Ellesmere Island is a vast, lonely land whose inhabitants must struggle to make out a living. Wolves are tireless travelers who roam the thousands of square miles of their territory in search of prey. Photo: Jim Brandenburg
Luck ! I don't believe in that imposter. You create your chances. I have been fortunate, or perhaps strategic during my life by creating opportunities. Being in the right place at the right time has opened so many doors..
In late February 1986 when I was a member of the Steger International Polar Expedition, I met Jim Brandenburg, an internationally renowned nature photographer, at a remote weather station, at 80 degrees north, not far from the North Pole. In fact our reason for being there was to reach the North Pole unsupported using dogs to pull our sledges.
The meeting with Jim Brandenburg and the White Wolves is told by Jim himself .
Living with an Arctic Legend
the trail to the Pack
The Eureka personnel rarely took advantage of the natural world outside. To be sure, the winter environment is about as hospitable to human flesh as outer space: a half-hour without your proper "space suit" and you will almost certainly expire. Still, after a few days at the station waiting out expeditionary snafus, I felt myself getting extremely jumpy from boredom and claustrophobia. For three days in a row, I had whiled away the hours by aiming my binoculars through the murky blue twilight at a distant herd of musk oxen, which looked like raisins in the snow. I thought it might be fun to take a closer look.
Bob McKerrow, a Steger team member from New Zealand, agreed to go along. We assumed the herd was very close, but after a half-hour of steady hiking we realized that they were at least four miles away from the station. Lacking any experience with the animals, we approached with great caution. There are no trees to climb in the high Arctic, and we felt quite certain that the horns and hooves of an adult musk ox could make short work of us. As we came closer, the magnificent ancient beasts, living remnants from the Stone Age, came into sharper focus.
Having grown up on the prairie, I had expected musk oxen to be similar in size to buffalo. In reality, they are much smaller - about the size of cows, though they are more closely related to goats than to cattle. With their sure-footed hooves, they have little trouble scrambling along rocky precipices.
I could see the animals' extremely long guard hairs, almost a yard in length. Thanks to these hairs, which are prized for yarn, as well as their highly insulated undercoats, musk oxen are never affected by the cold, no matter how low the temperature drops. Noting their indifference to the climate, it occurred to me for the first of many times in the Arctic how nice it would be to have a little more hair myself.
Musk Oxen, Ellesmere Island. Photo: Bob McKerrow
At one point, we evidently got a little too close to the herd, because they quickly assumed their classic protective circle: a phalanx of horns and front hooves radiating at every point on the circumference, flanks shoved together at the center. This strategy, evolved over eons of living in a treeless environment, is a very effective way to protect the young against Arctic wolves, the major predator of musk oxen. It is not so effective against human predators like the Inuits who found the musk oxen relatively easy to kill.
McKerrow and I backed off and the musk oxen resumed their grazing, pawing holes in the snow to get at the frozen grass and sedge below. We studied them for hours, until finally cold and fatigue got the better of us and we decided to begin the long hike back to the station. The sun at this time of year lurks just below the horizon for most of the day, creating a kind of permanent blue dusk. On the way back, I trailed behind, taking photographs of the landscape. McKerrow was about a quarter-mile ahead when it happened.
A pack of six Arctic wolves, trotting in a direct line of march over a nearby rise, appeared like ghosts materializing from the blue ether. At first, I thought I must have been hallucinating from cold, hunger and fatigue. Three of them split to my left. Three others swung around to a steep embankment that flanked a nearby frozen creek. They trotted to the top and sat there, eyeing me, their bodies silhouetted against the murky horizon.
Alpha 1. The Mother of the pack. Photo: Jim Brandenburg
One wolf, which I thought might be the leader of the pack, sat on the ridge and inspected me with a kind of fearless, bemused curiosity. Much later, when I returned to search for a pack to live with and photograph, I would remember this individual wolf and be convinced he was the same alpha male I would come to know as Buster.
Some years after meeting Jim Brandenburg in a remote part of the Arctic, he went on to publish his amazing book:
White Wolf:White Wolf:Living with an Arctic Legend. Jim sent me a an autographed copy of his book when it was first published and I quote from the publisher It is a new landmark in nature publishing. With a pack of wild Arctic wolves, Jim Brandenburg has created an extraordinary portfolio of wildlife photographs. The Arctic wolf, a powerful and compelling predator, has been captured ever sogently in the pages of White Wolf. Brandenburg reveals his love for both his subjects and his art as he describes in the text his thoughts and emotions while photographing a magnficent Arctic wolf, the alpha male of the pack.
Polar Bears on Ellesmere Island, Photo: Bob McKerrow