Friday, 8 June 2012

An encounter with white wolves and musk oxen on the way to the North Pole.

In 1986 I was a member of the Steger International Polar Expedition. While at a remote weather station called Eureka located  at around 80 degrees north in latitude, on Ellesmere Island in Arctic Canada, I had one of the most amazing encounters with musk oxen and white wolves. I was with Jim Brandenberg, the National Geographic photographer and writer who tells the story. . 

From Ellesmere's tip to the North Pole measures some 500 miles across the Arctic Ocean. During the winter, and for the first 50 or so days of "spring", such as it is, the water is frozen six to eight feet thick most of the way to the Pole. Unfortunately, even during the best of conditions, this ice has little in common with the glassy ice familiar to figure skaters and cocktail enthusiasts.

Across its craggy, snow-blown surface, the ice cap is wrinkled with pressure ridges. These erupt in endless labyrinthine walls that can make forward progress an agonizing, "leads" yawning cracks in the ice that reveal open sea water. When a team of mushers encounters a lead, they have no choice but to circumnavigate it or wait for the minus 70degree air to refreeze the brine and create the several inches of rubbery ice needed to support a sled loaded with supplies.

In 1909, the legendary Peary with his men and dogs braved this unforgiving habitat, aided by an army of Inuit assistants. But ever since Peary's North Pole adventure, which took place without external resupply, there has been rampant speculation as to whether he really reached the Pole. The reason for the controversy is largely climatological. Peary's expedition began in early March, when the sun momentarily rises above the Arctic horizon for the first time in four months. Peary had only about seven weeks to make it to the Pole and back to land before the ice cap break-up, a period many scholars consider impossibly short.

                                                             Photo: Jim Bradenberg

Steger and co-leader Paul Schurke were determined to try a second, unsupported trip to the Pole, putting the debate to rest, one way or the other. Before the Steger team could even begin, however, they had to get their expedition to the departure point, no small ordeal. Sleds, dogs, crew members and tons of supplies all had to be carried, by a succession of ever smaller aircraft, to the tip of Ellesmere Island in time for an Ides-of-arch send off.

The traditional first stop for all expeditioners is Resolute Bay in the Northwest Territories, the most northerly spot serviced by commercial airlines. From there, Arctic dreamers must cart their supplies several hours further north to Eureka Sound, where a permanent weather station is manned by a dozen men. To reach Eureka, it's necessary to charter 748s, DC-3s, or Twin Otters, the smallish, highly maneuverable aircraft with skis for wheels, "the workhorses of the Arctic." Finally, to traverse the approximately 300 miles from Eureka to northern Ellesmere, expeditioners and their gear are ferried by Twin Otters.

 The weather station at Eureka, surrounded by what is in essence a frozen desert, made me think of what life must be like on a space station. My fellow inhabitants were all technicians whose fives revolved around the collecting of data and the combating of boredom. They drank, ate, slept, thought about meteorology, played cards, watched satellite TV and looked forward to an occasional risque video cassette. Depression was a problem, especially during the long months without sunshine.

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.

                                        Musk Oxen, NWT Canada. Photo: Bob McKerrow

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.

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.

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 Bradenberg

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. 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.

At that moment, however, I was not thinking about the future. I was, to say the least, flabbergasted. Reflexively, I pulled out my camera and began shooting photograph after photograph. It was at this moment that I first learned the difficulties of shooting in the Arctic when you are excited. The combination of exhaustion and exhilaration makes huffing and puffing inevitable, and one breath on the viewfinder enamels the glass with an I/ 16th-inch coating of ice. This must be scraped off with your fingernail, which means removing your two sets of gloves, which means freezing your fingers.

After scrutinizing me for several minutes, the wolves stood up and resumed their pursuit of the musk oxen. Suddenly realizing that I might be able to capture wolves and their natural prey in the same photographic frame, I turned around and raced after them as best I could. A weary biped is no match for a species superbly adapted to the Arctic.

a windblown signature in the snow. Photo: Jim Bradenberg

The paws of a wolf are large, and they can splay their toes so wide that their tracks in the snow almost resemble human handprints. Their weight is distributed evenly across the snow, so they can walk on top of the crust. In my mukluks, was breaking through on every other step. After 20 minutes, I was exhausted. As the dusk deepened, I snapped a few last shots of the distant wolves approaching the even more distant musk oxen. Then, with muscles aching, I turned back to catch up with McKerrow. When we were a half-hour away from the weather station, a Twin Otter flew overhead and dipped its wings a not so subtle sign of concern and a reminder it was time to come in from the cold.

Back at the station, my mind reeled with wolf images. I'd been wrong in my interpretation of Will Steger's Ellesmere anecdote: sled dogs would not be necessary to lure wolves. Evidently the wolves' own curiosity, fueled by the absence of unpleasant experiences with humans in this remote comer of the world, was enough to allow some close encounters with the pack.

A few days later, we flew to Ward Hunt Island and waited for the first glimmer of sun to inaugurate Will's trek. On March 5, the sun appeared for a few moments on the horizon and winked at us before dipping down again below the earth's rim. This was the signal to begin, and off Steger and company went, in a cacophony of canine barks and human cheers that would soon turn to grunts. I was on hand to photograph the departure, and then flew back south by Twin Otter to Eureka.

At three points during the expedition, a Twin Otter was scheduled to fly in and airlift out sled dogs, a humanitarian alternative to Peary's policy of eating any dog no longer needed to pull supplies. The plane, of course, would not bring any supplies to the expedition. The Geographic had arranged for me to fly on these trips to photograph the team's progress.

In between shoots, I found myself with time on my hands and thoughts of wolves on my mind. I flew from Eurel to Resolute Bay and from there to Washington, D.C., where National Geographic has its editorial offices. For years I had been discussing with various editors the possibility of shoo shooting a wolf story if ever a suitable opportunity arose. Ellesmere seemed ideal. But I had scarcely started in with my propose when I was told that the Geographic had already commissioned a wolf story.

So I suggested instead a story I had proposed ten year earlier. The idea was to photograph the white animals of Ellesmere Arctic fox, Peary caribou, hares, weasels, snowy owl ptarmigan, polar bears, beluga whales and wolves. When I first suggested this story, I'd been turned down because of the expense of sending a rookie to such a remote place. Now, wit time on my hands and the expenses already incurred whether I did extra work or not, Geographic editor, Bin Garret decided that it only made sense to go for a "two-fer." The white wolves, I figured, might be an interesting sidelight to this larger story.
 larger story.

                                                            Photo: Jim Bradenberg

In the end, Steger and his team would make it to the Pole in triumph, and their exploits would be celebrated in Geographic cover story. The Ellesmere piece, with its well-detailed depiction of an exotic habitat, would also prove quite popular. But the wolf story, which evolved into a several year obsession, would prove the most significant work of my career. For more on Jim's fascinating story click here. Thanks to Jim Bradenberg for permission to run this article. All photos are Jim's except for the one of mine of the Musk Oxen.


pohanginapete said...

I'd take hanging out with Jim Brandenburg in the Arctic over winning Lotto any day. His photographs have been an inspiration to me for as long as I've known of his work. Thanks for this, Bob.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Likewise Pete, Jim inspired me when I first met him in 1986, and it was such a joy to be out at -50oC looking for wolves and musk oxens. Hope you are well?

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