North to Cree Lake

All about Wolves


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Will wolves attack a human being? Many old stories say they will, and have done so. In recent times, certain come-lately "experts" have written that a timber wolf would never think of making a meal of a fresh human. From my own limited experience of seven winters on the trapline, I have formed a theory that, although an attack is unlikely, it may be possible. In gathering the material for this book, I made a special point of drawing out both Fred and Ed on this subject. Fred Darbyshire brushed me off with these words: "I'll tell you one thing, Art. If you and I are going to wait around for the wolves to eat us, we are certainly going to live for a long time." I gathered that he considered an attack pretty unlikely, but did not elaborate. It also seemed to me that he left the door open a small crack to the possibility, or that he closed it gently, but did not set the latch. Wolves. Certainly, Fred's diaries do not indicate that he had too many brushes with wolves. Obviously, he was never very successful in trapping them; most white trappers do not become expert at taking wolves. In January 1947: "I caught a wolf at Stone Creek. He got loose from the trap and I tracked him. I saw him in a ravine and ran him down." In September 1951: "Some wolves came and paid my dogs a visit last night. I had to get up and chase them off (with rifle fire). In November 1955: All my mink sets have been torn up by wolves." Later that year: "The authorities have been setting out wolf baits throughout the country, using an aeroplane. I found one wolf and one raven at one of the sets." And in January 1957 Fred records: "Quite a crew of wolves passed on one of the lakes. I figure there were twenty in that pack."

There was not much in these entries to strengthen my theory, except perhaps, for the occasion when Fred had to get up in the night and chase the wolves away. Obviously, he had blazed away at them with his hunting rifle. Was there danger of their attacking him? Suppose he had no rifle?

I re-read the entries in the diary. Then I found it. I do not know how I overlooked it in the first reading. "December 14, 1945, I met up with a wolf pack today. I believe they were trying to work me. I shot one." Fred had not set the latch on that door.

"If wolves ever attack a human, they will do it at night," Ed Theriau told me. I have had wolves around me in the dark at different times, but they never hung around until daylight.

"Once at freeze-up time, I was driving the dogs south to the Highrock Lake area, to put out a new trapline in that country, where I had not trapped for a few years. The second morning on the trail, we started out early, about an hour before daybreak. We were making lots of noise, with my yelling at the dogs and the toboggan bumping over rocks and logs. In the early dawn, I saw what appeared to be a pack of dogs, running toward me through the bush. I was getting close to Highrock Lake and I reasoned that there was a group of Indians camped there who had let their dogs run loose. I certainly did not think for a moment that they were wolves. As a rule, wolves are very shy and will run the other way as soon as they catch sight of you.

"I stopped my dogs when these shapes were about twenty yards away. Those "dogs" circled all around my team, growling. I took my axe and cut a good-sized stick in case they came to fight with my dogs. I had my rifle on the toboggan, filled with cartridges, but I was not going to shoot any man's dogs if I could help it.

They came no nearer, but they were in no hurry at all to leave. Just before it became light enough to see clearly, they all disappeared into the bush. Then I went over and had a good look at the tracks of my visitors, a very large pack of timber wolves! I was a bit shocked and, I must confess a bit afraid. That was the closest meeting I ever had with a wolf pack. I think they might well have attacked and completed the job; there was enough of them to do it. If this had happened on my trapline to the north of my cabin, I would have known for sure that these were timber wolves when they first appeared, since there were no trappers or dogs around there. Having a rifle handy, I could have shot several of them. I have done a lot of shooting in the dark, and I did not often miss, I suppose because my target was always at close range. However, I did miss plenty of easy shots in broad daylight in my days in the north.

"One winter I took a trip to Cree Lake, and then came back to my camp. When I turned my dogs loose, two of them hit the trail back to Cree Lake, forty miles away. I had to go back for them in the night. There was a crust on the snow, I had iron shoes on my toboggan, and my two remaining dogs had no trouble pulling me. I was in the toboggan, wrapped up in my sleeping robe with my head covered up. When the dogs suddenly started to gallop, I looked up and saw a wolf, running along about fifty yards away from us, and going in the same direction. I thought it might be one of my own dogs, so I did not shoot. He ran alongside me for about two miles, before he veered off to the north and out of sight.

"Regnier Johnson, an old trapper friend of mine based in Hidden Bay on Wollaston Lake, once saw a pack of seven wolves on the lake ice. He had only one dog with him, and it ran after the wolves. They took after the dog, and it returned to Regnier. He was able to shoot five of the wolves.

"The Department of Natural Resources did one good thing for this country: they put out poison bait that killed a lot of wolves. Trappers do not kill very many. I shot seventeen wolves and trapped thirty in all: that is not very many for twenty-five years on the trapline.

"A wolf is so big and strong that it takes a big trap to hold him. I have had them break a Number Four Newhouse trap all to pieces with their teeth: they can bend the spring down until there is no spring left in the metal. Sometimes you can hold them in a new Victor trap. Some wolves do not fight at all when caught in a trap.

"I once killed a moose and left the hide there on the ground. I later travelled past that spot and saw something dark there; I circled around and approached from down-wind. There were two wolves feeding on the hide, one actually eating, the other looking on. I have heard it said that the leader of the pack eats first. I shot the one that was looking on; the other kept on feeding and I shot it, too. They were grey wolves. I expect there were more wolves in that pack, there were always a lot of wolves in that particular area.

"On another occasion, near the same spot, I saw a wolf crossing a lake on the slippery first ice. I began shooting and the wolf began to slip more and more. I finally hit it with my last cartridge. The wolf then ran up into the bush, and I followed. It was able to just keep ahead of me. I circled to head it off, then it backtracked toward the lake, where I wanted it. It did not make it to the ice. When I caught up to it, the wolf would not look at me, it turned its head toward a nearby clump of willows.

"I have had several opportunities to watch wolves when they are hunting. I have seen them on the lake ice in winter when they will single out one animal from a herd of caribou. When the caribou realizes its danger and tries to re-join the herd, the wolves form a circle and cut it off. Then they close in from all sides. The caribou makes a last fighting stand, but it is soon dragged down.

"I once saw a lone wolf chase a herd of caribou on a frozen lake. The caribou stopped to look at the wolf and then they really dug in and ran. The pursuing wolf was left behind as if he were standing still, and he soon angled off in another direction.

"One winter, hunting in thick jackpine up on the hills, I saw a caribou close by, standing there with sides heaving, all out of breath. I bent down, looked under the trees, and got a glimpse of a running wolf. I looked for the caribou again, but it had gone. I ran farther up the hill and saw another wolf, sniffing at the caribou track. The wolves set out after the caribou and I set out after both. I followed the tracks for some distance and found the caribou had just been killed. It was a very new job, and I barely missed witnessing the killing. They had done the job in a hurry but had been scared off when I came along. "Another time I saw the tracks of three wolves that had been chasing a moose. Twenty miles farther I saw the same tracks. I did not find the kill, but I knew the moose Wolves and Moose. would finally stop to fight and that would be the end of it. "I have heard that wolves only kill off the weak and aged animals, but that is not true. Two wolves can kill a bull moose in his prime. I think that if the moose did not stop to fight with wolves, they would usually be successful in getting away. But the moose stops in the bush, and while some wolves work from the front, others slip in and cripple it from behind. The moose will not last long, any moose. Wolves generally kill more moose in the spring. "I have never seen any evidence of packs larger than twenty wolves, but I know there have been larger packs in the country. One of my Chipewyan friends told me how he was once surrounded by thirty wolves in a great open muskeg. He shot ten of them, and as soon as one fell the others would begin to tear it apart and eat it. I have no reason to doubt his story. If they did not run from him from the point of view of obtaining something to eat. Suppose he had been unarmed: what would have happened?" I know of no man more knowledgeable about wolves than Adolph Grewatch, who learned to trap as a boy in Germany, then went on to live by trapping in northern Canada for forty-five years. He was unique in that he was a wolf trapping specialist and so successful that conservation officers asked him to instruct them, for he was the only person in the area who could consistently take wolves with traps. Working as he did to the south-west of Poorfish Lake country, in 1935, it is quite possible that he encountered some of the same wolves seen by Ed Theriau and Fred Darbyshire.

I wrote to Adolph asking him about the habits of wolves and putting to him the question, "Will wolves attack a human being"? He sent me the following detailed and informative reply:

"Contrary to your own experience, Mr Karras, I found wolves fairly easy to trap. They are little lost orphans in the woods in comparison to the educated coyote found around the edges of settlements. The coyote, I rank highest of all fur animals, in the way of intelligence.

"The wolf acts bolder, but he has a distinct weakness. Like other canines, only more so, he cannot pass a leaning stick, stump or snag (on a lake, a road or an opening in the bush) without urinating on it. A well-covered trap at such a location will get him. A sprinkling of snow, soaked with wolf urine, at the base of such a signpost while not necessary, will help. Lacking that, the same material from a coyote, fox, wolverine, fisher, or even from a sleigh dog will do. I also had good luck with a blend of beaver castoreum and ashoedita, used as above. Most trappers I have known used snares or poison (illegal except for use by game wardens and predator-control officers).

The wolf is fairly easy to snare: if you set clusters of snares around one good location, within a quarter-mile radius, you quite often get three or four out of a pack, for the other members of the pack will circle around the one caught first and thus get taken in the snares hanging on the side trails. Of course, you cannot do that in park-likee big timber, you must have some brush to funnel the animals to the snares. In other places, willows, young trees or even grass will provide the setting. My own dog team trails, winding through hundreds of miles of bushland, provided favourite locations for snares, as the wolves love to follow such trails. Sandy ridges and lakeshores are the best locations for traps.

Here is the trouble with wolf trapping: most of the trappers I know, if they had five dollars to spare, would rather invest in a bottle of booze than in a good trap. That is the point. The trap must be of excellent quality, the jaw large enough to more than circle a wolf's foot, with good solid hinges and a longer-than-ordinary chain. That rules out most of the traps ever made. The number four Newhouse, the number fourteen Newhouse and the number four Hawley-Norton are the very minimum. Better is the number four-and-a-half Newhouse, the only adequate wolf trap I ever saw that was made in this country, and it might be impossible to get nowadays. I had two wolf traps shipped over from Germany in 1930, and they were my mainstay until I sold out a few years ago. I used to drag rather than staking my traps down.

"So much for the technique. Now to answer your question. I have never seen an attack on human beings, and I have never heard of a proven case. Any time I had trapped a wolf, it never made even one move to defend itself. All they did was strain on the chain, trying to pull away. Once I caught a wolf in a trap I had set on the bank of a creek, only a quarter of a mile from my cabin. I shot it in the head, laid down the .22 and walked back to the cabin to get an empty tobacco can to collect the urine-soaked snow. When I returned, I squatted down alongside the wolf, with my back to it, scraping the snow into the tin. Suddenly there was a low growl behind me. I must have leapt three feet in the air from a crouch. I lost no time grabbing my .22 and dispatching it, this time for good. If any wolf had a chance to bite me, that one certainly did.

"By contrast, I was once bitten by a fox I was trying to help. One May day, as we paddled down the Deer River, we saw a fox bouncing around up on a cutbank, caught in someone's forgotten snare. So, as usual in cases where I wanted to turn loose a fox, coyote or wolf. I held out my left hand, let it grab the four fingers, and then clamped my thumb around the lower jaw and hung on, That renders the animal helpless, a trick I learned in Germany where I occasionally caught a farmer's dog in my fox traps. Well, the little fox performed according to plan and I stripped off the wire loop with my free right hand, then turned him loose. That little beggar wheeled around and bit me in the heel of my left foot, clean through rubber and moccasin before he took off.

"In February 1936, I was walking from Blackstone Lake to Porter Lake along a chain of smaller lakes. It was almost dusk. Some deer-like animal came racing into the sliver of the lake which I could glimpse through the bush. Up came my 6.5 mm Mannlicher, and down went the animal. It turned out to be a young bull caribou, the first caribou I had ever seen. Now, that country is all rocks and cliffs no place for a self-respecting caribou to be travelling. It was almost impossible for me to travel there, except by following the lakes and the folds in the rocks where the portages were. I did not know what to think of this obviously misplaced animal.

"I dragged the carcass over to the shore. There I gutted it, skinned it and cut it up. Tomorrow morning I would come back to haul in the meat, my one dog pulling a small toboggan, and I a small sled. I thought of taking the head with me that night, for dog food; then, thinking better of it, I stuck it in the snow near the trail. As an after-thought, I put my packsack inside the circle of meat to keep the foxes off, should they come in the night.

"That night I awoke in my cabin at Porter Lake to the night wolf chorus. So that was how that caribou happened to be in that rocky country: wolves had been on its trail and had cornered it among the rocks. I, great fool that I was, had not thought of that possibility. Just a short, if cold, wait would have brought them within rifle range. Well, good-bye to the caribou meat.

"The next morning, wolf tracks were everywhere. The caribou head had vanished, just a few hairs left. But the meat was intact and untouched, with a well-trodden circle all around it. I made no attempt to count the different tracks, but there were dozens. The wolves had headed south on Porter Lake in the night. Later that year Louis Durocher, who trapped at Porter Narrows, told me he had seen the tracks and estimated the pack at fifty individual wolves, the largest concentration of wolves seen in this country in a long time.

"The commercial fishermen in northern Saskatchewan once called on me for assistance when a pack of fourteen wolves began to hang around the scene of their operations. Caboose. As we approached the nets in a horse-drawn caboose, we could see the wolves loafing on the ice; when we got out a way from the shore, that left. We found that all the anchor ropes had been chewed off by the frolicking wolves. And the previous fish catch, which had been left on the ice to freeze, was scattered about, chewed, and liberally sprinkled with wolf urine, of course. This pack did not show any signs of belligerency, they were just out for a good time.

"In the fall of 1935, I had camped one miserable night on Porter Creek. Next morning I continued on foot up the Deer River, toward my out camp. Loaded down with a big packsack full of dried fish, next winter's dog food, and followed by my German Shepherd dog, 'Sport,' I was walking through a stand of park-like green jackpine, with deep, soft moss underfoot and no underbrush at all to mar the view. Following the edge of a draw, I noticed some light-coloured animals coming toward me. My first thought, caribou! I threw off my pack, got my rifle ready, dropped to one knee and ordered Sport to lie down. But as the animals came closer I saw that they were timberwolves, seven of them, a soft creamy white and one light grey in colour.

"What choice names I called myself! For the first time that fall I had left my camera at home, on account of that big load of fish. Otherwise, I always carried it. Here was the opportunity of a lifetime for taking really good pictures. I had the setting, the lighting, the right distance and background, a comfortable temperature, no cold fingers, no fogged lens to contend with and, of course, no camera.

"What now? Should I shoot them? I had never shot a wolf and there was a great temptation to do so now. But since it was only the end of September, the pelts would not be prime. Besides, there was no way of getting a wolf carcass out to a taxidermist. I reasoned that if I did not molest them they might return later that winter.

"By this time they were within twenty yards and Sport was whining, anxious to join the newcomers. I decided that they were close enough and I stood up. The wolves just stood there and stared. Then they, too, began to whine, just as my dog was doing, never taking their eyes off him. Then I took a few steps toward them, always keeping the rifle ready for action if necessary. Now they spread out with a few jumps to one side, stopped, whined some more, and took a few more jumps. Then they got my scent, and the whining turned to howling. With more jumps, stops and howling, they gradually worked farther and farther away, and finally disappeared. The show was over, leaving behind one very disappointed dog, he had been so anxious to meet them.

"Come October, I packed wolf traps into that area. The wolves never came within a mile of the place that winter. When the fur buyer came in that winter with Cece MacNeal and his aeroplane. I told him the story, adding that I could have wiped out the pack, but I thought the hides worthless. The fur buyer agreed that the hides would not have been fully prime, but he would have paid me ten dollars for each of the white wolves, prime or not. Raven and Wolf. A ten-dollar bill bought three or four pairs of denim pants in those days, and the memory of the missed pictures still rankles me today; never again did I have such a wonderful opportunity. "I once saw a wolf sitting on its haunches on the ice near the shore of a small lake. A raven circled overhead, then made a power dive, just missing the wolf's snapping jaws. Then it lit about twelve feet in front of the wolf. The wolf crouched down and made a giant leap toward the raven. The raven fluttered skyward at the last moment and circled again over the wolf, who now sat down on his haunches again. This performance was repeated over and over again as they played, while I, an audience of one, laughed until the tears ran down my cheeks. "This wolf was one of a pack that I discovered had killed a cow moose and both her twin calves, all within a distance of half a mile, out on the lake ice. As far as I am concerned, the theory that wolves kill only what they need, or that they seek out only the sick and weak animals is pure hokum. As far as I have seen, wolves in a killing frenzy will keep on killing as long as there is a living animal to be caught, whether there are two moose or caribou around, or half a dozen. They will keep feeding on one carcass, but they would far rather pull down a fresh one. I once had a few deer hanging around a bluff near one of my camps, and the wolves, on their rounds of the lake, never failed to make a little side trip just to chase those deer. Deer. They seem to enjoy chasing deer more than anything else. Their killing frenzy seems to equal that of a mink or weasel in a chicken coop, or a killer dog among a flock of sheep. I can personally vouch for one occasion when wolves pulled a trappers dog right out of its dog house and killed it when its owner was absent. "In all my years in the woods, I have never shot a timber wolf, except when it was in a trap, although I have shot at them many times, and I am not that unhandy with a rifle. One day, I was sitting in my easy chair by the window when, up the trail, seventy-five yards away, walked a beautiful brown and white wolf. When it reached the clearing, I grabbed my new Mauser and ran out, loading and cocking the rifle. When the wolf saw me coming, he sat down to watch. But I forgot one thing, I was wearing moosehide moccasins. As a result, when I stepped around the corner of the cabin onto a patch of ice, I fell flat on my back with my feet up in the air, trying not to touch the trigger. The wolf got up and trotted away, looking at me over his shoulder. I could perhaps have shot him in the rear, but I would not do that, even to a wolf.

"Well I am sorry that I could not report to you any hair-raising adventures with wolves. I have been acquainted with wolves and interested in them since 1908, when my father was transferred to East Prussia, near the Russian border. We had the odd wolf come over from Russia then, but they did not last long in Germany.

"Many years ago, I saw a newspaper advertisement placed by a merchant at The Pas, Manitoba, who offered a 1000 dollar reward to anyone who could prove that he was attacked by timber wolves. It was never claimed, although I must admit that anyone actually attacked by timber wolves would be in poor condition to collect any kind of reward unless it was his last one.

"I have never met a man who claimed he had been attacked by wolves. I had one friend who claimed he was once followed by wolves while he was hauling a load of moose meat with his toboggan and dogs. I told him the wolves were interested in his dogs, and in the smell of the fresh meat, but he was not so sure.

"I readily believe that wolves, with their built-in curiosity, would hang around for hours at the base of a tree that a man running from them had climbed in fear, as long as they had not gotten his scent. That happened to me once, with two flea-bitten coyotes. I was crossing from one point to another on lake ice at dusk, trying to pick up the trail of a coyote caught in a trap and dragging a pole drag. I had dropped my rifle and packsack where the coyote had been caught. Around the point trotted two animals, which I took to be coyotes. I wheeled around and hit for shore as fast as my moccasins would permit, to get my rifle. One of the animals came straight toward me, the other cut in between me and the shore. All the wolf stories I had ever heard, from Siberia to Canada, came back to me in a rush. I got to the rifle and faced my pursuers, ready for action. But the coyotes, realizing their mistake, took off. I was so out off breath from running that I did not even fire a shot. I am sure a pair of wolves, under the same circumstances, would have acted in the same manner, and another story of wolves attacking humans would have been born.

"Animals don't live by rule-books. The grizzly bear is supposed to be a non-eater of human flesh, yet an acquaintance of mine was killed and partly eaten by a grizzly in British Columbia. It is just that I have never known anyone who has been attacked by wolves. Where to draw the line between a pack of wolves milling around out of curiosity, and a pack contemplating dark deeds, it is hard to say. But I, myself, have never lost any sleep over the possibility any time I was camping out with, or without, my rifle."

I put the same question to George Nelson, a veteran trapper of the Black Birch Lake area.

"I have had wolves following me at night so closely that I could see their shapes in the dark. Several times when I was camping out they tried to get at my dogs. My dogs always let me know when the wolves were getting too close by growling, or yelping, so that I would awaken. I would get up out of my sleeping robe and blast away at them with my rifle. I shot two wolves at night in my years as a trapper. Joe Buckley, who used to trap down on the Churchill River, told me that one night timberwolves killed some of his dogs while he was asleep.

"I believe that wolves would attack a man under the right circumstances. The man would be unarmed, the pack would be large, and they would need to be experiencing the intense hunger that comes from great, prolonged cold and a complete absence of game animals over a large hunting area."

Let the last, rather portentous words on this subject be those of Ed Theriau: "Over the years when I was on the trapline, there was more than one occasion when I heard that some trapper or another had failed to show up in the spring. These men were never found. I have come to the conclusion that at least some of these were done in by wolves."


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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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