Friday, June 8, 2012

Guarding your dogs from wolves

I was writing about what you should do if you and your dogs were ever confronted by wolves, but I thought
it was too outlandish to post. Then I saw that movie 'The Grey' about plane crash victims in Alaska being
stalked and killed by wolves, and realized my stuff is mild compared to that bit of fiction.

Now that wolves are back in the West, it’s good to know what you can do to defend yourself if you’re flanked by a large pack, seriously. Ranchers in several of the western states have reported their dogs being killed or attacked by wolves. If wolves are lingering around, they’re likely after your dogs, not you, even though it may feel like they’re after you. They’re trying to figure out how to get to your dogs without getting injured or killed. At camp you may hear them at night for several nights in a row, circling and howling in the dark of night. This is more common in Canada and Alaska than in the lower forty-eight.
      Though rare, wolf attacks on people’s dogs do occur, but them circling around you and your dog is more common than someone might think. It’s happened to me three times, once in the Yukon, once in southeast Alaska, and once in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Each time was a pack encounter. Solitary wolves are usually more apprehensive and flee from things that wouldn’t scare a pack.
     Wolves don’t like dogs. They see them as competition for food, a blockage to accessing food (like a dog guarding cattle), or as food source themselves. Sometimes during your encounter, you will be astonished how lackadaisical and fearless the wolves appear, like they own the world. And against all other animals in their range except for people with weapons and perhaps the largest bear, they do. They have much larger brains than dogs and know how to kill in a coordinated effort using all the members of their pack.
     Just remember, don’t let your dogs get away from you in this situation.  If you do they’re dead. The wolves will try to lure them away, acting timid and docile. And if they get them away from you they might attack them and you won’t be able to defend them. A wolf pack can be very persistent. If they wanted, and you had no protection, a wolf pack could kill you pretty quickly. This is another good reason to stay close to your dog, so he can help you like you would help him. In Alaska I prefer a long tether, so my dog will have room to maneuver if wolves close in, but not be able to get away from me.
     The only time I saw my first Airedale terrier Jonny afraid was camping in the Northwest Territories in early May. Airedales are supposed to be completely fearless, bear and mountain lion dogs. I had driven down a dirt road off the main highway and was camped about thirty yards from my little truck. I heard several howls off in the distance and assumed the wolves were organizing themselves and planning what to do about me. Minutes later I hear the pattering of footsteps around my tent in the gloomy light. Wolves seem to always check you out for awhile before moving in. They’re good at assessing the danger, so if you think you’re vulnerable; the wolves will probably figure out that you are.
     I had Jonny in my tent with me and after hearing the rustling of wolves outside for several minutes, I stuck him outside to see what was going on. I figured that was his job. “Go check it out,” I said to him, and he went out a bit reluctantly, which was rare for his breed. I think he knew already that something wasn’t right. He walked out, turned the corner of my tent, and disappeared into the darkness. I waited for twenty seconds, silent and listening. Then suddenly he shot back into my tent like a rocket. Seeing him so scared freaked me out completely. With no bear spray or gun, I was shaking uncontrollably, figuring I’d be killed soon. I didn’t quite know what to do and my guard dog was looking toward me for protection. This was my first wolf encounter and I could hardly believe they were getting this aggressive and this close. All I had ever read about wolves was they never attack people. It never occurred to me that they would attack my dog even if I was right with him.
     After about fifteen seconds of indecision, I sprinted out of my tent, ran the thirty yards through the trees, and opened the driver’s side door of my truck. Before I could get in, and I was moving very rapidly to do it, Jonny had leaped in before me and was already sitting on the passenger side on top of some of my food and gear. I cracked my window and could hear the wolves howling off in the distance about fifty yards away, circling, until finally moving on. I waited for two hours for full light before taking my tent down and driving off.
     Remember, stay close to your dogs to protect them. Unless you have very large dogs like Irish wolfhounds or Tibetan mastiffs, and at least as many dogs as there are wolves, your dogs don’t stand a chance without you. If you don’t have dogs, wolves likely won’t molest you. But if you do have dogs (and no weapon) and say hypothetically a wolf attacks you, you don’t stand a chance without them.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Alaska I've Imagined

In 2009 after spending two months trying to hike from Arctic Village to Old Crow, I hit a bunch of forest fires on the Sheenjek River in the Brooks Range. My dog got injured attacking a porcupine and I built a log raft to attempt to float out. I was lucky to come across a fire crew along the river who gave me a ride out on their helicopter.     

The stress I never fully realized I had melts. I’m returning to the comfort of town, medical attention for Will, and then home. I’m leaving the last frontier. It’s not an easy place to survive in and I’m sad and happy at the same time. I’m going to miss the wilderness - I still have a solid month of summer left that I could spend exploring. But I’m happier to be getting Will out so he can feel good again. He’s just a dog, but he suffers and wants to feel happy and pain-free like anyone would, and he’s a great friend. And that’s what you do for a great friend.          
     Riding back on the helicopter really scares me, not because I’m aloft in a heavy steel machine that can’t glide a lick to safety if the engines fail, not at all. What scare me are the countless forest fires. I’m not afraid of getting burned, not now. For the first fifteen minutes of the flight, I see what looks like a world in the throws of a smoldering and burning apocalypse, in the last days of existence, with the orange, circular sun trying to shine through the choking haze. There are dozens of imposing columns of smoke that have risen vertically to heights well above the helicopter. From this distance they don’t appear to move or grow any larger. They’re already gigantic and take up most of my view and their white color, thicker than the rest of the sky, means they’re still being fed by the burning of trees and plants down below. This can’t be natural. It isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I hardly avert my eyes from the window, except to look at Jimmy and Will sleeping at my feet despite the thumping of the rotor blades and the low scream of the engine. I put earplugs in their ears.
     I’m afraid that modern man, who has altered the face of the planet, might have caused these fires, and that these fires might be only the beginning of nature scorching the earth. Even on the edge of this refuge in Alaska, the world is in crisis, if here then anywhere. If here then everywhere. Is there nowhere else to go, nowhere else to explore without a sign that the wild is receding?
     The sky is so filled with smoke that it looks like we’re flying through a perpetual cloud, not quite dense enough so I can’t see. It’s as if a white veil surrounds the entire earth, and the sun in its orbit appears perfectly round, a sphere glowing, trying to shed light on the charred remains of the planet. This reminds me of images of men flying to and from battlefields in a bombed and obliterated landscape like Vietnam. It looks like doom and frightens the hell out of me. Bob turns back to me. “Everything all-right back there?” he asks. I don’t say anything. I just nod that everything is fine and then he turns back and I keep looking out the window, hoping for something to change. Then it does and I look up with hope.
     During the last fifteen minutes of our flight the fires end abruptly like there’s a boundary they can’t cross, like we’ve made a deal with the natural forces. Except for the hazy sky, everything appears, as it should be. There’s mile after mile of unbroken forest, and views of rivers and creeks threading and twisting across the land in serpentine patterns, the Alaska I’ve always imagined. It spans past every horizon wherever I look. A person could spend months down there wandering the land and still not see it all. “Incredible place,” I say and then Bob and the pilot tilt their heads toward each other and give a pleasant grin in agreement.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A dog's miraculous sense of direction

Bewildered and alone with only my dog, a chow lab hybrid, I wasn’t sure how to get back to my camp along the coast of southeast Alaska after hiking inland several miles to explore the lush forest. I couldn’t see anything but the giant trees in front of me, and the thick brush made knowing the direction back confusing. If only I had been smart enough to bring a compass.
     With the day growing late I called upon my ten-year-old dog, Chong, to lead me out of the forest. I named him after watching a Cheech and Chong movie back in the eighties. Afraid that my own sense of direction would cause great delays and force me to spend the night out without any overnight gear, I urged Chong to go ahead just to see what he could do. “Come on Chong, let’s go buddy,” I said while stepping aside and pointing to the ground in front of me. To my surprise, he shot ahead through the tangled vines and walls of cedars like he was young again. Though he wasn’t fast anymore and loved to take long naps, he could still motor steadily for hours over terrain that made me as slow as a toddler. I could tell by his lack of pausing and good pace that he knew exactly where he was going.
     I didn’t hold him back and tried my best to keep up with him, however when I started lagging he would wait. I could see him peering at me from up ahead through the bushes like Freddy Kruger. When I caught up, breathing hard and sweating, he’d turn and start up again, shooting through the undergrowth with a taut body and an expressionless face. “Good boy, good boy,” I’d say to encourage him, but his perseverance never wavered. Chong, as I had read long ago about chows, had an infallible sense of direction. He jogged left, and then right, over and over to avoid trees, but never hesitated while keeping on course. I felt like he was my guide and guardian and that as long as he was with me in the forest, nothing bad could happen.
     I believed he was finding his way partly by memory and smell, but mostly by gut instinct, which seemed as alive in him as it was in his ancestors a million years ago. He never faltered. Good fit dogs who have some experience in the woods, and I don’t think they need a ton of practice, can lead you across a hundred miles of wilderness to safety if you understand them.
     After two hours of bush whacking through vine maples and devils club while following the back side of a glowing old dog, I could see the light over the bay glimmering through the tall cedars, and just up ahead was my camp. Chong had completely hit the mark, and my relief of not having to spend the night out in the misty forest was overflowing, as was my pride for my dog. “You crazy chow chow,” I said happily to praise him. “You are one good puppy dog.”
     As I tossed my day pack next to my hearth, I rubbed my fingers through my dog’s dense fur. “You good boy.”  I wonder if he understood the magnitude of his accomplishment in rescuing me from my misguided jaunt in the wilderness, and before long he was hard asleep snoring next to a blazing fire. From that day forward, I always believed in the guiding powers of a dog.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Zero Degrees North

I feel lost before leaving, a big zero smothering under the weight of motor traffic, stale city streets, jamming noise, and unrelenting congestion. So I'm dropping everything in my life again, except my dog Will, and heading north for Alaska to wander the seldom-trodden backcountry.
     We moved out of the house we were renting. The neighbors kept calling animal control about my dog Will who would howl every day around noon, long and piercing, like he was searching for his brother who died three months before. We wanted to buy a house so Will would have a companion and we would have a home that would be our own, with no rules but the ones we made, and no unannounced landlords showing up to scrutinize the condition of the grounds. I was always leaving things lying around that I brought home from the woods, like elk antlers in the back yard, or plants on bookshelves I wanted to identify as edible or poisonous – they usually set there until they withered and started to disintegrate.