Looking at a map of Saskatchewan, one can’t help but notice the glaring lack of human infrastructure in the northern reaches of the province. Civilization fades out on the map just north of the city of Prince Albert, the last significant outpost before the Canadian prairie blends with the sub-Arctic boreal forest. Here true north begins: an immense and disorienting matrix of rivers, lakes and coniferous forests uninterrupted by mountains. The heavy footprint of man is nearly absent from the wilderness, save a few remote mining and energy operations. This wild frontier is the kingdom of the gray wolf (canis lupus), a noble apex predator with the savvy and strength to endure harsh winters and sweltering summers. In the dead, January cold, photographer Bart Deferme and I traveled to Prince Albert National Park in search of these magnificent animals.
During the length of our week-long stay, the highest the temperature got was minus 20 and temps regularly dipped below minus 40. If that fact alone doesn’t earn your respect for the gray wolf, nothing will. Wolves remain active through the caustic winter chill, hunting prey that are equally diminished from the stunning cold. Working in small but efficient packs (normally six to eight wolves), the pursuit of elk and deer is a life or death matter. This urgency contributes to the cunning strategies used to ambush prey — and the brutality of the kill. One local woman unexpectedly witnessed a trio of wolves dismantle an adult male elk on an exposed forest road. The attack was so disturbing and violent that she has since refused to step foot in the forest.
This blend of hardiness, beauty, intelligence and ruthlessness makes gray wolves so appealing. Though a genetic cousin to the full spectrum of domestic dogs, wolves have retained many attributes that set them apart from household pets. Physically, they have larger heads, narrower chests, flatter tails and most importantly, broader paws that excel in snow travel. And unlike tame dogs, they have an unmitigated prey drive — one of the reasons why trying to wrangle a wolf into the role of a pet is a poor idea. While they maintain fierce loyalty to the pack, strangers of both the canine and human variety will be met with hostility. In the battle for precious few resources, any threat will be handled with impunity.
Where civilization meets wilderness, wolves are wary of men. Studies have shown that wolves can distinguish between the threat potential of armed and unarmed humans. Many wolves have adapted methods to disarm traps by digging around them until they are harmlessly triggered. Staying out of sight is the best strategy because you can’t kill what you can’t find. This makes tracking them a rather tricky business.
We have recruited an unlikely ally to help find wolves: trained dog sled teams. Musher Bradley Muir, 52, is a Canadian who runs Sundog Excursions. His 30-plus sled dogs are primarily Alaskan huskies, every bit as weatherproof as their distant lupine cousins. They retain some hints of their ancestry, but these working dogs can be petted and handled without danger. Healthy, happy dogs love to run, and we are glad to give them the opportunity.
Photo by Bart Deferme
The sled dogs aren’t going to magically lead us to wolves, and in fact, encounters between dogs and wolves are rare (wolves aren’t eager to tangle with other dogs unless they have to). Rather, they will haul us and our supplies to a backcountry camp, where we will search for tracks with the dogs, then continue the pursuit on snowshoe.
A howling troop of huskies aren’t about to sneak up on anything, so why not use snowmobiles if noise is a moot point?
There is a fascinating phenomenon that occurs on the hard, frozen lakes that one must inevitably cross to reach optimal wolf sighting locations. Water can freeze so hard from the sub-zero cold that it becomes super-dense. This overload causes fractures in the ice. When ice cracks, it releases a rush of briny, liquid lake water that floats above the base ice but remains insulated from immediate freezing by blankets of snow on the surface. Slush results, sometimes two to three feet deep, and any snowmobile that attempts to cross a burdened lake will be paralyzed by liquid water bonding and flash freezing to burning cold metal. Many times, a snowmobile will remain immobilized until spring, and then it’s a race against time to extract the vehicle before the spring thaw sinks it in the depths of the lake.
Dogs don’t love the slush either, but they can deal with it, sloughing it from their paws in stride. Humans can employ snowshoes or simply higher, waterproof boots. Most often, man and dog slog side by side through slush while the sleds are unweighted.
Photo by Bart Deferme
Each sled can hold a musher, one passenger and a light array of gear. We have two sleds, each powered by eight huskies. Our additional guide is JoŽl Potiť, 26, an experienced musher whose soft-spoken, good-natured personality goes over well with both clients and the dogs.
Photographer Bart and I help with dog chores before setting off into the wild. Entering the kennels unleashes a torrent of excited energy, because when strangers come to say hi it means there’s mushing afoot. Alaskan huskies are smaller than some would imagine, rarely weighing as much as 45 pounds. Larger breeds, such as the Alaskan malamute and Greenland husky, are powerhouses but lack the drive, endurance and swiftness to cover large distances in good time. This is why racing teams, such as those in the world famous Iditarod, employ smaller huskies and even husky-themed mutts.
While hooking up the lucky, chosen pups into their harnesses, howls of anticipation start as muted whimpers from a few individuals, then explode into a roaring chorus of barking frenzy. Prior to launch, the sleds have triply redundant anchors and, in some cases, a fourth human anchor is added. Smart as they are, dogs have no time to wait for humans to be comfortably loaded onto the sled. As soon as they can, they will run — passengers or not.
Photo by Bart Deferme
When our two sleds are finally loaded and ready to go, the mushers communicate with us primarily through hand signals as the noise from the dogs drowns out any feeble attempts at verbal communication. Without muttering a word, our mushers release their anchors and the sleds powerfully jolt to life. And then, silence and inertia take over. This is the moment the dogs have pined for: the chance to run. As soon as they are off, the forest reclaims its calm and details are abnormally audible. Only the rhythmic pace of the dogs’ breathing and the muted sound of the sled runners can be heard. Recent studies have shown chemicals in working dogs’ brains are triggered to release the same neurological impulses that create a “runner’s high” in humans. The easy flow of our teams seems to verify that conclusion.
In the hour-long mush it takes to reach the canvas cabin that serves as our camp, we see several instances of certified, fresh wolf tracks. There is no doubt the wolves are out and about. Most of the tracks head off into dense spruce groves. Our best chance of seeing a wolf in action will be on the large, frozen lakes, though as temperatures begin to threaten minus 50, even wolves are keen to stay in the shelter of their dens.
After reaching camp and unloading our gear, we quickly set off on dog sled to probe the deep woods. Again we spot numerous wolf tracks, but to our frustration they tend to lead into the woods rather than toward the open lakes. The three-hour tour is surprisingly comfortable until the seemingly impotent sun begins its slow slide below the horizon. A new level of cold is our signal to seek shelter, and just as darkness falls over the land, we return to camp. Amazingly, the dogs are fine sleeping outside on an impromptu bed of straw. After being fed and given a few treats of heavy fat, they curl up and drift off to a well-earned sleep.
Photo by Bart Deferme
Our tent is warmed by a modest portable wood-burning stove, but the biting cold reduces the radius of effective heat. Brad and JoŽl prepare a carb-heavy feast, perfect for staving off the evening chill. There is talk of the northern lights, but an overcast sky prevents any chance of seeing the magical, dancing auroras. During the night, we take shifts fueling the fire and sleep is fairly restful.
The next day, we again set off to explore new areas. We encounter a few of the aforementioned slush traps on several lakes but they were shallow enough for the dogs to fight through (with us humans running alongside the sleds). We spot owls, a pair of bald eagles, several elk and more tantalizing wolf tracks, but still no actual wolves. The sun shines bright but offers only minimal warmth. Our target area encompasses both Prince Albert National Park and the boundary lands just past its borders. Come mid-afternoon, the slightest of breezes all but squashes any chance to see wolves on the open lakes. What might seem to be a peaceful zephyr amplifies the ridiculous cold, pushing it through our protective boots and gloves. Wind chill is a factor to the dogs as well, and following a lengthy and exposed lake crossing, we humbly return to camp.
In the end, we never did see any wolves. There were plenty of tracks and even tufts of wolf fur snagged on shrubs — but no actual wolves. We were hoping for that glorious encounter, a live viewing of a wolf kill, the same scene that had so disturbed the local woman unintentionally privy to all its ferocious glory. Retrieving tennis balls or joyfully rolling over to accept belly rubs has dulled our view of the original canine purpose. The respect due to those wild dogs still enabled with the power and mastery to execute the kill is an awesome thing to behold, and despite our best efforts, it was not to be seen.
Photo by Bart Deferme
The adventure was not, however, in vain. Spending time in the company of sled dogs was a wonderful experience, as they embody enough of the residual toughness of wolves to imply the predator within. The boreal forest is strikingly beautiful. The pastel palette of dreamy pinks and yellows offset by deep pine green and dark gray trees is majestic, deceptive and magical. The presence of any life in these harsh conditions borders on miraculous, whether it be ungulate, avian or the preposterous river otter, who plays in the open river flows in the coldest of weather.
Best of all, this Saskatchewan adventure filled in a notorious dark spot on the map. It is not nothingness that fills the space, but vital and hearty life. It remains the unchallenged domain of the gray wolf, and though we were not worthy to gain an audience, it was nonetheless an honor to be invited to the kingdom. Wild places are essential, as are the struggles and drama that play out beyond the scope of the camera eye. The very fact there are places we cannot manipulate for our impatient pleasure is satisfying. Let us hope there will remain places where only the wolf knows what it is like to gaze at a blazing sky of northern lights and where, hidden in some clever hollow, he watches his fellow husky cousins at work and ponders that fateful allegiance made with duplicitous man.