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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

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On the Canadian Arctic’s Remote Kaska Coast, Wolf Spotting Under the Northern Lights

The next morning, 12 citizen scientists and our guides piled onto ATVs and drove through leafless willow breaks, across barely frozen river mouths. We dismounted and walked in and out of low beach berms. A flock of ptarmigans flushed from the brush, a blur of white against an iron sky. A snowy owl glided over, huge and silent. A relentless wind blew off the bay, driving snow from the dark squalls that marched across the horizon.

Andy stopped the line. He gestured at four big adult polar bears out on the ice. Maybe 300 yards. Pretty far. Except that Andy had told me that a polar bear is faster in its initial burst than a racehorse out of the gate. We were out in the open, half a mile from the six-wheelers. “Form a horizontal line,” he told us. “No breaks. We want to appear big.”

The bears rolled on their backs. Then the largest, a huge male, raised his nose as if catching a scent and trundled toward us. He moved with a lumbering, pigeon-toed gait. At 100 yards, Andy and Jody stepped forward. At 20, Andy began to talk.

“Hey, handsome,” he called. “Just walking by? Looks like you’re just walking by.” The bear paused, licked his nose, looked back to Kim, and came on. “Stay right there,” Andy called. He pried two rocks from a chest pack, which also contained a pistol that fired bangers, a VHF radio, and a can of pepper spray. He clacked them together. “We don’t want to play.” Clack-clack. “Keep walking!” And he did! But I thought he looked a little hurt. He kept swinging his head shoreward to look back at us.

That night at the lodge, the wine bottles emptied faster than usual. Suddenly the lights went out, and Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild’s co-owner, said, “Everyone, move quietly to the windows.” The wolves had arrived. They came out of the trees like gray ghosts, in twos and threes. I counted 14. They gathered around a lone spruce 40 feet from the lodge, smelling and marking. Unlike Yellowstone wolves, which are usually viewed through a spotting scope a mile away, they were uncollared, uncatalogued on any pack chart, unstudied. They were truly wild.

Over the next week, I felt I was in a dream. We went out twice a day and set trail cameras, gathered frozen scat, studied tracks. We saw a dark-red fox and a white Arctic fox trotting side by side. We stood awestruck under the pulsing curtains of the northern lights. We saw polar bears everywhere. Through the windswept black ice of the Opayastin Creek, we saw brook trout swimming against the current.

On our last evening, we took an excursion to the edge of the bay. A female bear ambled slowly along the edge of a berm. A red fox sniffed the frozen bog. Then Jelena, a psychologist from Switzerland, yelled, “Wolf!” Another loner. He was loping out on the broken ice. Jad said, “Let’s howl. If it sounds joyful, he’ll answer.” He cupped his hands and started low and slow; he raised it an octave, and we joined in. The wolf turned to us, the only dark shape in a waste of ice, listened, and raised a short note. Jad nodded, and we loosed another song. The wolf stopped. Now he sat. He lifted a low, hollow moan. It came tattered on the freezing gusts and then rose into a high keening. Goose bumps ran over my arms and chest. In the gathering dusk, he was declaring his territory. Alone and lifting his voice in what I understood was the purest love song.

This article appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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