Thirty Feet from a Wild Wolf

When is it too cold to photograph?  Not at a mere -34 degrees Celsius (-41 C/F with the wind chill), apparently.  For the eleventh straight day, I got up at 6:30 in the dark and managed to massage my car’s stiff old bod to life, then hit the roads and trails for a day of … pure, frozen joy.  Today was one of those glorious days in the Rockies where it’s so cold that the only things out there moving about were the animals and the one crazy photographer.  I went hours without even seeing another car, let alone another person walking around in the woods.  And that, to me, is as good as it gets!

I spent the morning photographing a cow and calf moose near Lake Louise, the afternoon chasing wolves on the Kootenay Parkway (and finding them!). And while it nearly cost me a few fingers (on the morning shoot I lost all feeling in my two little fingers and my ring finger and my face was so frozen that I was barely able to talk), it was well worth it.

By far the highlight of my day was getting within thirty feet of wild wolves on foot without them being aware of my presence. It happened entirely by accident and I had to extricate myself from the situation without disturbing them, which was an adventure on its own!

I had found a series of wolf tracks crossing and recrossing the highway on a steep embankment, tracks that didn’t look any more than a day old.  So I had decided to follow them to see what the wolves had been up to and where they’d travelled to.

I had on my Sorel boots and heavy-duty -40 socks, three pairs of long johns (long underwear) including a fleece pair, my camouflage pants, two undershirts, three fleece jackets including a camouflage fleece jacket, a toque, fleece gloves, and a camouflage face mask.  I grabbed bear spray (I just photographed a grizzly three days ago in -20!) and my binocs and hit the trail.   

When I track things, I’m usually paying close attention to my surroundings to ensure I don’t stumble upon something like a carcass, which could be dangerous.  I also tend to move very quietly and stop often to listen to what’s around me.  The whole point of walking in the woods is to try to see things and to get an idea of the travel patterns the wolves used in this area so that if I ever see them in the area again, I’ll have a good reference point for where they may head to and what they might do.

After about twenty minutes of walking slowly along the wolf tracks, I had noticed that there seemed to be more and more tracks converging into the area and that the tracks were getting closer to the highway.  I could now hear traffic going by occasionally, which made it difficult to hear as I walked through the bush.  As one big truck rolled by in the distance, I thought I could hear ravens nearby, but as the truck’s sounds faded into the distance I was left standing there in silence again.

I continued following the tracks, but then very clearly heard ravens calling from what seemed like no more than a hundred feet away.  I stopped and listened, and saw several ravens and a magpie fly by at close range.  Something was going on, so I paused and looked around me carefully. My heart was pounding, but I couldn’t see or hear anything else.  I was suddenly quite sure that I was near a kill, but I wasn’t at all sure how to get myself out of the situation as quickly and quietly as possible.  As much as I was curious about what was dead, I was also very cognizant of the fact that there could be a grizzly or wolves nearby and I had no desire to disturb either from a cold day’s meal.

After several minutes of standing there perfectly still, I could hear another big truck going by on the highway in the distance and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to move, hoping the truck’s engine would mask my sounds.

As I stepped off to my left, five or six ravens exploded out of the bush right in front of me.  I froze and peered through the forest, trying to make out what was up ahead.  Very slowly, I pulled my binoculars up to my face to check out a large dark lump I could make out about fifty feet in front of me.  Dead moose.  Only half eaten.  Uh oh.

My adrenlin kicked into high gear and I quickly did a full scan with first my naked eye, then the binoculars, to determine if there was a bear nearby.  Nothing.  Whew.  But then on my second scan with my naked eye, I caught movement behind the carcass.  Something black…a wolf!  And it was walking right towards me, completely unaware of my presence!

To my astonishment, a second wolf appeared to my left and began to wander in towards the kill.  I watched out of the corner of my eyes as it sauntered past me less than thirty feet away, oblivious to the fact that a human was standing so close by.

I had now been standing still long enough in the cold that my feet were beginning to go numb, so while I couldn’t believe what was going on around me, I also knew that I had to get out of there and that I had to try to do it without the wolves hearing or seeing me.  If wolves get disturbed on a kill, they often abandon it.  I never approach an active kill on purpose, and now that I had stumbled into this situation, I didn’t know whether to thank my lucky stars or curse myself for my stupidity.

I had been standing there frozen in place for at least five minutes when I heard a sound I really wanted to hear: yet another big truck was chugging up the hill towards us on the highway.  The wolves were both facing away from me, so as the truck’s noise reached a crescendo, I began to quickly move backwards, one eye on where I was going, the other on the wolves.  Within seconds I was out of sight, and as the big truck’s engine noise faded into the distance, I stepped out of the trees and raced up onto the highway.  I had done it!  The wolves hadn’t seen me leave and at last glance had still been fully occupied by the moose carcass.

And while I didn’t have my camera with me (I rarely take it along on my tracking sessions), having those two wolves wander around the forest in front of me without knowing I was there may be one of my most memorable wildlife experiences ever.

To top it off, I later spotted three wolves playing in a small meadow a few hundred metres from where the carcass was!

Anyways, thought I should share this story while it’s still fresh in my mind.  Hope you enjoyed it, even without pictures.


13 Comments on “Thirty Feet from a Wild Wolf

Brandon T Brown
November 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Great Post John. Wish i could have been there ! Work doesn't allow me to be out Mon, Tues, Wed. Was a pleasure to meet you the other day. See you out soon!

November 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Thanks so much for this post, John. It's actually answered a lot of questions I had about the method and ethics of wildlife photography, not to mention being a great story.


Lee Sacrey
November 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Awesome story. It amazes me that you wildlife photographer types don't get eaten by something. I am glad you don't causes these stories rock. Remember, when you're in a group and you encounter something, you don't have to be the fastest runner just don't be the slowest, lol. Great piece John. Simply awesome.

Rafa Irusta
November 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Very exciting story, John.
I always enjoy reading your encounters with wildlife.
Thanks for sharing 😉

November 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Great story and great virtual images, John. You do write well!

Tom Nevesely
November 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Wow, that is an amazing and crazy story John! Thanks for sharing!

November 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Thanks everyone, it was a phenomenal experience. I went back out today and sat there on the highway for four hours and saw exactly zilch. Just goes to show how lucky I really was.

Heather Cluett
November 25, 2010 at 1:54 am

WOW! John I love reading your blog, not only are you an amazing photograper with excellent ethics, you are an amazing story teller both visually and in writing! Thank you for sharing your adventures with me and all your other followers!

Bill Cubitt
November 25, 2010 at 1:54 am

Hey John, really visual story. Where to tomorrow…..same place with your camera?

November 25, 2010 at 7:58 pm

This is an amazing story! Thanks so much for sharing!

Pedro Valiente
November 26, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Thanks for sharing this amazing story. Great pictures and great stories, congratulations again for your excellent blog.

November 26, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I really love the fact that they simply disappear into their own world. You may never see them again.
Also a bittersweet note added to your story with the heavy traffic nearby.

Chad Griggs
November 29, 2010 at 5:41 am

Great story John! This is exactly the type of thing I come here for! Great work, makes me want to trekking through the woods and see what I can find!


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