Mellow Wolverine?

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Mellow Wolverine?

To put the words “mellow” and “wolverine” together seems like an oxymoron. Wolverines are most often described as “vicious”, but I like to think of them as a symbol of wilderness. Looking at this photograph I took recently at Steve Kroschel’s Wildlife Center in Haines, you can see that wolverines don’t always appear vicious.

Wolverines are the largest members of the weasel family, but they don’t have that serpentine-like movement that so many of the smaller weasels, like mink and ermine, display. They are the size of a medium-sized dog, and have been compared to bear, wolves and even skunks.

The common name “wolverine” comes from the word “wolver” which means “one that behaves like a wolf” or “one that hunts wolves”. Wolves run in packs, and wolverines are more solitary, so I ruled out the “behaves like a wolf” definition. Could it be that wolverines hunt wolves? Since Steve Kroschel has raised and worked with wolverines for 36 years and is considered by many to be one of the world’s leading wolverine experts, I asked him.

“A wolverine could eviscerate a lone wolf. It goes for the underbelly. I’ve personally witnessed this technique in mock play attacks with wolverines that I’ve raised together with wolves. A wolf PACK, however, is a different story and this feisty ‘Demon of the North’ is no match. It’d be drawn and quartered in no time unless it uses its cunning and heads for the nearest hole or climbs the closest tree.”

“Are they vicious?”

“Raccoons are more vicious”, Steve said. Steve has a soft spot in his heart for wolverines. I’ve watched him tussle, wrestle and play with a wolverine and sometimes forget that he is interacting with a fierce predator.

Wolverines can be ferocious, just like any other predator. Maybe wolverines are considered viscous because very few of us have direct experience with them and so rely on information from others who do. Many of those who have experience with wolverines are professional trappers who target them for their valuable fur. The fur of the wolverine is prized for ruffs or trim for parka hoods, since it is extremely resistant to frost build-up. I can imagine a wolverine caught in a trap fighting with everything its got to free itself.

Another name for the wolverine is the skunk bear. I thought the name had to do with the coloration of the wolverine, which at a glance reminds one of a skunk. All members of the weasel family, except the sea otter,  have scent glands and emit a type of musky smell. Skunks, which secrete their scent for defense, were formally classified as weasels but now are in their own family.

Since the skunk is no longer a member of the weasel family, the wolverine now wins the prize as the weasel with the most offensive scent. A few years back, I was driving in the Yukon near the village of Klukshu, when I was overtaken by a terrible smell. Imagine the worst “stinky foot smell” you have ever experienced and multiply it by one hundred. As I rounded a bend, a wolverine dashed across the road. I connected the dots and realized that I had now not only seen, but also smelled, a wolverine in the wild. That put me in an elite group, since very few of even the most-seasoned Alaskans have seen a wolverine in the wild.

My favorite wolverinal encounter was while guiding an Alsek river trip. The Alsek River cuts through some of the most remote and heavily glaciated terrain in North America. I spent ten summers guiding on this river, and always felt slight trepidation on the big rapid day about halfway into the trip. We nicknamed the biggest of the rapids “Lava North” after another giant rapid in the Grand Canyon. But unlike the waters of the Grand Canyon, the Alsek River waters are icy cold. A bad run through the rapids could result the entire group immersed in the icy water, with a real possibility of life-threatening hypothermia. Below the rapid, the river continues into a narrow canyon with more giant waves on both sides of the river. We made it safely through Lava North that day, and were in the middle of the canyon when we spotted a small eddy where we could just barely stop the rafts. We pulled in, looked the spot over and decided that it would make a good camp. A tributary river intersected with the Alsek River at this point, and there was a small, flat bench safely above the river where we could set up our tents. Next to where we tied up the rafts was a nice beach with plenty of driftwood for our campfire.

The only worry we had was the enormous talus slope that fanned out just downstream of our camp. Geologists define talus as a pile of rocks that accumulate at the base of a cliff. The rocks fall off and collect at a critical angle, known as the angle of repose. The debris pile sits at a precarious state of equilibrium, and is subject to disturbance from earthquakes or landslides.

Rocks on a talus slope are sharp, poorly sorted, and subject to movement when disturbed. We knew better than to try to hike on or below the talus slope and selected the safest location for our camp-just upstream of the rocks. Even then, a few odd boulders sat in our kitchen, a remnant of some previous earthquake or landslide. We realized there was some risk, but decided that the location was so dramatic and the view so stunning that we would chance it and make the best of it.

In this spirit, we utilized these assorted rocks as tables for our gin and tonic bar for the traditional “Alive below the rapids” celebration. We set up our tents outside the danger zone.  We had never camped there before, and from what we could see, no one else had ever camped there before either. We felt like true explorers and tried to think up a name for this new camp. A lively discussion ensued, but we could not agree on a name. The party continued into the prolonged twilight; we were filled with the exuberance that comes from being in a powerful spot in the wilderness, and the group gelled as we shared stories around the campfire. I always feel more alive after I’ve taken a risk and come out unscathed to tell the story.

I not only survived the rapids, I survived our “G and T” celebration. I had breakfast duty the next day and woke up early. I poked my head outside my tent and saw that a few others were awake. I spied an unusual creature ambling towards us and I instantly realized that this was a wolverine. I called out, “Wolverine!” to the others who were within earshot, and we watched the wolverine head towards us, oblivious to our presence. The wolverine looked up and noticed us, and then hopped one way, then hopped the other way, as if it was deciding what to do. It obviously didn’t want to enter our camp, but it didn’t seem to want to return along the river where it had come from either. In an instant, it turned and ran straight up the talus slope. What would have been exceedingly dangerous and difficult for even the most physically fit in our group appeared easy for the wolverine. In less than two minutes, it was a thousand feet above us and disappeared out of sight.

We named the camp “Wolverine Camp.”

More recently, I had the honor of escorting Dr. Edgar Mitchell, one of a select group of American astronauts who had walked on the surface of the moon, to a banquet during the American Bald Eagle Festival. Steve Kroschel had invited Dr. Mitchell to Haines as part of a film project, and Dr. Mitchell was the featured speaker. To round out the program, Steve had brought Banff, one of his wolverines, for a live presentation after dinner.

Our waitress eased up to our table, leaned over and asked me if I had ordered the halibut or the prime rib. I noticed an extremely offensive smell. At first, I thought it was her breath.

I felt I had a duty to inform her that she needed to brush her teeth if she was going to serve all these guests. As a professional guide, I consider myself an ambassador for Haines. What kind of impression were we going to make if our waitresses had stinky breath? Then I remembered that day driving in the Yukon when I had seen and smelled a wolverine. I realized that Steve and Banff, the after-dinner entertainment, were waiting only a few feet away in the back room. Banff must have been stressed by the crowd and the unfamiliar surroundings, and expressed his displeasure by activating his scent glands!

The scent soon dissipated, and I was able to enjoy my grilled halibut and Caesar salad.

(more later)

December Special- Looking for a Holiday Gift?

November, 2016 marked the one year anniversary of the publication of my book, Where Eagles Gather, the Story of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Haines, Alaska. Reviews have been extremely positive and sales have been strong. The book was awarded the Bronze medal for West Coast Non-Fiction at the Independent Book Publishers Awards. To celebrate the award and the first year anniversary, I am offering free shipping in the USA via Priority Mail until December 15th. Please click on the link below to take advantage of this offer.