HAINES -- A Haines woman beat back a wolf with a ski pole but was unable to keep it from killing and devouring one of four dogs she was walking with during a midday ordeal near 40 Mile Haines Highway.
Hannah Bochart, 24, said she never felt threatened during the attack and said the wolf looked tired and desperate but determined. "She was making a wide circle, and she was able to move faster than us in the snow," she said.
From her family home at 39 Mile, Bochart set out on snowshoes at around noon March 5 for her daily walk across the Klehini River. She usually takes two family dogs, Mason and Tuphor, but on this trip also was accompanied by her sister's two smaller dogs, Okum and Little Bear.
While crossing the river, Bochart spotted a large, gray wolf with a black mask and black stripe down its back, about a half-mile downriver. The wolf spotted them, trotted toward them a distance in a snowmachine track and sat down in the snow. "I was going to give (the wolf) her space. I was thinking of protecting her (from the dogs), so I headed back (to the house)."
Alerted by a dog's bark, she turned and found the wolf had approached to within about 20 feet, although she had been looking out for it, Bochart said. "As soon as we saw her, she laid down. She looked weak and wobbly and was panting a lot. I was thinking it was a wolf that was really hungry, or old, or had just had pups."
Working the perimeter, the wolf was able to lunge and pin each of the dogs momentarily, before the other dogs and Bochart chased it off. Four times it pinned 16-year-old Mason, a husky-lab-rottweiler mix that was the largest of the four pets. Still, it was smaller than the wolf Bochart estimated at the shoulder would stand about as tall as her hip.
"She was physically pretty imposing, but she was totally silent. She didn't snarl or make any noise," Bochart said.
Bochart said during the scuffles she hit the wolf with her ski pole two or three times. "She looked really scared and desperate. She kept looking at me, but she never made a move for me, even when I was away from the dogs. This wasn't a human killer or a rabid animal. It was obvious she was very scared."
Also, the wolf's fatigue was noticeable when it couldn't keep up with Tuphor, a "fat little husky" that escaped after the wolf separated it from the others.
After about 20 minutes of skirmishes, the wolf pinned Little Bear, a bearded collie mutt.
"Mason exploded and attacked her. That was the first real dogfight. ... The wolf got him by the throat and killed him in an instant. It was done in a second. Without ever looking at us, she began eating his body, with us standing right there," Bochart said.
Bochart, who was yelling during the ordeal, trying to attract help, turned and got the other dogs home. When she returned to the attack site the next day, there was almost nothing left of Mason's carcass, she said. "She'd eaten all of him. It leads me to think it's been a hard winter and that she was starving."
A wolf matching the description of the one that attacked her dogs was photographed the next day near the U.S. Customs Station, about two miles from the site of the attack. Bochart said she's heard of no other sightings of the animal.
Bochart, who grew up at 39 Mile, said her family saw wolf packs across the river occasionally when she was a child "but since the neighborhood grew, we just don't see them anymore." There are stories of encounters between wolves and dogs allowed to run at night, but no recent ones there about wolves approaching people during the day, she said.
Bochart said the attack rattled the surviving dogs and made her more cautious about going outdoors with pets, but she's not making any big changes, like carrying a gun on her hikes, as someone has suggested.
"I don't want it to make me fearful. Ninety-nine percent of the time you can move through the wilderness and be safe if you're respectful of large animals. It's a one-in-a-million occurrence when you meet an animal that's desperate and willing to take a chance."
"I really wouldn't want this to end with the wolf getting shot. I'd rather she just leave and live a full life somewhere else," Bochart said.
Area wildlife biologist Ryan Scott described the incident as odd. "The fact that it was so brazen it would go up to people like that is the biggest head-scratcher. Generally speaking, wolves avoid people and only go after dogs when nobody is around."
It's possible that the wolf was an old one that was no longer with a pack and struggling to hunt, Scott said. A hungry, aging wolf in Skagway a few years ago made an attempt on a leashed dog, he said.
"The fact that it started eating the dog without paying attention to (Bochart) suggests that it was just so hungry that it abandoned its fear of people and other dogs and just went for it," Scott said.
By TOM MORPHET
Chilkat Valley News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing