Glacial spillways are characterized by sharp sides and broad, flat bottoms. Formed when an ice dam breaks and an expansive amount of melt-water gushes out through a narrow opening, the rushing torrent carves out a unique terrain in a massive flood. One of these spillways is near my home.
This particular area is both remote and untraveled and is one of my favourite haunts. It provides access for me to protected backcountry. It is my secret that I keep well-hidden. I take no one there.
To get into this spillway I have to drive my truck to the end of a remote, unknown, two-rut road that winds between close-grown spruce, and park. Then I walk a mile down a relatively steep, winding gully into the gorge.
On November 13, 2009 I went there for a walk.
Venison has always been a meat staple in our home. Over the years we have cut back dramatically in our consumption of meat. However, as clergy we lived regularly under the poverty line. Wild meat did and still does supply a large proportion of our meat larder and for a fraction of the cost of market meat. We also stand against the inhumane conditions under which virtually all domestic animals meant for slaughter are now raised. On this particular day in 2009 I was hunting for white-tail deer, which are plentiful in our region. I hunt only for meat, not for trophies or sport.
This location is off limits to motorized vehicles. For that reason alone I would prefer to go there. But it is also primal and beautiful and full of wildlife. It is a grand place to walk in wonder. I have been training llamas to pack since 1998. So on this day I took a pair of our llamas as companions. I hoped to walk in, perhaps kill a deer, hang it, bone it, load the meat on the animals, leave the rest for the scavengers, and hike out. I had done this innumerable times before. And the llamas greatly enjoy being in the bush. And if I did not succeed I would enjoy a day in this wonderful area. As browsers llamas nibble on everything, grazing off nothing. For them all the world’s a salad bar. Coupled with their padded hooves they are ultra-low impact companions.
This far north we invariably get snow by the end of October that lasts most years until March. But 2009 was different. That year November had (relatively) warm temperatures, bright sun, blue sky, and bare ground.
That morning I arrived before sunrise, loaded the animals, hiked five miles in taking photos along the way.
At this point I picketed the llamas and let them nibble and rest. I hiked a mile farther, ate my lunch, took a nap, and headed back to the animals. By four o’clock I had hiked a total of eleven miles, the sun was getting to tree top level in the west and we stopped and rested at the bottom of where the gully intersects the spillway. After a fifteen minute break we headed up the grade, winding my way through stands of aspen and spruce. We were walking uphill and into the sun.
There is a spot in the trail where a finger of higher ground, covered in dense, mature spruce, projects out into the gully. The trail hooks around this point. Passing through this constriction I found myself looking fully into the setting sun and was temporarily blinded. There was in front of me a small flat piece of ground seventy feet in diameter. It was still covered in short scrub and tall grass from the previous summer, now brown from the frosts. The trail led off to the left. But across this ground and to the right the land rose sharply twenty to thirty feet. I saw nothing, but a sound made me come to an abrupt halt. My rifle immediately came off my shoulder and into shooting position. And then movement caught my eye sixty feet away hidden down below the tall grass.
A canine head rose abruptly above the top of the grass on the far side of the basin. This fully took me off guard. And with the sun in my eyes my first thought was, Coyote! But a split second later I also thought to myself that that was the biggest coyote I had ever seen. We stared at one another. Then a jet black head appeared three feet to the left of the first. We stared at one another as well. I was staring down the barrel of my gun at two massive canines. And then I had a stark realization, Timbre wolves!!! Normal very reclusive I had never been so close to a wolf before. I found it terribly odd that they were just sitting there, looking at me. And then they began stealing glances at one another. They were obviously just as surprised as I was. But I felt that they were somehow communicating, trying to work out what to do next. Something was clearly amiss. They were unwilling to leave. And then a third head appeared between the first two; this one’s face was smeared in bright red. And then the full impact of everything hit home with great intensity. I had just stumbled silently onto an active timbre wolf kill. The sound of my approach had been muffled by the trees and blocked by the spur of forest I had just come around. And we all just stood there looking at one another for what seemed a very long time, but probably wasn’t more than ten or fifteen seconds.
I rarely go into the bush here unarmed. It would be simply unwise to do so. Sudden movement or sound in the forest when I am hunting always brings my gun to the ready. And so I stood there looking at these magnificent animals over the top of my sights. While I was startled, I was not scared. And I thought to myself that I was just going to let these creatures decide how this was going to play out. I had no need to kill a wolf. So I waited.
Looking back it was somewhat comedic. These three sat all in a row exchanging furtive glances turning their heads from themselves to me and back again. Whadowedonow?! And then the first, a huge grey, bolted up the steep side of the hill to the right in two bounds, a distance of about thirty feet with an incline of forty five degrees. It turned and faced me, above me. It was fifty feet away. Looking down on me, it definitely did not feel good. Then the jet black wolf turned and hightailed it straight away from me up the far side of the basin, and it too turned when it reached the crest of the hill and faced me. It was a hundred feet away. But the third did not want to leave that spot and turned several tight circles there in the same manner that a dog does when it is confused. Then it too headed up the far side of the basin at a begrudging trot, looking back over its shoulder as it went, stopping next to its black companion. I turned my attention back to where the first wolf had stood. It was vanished into the forest. I glanced back to where the others were standing. They, too, had faded into the brush behind them. The llamas and I stood there alone.
I immediately began to wonder what lay in the grass? I tied off the lead llama to a small tree and edged forward cautiously checking the bush all around me as I went.
Part of me did not want to find out what was there. I knew that whatever I would find, it would not be good. As I inched closer – gun at the ready – I saw a tawny coloured horizontal line. It was a healthy, fully grown buck whitetail deer. And he was still alive. I cautiously made a large circle around him. Wounded wild animals are very dangerous. I did not want to be attacked by this buck.
He had been hamstrung. He was paralyzed from the neck back. He could lift his head. Other than that he could not move. His back was toward me when I approached. As I stepped around him so that he could see me his eyes became huge and wild. I could see where his neck had been chewed in several places, as were his flanks. He could not even struggle. The wolf in the centre, the one covered in blood, had just begun to eviscerate him when I had stumbled onto the scene. A small piece of intestine stuck out of his body cavity.
Feeling vulnerable myself standing at the bottom of this basin I quickly walked up to where the two wolves had disappeared and scanned the short brush there, but they were nowhere to be seen and had vanished into the forest. I walked back down to the deer and wondered what to do? I was emotionally moved by its plight. But now I was faced with a decision. Should I put him out of his misery? I did not want him to suffer any more than he already had. But I certainly did not want him for my own meat. It first of all felt wrong to steal what I had not worked to kill. And he was thoroughly chewed up. The meat would be ruined, at least for my consumption. But should I put him out of his misery? If I did would the wolves return? That became my biggest concern. They had obviously gone through a lot of work and endured great peril to kill this deer. Also, if I fired my gun and it was heard, what would I say to a conservation officer to explain? How far-fetched would this story seem? And did I have moral right to impose myself on a natural process?
With a pit in my stomach I decided to let nature take its course. I took some pictures, shouldered my rifle, untied my llamas – who in normal llama demeanour were nonplused with everything that went on – we walked out of there. Wolves would be wolves; deer would be deer. There was nothing evil about anything happening here other than my own imposed morality. A day later I returned by myself to the spot out of curiosity. There was scant left of the deer. A skeleton. A few tufts of hair. But nothing else, other than the matted and blood-stained grass.
I decided to see if I could piece together what had happened there. For an hour I cruised the immediately surrounding forest, cutting ever-larger circles through the woods. And then I discovered a buck scrape seventy five yards back into the forest on the high ground to the right. Here a large area of leaves had been scraped away from the ground by this buck, marking his territory and indicating his willingness to breed. But ten yards in the direction of where he had been killed I found a large chunk of rump hair on the ground next to a skid mark in the earth. This occurred several more times headed in the same direction. So here was the story. Ambushed at the scrape this buck had been chased through the forest and out into this lower, open patch of ground where he had been brought to bay and undoubtedly leapt upon from above by its pursuer.
All this had happened as I approached the scene moments before. I measured the distance between where I had stood and the wolves at their kill. It measured sixty feet exactly.
I printed the picture of the buck. I shared my story with people over the next several days. I wanted to see their reactions.
Many of them vilified the wolves as malevolent killers; these were aghast that I had not killed all of them outright. Some were terrified; these asked why I had not shot the wolves out of concern for my own safety? Others thought that I should have shot the buck in order to end its suffering. In the end no one would have done what I did.
Why is it so hard for humans to simply and humbly accept our place in life? The deer feed the wolves and the wolves strengthen the deer. It is not good. It is not bad. There is no right or wrong. It just is. I am simply a part of natural processes.
Driving home on the day of the encounter it dawned on me that when I had started out that morning that I had actually heard an alarm bark nearby in the woods, but that it just had not registered. I had even thought to myself, Whose (big) dog was so far back in these woods? In fact it had not been a dog, but a timbre wolf. Walking back to my truck after the incident I know for certain that several times I heard movement in the bush, both to the right and left of me for the next three-quarters of a mile as I walked up that gully; there was no wind and the sound carried well. But these were not very close, whatever they were. Some people up here tell of being threatened by grey wolves. I cannot speak for them. I have surprised black bears literally within a few feet of me in the woods before, and they too have always made the right choice. None of this is to say that it isn’t possible that some time in the future that the opposite may happen. It could. But if given a choice my love and respect for all things wild will always stay my hand and let these make their own choices first, at least when it comes to the ways of the natural world.