Firstly, I need to extend my deepest apologies to the many many fans of this blog who have been waiting on the edge of their seats to read the next instalment (here’s looking at you Dad). I have not been absently twidling my thumbs since my last post; first I was in the field so could not get the WIFI to post anything and then, when my fieldwork surprisingly finished prematurely, I took an impromptu trip to Canada’s capital city, Ottawa (the subject another blog, I promise you won’t have to wait three weeks for this one), without my laptop.
So, the big question; did I catch a wolf? Well, you’ll have to read on and find out won’t you, tsk, society these days, always wanting to jump ahead to the good bits without experiencing all the build-up *insert sarcastic eye roll*.
I want you to close your eyes and picture the scene; well, maybe don’t actually close your eyes, you won’t be able to read my literary masterpiece, just picture the scene with your eyes open okay? A trailer sits in the middle of a gravel pit, a small speck in a 7000 square kilometre forest. If you need help with scale here, you can drive for hours and see nothing but trees, trees and more trees- makes you rather aware of how small the UK is- I think you can fit 4 UKs in Ontario alone despite the entire population of Canada being approximately half of our own (36.29 million). Anyway, back to the trailer, in this unassuming tin box sits a man with a wild beard wearing a t shirt with several holes and tears and well worn, ragged shoes, beside him, a young woman, tall (at least 5 ft 8), well endowed, beautiful, with long, flowing locks of golden hair- your typical blonde bombshell you see in the bond movies (just go with it, I’m allowed SOME artistic licence here ;P). Lured into the forest with the promise of catching sight the powerful and primal predator with a hold over her soul, the wolf, she doesn’t realise that the true danger may come from within the trailer, not without, and, in the woods, no one can hear you scream….
Had you going, there didn’t I? Well, though the trailer I lived in while I am wolf trapping may fit quite nicely into the horror movie trope, the reality was much less dramatic. Connor, the one with the wild beard (that bit was true) is a PhD student working under Brent Patterson, this is his third year where he’s spent around 10 months of the year living in this trailer in various locations around Algonquin- I think he’s glad to be over and done with the fieldwork part of his PhD! Connor is one of those people who is naturally quite quiet and spending so much time in a trailer in secluded parts of the vast Ontario wilderness hasn’t helped matters much. That said, he’s smart, funny and good company, we didn’t talk constantly but those of you who know me well know how much I love constant meaningless chit-chat (hint; about as much as I love jumping into a vat of hot tar)- it’s been really nice to be able to talk to someone who knows more about wolves and other wildlife than I do. Given that I spent essentially all my time with the guy, it’s pretty good that we got else I’d have been concerned about him feeding me to a bear or something. I learnt a lot from Connor in truth, not just all the practicalities about wolf trapping, though I did learn a lot about that, we had long conversations about life and work that I found really helpful. I now know I want to see more of the world so his backpacking advice was much appreciated, with no TV channels we watched a lot of movies and TV series so I am now hooked on Battlestar Galactica and the only radio station that can permeate the mass of trees is garbage so most of my morning was spent listening to Connor’s vast library of CDs in the truck as we drove around. I now have a good list of Canadian artists on my spotify!
Now, Connor could have parked the trailer anywhere for us to set our trapline, anywhere within a massive provincial park with hundreds of beautiful lakes and vistas, where did he choose to park it? In the middle of a gravel pit, nowhere near any lakes or trails…. thanks Connor 😛
I encountered much of Canada’s wildlife during my time in Algonquin Provincial Park; moose, bears, wild turkeys, grouse and wolves were all on the viewing list while we cannoned along the logging roads. I must note, before you all get excited about the awesome nature photographs coming your way, most of these sighting occurred when we’re driving happily along a road then spook some poor, unsuspecting creature sitting at the side of the road who then runs ahead of us into the trees. Long story short, I have a few pictures of cool animal’s butts.
In total, I saw 1 moose (they run like absolute numpties, ask me to show you a video when you see me and you’ll see), about 100 wild turkeys (usually mothers running across the road in a zig-zag pattern trying to get some of her horde of chicks run over), several grouse, 2 wolves running along too fast to catch more than just a passing glimpse and 19 black bears. Yes, you heard me right, 19 bears. Anna, you should be very jealous as those 19 bears included around 8-10 cubs which truly do look like black balls of fluff running along the road behind their big mamma bears. Black bears are significantly smaller than their grizzly cousins but are still found up to 100kg so you wouldn’t want to meet one down a dark alley after a few drinks- they’d have your wallet and phone out your hands before you could even say Baloo.
I have come to the conclusion that chipmunks have a death wish. There is no other explanation for their idiotic behaviour when we drive towards them on the logging roads (Connor will disagree with me here and say it’s all explained by instinctual reactions, but I think my version is better). For some reason, when we drive towards a chipmunk at the side of the road, their response is to run across the road, into the path of the half tonne death machine hurtling towards them. If they don’t decide to run the gauntlet of death across the road, they sit munching on a nut or seed, jumping off the road to safety at the last second, causing me to peer through the dust in the wing mirror to see if they’d made it. I have closed my eyes fearing we’d squished one of my furry little friends, though…. they would make good bait for our wolf traps. Connor calls them striped ground rats, I guess if you’ve grown up with them all around you, they may lose their charm, but I think they’re probably my favourite animal I’ve encountered so far in Canada. If a chipmunk and Connor have a fight, I’ll be rooting for the chipmunk- I’ve got your back Alvin!
So, I was in Algonquin setting up traps; we’d drive along and find a good place along the logging roads, somewhere 2 roads intersected or where a trail led off to a body of water. I would throw on a pair of gloves to prevent my scent from contaminating the trap site, grab some interesting looking sticks and rocks and position them in a rough v shape and push some dry leaves in the middle. Then, I’d whip out the archaeology looking kit and dig a hole big enough for the trap and chain, throw everything in and cover the trap with some sieved dirt, covering the pressure pan with a leaf to stop dirt stopping the trap from setting off. We used padded foothold traps that catch a leg without injuring the wolf and has a chain attached so it can run off into the trees and get snagged there without being caught in the sun or too close to logging trucks. Once the trap is buried, I would grab some dry leaves and such like and grate them over the trap to further disguise it- gotta keep ahead of those clever, university educated wolves! To further attract wolves to the traps, we would use scents from the BOX OF DOOM (seriously, that box stank to high heaven), I could pick between skunk, wolf and beaver anal gland secretion, rotting meat and wolf urine- what fun!!
I managed to snag myself a bear in one of my traps! Thankfully, he’d been able to slip his foot out of the trap (they’re designed for smaller feet) before we arrived, so we didn’t have to deal with a grumpy bear! Perhaps it was the bear we saw the previous night when we were driving back to camp in the truck…. he seemed to be pretty eager to get away from that end of the trap line though, that may have had something to do with the half tonne truck being driven at him by a maniac. We weren’t always so lucky with our traps though…..
After a day of torrential rain we had the tedious process of repairing the trapline to contend with- being at the mercy of a serious deluge doesn’t do our traps much good. Most were visible from the truck, the leaves we use to cover the pan from mud preventing the successful activation, disintegrated- we needed to dig the dirt out from the centre of the trap, replace the leaf and re-cover the trap before reapplying the scent used to bait it (we’d rebaited half the previous day, all wasted with the rain :/). We drive along to the location of trap AP18103 and… it’s gone, poof! Now, this trap had already been set off by a bear before, so we jumped to the conclusion that it was likely an ursine culprit yet again. Connor went into the bush, tracking, after a few minutes and loud rustling, he returned and uttered the sentence we least wanted to hear “We have a bear in the trap”- so yes, a bear had set off the trap but no, it hadn’t managed to pull out and escape into the wild. Oh dear. Bears are, as Connor mentioned several times that day, ‘pointy at five ends’ and are not an animal you want to deal with when cornered. Previous experience had taught Connor that catch poling a bear does not end well for the person holding the pole, the other occasion a bear had been snagged in a line , park wardens had to come and tranquilise it. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and any help would be hours away, too long for the wellbeing of the animal which, of course, was our top priority. Thankfully we managed to get the little guy (he was likely about 1-year-old) out without too much trouble and we could all go about our day, the bear, a little hungover but no worse for wear. I called him Gilbert. If you ever read this Francis (unlikely), we love you!
So… you’ve made it this far, now you get to hear about my wolf ❤
On the first day I would have been absent from the trap line if I had chosen to take time off in the middle of my stay it absolutely tipped it down, the rain began overnight and by the time we were up for breakfast, one look outside was enough to tell us that the trap line would be flooded. We hopped in the truck, not feeling overly positive about driving round in the pouring rain and began our trap check. As we pulled up to trap AP18081, the second trap I had ever put in the ground, I peered out my window and my heart seemed to stop for a moment- the trap had gone. Now, we’d had traps vanish before, one dragged off by an overcurious bear who had managed to shake it off while climbing a tree, another who managed to knock down an entire dead pine tree in its escape and our dear old friend Gilbert – I have a feeling the same bear is having a field day setting of all our traps just to prank the stupid humans.
This time though, I knew it wasn’t a bear, the drag marks weren’t deep enough, no claw marks in the sand- Connor scouted around, tracking the culprit into the woods and, sure enough, we’d caught a wolf. At 25kg W1624 was about the right size for a fully-grown female Algonquin wolf, the result of mixing between the nearly extinct Eastern wolf with Grey wolves and Coyotes, 20-30kg is typical. I know, in wolfy terms, she was probably looked as average as her weight but, to me, she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever laid eyes on. Though similar in size and weight to my Golden Retriever, there was no mistaking her for a dog, the head shape was different, functional and strong, her coat was a mixture of light and reddish brown, merging in such a way to make her almost invisible amongst the trees. She’d been caught by Connor before though the GPS collar she wore had never sent any data to the lab, we hoped take two would prove more successful.
Connor slipped the catchpole around her neck and got me to hold her to the ground as he gave her the sedative needed to ensure that we left this encounter with all our fingers intact. After 15 minutes waiting patiently, no, I lie here, I was not patient at all, I wanted to touch my wolf, Connor carried her out into the open where we had prepared our kit behind the truck. We weighed her using a wrap basket attached to a newton-meter before I was set the task of taking her temperature with the one note of, “don’t stick it up too far, you wouldn’t like it if it were you”! Too true I wouldn’t like it, I’ll leave it to your imagination specifically where I stuck the vaseline covered thermometer but know I was gentle 😉
Next on the agenda was taking measurements, I measured just about everything conceivable, from the total body length and tail length to paw width and canine length- I’m quite a pro with the measuring tape if I say so myself. We took a blood sample, 2 whiskers and some guard hair for lab work- in fact, the very same lab work I had been slaving over for 5 weeks, it’s nice to see the whole process even if it is in reverse order! Then, as quickly as it started, we had taken all the measurements we needed and Connor suggested I get a photo with her- suddenly I was sat in the middle of a logging road in the middle of Algonquin Park, in the middle of Canada, 5000km from home, with a wolf propped against me. I had been in my focused functional mode while everything was going on (Connor would later tell me that I “handled myself well”, high praise indeed Connor) and it wasn’t really until that moment that I realised I was up close and very personal with the animal I love and want to work with. It felt like several tectonic plates shifting within my head, raising up new priorities and crushing only ones. all of a sudden it didn’t matter that I was cold and wet and living in a pokey trailer, it didn’t matter what other people thought about what I wear and what I think, all that mattered was this wolf in my lap and the immense pride I felt for getting myself into this position. I realised that I have pushed myself beyond the point where I thought I would break and instead found myself resilient and flexible, I have weathered a lot of storms in my life but I kept on fighting and the result of that is, I am loving life and getting to do things I love. I got to see a wolf, I got to touch a wolf and I don’t think I’ll ever quite be the same again…
I have got photos from the trapping process however, I am not going to be sharing them publicly on social media in case the wrong party got a hold of anything and used it to the detriment of the Ministry of Natural Resources (the government organisation I was working with). I have been given the green light to use images in my reports for the University of Nottingham and the Royal Society of Biology so if either of those gets published you will be able to see them then. In the meantime, when you see me, I will be happy to show you photos!
I falsely stated that the population of Ontario is 32 million confusing it for the population of Canada which is in fact 36.29 million- I have changed the text accordingly.