the herd, which was being chased by the rest of the pack. Finally, the wolf let go of the calf and ran to catch up with his fellow wolves. Perhaps he knew they could come back and kill this calf later, or perhaps he was overcome with a sense of lupine fraternity and did not want to miss out on the group action.

The pack was in hot pursuit of a second calf and had just managed to separate it from its mother. Simultaneously, the herd reached high ground and closed ranks into a circle. Several pack members grabbed the second calf by the flank when suddenly the mother charged over from her position in the circle. Trying to hook the wolves, she began to wildly swing her horns. The wolves loosened their grip for a split second and the calf, which had been facing almost certain death, scrambled alongside its mother back to the ring.

The wolves quickly sized up the new situation. The circle was tight and inviolable; the traumatized calf was safe inside. The pack turned and ran across the ridge, catching up in seconds with the first calf that had been left behind. One wolf grabbed the calf by the flank while another seized nose. Momentarily, the calf broke loose. Almost immediate the wolves caught up and resecured their death grips.

The calf remained standing for several minutes, buck in a hopeless attempt to throw off the swarm of wolves, ea of which was biting away at whatever flesh it could find. 'I whole process took about five minutes, longer than I would have imagined. Predators seldom wait until they've delivered a lethal wound before beginning to consume their prey Instead, it's a continuous process of biting and eating as fast possible, until finally the animal dies.
Very quickly, the alpha pair took control of the carcass feasting while the rest of the pack waltzed around the edges whining for a share. Buster and Midback ignored their solicitations, which seemed to me a virtual cartoon of obsequiousness. After the alphas finally showed signs of having had enough, the lowerranking members, beginning with Mom came closer and closer, cringing and begging in their hunger As they crawled forward, their chests dragged along the ground and their tails curled tightly between their legs.

A doomed calf and its predator exchange a death stare.
The alpha male latches onto the calf aand is soon joined by his packmates.
One wolf grabs the prey's nose, and the animal is soon pulled down to its death.
But wolves must take extreme care of hooves and horns to avoid mortal injury. 

The alpha male, bristling with proprietary aloofness stood erect above what remained of the carcass, snapping now and then at an intruder who came too close. His underlings were literally that: so low to the ground that they appeared be crawling on their bellies. Time and again, they held their front legs to him in a beseeching gesture; it was almost like prayer. Their heads tilted back, they pulled their lips in a nervous grin, and all the while they inched, fidgety and hesitant closer to their leader and the prize he alone could choose to share with them. Inches away from him, they began wave their paws back and forth. Then, ready at any moment pull back from a snapping jaw, they began to lick the blood from his muzzle.

This gesture of appeasement went on for several minutes. Whenever an underling began to lick with too much confidence, Buster would snap, causing a tightening of their tails. At last, the underlings seemed to satisfy whatever demands for groveling the alphas required of them. As the alphas carried off large chunks of meat and the lower-ranking pack members began at last to eat their share, which came to nearly 20 pounds per wolf. It took the pack two hours to reduce the calf to hide and bone. After eating, the wolves trotted to a nearby pond to drink. They also splashed in the water, washing excess blood off their bodies, then wiped themselves by rolling on the adjacent field of grass. Despite these efforts at cleanliness, each wolf still sported a blood mask that would take several days to wear off.

Once a kill is made, the alpha pair eats first.
Mom is the next to feed, followed by the others in the pack's
descending order of hierarchy.

After a short rest, they resumed their traveling. Six hungry puppies, after all, were waiting back at the den, and each adult now carried a bellyful of nourishment to share with them. The wolves trotted as fast as they could back to the den, rarely stopping to rest. As soon as I realized that this was their destination, I raced ahead to set up my cameras for the subsequent feeding.

The pups heard the older generation howling several miles away. Something in these howls communicated the pack's success. The moment of reunion was especially delightful to watch. Puppy tails wagged furiously while each glutted adult pranced about haughtily with its stomach stuffed to an almost comical degree.

The act of regurgitation, which was performed both to cache extra meat and feed the puppies, was always done in great secrecy. In the case of caching, this made sense; it was an obvious advantage to each individual to keep his or her private stash of food hidden from the other wolves. The pattern during caching was invariable. An adult would slink off at some distance from its packmates, check a few times to make sure no one was watching, and dig a shallow hole in the soil above the permafrost. With its back turned from both its fellow wolves and my camera, the wolf would arch its back and retch into the hole. Afterwards, the wolf would use its front paws to cover the regurgitation with dirt, tamping it all down with its nose. The dryness, cold and scarcity of decaying microbes in this habitat functioned as an effective means of refrigeration, and the undigested meat could survive such burial indefinitely, providing a tremendous resource during hard times.

Of course, with the pups around, much of the meat never even made it into the ground. The puppies could tell, perhaps by reading subtle body language, whenever an adult had a full stomach. Tails wagging as fast as possible, whining and squeaking and leaping up to nip the adult's muzzle, they would instantly converge. Stimulated by such cues, the adult would wander off in a swarm of puppies to regurgitate. Again, this was done in great secrecy, almost as if a certain embarrassment attended the act. As soon as the cascade of shish kebob-sized chunks hit the grass, the pups gobbled it up with a voracity that suggested their lives depended on it. With only six weeks of summer in which to fatten enough to survive the winter, doubtless such a description was true.

Seventeen hours after Midback had awakened and howled the others to consciousness, every member of the pack was luxuriating in post-meal relaxation. To reach this state, they had traveled more than 100 kilometers, tested three herds, and had one successful, seemingly serendipitous kill of a musk ox calf. It would not last them long, but for the time being, they all seemed happy. Although I'd been up for nearly 48 hours, I was content as well. The dreams I'd missed could not possibly have measured up to the dream come true I'd just experienced. Around noon, the pack curled up to start a 12-hour sleep. Mech and I crawled into our sleeping bags and followed their example.