When a lone wolf strolled across the snow-covered ice of Chignik Lake on Tuesday, a ripple of fear went through the village of 100 people halfway down the remote Alaska Peninsula. At other times in other places, the sighting of a wolf near a village in the far reaches of the north would not cause much of a stir, but Chignik Lake has been living a horrible fairy tale.
"They figure that's the one that got the girl,'' said Virginia Aleck of the traditional village council.
The "girl'' was 32-year-old Candice Berner, who came north from her hometown in Slippery Rock, Penn., to teach in the Alaska Bush. She'd taken a job traveling between a cluster of villages 450 miles southwest of Anchorage to work with children with special needs.
On March 8, she was in Chignik Lake to teach when she decided to take a run on the road that leads from the village to the airport. She was, her father later said, training for a race. As with so many who run in America today, it appears she was wearing headphones and listening to music as she ran. Her father told the Slippery Rock Herald she would sometimes slip into a meditative state when she did that.
Thus she might not have been paying full attention to the dangers around her when she jogged out on the gravel road that day, or she might simply have been unlucky. Whatever the case, she fit the profile for the victim of one of the rarest of animal attacks in North America -- an attack by wolves.
Berner stood only 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and she was marathon-runner thin. Her father described her as "small and mighty," a boxer and weight lifter. But no matter her strength or ferocity, she would have posed little threat to a pack of wolves accustomed to taking down 1,000-pound moose that can flick out hoof-armed front feet with a speed and power that would make Mohammad Ali jealous.
Berner possessed no such bone-crunching fighting ability, and she carried no weapon with which to protect herself. No one noticed her missing until snowmachiners riding back to the village came upon a blood spot in the road and her gloves. There were human tracks mixed with wolf tracks. Where the human tracks ended, there were the tracks of wolves dragging something bloody down a little hill.
Alaska State Troopers were summoned. They found Berner's body and eventually concluded she'd been killed and partially eaten by wolves. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game promptly launched an aerial hunt for the killers. On March 15, two wolves were spotted about five miles west of Chignik Lake and gunned down.
On March 17, Fish and Game issued a press release claiming "the wolves killed match the description of the wolves that killed Candice Berner,'' although no one witnessed the attack on the teacher and thus no one could provide a description of the wolves that had killed her. There had been reports of as many as four wolves together in the Chignik Lake area, but Fish and Game believed only two were implicated in the attack on Berner, based on the tracks at the site of her death.
"One a light grey and the other a dark grey,'' the press release said, the dead wolves were approximately the color and size of those seen near the village earlier, and one was bigger than the other. Two wolves, one bigger and one smaller, was consistent with the tracks found near Berner's body.
"Based on statements of eye-witness observers, observations made at the location of Candice Berner's death, physical characteristics of the two wolves killed, and the proximity of the two wolves to the location of Candice Berner's death, I conclude that it is highly likely that these wolves killed Candice Berner,'' the press release quoted area biologist Lem Butler proclaiming. "After conducting a 2-day search for other wolf sign and finding none, I also conclude that there is a low likelihood of finding additional wolves in the near future if the search is continued."
With that pronouncement, state officials retreated to their offices far away. That of Butler, the man closest to the scene of the wolf attack, was in the community of King Salmon, nearly 200 miles northeast of Chignik on the far side of the rugged Aleutian Range mountains. Butler was there Tuesday, but did not return phone calls. A coworker on Wednesday tried to get him on the phone to talk about Chignik wolves, but said he was too busy to do so. The coworker offered that Butler might call back later. He didn't.
The Fish and Game press release of March 17 said that though the agency was discontinuing the search for wolves, it would maintain "an elevated vigilance for wolf activity in the Chignik Lake area. Department staff will remain in close contact with local residents to monitor wolf sightings and activities in the Chignik Lake area.''
Virginia Aleck said Wednesday afternoon she hadn't heard from anyone in Fish and Game since they left with the carcasses of the two dead wolves.
"They haven't told us anything,'' she said. On Wednesday, she was planning to try to get Butler on the phone to let him know there was another strange-acting wolf back in the area.
Butler was the nearest Fish and Game presence. The wolf, meanwhile, was almost at the door.
"He was here yesterday afternoon,'' Aleck said, "broad daylight.'' All night the night before, she added, the village dogs had been barking loudly. The wolf might have been close then, too, but his daylight appearance showed a lack of fear that left everyone in Chignik Lake more than a little edgy.
"We saw him yesterday right on the ice,'' said village resident Christi Aleck. "He's still hanging around."
Why, no one is sure, although biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe notes that most wolves that hang around villages have been conditioned to do so. Either they are getting food at the local dump, stealing food from people's yards, or getting fed. Van Ballenberghe has been involved in studies of wolves in many parts of Alaska. He is a former Fish and Game employee, a former federal wildlife researcher, and remains involved in running a long-term moose study in Denali National Park and Preserve, where he has regular contact with wolves. A wolf that had been radio-collared as part of a study in which he was involved in 2000 attacked a pair of boys playing near Icy Bay, a small community along the Gulf of Alaska. The boys, like Berner, were small enough to appear easy prey. They were saved by adults who heard their screams and drove the wolf off. When it returned later, it was shot and killed.
As it turned out, Van Ballenberghe said, people had been feeding the wolf. "He'd totally lost his fear (of man),'' the biologist said. "He was thin, too.''
Cathy Harms, a biologist with Fish and Game in Fairbanks, where the carcasses of the two dead Chignik Lake wolves were sent for study, said one of those animals was near-starvation thin. It appears, however, to have been otherwise healthy. Van Ballenberghe wonders if there might be someone in the Chignik Lake area feeding wolves, possibly because the animals are having a tough time of it this winter.
"It's a powerful temptation for people to feed wild animals,'' he said, or to leave edible human garbage out where the wolves can get it to help them avoid starvation. Given declines in both moose and caribou numbers on the Alaska Peninsula, wolves have got to be having a tough time, said Clem Grunert, the president of the Village of Chignik Lagoon, another community of about 100 people 10 miles east of Chignik Lake.
"I think (the wolves) are just running out of food,'' he said."Our moose population has really taken a hit. It's really dropped, and they've got no other food source.''
Commercial cod fishermen working east of Chignik Lagoon, Grunert said, have spotted wolves prowling the beaches looking for seal carcasses or other carrion and trying to scavenge the remains of spawned-out salmon still washing out of area rivers. There are more wolves than he remembers at any time in his 58 years on the peninsula, he said, and there are fewer big-game animals on which they can survive.
"I don't know why (the wolves) moved to Chignik Lake,'' he added, although he noted not all of the wolves are there. One has been seen regularly between Chignik Lagoon and the even smaller community to the southeast called Chignik Bay.
"He's a black wolf,'' Grunert said. "He kind of goes between Chignik Bay and here. You get to see a glimpse of him now and then, and that's about it.''
This is the kind of wolf rural Alaskans prefer to see -- a wolf that flees at the sight of man; a wolf nervous, skittish, fearful of humans.
A wolf that strolls around in broad daylight near a village? That's another matter.
"They tried to kill it,'' Virginia Aleck said of the animal on the ice near the village of Chignik Lake, but snow conditions were bad for giving chase by snowmachine to get within rifle range, and the wolf got away.
"He wasn't scared at all until (the machines) fired up,'' she said. "He's huge. He's pretty big. If I'm thinking right, it's only this one. It's the mate of the one (female) they killed.
"He needs to be gotten rid of. We're sitting here with our guns in place. We're just sort of waiting.
"We ride the kids to school. We don't want to let them walk. I don't think it will ever be the same down here again. It's scary down here.''
"Maybe it's always going to be like this,'' added Christi Aleck.
Craig Medred covered the Iditarod for Alaska Dispatch last month, focucing on the "back of the pack" mushers trying to reach Nome. The stories are a prelude to his forthcoming book, "Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations along Alaska's Iditarod Trail." Click to pre-order a copy.