Familiarity Breeds Understanding

cover.3 among wolves


3 Among the Wolves

By Helen Thayer

Sasquatch Books, 2004




Human beings have always had a love-hate relationship with wolves. Though from the same family as man’s best friend, wolves inspire either great admiration or intense hatred in people. Throughout our history, we have swung from one side to the other, vilifying Canis lupus as evil vicious killers of livestock and pets – sometimes even small children – or making them into Disney cartoons.

But reality, as reality usually turns out to be, is far different. Wolves, though similar in appearance and behavior to our canine pets, and sharing their distant ancestors, are far more complex creatures than we often give them credit for being. They display emotions – compassion, empathy, anger, pride, and fear. They have strict social hierarchies and rules, sternly enforced. Wolf families consist of varying levels of personalities and responsibilities, and like human families, show clear evidence of connection.

Helen Thayer, known for a dramatic solo trip to the magnetic North Pole, documents these facts about wolves and more in her book “3 Among the Wolves,” published by Sasquatch Books. In this gripping story, Thayer recounts the year she, her husband Bill, and their bear dog Charlie spent in close proximity to three wolf packs, observing, documenting, and often interacting as a neighboring pack in the wilds of Canada.

Thayer begins the adventure with a brief introduction of herself and the rest of the Thayer “pack:” Husband Bill, a long-time commercial pilot and avid wolf admirer; Helen, born in New Zealand, professional athlete and adventurer; and Charlie, an Inuit bear dog given to Helen Thayer as a gift just before she took off on her North Pole trip, a dog with an Arctic grey wolf in his family tree and Canadian Eskimo huskies strung along the other branches. With Charlie as the “alpha,” the Thayers are convinced they can study wild wolves in their natural environment, becoming a neighboring pack to the wolves.

Charlie, at 100 pounds just a bit smaller than most full-grown male wolves, had a “proud alpha bearing,” Thayer writes, “which resembled the best of wolf behavior.” This personality is the key to infiltrating the society of the wild wolf.

The Thayers begin their three-part adventure by searching for a pack on the tundra of the Canadian Yukon, finding a group of 16 individuals of varying ages. They return several months later, geared to spend April through October as close to the den as possible. Charlie had already established contact with the group, led by Alpha and Mother, as the Thayers called the bonded alpha pair. With a few resupplies throughout the summer, the three pseudo-wolves camped in close proximity to the pack, observing and documenting myriad examples of wolf behavior, including teaching the next generation, caring for other members, ensuring the safety of pups, hunting and socializing with other animals, including Charlie, who, although kept tightly controlled on a 75-foot leash, showed many of the same behaviors as Alpha in guarding, caring for, and teaching his “pack” of Bill and Helen.

The second step of the journey involved following wolves and polar bears on the ice of the Beaufort Sea and Mackenzie River Delta. There, skiing and setting up camp on sometimes fickle sea ice, they encounter another pack of wolves, which seems to be nomadic in the winter, following the polar bears as they roam the ice hunting for seals.

The final leg of their trip was a winter camp near a small Canadian town to observe a different pack of wolves, one their Inuit friend John observed for many years.

Thayer is a gifted observer, and she writes in a way that keeps the attention of the reader. Interspersed among the adventure are facts – about wolves, the Arctic, sea ice, polar bears, and the aurora borealis. But the facts never become lectures and they never interfere with the story – they are the icing on a very tasty and well-made cake, adding spice to the book.

Among the observations Thayer shares is the fact that on the sea ice, polar bears, wolves, and Arctic foxes share an integral bond that allows all to flourish – the Thayers noted several instances when the bears, ideally suited for hunting on and through ice, caught seals and left them untouched, allowing the closely watching Canis lupus to eat their fill.

The tundra pack showed many instances of family concern, first by ensuring that Mother, ensconced in the den with newborn pups and unable to participate in hunts, was fed, then by feeding an injured older member until his foot was healed, and finally by taking on the responsibility of caring for and teaching the new pups how to survive in their environment.

She writes: “The wolves’ strong social nature enabled them to form lasting emotional attachments with other pack members.”

Throughout the book, Thayer helps the reader see the wolves as something more than the two-dimensional evil of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, or the shallow caricature of cartoons. Thayer’s wolves are vibrant animals, each with a different personality and unique way of looking at life. She introduces each wolf as another author would human characters, but never forgets these are wild animals with different instincts and needs.

And next to Thayer in all the adventures is Charlie, protecting the humans from harm and communicating with the wolves through barks, yips, tail-wagging, and howls. He is never completely lupine, but his wolfish ancestry is obvious, and he, as Thayer says in the epilogue, is the reason the trips were a success.

In addition to science, Thayer sprinkles Inuit and Eskimo legend in with the narrative, illustrating the interconnectedness of humans and wildlife in the North. It paints an awesome portrait of the wolves and the land on which they live.

If there are flaws in the book, they are minor. Thayer includes photos, heavily edited, as she admits, to hide the locations of the wolves for their safety, but they are small, and being black and white, the subjects are lost in grainy greys. I always like bigger pictures, as they say far more than words. On a related note, there is a photo on page 191 of the two Thayers skiing across the ice, and I couldn’t help but wonder – did Charlie snap the picture?

And a more in-depth biology lesson on the difference between wolves and dogs genetically – how close are the two species, really, DNA-wise – would have satiated this armchair adventurer completely.

But those are minor flaws, as I said, in a masterful story. I learned a lot about wolves and the wild I never knew, but the learning slipped in while I was enjoying a terrific read, which is, in my mind, the best way to learn. It is a thrilling glimpse into nature that almost – almost – made me wish I was a little more adventurer and a little less armchair.

But it is also a story with a message. Bill Thayer put it quite nicely as he and Helen and Charlie took their leave of the tundra pack in October: “Is it possible that some species instinctively understand, at a primitive level, that they’re just a single link in the environmental chain – that to survive, everyone must survive?”

Here’s hoping we humans figure that out some day.