The wolf-killing "blood knife" popped up in the news again this month.
If you've been in the north country long, you've probably already heard tales of this old, traditional, Native way of killing wolves.
As the Tundra Drums reported in a story picked up by the Daily News on Jan. 19, a prey animal's blood is wiped "on knives or sharp rocks (the latter was a new one to me). Wolves cut themselves as they lick away the blood, bleeding to death through their mouths."
Several questions come immediately to mind whenever this story is told:
If it's this easy to kill wolves, why did Alaska Natives go to all the trouble of digging pits to trap the animals?
If a knife works, why did the more costly leg-hold trap so quickly gain popularity in the state after white contact?
What aboriginal hunter, knowing the importance of a knife as a primary tool for survival, would leave this implement out on the ice in hopes of a wolf coming along, licking it and maybe, possibly, hopefully dying.
And those are but a few of the questions that start to make the "blood knife" story suspect.
Call me a skeptic if you must, but I can't just take something as true because it has been repeated over and over. Or because, well, "everyone knows that's how they did it in the old days.''
Ann Fienup-Riordan is an anthropologist who has devoted her career to trying to determine how the aboriginal residents of the Arctic and subarctic did things in the old days. She was my first call. She'd heard of the blood knife trap, but she'd never actually encountered an Alaska Native elder who claimed to have used it or who remembered anyone using it.
She referred me to some other people who might help determine whether the story was fact or fable. Further questioning there led nowhere.
An online search for information led primarily to a bunch of Christian Web sites, where the story of the wolf and the tasty knife is used as a parable to describe the sneaky ways in which the devil works: He tempts us with tasty treats, but at their core lurks evil and danger.
And then there was this on Wikipedia:
"Knife traps: The Native Americans used two kinds of knife trap. One method was to encase a sharp blade in fat and frozen upright on a block of ice. The wolf would cut itself while licking the blade and bleed to death. The other method was a baited torsion spring which when triggered, would stab the wolf in the head. One method was to encase a sharp blade in fat and frozen upright on a block of ice."
The bad sentence structure there is not mine. This is a direct quote from Wikipedia.
I'm sure whoever wrote the entry meant the sharp blade is encased in fat and the knife is then frozen upright in a block of ice.
The frozen-fat knife is a variation on the blood knife, but at least this reference had a source -- "Of Wolves and Men,'' a book by author Barry Lopez.
Unfortunately, the book has no further source. So I made some more calls.
One of them was to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Bob Stephenson, who has lived with and greatly admires the wolf hunters of Anaktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range. Some of them had been known to kill 20 to 40 wolves per season back in the day, which Stephenson believes qualifies them as among the most efficient wolf killers in Alaska.
He'd never heard of them using a "blood knife" or "fat knife" trap. Back before the arrival of leg-hold traps and firearms, he said, they used pit traps and sharp pieces of baleen spooled up and frozen in chunks of fat.
The wolves, Stephenson said, would wolf down the fat chunks. As the fat digested, the baleen would unspool and cut into the wolves' stomachs or intestines.
This could eventually cause the animals to die from internal bleeding.
"They (the hunters) would have to track the wolf for a while,'' he said, "but they got some wolves that way."
These were tough people. Imagine tracking a wolf for days across the frozen expanse of the Brooks Range on snowshoes carrying minimal survival gear. Then consider how many of us would be intimidated by snowshoeing very far from the sight of the city, even if well equipped.
Why would anyone go to this sort of trouble if the blood knife trap worked?
Good question, Stephenson said. But he wouldn't totally rule out a blood-knife trap because of a vague memory of hearing about a wolf that bled to death from a cut tongue. He thought retired Fish and Game biologist Jack Lentfer might have reported that sort of death when he worked in Barrow decades ago.
So I tracked down Lentfer, who now lives in Homer. No, he said, he'd never known a wolf to bleed to death from any sort of oral injury -- tongue or otherwise. He had, however, heard of the blood knife trap.
"It seems pretty far out to me," he said.
BELIEVE IT IF YOU WANT
Dogs, he said, have been known to get into fights where their tongues get all ripped to shreds, and they don't bleed to death. An animal would have to do an incredible amount of damage to its tongue to cause a wound that would lead to bleeding to death, he said, and he couldn't imagine a wolf being dumb enough to do that.
"You want to be very careful when you question traditional knowledge," added Layne Adams, a wolf biologist who works in Denali National Park and Preserve, "(but) I can't imagine it."
I can't either, but you're free to believe what you want to believe. In the end it might come down to whether you believe a wolf's blood lust could overpower its judgment to this extent.
Or, to put it really simply: How stupid do you think a wolf could be?
Outdoors editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist. Reach him online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.