A Walk on the Wild (Wolf) Side
Wolf Photography (c) John E. Marriott
I almost drove off the road the first time I saw Delinda.
She had sleek black hair, a beautiful face, mesmerizing eyes, and a long slender body, the type that makes men like me drool. But Delinda was no Greek supermodel, she was a wild wolf – every wildlife photographer’s fantasy come true.
I first encountered her early one morning in June 2007. So early, in fact, that I was still rubbing the sleep from my eyes when I rounded a corner on an empty road in Banff National Park and suddenly found myself in the midst of four black wolves.
Three of the wolves scattered into the forest immediately, but the fourth, a gorgeous slim black wolf with light trimmings and a silver muzzle, stood there in the middle of the road and then sat down and stared at me.
I practically shook with excitement and nerves as I grabbed my camera and gingerly nudged the door open a fraction, praying that the wolf wouldn’t run. To my amazement, the wolf stood up and began to walk towards my car, eyeing me curiously. As I crept out and knelt beside my door, the wolf strolled up beside me so closely that my lens wouldn’t focus. Incredibly, only the width of a single lane of road separated me from the piercing yellow eyes of this wild wolf.
As a full-time professional wildlife photographer, I had spent much of my career dreaming of moments like this, of coming face to face with a wild wolf. Little did I expect an encounter so intimate that I was unable to photograph it.
Fortunately for me, the wolf soon stepped into the first rays of sunshine hitting the roadside, providing me with my first wild wolf images in more than a decade of wildlife photography.
In the following months, I spoke with wolf researcher Gunther Bloch and learned that the wolf I had met that memorable sunny morning was Delinda, the alpha female of a pack of wolves recently re-established in the Bow Valley in Banff National Park after the previous pack was nearly wiped out.
Delinda’s mate, Nanuk, the alpha male, was the sole member of the original pack still in the park. I had glimpsed him briefly that morning with Delinda, along with two other adult wolves, the survivors of Delinda and Nanuk’s 2006 litter.
I had already spent 10 days in the field near Jasper during the winter and spring in search of wild wolves with little luck, so when I stumbled across Delinda and Nanuk in June, I decided to make a concerted effort to try to photograph their pack.
For the remainder of the spring and summer I kept tabs on the pack with occasional forays out to check for tracks and scat and with reports from friends that worked in the area and from Gunther and Peter Dettling, a colleague of mine.
In early October as the tourists disappeared and the wildlife began to reappear, I ramped up my wolf-finding efforts. Together with Gunther and Peter,we monitored the pack fairly regularly. I drove out before dawn three or four times a week and cruised long stretches of highway that were part of the wolves’ regular territory. I took frequent stops along the way to hike into various spots along the muddy shores of the river or through open dew-covered meadows as I searched for fresh tracks and any other clues that indicated the wolves were nearby.
At this point, the pack totalled 10 wolves: Delinda and Nanuk, the silvery black alphas of the pack, the two black yearling adults from 2006, and six new pups from the 2007 litter, three grays and three blacks.
As the pups grew close to adult size and began to move around more with the adults, I began getting tantalizing glimpses of them more and more frequently. Then one incredible fall day in mid October, one of the pups wandered right in front of me and stopped less than thirty metres away and began to howl. As I photographed the pup, shivers of excitement ran down my spine as the forest around me lit up with howls from other members of the pack.
Just three days later I ran into the wolves as I checked for tracks along an abandoned road through a series of meadows. I froze when I first spotted Delinda in the distance, worried she would catch me moving and warn the pack. So, agonizingly slowly, half-crawling, I crept within two hundred metres, crouched behind a fallen log and watched with awe as 9 of the 10 wolves played together near a moose carcass on the edge of the meadow.
By the time the first heavy snowfall hit one night in early December, I could hardly sleep. I was chomping at the bit to see what tracks I could find and hoping against hope that I’d be able to photograph a wolf or two in the winter wonderland.
Well before dawn, I leapt out of bed and piled on two layers of thermal underwear along with a middle layer and an outer layer of pants, then threw on five different layers of undershirts, fleeces and a jacket – all in preparation for – 25° C temperatures.
To my utter disbelief, my car would not start. So for almost an hour I fidgeted endlessly and waited impatiently for a friend to arrive to give me a boost. Better late than never, I crawled along the icy snow-covered highways. Not even sure if my car could handle the deep snow, I pulled off of the main highway and edged along an unplowed road into the heart of the storm.
Five minutes in, I rounded a snowblind corner and was stunned to see 7 wolves sprawled in the middle of the road in front of me.
For the next four hours I lived every photographers’ dream as I literally had the wolves, especially Delinda, criss-cross the road in front of me repeatedly over a 12-kilometre course. Delinda lay down on the road several times in broad view, while the pups and Nanuk would slink in and out of the forest around me like ghosts passing through the night.
For the next two weeks straight I went out all day long, every day, driving and snowshoeing endlessly in search of the wolves, but they had disappeared. Their fresh tracks and scats each morning indicated that they were still around, as did brief glimpses of shadowy bodies vanishing into the bushes quickly in the semi-dark of early morning. However no good photographic opportunities presented themselves.
Over my final week before I departed on a pre-planned Christmas trip, I had several encounters, including a painfully close day where I sat out in –20° C hunched under a spruce tree near a kill site. For several hours I could see wolves milling about and laying in the forest across the river, but still no photos.
Finally, on the very last day before my Christmas holiday was to begin, I was rewarded with a spectacular midday sighting of 8 of the wolves.
Delinda and Nanuk appeared first, far in the distance, almost a kilometre across a meadow from where I was. They were soon followed by six more wolves, four blacks and two grays. Together, the eight of them slowly meandered across the meadow and into the forest close to the road, and for several minutes, it seemed like there were wolves everywhere.
When they all disappeared, I prepared to head home thinking that that was it for the day. To my surprise, Delinda had snuck out of the forest without me seeing her and was laying on the edge of the meadow on the other side of my vehicle! She stood up, and then, just like our first encounter that June, wandered past me so closely that I was unable to focus on her.
She headed down the road a short ways, paused in the morning sunshine backlit against the snow, and then, just like that, and just like wild wolves everywhere, she melted into the forest around her and was gone.
The Bow Valley wolf pack in Banff National Park faces one of the most intense battles for survival of wild wolves anywhere, as their enormous territory encompasses unprotected provincial lands in British Columbia, three provincial parks (one in BC and two in Alberta), and a national park that draws more than 5 million visitors a year. Their hazards include two major highways, a national railway, and the Town of Banff, as well as legal hunting or trapping outside of the park.
It’s not known how Delinda came to be in the pack, but Nanuk grew up in the valley and his mother was the alpha female at one point several years ago. She’s now believed to live one hundred kilometres to the south in a small pack in Kootenay National Park. No one is sure why she left the Bow Valley, though it may be because her original mate, Nanuk’s father, was trapped and legally killed outside park boundaries in 2001.
Nanuk and Delinda were named by wolf researcher Gunther Bloch, who studied national park wolves for Parks Canada from 1993 to 2001. Gunther has studied the park wolves independently from 2001 to the present.
November 2009 Update
In August 2008, Delinda was killed on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park. I was called in to help identify her body and it was, without a doubt, one of hardest things I've had to do as a professional wildlife photographer. Since that date, the Bow Valley pack has disintegrated. Less than a week after Delinda's death, another member of the pack was also killed on the Trans-Canada Highway, and yet that was only the beginning of the chaos. Today, more than fifteen months after Delinda's tragic passing, only splinters of her pack remain. For several months Gunther and Peter weren't sure if any members of the pack still survived in the Bow Valley, but just yesterday, on November 17th, 2009, they discovered that Sundance, one of Delinda's pups from her first litter, has indeed survived and may be accompanied by one of this year's pups (in the absence of Delinda, Nanuk bred with his daughter Fluffy this summer).
And so, for now at least, the lineage of the Bow Valley wolves, of Delinda and Nanuk, lives on.
And it is my hope that the death of Delinda will not be easily forgotten, that it will lead to better things in terms of parks and wildlife management in the Bow Valley. Delinda's memory lives on as a life-size image on the back of one of Banff's innovative hybrid buses and this December 2009 she will grace the cover of Canadian Geographic magazine. Hopefully her images and her story will inspire at least one person to make a difference in Banff and in the world of conservation.
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