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Research tactics include tracking, watching and photographing the wolves.
The new Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast safari aims to better understand the area’s canines of lore.
By Shel Zolkewich Special to the Star
Our Cessna Caravan swings far to the east, then swoops hard to the west, cutting over the mighty Hayes River at Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba and giving me a dronelike view of the big, boxy white building that’s held my imagination for decades.
It’s the Hudson Bay Company depot at York Factory National Historic Site, one of the remnants of a community that once boasted a tailor and haberdasher, shipwrights and blacksmiths, all keeping the fort busy as furs were shipped from Canada across the Atlantic in the heyday of the trade. The fort is still only accessible by air or a six-hour boat ride up the river, and my thoughts turn to how hard life must have been in this remote place.
For the past few days, I’ve been at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, just a 10-minute plane ride from the fort, where travellers have gathered from Germany and Finland, Colorado and British Columbia. We’re all here to join Churchill Wild’s first Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast safari — a citizen science project with the goal of better understanding the canines of lore, Canis lupus nubilus.
The wolves here are truly wild. They’ve never been studied, and none wear radio collars as the vast majority of their famous cousins in Yellowstone National Park do.
The lodge, near the Kaskattama River, sits on a chunk of Canadian wilderness 10 times larger than Yellowstone in the U.S. If you think Churchill, Manitoba, is remote, we’re 200 kilometres away, down the southern coast of Hudson Bay.
Anticipation runs high on my arrival day as we set out to hunt for tracks, check trail cameras and, ultimately, to try to spot wolves. We head out on foot, through 30 centimetres of fresh snow, weaving through willows and black spruce and along the shoreline of the Opoyastin River. I know this Cree word means “big wind,” thanks to my conversations with Albert “Butch” Saunders from the York Landing First Nation, a long-time staffer with Churchill Wild.
The temperature hovers around -20°C, but we’re comfy in down parkas, snow pants and heavy boots, all included with the excursion price. As the sole Manitoban, I’m well climatized, unzipping my Canada Goose parka, tugging at my merino wool base layer, shoving mittens into my pockets and unzipping the vents on my snow pants as we close in on a 10-kilometre hike.
We’re walking where the polar bears walk, where the wolves walk. The evidence is right there in the tracks that cross our own. And yet, no one seems on edge. That’s largely due to the protective calm exuded by our wilderness guides, Jody, Andy and Jess. But there’s something else at play here. The exciting possibility of seeing a wild wolf, uncollared, unfenced, seems to outweigh the threat of crossing paths with a deadly predator.
Back at the lodge, when dinner is done, the group gathers to discuss the day. “Humans have always had a close relationship with wolves,” says Jad Davenport, the National Geographic photographer and former U.S. Forest Service ranger who leads this first-ever citizen science expedition at Nanuk. “Wolves aren’t sinners, and they aren’t saints. They are somewhere in between.”
We all chip in for the joint science project, setting up trail cams, trying to identify the animals in the images captured, recording wolf howls, and practicing howls in the hopes of getting a response, mapping the territory and even collecting wolf scat for DNA analysis. No one seems to mind that they’ve paid to do work.
The next morning, the sun dogs start to show themselves before sunrise. These glowing orange strips, flanking the rising sun, only come out when it’s cold, really cold, and ice crystals scatter the light. Our group of avid photographers climbs to the lookout tower to get their best shot, mumbling through balaclavas that it’s a sign of good luck.
And sure enough, it is. It seems everyone is out for a morning walk that day — including all 14 members of the Opoyastin wolf pack. I’m riveted but not by fright, and the creatures seem equally curious about us, approaching close enough to surprise. The cloud wolves here have never been hunted, so they seemingly have no fear of humans.
It’s an experience hard to imagine happening anywhere but this faraway corner of the country. A fellow guest, Frank from Europe, seems to hit the nail on the head. “I’m jealous of the people who live in Canada and have this kind of wildlife,” he says. I couldn’t agree more that we’re lucky indeed.