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Eye to eye in the Arctic

A CARIBOU calf shot out from the herd toward the valley floor. A mottled black and brown wolf barreled after it. The lean carnivore gradually narrowed the distance between the two animals as they carved a wide arc across a field. Suddenly, all motion stopped as the wolf grabbed the calf's haunches. But instead of killing the calf, the wolf released it. A few seconds later, the calf darted off again. The second chase ended more quickly, but the wolf still was playful. Both animals stood motionless for a moment, the wolf gazing at something else. Again, the calf bounded off. They sped across a gravel bar now. After disappearing behind a clump of willows for a moment, the wolf tore away again. Now the calf chased the wolf. Then the wolf spun around, romping about the calf like a puppy. The calf lowered its weaponless head and bluffed a few charges at the wolf. The action vanished behind another clump of willows.

Gary Muehlenhardt and Bob Platte, United States Fish and Wildlife Service biologists in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and I, a volunteer, had flown in eight hours earlier to study a wolf den as part of our summer duties. I had also helped to attach radio collars to wolves on previous trips to record their movements.

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Mountains encircled our low alpine ridge. To our left, the ridge dropped precipitously into a canyon. Twisted formations of metamorphic rock banded vertically on the opposite side of the canyon. Narrow rock pyramids jutted from the slope with strips of mosses, grasses, and wildflowers clinging to their sides. The breeze blew all but a few mosquitoes away.

Scanning the valley again, I wondered if the wolf and calf had somehow escaped. Nothing moved except a few strings of caribou bouncing along in their rocking-horse gait.

We scanned the slope, willow patches, gravel bars, and tussocks across the valley where the wolf den hid, but found only a couple of caribou and a moose.

I squinted again at a dark form to be sure it was not a tangle of willows or a shadow. A brown wolf, with only its head and ears visible, sat behind a shrubby cover. A few seconds later I spotted one, no, two - no, three pups. No, wait a minute, four pups. They played together, tumbling across the gravel bar and pouncing on each other.

During dinner, we spotted a caribou herd about to migrate close to our camp. We huddled in a depression where we watched hundreds pass about 30 feet away. Hearing the caribou was more impressive than seeing them. Before they even came into view, we could hear the clicking of their tendons, a sound like thousands of wooden Mexican hand cymbals - click, click, click. Snorts, blows, grunts, and other peculiar caribou calls mingled with the constant clatter of clicks.

But now the mottled wolf emerged from the willows and trotted across the field again. The wolf followed a pattern as it neared the gully - a trot with its head carried low and eyes fastened on the quarry, followed by an easy lope, and finally a run.

The caribou spooked and galloped up the ravine, turning to look back at their pursuer as they reached the crest. The wolf slowed to a halt as the caribou blew and snorted at the top of the gully. The predator was now as high up the slope as I was, and about 100 yards away. As the wolf stopped, it turned in my direction. Then it saw me - sitting there in my caribou-colored sweater. The wolf stared, trotted toward me with its eyes locked on me and then shifted into a lope.

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When it was 50 or 60 yards away, I stood up and said in as human and non-caribou a voice as I could muster, ``I'm not a caribou.'' My message was apparently clear. The wolf stopped, stared perplexedly, and changed its course.

It trotted back down the slope and across the gully, frequently stopping to turn and stare at that strange thing looking at it. I wondered what it would do if I howled at it.

So I howled.

I howled the most wolfish howl I could howl.

The wolf stopped, stared at me, and sat down.

Then it howled.

I howled back, imitating the wolf's howl. It howled back again, and we must have howled back and forth for five or 10 minutes.

FROM across the creek, a long, low howl sang through the night air, truly the eerie wolf howl. Soon after joining in, the second wolf stopped howling and jogged across the creek to investigate the strange-sounding wolf - me.

The wolf was the same collared black wolf that had driven off two grizzlies. Earlier, the bears had wandered close to the wolves' denning area. Aided by the scope, I had occasionally glimpsed the radio transmitter collar around its neck and flashes of a metal ear tag as it and three other wolves warily circled the two grizzlies. One by one, the other three abandoned the scene. Only the black wolf persisted.

This wolf had shown courage by singly fighting off two bears, and now it headed straight in my direction. Soon, it appeared so close through the scope that I began to feel uncomfortable - all I could see was its head with those gleaming yellow eyes staring at me.

I took my eyes from the scope and watched the wolf trot directly toward me. I wondered how close it would come. When, at 30 yards, the wolf's untiring gait still carried it closer, I stood up. This time I didn't say a word. I had to trust the wolf's natural curiosity and goodness not to harm me.

The black wolf hesitated slightly when I rose but kept advancing, approaching to within 10 yards of me before stopping. We stared at each other for a moment. Then it retreated. This beautiful animal, with a full tail and long, thick, ebony fur, moved smoothly and easily over the ground, making the rough terrain seem like city pavement.

The wolf withdrew to where the brown wolf waited. They ascended the slope to the next ridge, sat, and scanned the valley below.

The wolves departed about 10 minutes later, silently threading their way through the shrubs, and finally disappeared into the willows at the base of the scree slope. A few minutes after that, the brown wolf emerged and climbed the slope to lie beside a willow bush.

The black wolf never reappeared that night.

I don't know if anything more happened.

At 2:15 a.m., I went to bed.

It took me a while to fall asleep.

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