(by Jim Brandenburg)


The road that led me to the Arctic wolves was hardly a straight one. My home in northern Minnesota is on the fringe of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the last significant refuge of wild wolves in the 48 continental states. The nearest source of supplies is the town of Ely, about a half-hour from my house. One day about four years ago, I drove to Ely on my weekly grocery run and noticed a very determined-looking fellow heading toward the woods with what appeared to be a month's worth of supplies in a huge backpack. My friend Steve Piragis, an Ely outfitter, told me that this guy was Will Steger.

I'd already heard the stories about Steger's compound in the woods, where he was training sled dogs to help him accomplish his dream: a re-enactment of Robert Peary's unsupported North Pole assault. I had a long-standing interest in the Arctic, having spent one long winter documenting the difficult lives of a hunting band of Canadian Inuits. After Steve introduced us, we headed into one of Ely's ubiquitous bars to discuss the opportunity for a symbiotic working relationship. In the course of our conversation, Steger told me a story that captured my imagination even more than his planned North Pole journey. Two summers earlier, he had taken a trip to Ellesmere Island, hoping to travel by dog sled from one end to the other before the brief summer melted winter's shallow blanket of snow. About halfway across the island, he "ran out of winter" and was forced to continue his trek on foot. One night, two Arctic wolves appeared out of nowhere and began actually stuck his head into Stegers tent!

I knew instantly that I had to go to Ellesmere. Wolves that live near populated areas are always extremely fearful of people, and for good reason. During the last few centuries, our species has dedicated itself to exterminating theirs. After 20 years of unsuccessfully trying to photograph timber wolves, I was thrilled to think that a pack without an ingrained fear of man might exist somewhere. Steger's sled dogs, I thought, must be the key they had somehow lured the wolves in. If only I could travel to Ellesmere with a couple of dogs, I might be able to create the photographic opportunity of a lifetime.

After our discussion, I agreed to lobby for Steger's North Pole proposal with my editors at National Geographic. The magazine seemed a natural for the endeavor, since it had backed Peary himself 80 years earlier. The editors saw the project's potential and agreed to provide support. I would shoot the story. In the back of my mind, I resolved to be on the lookout for a chance encounter with an Arctic wolf.

The launching point for Steger's assault on the Pole was 'the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. Many Americans think Alaska is the most northerly part of North America, but Ellesmere, an island about the size of Nebraska located in Canada's Northwest Territories, is actually several hundred miles north of Alaska's northern tip. To give another perspective, Washington, D.C. is as close to Ellesmere as it is to Brazil.

From Ellesmere's tip to the North Pole measures some 500 miles across the Arctic Ocean. During the winter, and for the first 50 or so days of "spring", such as it is, the water is frozen six to eight feet thick most of the way to the Pole. Unfortunately, even during the best of conditions, this ice has little in common with the glassy ice familiar to figure skaters and cocktail enthusiasts.

Across its craggy, snow-blown surface, the ice cap is wrinkled with pressure ridges. These erupt in endless labyrinthine walls that can make forward progress an agonizing, "leads" yawning cracks in the ice that reveal open sea water. When a team of mushers encounters a lead, they have no choice but to circumnavigate it or wait for the minus 70degree air to refreeze the brine and create the several inches of rubbery ice needed to support a sled loaded with supplies.

In 1909, the legendary Peary with his men and dogs braved this unforgiving habitat, aided by an army of Inuit assistants. But ever since Peary's North Pole adventure, which took place without external resupply, there has been rampant speculation as to whether he really reached the Pole. The reason for the controversy is largely climatological. Peary's expedition began in early March, when the sun momentarily rises above the Arctic horizon for the first time in four months. Peary had only about seven weeks to make it to the Pole and back to land before the ice cap break-up, a period many scholars consider impossibly short.

Steger and co-leader Paul Schurke were determined to try a second, unsupported trip to the Pole, putting the debate to rest, one way or the other. Before the Steger team could even begin, however, they had to get their expedition to the departure point, no small ordeal. Sleds, dogs, crew members and tons of supplies all had to be carried, by a succession of ever smaller aircraft, to the tip of Ellesmere Island in time for an Ides-of-arch send off.

The traditional first stop for all expeditioners is Resolute Bay in the Northwest Territories, the most northerly spot serviced by commercial airlines. From there, Arctic dreamers must cart their supplies several hours further north to Eureka Sound, where a permanent weather station is manned by a dozen men. To reach Eureka, it's necessary to charter 748s, DC-3s, or Twin Otters, the smallish, highly maneuverable aircraft with skis for wheels, "the workhorses of the Arctic." Finally, to traverse the approximately 300 miles from Eureka to northern Ellesmere, expeditioners and their gear are ferried by Twin Otters.

In early March, Resolute Bay is hardly the pristine, Jack Londonesque setting one might expect. Eccentric characters from around the globe gather in preparation for myriad assaults on the Pole, most of which are "supported" by frequent airlifts of supplies. An East Indian entrepreneur named Bezal Jesudason years ago saw the possibilities inherent in a supply outpost catering not only to the wealthy, globe-hopping set, but also to the oil company laborers, Inuits, weather station personnel and Canadian government bureaucrats who live and work in the Arctic. For the past 15 years, Bezal and his wife Terry have operated what I like to call their High Arctic Bed & Breakfast. As proprietors of this outpost, Bezal and Terry are an invaluable resource to almost everyone headed to the Pole.

I was no exception. Bezal outfitted me with equipment, taught me what to expect, put me up, fed me, and kept me in a fine mood with his good humor. Bezal never had to look far for sources of amusement. On one of my first flights from Montreal to Resolute Bay, I found the plane jammed with not only Steger people but also a coterie of millionaires who would each be paying five-figure fees to be airlifted to the Pole for a 20-minute champagne toast. The plane was so crowded that there was only one open seat. I was wearing grungy Arctic gear and hadn't shaved; as I headed for the empty seat, I felt sorry for whoever would be my hapless seating companion over the eight-hour flight. I sat down in the only empty seat and looked over at my fellow traveler, who turned out to be a beautiful French film star. In my work for the Geographic, I've flown to exotic places all over the world. Of all the times and places to meet a beautiful movie star, it would have to be when I was dressed like a derelict who smelled like a musk ox. C'est la vie, I suppose.

Bezal, who plans to open a North Pole museum one day, has had guests who have tried to reach the Pole by foot, motorcycle, snowmobile and ultra light plane; presumably, a team will attempt it someday while pushing baby buggies. France, moreover, is not the only nation to send its movie stars to Bezal's. In. the room adjacent to mine, a Japanese starlet spent her days knitting and growing indoor herbs. Every spring she traveled to Bezal's to escape pressures of her profession and to gear up for a planned trip to the Pole via snowmobile.

In another nearby room, I could hear a northern European fellow talking into a telephone at night to an Italian radio station. He had told his audience that he would make it to the Pole. However, five miles out, he'd broken his arm and returned to Bezal's to recuperate. Naturally, he neglected to mention this setback to his listeners. Every night, from the comfort of an easy chair, his voice crackled with adventure and heroic intrigue as he recounted yet another day's "progress" toward glory.

After a week in this carnival atmosphere, the relative isolation of Eureka was a relief. The weather station, surrounded by what is in essence a frozen desert, made me think of what life must be like on a space station. My fellow inhabitants were all technicians whose fives revolved around the collecting of data and the combating of boredom. They drank, ate, slept, thought about meteorology, played cards, watched satellite TV and looked forward to an occasional risque video cassette. Depression was a problem, especially during the long months without sunshine.

The Eureka personnel rarely took advantage of the natural world outside. To be sure, the winter environment is about as hospitable to human flesh as outer space: a half-hour without your proper "space suit" and you will almost certainly expire. Still, after a few days at the station waiting out expeditionary snafus, I felt myself getting extremely jumpy from boredom and claustrophobia. For three days in a row, I had whiled away the hours by aiming my binoculars through the murky blue twilight at a distant herd of musk oxen, which looked like raisins in the snow. I thought it might be fun to take a closer look.

Bob McKerrow, a Steger team member from New Zealand, agreed to go along. We assumed the herd was very close, but after a half-hour of steady hiking we realized that they were at least four miles away from the station. Lacking any experience with the animals, we approached with great caution. There are no trees to climb in the high Arctic, and we felt quite certain that the horns and hooves of an adult musk ox could make short work of us. As we came closer, the magnificent ancient beasts, living remnants from the Stone Age, came into sharper focus.

Having grown up on the prairie, I had expected musk oxen to be similar in size to buffalo. In reality, they are much smaller - about the size of cows, though they are more closely related to goats than to cattle. With their sure-footed hooves, they have little trouble scrambling along rocky precipices.

I could see the animals' extremely long guard hairs, almost a yard in length. Thanks to these hairs, which are prized for yarn, as well as their highly insulated undercoats, musk oxen are never affected by the cold, no matter how low the temperature drops. Noting their indifference to the climate, it occurred to me for the first of many times in the Arctic how nice it would be to have a little more hair myself.

At one point, we evidently got a little too close to the herd, because they quickly assumed their classic protective circle: a phalanx of horns and front hooves radiating at every point on the circumference, flanks shoved together at the center. This strategy, evolved over eons of living in a treeless environment, is a very effective way to protect the young against Arctic wolves, the major predator of musk oxen. It is not so effective against human predators like the Inuits who found the musk oxen relatively easy to kill.

McKerrow and I backed off and the musk oxen resumed their grazing, pawing holes in the snow to get at the frozen grass and sedge below. We studied them for hours, until finally cold and fatigue got the better of us and we decided to begin the long hike back to the station. The sun at this time of year lurks just below the horizon for most of the day, creating a kind of permanent blue dusk. On the way back, I trailed behind, taking photographs of the landscape. McKerrow was about a quarter-mile ahead when it happened.

Ellesmere Island is a vast, lonely land
whose inhabitants must struggle to make out a living.
Wolves are tireless travelers who roam the thousands
of square miles of their territory in search of prey.

A pack of six Arctic wolves, trotting in a direct line of march over a nearby rise, appeared like ghosts materializing from the blue ether. At first, I thought I must have been hallucinating from cold, hunger and fatigue. Three of them split to my left. Three others swung around to a steep embankment that flanked a nearby frozen creek. They trotted to the top and sat there, eyeing me, their bodies silhouetted against the murky horizon. One wolf, which I thought might be the leader of the pack, sat on the ridge and inspected me with a kind of fearless, bemused curiosity. Much later, when I returned to search for a pack to live with and photograph, I would remember this individual wolf and be convinced he was the same alpha male I would come to know as Buster.

At that moment, however, I was not thinking about the future. I was, to say the least, flabbergasted. Reflexively, I pulled out my camera and began shooting photograph after photograph. It was at this moment that I first learned the difficulties of shooting in the Arctic when you are excited. The combination of exhaustion and exhilaration makes huffing and puffing inevitable, and one breath on the viewfinder enamels the glass with an I/ 16th-inch coating of ice. This must be scraped off with your fingernail, which means removing your two sets of gloves, which means freezing your fingers.

After scrutinizing me for several minutes, the wolves stood up and resumed their pursuit of the musk oxen. Suddenly realizing that I might be able to capture wolves and their natural prey in the same photographic frame, I turned around and raced after them as best I could. A weary biped is no match for a species superbly adapted to the Arctic.

a windblown signature in the snow

The paws of a wolf are large, and they can splay their toes so wide that their tracks in the snow almost resemble human handprints. Their weight is distributed evenly across the snow, so they can walk on top of the crust. In my mukluks, was breaking through on every other step. After 20 minutes, I was exhausted. As the dusk deepened, I snapped a few last shots of the distant wolves approaching the even more distant musk oxen. Then, with muscles aching, I turned back to catch up with McKerrow. When we were a half-hour away from the weather station, a Twin Otter flew overhead and dipped its wings a not so subtle sign of concern and a reminder it was time to come in from the cold.

Back at the station, my mind reeled with wolf images. I'd been wrong in my interpretation of Will Steger's Ellesmere anecdote: sled dogs would not be necessary to lure wolves. Evidently the wolves' own curiosity, fueled by the absence of unpleasant experiences with humans in this remote comer of the world, was enough to allow some close encounters with the pack.

A few days later, we flew to Ward Hunt Island and waited for the first glimmer of sun to inaugurate Will's trek. On March 5, the sun appeared for a few moments on the horizon and winked at us before dipping down again below the earth's rim. This was the signal to begin, and off Steger and company went, in a cacophony of canine barks and human cheers that would soon turn to grunts. I was on hand to photograph the departure, and then flew back south by Twin Otter to Eureka.

At three points during the expedition, a Twin Otter was scheduled to fly in and airlift out sled dogs, a humanitarian alternative to Peary's policy of eating any dog no longer needed to pull supplies. The plane, of course, would not bring any supplies to the expedition. The Geographic had arranged for me to fly on these trips to photograph the team's progress.

In between shoots, I found myself with time on my hands and thoughts of wolves on my mind. I flew from Eurel to Resolute Bay and from there to Washington, D.C., where National Geographic has its editorial offices. For years I had been discussing with various editors the possibility of shoo shooting a wolf story if ever a suitable opportunity arose. Ellesmere seemed ideal. But I had scarcely started in with my propose when I was told that the Geographic had already commissioned a wolf story.

So I suggested instead a story I had proposed ten year earlier. The idea was to photograph the white animals of Ellesmere Arctic fox, Peary caribou, hares, weasels, snowy owl ptarmigan, polar bears, beluga whales and wolves. When I first suggested this story, I'd been turned down because of the expense of sending a rookie to such a remote place. Now, wit time on my hands and the expenses already incurred whether I did extra work or not, Geographic editor, Bin Garret decided that it only made sense to go for a "two-fer." The white wolves, I figured, might be an interesting sidelight to this larger story.

In the end, Steger and his team would make it to the Pole in triumph, and their exploits would be celebrated in Geographic cover story. The Ellesmere piece, with its well-detailed depiction of an exotic habitat, would also prove quite popular. But the wolf story, which evolved into a several year obsession, would prove the most significant work of my career.