Summer Hunger

Daring Lake Research camp, 163 NM north of Yellowknife.  About 65 N X 112 W.

 These are the halcyon days of high summer.   Early August, not every year but some years, holds this for the far north:  day after day, hot pale blue sky with a tinge and a whiff of smoke (more smoke the farther west and south you go, at the latitude of 63 North or so.)  Lakes glassy enough to put a pucker factor into nearly every floatplane touchdown, especially toward dusk, especially in the smoke.  The mosquitoes long past their peak, the tundra now starting to flash a tiny hint of yellow, even in the heat.  Amazing days, and they just keep on coming.  Going on 13 straight now. 

And starvation days, if you happen to be an arctic wolf, and your luck has been running poor.  When the old-timers called the tundra “barren lands” and “country that could starve a wolf” they did know very well what they were saying.   I am forever amazed, chagrined, perplexed, and bamboozled by those who keep claiming that the tundra expanses of northern Canada are some sort of un-identified Serengeti of the north.  You’ve heard it, haven’t you?  “The ‘barren-lands’ is a misnomer – in truth, this is a land teeming with life.”  Perhaps David Attenborough or some similarly sophisticated narrator voiced-over that old line again in a recent documentary on the Discovery Channel, while the screen overflowed with a throng of caribou or geese. 

What I would like to do is get one of those folks airborne over the tundra for oh, say, 60 or 80 straight hours of transect-type surveys.  We don’t have to go in January to make the point; we can go in mid-summer – hell, they can name the date, and they can select the 1500 miles of lines to fly.   We will cruise low and slow, three or four hundred feet above the rocks and moss and lichen and looking-glass lakes.  Maybe David Attenborough would like to come along for the ride and narrate over the intercom.

Or for those who prefer to do their observing from ground level, we could stake out a wolf den site from a hilltop, on the warmest day of the year.  Hour after hour, with a view of 360 degrees and several miles in every direction, sun glaring down, and not a breath of wind.  Not a bird stirring, not a caribou or a muskox or a bear or a lemming to be seen.  Black flies of course, but even those little bastards are feeling the heat.  Everything alive is hunkered down in mid-day, just getting through the heat, and getting through the summer. 

The immensity and emptiness of this landscape is its single most compelling and dramatic attribute.  Silence and utter vastness are at the heart of its magic and its allure.  It is a reservoir of silence.  And as I have written elsewhere, it is more a land of physics than biology.  The life that is here is amazing, mostly because, like life in all deserts hot and cold, it is here and alive at all.

Pity wolf 421.  The female wolf, a lactating mother of pups, was fitted with a radio collar in late June, as part of a study of barren-ground wolves and the survival of their puppies from year to year.  I have mixed feelings on collaring and radio telemetry studies with wild animals – and on the hubris of science as it affects the day-to-day lives of its chosen victims.  As a friend of mine says, “I think those biologists should try wearing one of those things for a year or two.”  But that is beside the point here.  Wolf 421 was alive in early July, when we spent two 3-hour sessions watching from a hilltop 600 meters across a little swale, spotting scopes and binoculars trained on the den site.  Alive, but oddly placid.  Weak, it seemed to us.  I remember Mike’s comment to me – “I wonder if they are starving?” 

Now 421 is dead.  The GPS unit on the collar has not moved in many days, and the VHF radio signal is chirping from deep in the den, and there is the odor of death and decay wafting out on the cool underground air at the den opening.  I recall another wolf, which showed up at the Hoarfrost in mid-summer about 15 years ago.  So weak it could barely stand, so skinny that when I finally shot it (Annika was two years old at the time and the wolf was staggering within a few feet of us all, day after day) I was stunned by its body weight.  It was literally a bundle of bones encased in a sack of skin.  It weighed almost nothing.  It would not have had enough strength to pounce on a mouse, never mind to drag down a moose or a caribou.

I should add that some of the other wolves, and pups, and packs, in this study seem to be having a high time this summer.  They are the lucky ones, for whom sheer luck combined with the shifting movement of prey animals has brought a positive energy balance to early August, just as the pups are pushing twenty pounds and growing like Iowa corn.  It seems to me – a layman, mind you – that the whole summer,and life itself, can hang on one lucky kill just when it is needed the most.  One caribou cornered in a thicket of dwarf birch in mid-July, and you and your pack are home free.  It seems like it could come down to that.   

This is hard country, and even halcyon high summer can be tough times, when your grocery bin is the barren lands, and your shopping method is chase and fang.  Once you fall onto the back side of the power curve, it’s a slippery slope – weakening, restricting, losing muscle mass and gumption day by day.   And sometimes it ends back where it started, in a dark tunnel  of cool sand deep beneath an esker ridge, on one of the brightest and warmest days of the entire year.  

On that cheery note, good night from Daring Lake.

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