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Like Thickets on a Skyline
Bil Gilbert
November 03, 1975
He had spent a lifetime in the wild but never had he seen anything to compare with the herd of caribou and the pair of wolves that followed
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November 03, 1975

Like Thickets On A Skyline

He had spent a lifetime in the wild but never had he seen anything to compare with the herd of caribou and the pair of wolves that followed

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What was coming out of the barrens toward us should not be represented as la foule, at least not in full force. It was still early, the herds were still gathering, grazing on the barrens. This was a preliminary trickle, a suggestion of what it would be in a few weeks when the deer poured out of the plains in full flood. I have seen larger herds crossing the passes of the Brooks Range in Alaska, but never have mingled so intimately with the caribou as we did that day.

When it became apparent what was happening, we picked out a clump of sheltered rocks downwind from the main crossings. The caribou in their customary shambly style passed in an irregular flow; groups of three or four animals, a dozen, 50 or 60 separated by gaps. Except that the fawns stuck close to their mothers, there was no particular order of march apparent, all sexes and ages mingling indiscriminately. Occasionally one animal or several would drop out, browse for a time on the far side of the river, then either cross alone or join another band. Eventually every animal entered the water and there were times when the river was bridged from bank to bank with deer.

La petite foule beached and came up the knoll within 20 or 30 yards of us. The big bucks, handsome in their predominantly dark brown fall coats with thick ruffs, would stand at the water's edge shaking water from the water-repellent guard hairs, snorting, waving their antlers and generally preening. Does moved along with less fuss but the fawns often stopped to catch their breath. If a doe got too far ahead, a fawn would give a peculiar, very doglike bark of alarm and scurry to catch up.

Despite being downwind, we were so close to the crossing that now and then an animal would become aware of us. Some would snort in apparent fright and gallop off through the spruce. Others would stare perplexedly and then walk off slowly as if contemplating the meaning of our presence. Still others would advance directly toward us, come within a few feet before rejoining the throng.

As Ann continued to watch the caribou flow off the hills, cross the river and move into the woods, I wandered back to the knoll to measure trees as potential cabin logs. Occasionally I would look off into the barrens. I did not want to push my luck as a prophet of wildlife spectaculars but, by rights, it seemed another character should be coming on the scene: the wolf, which is associated with caribou just as caribou are associated with lichens. The first sign was given by the deer, half a dozen animals which had been sauntering parallel to the river in a downstream direction wheeled and began running upstream. I looked above them and saw two large, white adult wolves loping along the ridge. Twice while they were in sight they stopped, sat on their haunches and peered down at the deer, but showed no inclination to do anything but look. Not wanting to yell, but feeling bad that Ann was not with me, I waited until the wolves had disappeared over the hill, then ran back toward the river. I met Ann coming toward me. She was grinning.

"Did you see them?" we both asked simultaneously and answered together, "the wolves."

"I saw them on the ridge, they trotted along for half a mile and then dropped out of sight," I said.

"I did better than that. They were right in front of me. It was just great. Let me tell you what I saw.

"I was watching the deer. There were about a dozen of them near the water. They were dawdling along as if they were putting off crossing. Then just downstream, but a little bit back in the higher grass I saw something big and white. At first I thought it was a pair of albino caribou they were so big. [Arctic wolves weigh up to 175 pounds.] But then I got a better look and knew they had to be wolves. There was nothing else they could be. It was so hard to believe, I kept telling myself I really was seeing wild wolves. From above I could see the whole thing. The wolves were staying low, slinking through the brush toward the deer. All of a sudden they jumped out, snapping. They were like kids hiding at the top of a dark hall jumping out and yelling 'boo' at whoever comes past.

"Just for a split second the deer seemed absolutely frozen with panic. Then they literally dived into the river. You can't believe how fast they swam. Their front feet were churning the water so hard, they looked like butterflyers in an Olympic race.

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