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A trip through the Alaska backcountry, hoping for a run-in with a wolf

“That teekkona, he keeps caribou strong,” the Allakaket elder said. (Ken Conger / NPS)

NEAR TOKLAT RIVER — My cross-country skis hiss against the surface glare, slicing mile after mile of the snowy expanse. Only the panting of huskies and the crunching of sled runners augment their noise. We are on our annual spring break trip, this time tracking the drifted-over road to Wonder Lake into the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve. Twilight overtakes our dog team and skiers early on this brisk March day. When the cold starts to bite through thick layers of wool and down, and all color drains from the land, we pull over to camp in a copse of white spruce.

After dinner in our wall tent — kept cozy by a small wood-burning stove — I step outside. By now, the cold fire of northern lights plays overhead, fluttering in curtains of neon-green gauze. They easily blot out the pinpricks of stars.

I stretch my sore shoulders, and my senses release to the calm. The alleged purpose of this venture is to scout a route for a National Outdoor Leadership School course, but I really hope for a run-in with the most secretive denizen of these frozen wastes: Alaska's gray wolf.

In my 10 years in Alaska, only once had Canis lupus graced my life with a brief appearance. I was kayaking the Noatak River, gliding through blanketing brush fires that pulverized tundra and shrouded silt-and-clay cutbanks. As the smokescreen lifted momentarily, I glimpsed a large canine standing still, blending in perfectly with the surrounding ashes. It appeared like a northern mirage: a creature like smoke itself. The solitary wolf on the riverbank gazed at me without curiosity or concern. He then turned and trotted away, quickly dropping from sight. I felt strangely abandoned.

High-pitched wailing pulls me back into the present. It wavers, rises and falls, in sync with the ghosting above. It seems to come from nowhere and all places at once, piercing the night and my soul. The lone voice is soon joined by others.

These must be the wolves of the East Fork of the Toklat River studied by Minnesota wildlife biologist Adolph Murie between 1939 and 1941 and more recently by the late Gordon Haber, who died nearby in a plane crash, en route to check on "his" pack. Murie found that, like humans, packs develop their own culture, a culture that survives the death of individual members. Thus the Toklat bunch has occupied the same dens and hunting grounds, possibly since before World War II. It also has learned to remain largely invisible; wolves that wander outside the park boundaries can be trapped and shot, which threatens the pack's survival.

Our sled dogs briefly raise their heads, but remain eerily silent. They curl up again — noses buried under tails — disregarding the song of their wild cousins. A breeze has picked up, ruffling the fur on my parka hood. The ruff is a strip from a wolf pelt, much coveted, since it does not frost up easily when breathed upon. It is silken, and rich with memories.

Years before, I attended a memorial potlatch in the Koyukon village of Huslia. Everyone gathered in the octagonal community hall built from logs. The women wore shawls and colorful calico dresses in the traditional style. Many of the men had knee-high mukluks made from the leg skin of caribous. Scores of children buzzed around the hall. After a series of speeches to honor Sophie Sam — an elder who had passed away a year before — the singing began.

Men and women took turns at the microphone, with songs composed specifically for the occasion. The rhythm hammered out on a handheld frame drum with a padded stick filled the indoor space. The singers' voices were heavy with grief but marked by a passion that defied death's finality. Afterward, Sophie Sam's relatives gave gifts to the crowd. They handed out beaver skins, wads of cash, rifles, blankets, beaded buckskin gloves and an assortment of household goods. I received one of many strips cut from a wolf pelt, which my mother later sewed onto the parka hood. This token not only embodied the sharing of responsibilities, but also the deep bonds between wolves and a human community.

I'd learned much about wolves from one elder in Allakaket, the Interior village on the Koyukuk River north of the Arctic Circle. When I visited for the first time, I found his mudroom cluttered with the implements of a Bush life. There were slumping hip waders, foul-weather gear, snowmachine parts, dipnets, a shotgun, beaver skin mittens dangling from a nail, and a motor saw with a chain that needed tightening. Two wolf pelts flowed from the rafters — complete with tail, legs, ears and muzzle. Before I knocked on the inner door, I had reached out and stroked the silver-tipped fur. The gaping eye holes and the hide's flattened appearance left me slightly unsettled.

"That teekkona, he keeps caribou strong," the elder had said as we sat in his kitchen. An ecological understanding at least equaling that of western science found expression in those few words. A lifetime observing the animal under natural conditions had made this man a wolf expert and better hunter. I sensed admiration for the fellow predator. In his soft, lilting village English, he told of the web of taboos surrounding this animal, an animal whose spiritual power is only rivaled by that of wolverine and bear.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, "American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean," and of "Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon." He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

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