Friday, 10 April 2009

Discovering White Wolves with Jim Brandenburg

Caption: 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
Jim Brangdenburg
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


Paterika Hengreaves said...

Kia ora Bob

The reading of this blog was most delightful. I like the pictures of those polar animals and how they behave in their natural habitat. Bob, you do have a wealth of knowledge you have acquired from your authentic experiences around the globe and I tip my hat to you for sharing your priceless encounters with me. Thank you too for the smile that came on my face from the hair humour you injected in the documentary. I know for sure that the reading of this blog has heightened my interest for more news about the cold regions near the North Pole when my daughter returns from Iceland sometime next week. Happy Easter to you and your family.


Unknown said...

On the topic of luck, we always say where I come from (Galway) that you make your own luck. Gary Player, the great South African golfer, perhaps said it better when he quipped: the more I practice, the harder I work, the luckier I get!

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Paterika

I hope your daughter enjoys her time in Iceland. The island is populated with wonderful warm people.

The Arctic is fascinating, so pristine and seeing the Spring return and the birds, the animals coming out of hibernation, the grasses and flowers displaying their beauty, and the Inuit in harmony with the landscape, is inspiring. I must post some photos on the Spring in the Arctic.

Happy Easter to you too. What a magnificent feeling the Christ has risen.


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Paul

I think you do make your own luck. People often say, you were so lucky getting to the Arctic and Antarctic. It was damn hard work applying, lobbeying and actually getting there. Where is the luck ? Opportunities are gained by positioning yourself and damn hard work.

Happy Easter my brother. A special time of year which makes you reflect on many things, depending on where you were born and your faith.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
A great account. Another book to add to my growing list. I can easily picture you shut in and gazing out upon the tundra and quite happily "agreeing to go along".
I have only seen wolves in the Boundary Waters, they invoke a very primitive reaction, a good one, like all the barriers between ourselves and nature are removed. We become connected.
A most Happy and Healthy Easter to you and yours Bob.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Robb

Seeing a wolf walking across the tundra in the middle of winter is an awesome sight. How could I resist not going with Jim Brandenburg ?

Cheers Bob

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