Pet Travel Thursday
Destination: The Yukon and Arctic Circle
By Pamela Douglas Webster
Many travelers follow a guide. Bill and Helen Thayer, although experienced adventurers, also followed a guide on their year long quest to study the habits of wolves. Their guide, however, was their dog Charlie.
In Three Among the Wolves: A Couple and Their Dog Live a Year with Wolves in the Wild, Helen Thayer describes the summer they spent camped 100 feet from a Yukon wolf den. When winter came, the couple trekked north to observe another pack known to return to a frozen delta inside the Arctic circle. Both times, Charlie was the ambassador who convinced the wolves to accept their presence without fear.
The author’s partnership with Charlie had begun 8 years earlier. At 50 years old, Helen Thayer became the first woman to trek alone and unaided (she pulled all her provisions on a sled) to the magnetic North Pole. An Inuit gave Charlie to Thayer to help protect her against polar bears. During that trip, the dog, whose grandfather was a wolf, bonded with the New Zealander who felt most at home in the wilderness.
Despite that bond and interdependence, it wasn’t until talking to the keeper at a wolf rescue center that the Thayers realized Charlie might be the key to their approaching the wolf packs they wished to study.
Besides his wolf lineage, Charlie’s Inuit upbringing had exposed him to wolves who sometimes foraged in the settlements. His behavior was wolf-like. It was not until Charlie received lessons from the Thayers’ other dogs that he even learned how to bark. While living with the Inuits, Charlie only howled.
Would Charlie be able to communicate with the wolves? If so, they might be able to observe behavior rarely witnessed in a wild wolf pack.
When the Thayers established their summer camp near the wolves’ den, they followed Charlie’s lead. As the leader of the pack looked over the newcomers, Charlie laid down, put his chin on his front paws, and turned his head to the side exhibiting what Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas calls “calming signals.” The Thayers lowered their bodies as well and did not make eye contact with the wolves. Over time, the entire pack accepted the presence of their neighbors with only mild curiosity.
The Thayers kept Charlie tethered to them for safety at all times, using a leash when hiking and a 70 foot lead in camp. Within those restrictions, Charlie marked out a territory for the camp by scent-marking boundaries with his urine. The wolves respected the territorial boundaries.
But would the pack feel comfortable enough to allow the pack’s puppies to come out of the protection of the den? The Thayers worried that their presence would cause the alpha female to keep her cubs hidden or, perhaps, to spirit them away while the Thayers were away from camp.
Approximately three weeks after the excited activity of the pack led the Thayers to believe pups had been born, they saw two fuzzy creatures emerge from the den. Over time, the pups were allowed to cross the marked boundary to play with “Uncle Charlie.” And the Thayers knew the pack had truly accepted them.
Leaving the summer pack to travel north was hard on everyone. Charlie refused to move forward for a long time. The Thayers left the area in tears. And the pack they had come to know accompanied them from a distance for the first few miles of their hike.
In both campsites, the Thayers encountered tremendous beauty, hardships, and danger. But they were driven to their task as amateurs—people pursuing an activity purely for love. It would certainly be easier to learn about wolves by reading or attending lectures. But Thayer eloquently described what drew her to live a life filled with risk: “Along with vulnerability comes mind-opening effect, an elation caused by a sharpened awareness as my own senses become acute. It’s a time when I feel completely in step with nature.”
Many people travel to open their minds. Few ever achieve the harmony with nature that two adventurers and their dog experienced among the wolves.
If everyone traveled to the Yukon wilderness, it wouldn’t be long before there was no wilderness. Delicate plants that take decades to mature would disappear. “Dangerous” animals would be hunted to extinction. We’re fortunate to be able to travel vicariously with the Thayers and, by not traveling, protect these beautiful and wild places.
To see photos of the summer pack observed by the Thayers as well as Charlie, watch the video Helen made this year.
The photos are from Flickr and used with Creative Commons license. Please click on the picture to learn more about the photographer. The links to Amazon are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy through those links, you are supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.