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Meetings With Wolves

by Dan Lewis

I'll never forget the first time I saw a wolf in the wild. It was the first night of a three-week expedition down the west coast of Vancouver Island. The night was clear so the three of us were sleeping in a circle around the fire: John Kelson, a tree climber; Takehiro Shibata, a young man from Tokyo; and me.

I awoke in the middle of the night. The stars were so incredibly beautiful that I couldn't bear to miss the show - I lay there on my back, star-gazing. After a long time, I noticed a region near the horizon with no stars. Trying to understand why, I studied the area for quite a while, still in a rather dreamlike state. Eventually I realized there was a pattern: the dark region was in the shape of a wolf.

So there I was, lying on the ground, with this wolf sitting not four feet away, part of our circle around the fire. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I felt vulnerable, being on the ground with the wolf above me. My mind raced, trying to decide what to do. I figured it didn't want to attack us, or it would have done so already. On the other hand, what the heck was it doing?

Suddenly my mind latched onto the idea that it might only be a coyote. In my groggy state, I thought that would somehow be less threatening. I decided to wake up Kelson. "John, John," I whispered, not wanting to spook the wolf and cause it to pounce. "Is that a coyote, or a wolf?" No response.

"John, John!" I hissed fiercely. "Is that a coyote, or a wolf?" Nothing. So finally I repeated the words out loud and John woke up, calmly replying, "That's a wolf Dan". By this time Take was awake, and let out an exclamation of surprise - a kid from Tokyo meeting his first wolf.

We sat watching it for a while, discussing what we ought to do. It just sat there, unperturbed. I was reluctant to scare it away, as it seemed so cool to have a wolf in our circle, but I was reluctant to let it stay. Luckily, my inner Boy Scout had prompted me to stash a clean metal pot and spoon near my head for just such an eventuality.

"Should I bang the pot?" I asked. "Yep, I think it's time," replied John. I tapped the pot gently with the spoon. The wolf calmly stood up and trotted away. As it departed, we saw that a second wolf had been standing behind the first one the whole time!

A year later, I was paddling from Bella Bella to Port Hardy with Alex Frid. We had been eager to see wolves, but none had appeared. One evening, I was washing our dishes after supper at the water's edge. I have good night vision, so I wasn't using a flashlight. Suddenly I smelled a big, dirty dog. No doubt about it. An alley dog. My mind tried to match this incongruous aroma with my current location on a remote, uninhabited island.

My skin prickled all over as I realized with utter certainty that I was smelling a wolf through the darkness. I turned my flashlight on and began scanning the beach. Sure enough, two pairs of wolf eyes glinted back, not fifty feet away. I turned the light off, so as not to bother them.

Dishes done, I came back up to our tarp, and we prepared to bed down for the night. We checked again, and the wolves were still on the beach. It felt weird to just lie down on the ground and try to go to sleep with the wolves so close by. Alex was reluctant to light a fire (leave no trace and all that), but we finally agreed it would be appropriate, as most animals associate flames with forest fires. We never saw those wolves again.

When wild animals approach humans, it is important to warn them off. Some people do this by yelling and throwing rocks. I personally think this is rude. Simply talking or singing is usually enough to warn an animal that you're human. Metal and fire are two more sure signs of humanity. Most wild creatures know that we are the most dangerous animals on the planet, and will avoid us like the plague if given half a chance.

Wildlife sightings are often the highlight of any nature outing - the memories stay with us for a lifetime. But sadly we've seen three wolves killed here on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the last four years. It really boils down to one fact: once an animal learns to associate humans with food, it's only a matter of time until it's killed.

There are some simple things we can do. Never take food, toiletries or anything aromatic (used candy wrappers in pockets, etc.) into or near tents. Set up the kitchen area well away from the tents. Wash dishes immediately after meals. Store food and leftovers securely, right after meals. Use the inter-tidal zone for all washing, brushing teeth, or even just rinsing a bit of leftover coffee from your cup. The tide will wash the smells away. Let's do everything in our power to ensure that our visits to natural areas don't result in animals being killed.