Wolf Men

In Alaska's untamed wilderness, the top predators travel on two feet.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

If looks could kill, the wolf was ripping me apart, limb by limb. At 40 yards, its hungry yellow eyes fed ravenously on me; the sharp bite of those black pupils pierced to my core.

Never had I been so intensely scrutinized. Those two eyes blazed with an intelligence that viewed me as both predator and prey. Like the wolf, my concentration was complete, focused on his every move. I was facing the most challenging prey of all: another predator. It boiled down to which of us would blink first.

The wolf's wedge-shaped head dropped slightly to keep me in sight between spruce branches. Easing the rifle to my shoulder, I kept my gaze on him and was only semi-aware of the world around me. Our boat bobbed slightly in the slow current of western Alaska's Innoko River. Through my peripheral vision, I could see my moose hunting partners looking downriver and to the other side, oblivious to the trophy on the left bank. There could be no sudden move or speaking to gain their attention. The wolf was as solid as the massive spruce trees that surrounded it. It stood three-feet high at the shoulder. Its muzzle pointed toward me like a lance. A wolf's jaws can snap a caribou leg like a toothpick. How many times had that snout and those two-inch canines clamped down on the nose of a 1,200-pound bull moose while waiting for the rest of the pack to move in for the kill? I shouldered the rifle and found the animal in my scope.

"Wait! Don't shoot!" the other hunter in the boat whispered as he saw what was happening. I eased off the trigger squeeze. He swung around and scrambled for his rifle, breaking my gaze. I blinked. The wolf had vanished. I didn't see it turn and run. Not a leaf or twig rustled to indicate its presence. I searched the spruce thickets for a sign of those blazing yellow eyes. Nothing.

The other hunter was a greenhorn who wanted a wolf but didn't want to pay the price of constant vigilance. We both returned home, empty-handed. I cherish the moment, however, because to this day that experience has been my closest encounter with an Alaskan wolf. It also marked the beginning of my 28-year apprenticeship as an Alaska wolf hunter.

Wolf hunters are tough, both physically and mentally, and for good reason. The wolf is a superior predator with intelligence and stamina beyond that of other big-game animals. North American history is dotted with bloody stories of wolves attacking humans (although there is no record of any human being killed by a wolf), as well as killing countless deer, elk, pets and livestock. As a result, the American wolf hunter was born to meet the need for wolf control, a need which was as real at times as it was imagined.

Like the predator he pursues, the wolf hunter is sometimes reviled and hated, sometimes praised and honored. Many despise him because he hunts and kills a symbol of their idea of wilderness. On the other hand, ranchers, hunters and victims hail him as a hero, feed him dinner, listen to his stories and learn from him.

Veteran wolf hunters in the Lower 48 are becoming increasingly scarce. An occasional newspaper obituary will list the deceased as "wolf hunter." Among old-school sourdoughs, this title is the equivalent of a Ph.D. in outdoor, survival and hunting skills. [pagebreak]

The Chase
Wolf hunters still thrive in Alaska, however, and Richard Gardner is living proof that ruggedness is a prerequisite for the chase. Several years ago on a windswept portion of the Delta River, Gardner stopped and pointed out the bubbling current beneath the clear river ice at our feet. The location had special significance for him.

"I could see where the wolves had been chasing moose along this section of river," he said. "I was following their tracks when the river ice began to crack. It was twenty- below, so I knew the surface was safe for travel. The ice continued to crack and bm. I noticed an up-swelling of frozen groundwater nearby, and observed that the ice wasn't very thick below me. But it was too late to act."

He explained how his snowmobile suddenly broke through the river ice, immersing him to his waist. The river water immediately froze on his jacket and sleeves. He fought off the sudden numbness and scrambled to work the track onto the broken slabs of floating ice. He revved and pushed his machine out of the river before clawing and pulling his way out. With numbed fingers he quickly built a fire and dried out. He kept hunting and trapping and eventually returned home that season with two wolves.

That's wolf-hunter tough.

Alaska's 7,000 to 10,000 wolves (compared to only 3,200 in the continental United States) make it one of the last bastions for wolf hunters. Don't confuse today's wolf hunter with the aerial hunters of the past or those who used poison to take their prey. The new generation pursues wolves the old-fashioned way-from the ground. And a midwinter wolf hunt is one of the toughest hunts you'll find anywhere.

Wolf hunters endure-almost relish-the raw adversity of a winter hunt because of its challenges and unpredictability. I've accompanied wolf hunters across several hundred miles of wilderness, hanging on to a sled that bucked and darted across the frozen tussocks like an iron bronco. We've stored food and water under snowmobile cowlings to keep them from freezing rock solid in subzero temperatures. I've weathered winter storms in old trapper shacks as the green and red curtains of the Northern Lights blazed overhead. I've read the names and kills of hunters dating back 60 years, carved into smoke-stained cabin walls. I've dug up C rations buried in the thick, sawdust floor of these cabins, and read yellowed books from the 1930s, running my fingers over the penciled annotations in the side margins. Extreme wilderness is an integral part of winter wolf hunting.

Most wolves are taken incidentally to hunting other species. The animal suddenly appears, and you shoot. I recall one Alaska caribou hunt where I had a rare opportunity. Like mosquitoes hovering just out of reach, two wolves kept just outside the 150-yard safety buffer of several hundred migrating caribou. The pair sneaked through the timbered fringe, waiting to take a wayward or careless animal. I positioned myself for the 200-yard shot without spooking or hitting the caribou that surrounded me. Wolf eyes are always on the prowl for potential danger, and thousands of caribou eyes watch for the slightest movement within their safety zone. Spook the prey, and you spook the predator. As the wolves stopped in a marshy clearing, I fired. I still don't know if the single shot spooked the caribou, or if it was me running up to my trophy. Such "luck" can occur on do-it-yourself hunts, but usually success requires the local knowledge of a registered guide.

Only a handful of Alaska guides specialize in hunting wolves. Don't expect to find members of this elite group at fancy corporate banquets or tea parties. Look for them in single-light cafes in remote Alaska villages, or huddled around oil heaters in aircraft hangars, waiting for those few precious hours of daylight to fly to their hunting camps.

Insulated bibs and bunny boots make their typically husky physiques even more intimidating. Weathered by extreme cold and sun, their leathery brown faces peer out of parka ruffs lined with wolf or wolverine, the only fur that won't ice up from their frozen breath. This eclectic bunch is usually found in the company of other wolf hunters or trappers. The reason is not surprising: Few others are found in Alaska's February winter wilderness. [pagebreak]

Why Hunt Wolves?
Wayne Heimer has hunted wolves off and on as a Dall sheep biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. One April, before the grizzly bears emerged from hibernation, Heimer harvested five Dall sheep ewes that would later be sent to a laboratory for analysis. Before returning to his nearby alpine camp, he stacked the sheep on a mountaintop for the next morning's helicopter pickup. At daybreak he awoke and jumped a black wolf outside his tent. By the time he removed the rifle from his pack and fired, the wolf was passing 400 yards. Heimer missed. He knew why the wolf was there and looked for others, but they too were long gone.

"The pile of sheep had disappeared," he says. "There was no meat. Nothing but hair and a few gnawed-on skulls. Four hundred pounds of sheep consumed overnight."

Master guide and longtime wolf hunter Jim Bailey concurs. "A wolf will kill almost anything, the strong, the weak and even other wolves," he says. "I watched a wolf pack consume a frozen moose in less than a week."

The Call of the Wild
Roy Chaney is a veteran Alaska wolf hunter who takes 9 to 17 wolves each year. While he has never been attacked or charged by a wolf, his methodology will make your hair rise faster than standing naked in the 30-below temperatures he hunts in.

"On moonlit nights, I call 'em in with my voice," he says. "We find a pack and move into the area, keeping to the brush. In the moonlight, the wolves can see your feet in the thickets, but they can't make out who or what you are. They need to check out whether another wolf pack has invaded their territory, or if wolves from the pack have herded a stray animal. We've had from ten to as many as thirty-nine wolves surround us, howling to each other, moving in closer and closer. I keep howling back, which is what keeps them interested. They get so focused on hunting you, they forget about snowmobiles running or people coughing. And they get really close at times. Human scent doesn't seem to bother them. One wolf managed to sneak into the 30-yard buffer between my hunting buddy and me."

Chaney hunts wolves because they're the ultimate in wariness and intelligence. "A single wolf will feed on twelve moose and thirty-six caribou a year," he says. "They do need to be managed, and hunting allows that. But I'd be crazy to advocate wiping them out, because to do so would be the beginning of the end of all that we hold dear here in Alaska."

Longtime Alaska resident Sid Cook was hunting Prince of Wales Island when a pack of wolves surrounded him. "The wolves were running through the timber, surrounding me as I walked through the trees. When wolves howl close to you, they almost sound fake," he says. "The echo, the reverberation isn't there. They were howling and yapping to each other, communicating as hunters. I loaded my rifle and prepared for an attack, but suddenly, the wolves disappeared. It was as frightening as it was eerie."

I stood my ground against wolves when I bagged from hibernation, Heimer harvested five Dall sheep ewes that would later be sent to a laboratory for analysis. Before returning to his nearby alpine camp, he stacked the sheep on a mountaintop for the next morning's helicopter pickup. At daybreak he awoke and jumped a black wolf outside his tent. By the time he removed the rifle from his pack and fired, the wolf was passing 400 yards. Heimer missed. He knew why the wolf was there and looked for others, but they too were long gone.

"The pile of sheep had disappeared," he says. "There was no meat. Nothing but hair and a few gnawed-on skulls. Four hundred pounds of sheep consumed overnight."

Master guide and longtime wolf hunter Jim Bailey concurs. "A wolf will kill almost anything, the strong, the weak and even other wolves," he says. "I watched a wolf pack consume a frozen moose in less than a week."

The Call of the Wild
Roy Chaney is a veteran Alaska wolf hunter who takes 9 to 17 wolves each year. While he has never been attacked or charged by a wolf, his methodology will make your hair rise faster than standing naked in the 30-below temperatures he hunts in.

"On moonlit nights, I call 'em in with my voice," he says. "We find a pack and move into the area, keeping to the brush. In the moonlight, the wolves can see your feet in the thickets, but they can't make out who or what you are. They need to check out whether another wolf pack has invaded their territory, or if wolves from the pack have herded a stray animal. We've had from ten to as many as thirty-nine wolves surround us, howling to each other, moving in closer and closer. I keep howling back, which is what keeps them interested. They get so focused on hunting you, they forget about snowmobiles running or people coughing. And they get really close at times. Human scent doesn't seem to bother them. One wolf managed to sneak into the 30-yard buffer between my hunting buddy and me."

Chaney hunts wolves because they're the ultimate in wariness and intelligence. "A single wolf will feed on twelve moose and thirty-six caribou a year," he says. "They do need to be managed, and hunting allows that. But I'd be crazy to advocate wiping them out, because to do so would be the beginning of the end of all that we hold dear here in Alaska."

Longtime Alaska resident Sid Cook was hunting Prince of Wales Island when a pack of wolves surrounded him. "The wolves were running through the timber, surrounding me as I walked through the trees. When wolves howl close to you, they almost sound fake," he says. "The echo, the reverberation isn't there. They were howling and yapping to each other, communicating as hunters. I loaded my rifle and prepared for an attack, but suddenly, the wolves disappeared. It was as frightening as it was eerie."

I stood my ground against wolves when I bagg