By Bjorn Dihle
Wolverine have long been mythologized and misportrayed, so much so that when most people think of the species they envision actor Hugh Jackman’s chiseled abs, pulsating pecks and ridiculously tight pants. This is a nasty example of reverse anthropomorphism. When I’ve shown people pictures of real wolverine, many seemed unimpressed. They’re not very big, or that ferocious, or ridiculously good looking but the back story of any wild wolverine is about as epic as it gets.
Since childhood, I’ve suffered from a minor obsession with wolverines. There seemed to be no end to stories toting their super-weasel strength, ferocity and demonic nature. Fighting off wolves, attacking grizzly bears, stalking people…the list went on and on.
So, naturally, I was surprised when I encountered my first wolverine at age 14, with my brother and dad, in Western Alaska. At first, I thought it was a grizzly bear. It lopped across the wind-swept tundra and, with the aid of an overactive imagination, I convinced myself it was running in our direction. Was I experiencing a bonafide manhood-mettle testing bear charge? Naturally, I screamed and hid behind my older brother. A moment later, we identified it as a wolverine and instead of attacking, it ran over a hill and vanished.
After that I began wondering if a lot of what I’d read was written by armchair mountain men with little to no rapport with the actual animal. I had more encounters and realized, as often is the case, that the truth is more fascinating than fiction.
Wolverines are incredibly tough and intrepid, but they also possess a nutty side that at times leaves the layman, like myself, baffled. I’ve seen tracks deep in the Juneau Icefield in early April and encountered tracks high on the Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon’s Kluane Mountain Range in March. The Kaskawulsh wolverine tracks disappeared up into a giant glaciated valley towards a crevasse-etched-pass that led to the Gulf of Alaska.
Wolverines have an affinity for desolate country—they’ll go anywhere, during any season, and seem all the happier for it. They’re the first large mammal (a big male might go 50 pounds) to frequent a landscape after a glacier has receded.
One of my odder encounters occurred mid-April on the north side of the Brooks Range. Hundreds of caribou were milling nearby, perhaps starting to think of making their northward migration to their calving grounds near the Beaufort Sea. One morning I was sitting near my tent, watching caribou, not wanting to be anywhere else on Earth, when a large wolverine came looping across the snow covered tundra. Having three caribou buried in snow nearby and a wolverine heading towards a year’s worth of meat, I wondered if things were about to get interesting. The wolverine snatched a ground squirrel that had recently emerged from hibernation, then ran to the next hummock and grabbed another. Soon it had three in its mouth and, carrying them intact, ran right past the caribou without pausing.
Every wolverine I’ve encountered, that knew I was present, has run away, often as fast as it could. Sure the animal may be fierce if cornered, but so is a chipmunk. One of my more bizarre incidents illustrating the skittishness of a wolverine, occurred during a mountain goat hunt in western Lynn Canal. I was with my older brother and good friend Mike a hundred yards above a small herd of nannies and young. We were hoping one would magically turn into a billy when Mike gestured up above. A wolverine was rapidly glissading down a snow slope toward the goats. Once it slid off the snow onto rocks near the herd, it looked at them for a few seconds and, then, tucked tail and ran the opposite direction.
A trapper in 40-Mile country showed me a photograph of a lynx that had a terrified snow-shoe hare pinned against a log with one paw and its other raised above a snarling wolverine. The two had been so intent of fighting over the rabbit that the man had taken the picture from just a few feet away. The outcome of the conflict was not what I expected. Apparently, the lynx tore out the wolverine’s eye and had rabbit for lunch.
One of my favorite encounters occurred a few years back on the John River in the southern Brooks Range. It had been four days since I’d skied out of Bettles, a tiny community on the Koyokuk River, and I’d seen no animals other than a giant golden eagle that had winged over me at dusk. The frozen, snow-covered taiga, tundra, mountains and valleys felt lifeless. A northerly wind howled, a half eaten moose lay on the river ice and the aurora danced green during nights when the clouds cleared. I was skiing around the bend of the river when a large wolverine came lopping from the opposite direction. Not more than 10 yards separated us. I dropped my pack, irritated I’d buried my camera so deep as the wolverine turned and ran. Watching it disappear into the mountains, I felt its presence had brought the desolation to life. I skied on, feeling lucky and less alone.
Bjorn Dihle is a contributing editor for Hunt Alaska magazine.