SI Vault
Showdown on the tundra
Ron Rau
May 12, 1975
Wolves seldom attack, the author kept reminding himself, but he was all alone, and his only weapons were a caribou antler and a jackknife
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May 12, 1975

Showdown On The Tundra

Wolves seldom attack, the author kept reminding himself, but he was all alone, and his only weapons were a caribou antler and a jackknife

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The day it happened I had decided to take a walk after work on the night shift. Work was on the north slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska. It was May 1974, and we had begun construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. I had taken a job at Galbraith Lake, the northernmost camp in the mountains.

Directly to the south of us, the mountains looked like upside-down V's—steep, rugged and foreboding. To the east and west of camp, about three miles away, the mountains were not so fierce-looking; they were even rounded a little on top. To the north were the rolling hills that gently sloped down to the Arctic Ocean more than 100 miles away. I decided to walk north with my camera so I could get a picture of the camp with the rugged mountains south of us as a background.

It was four in the morning when I started walking. Already it was light enough for a good picture, the Arctic summer being upon us. To the east, the sun was hidden behind the mountains, illuminating the highest peaks to the south and to the west. That was the picture I wanted to get.

I had been walking for 15 minutes when I came across a shed caribou antler, three feet long, bleached white by the sun. It would make a perfect addition to the picture. I could lay it on a knoll and frame the camp inside the curved antler. It had six sharp tines on it, two of which were broken.

Carrying the antler, I walked for another hour toward the hill from which I had decided to take the picture.

Then I saw the wolf, a mere 50 yards away. He was coming into my path at an angle in that peculiar bouncing walk wolves and coyotes have.

I stopped.

The wolf walked—walked is the wrong word—or, rather, bounced on little coil springs set into his knees until he was directly in front of me. Then he turned and looked at me as though he had known all along I was there.

I had known there were wolves in the country; in fact, I had seen them around the camp at night, searching for an easy meal of garbage. (Partly for this reason, all camp garbage is burned in an incinerator. Wolves in camp can only mean trouble for both man and wolf.) The wolves I had seen in camp had seemed particularly bold, unlike the few I had observed in the wilds.

My first response was to look for other wolves. The tundra was treeless and rolling, well-gullied and knolled. This is why I had not seen him earlier; he had just come out of a depression.

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