The caribou and the moose are adapted to living in the jackpine country, but many animals are not. I have seen signs of buffalo as far north as there was feed for them, but the grass disappears in the jackpine country and the white moss that replaces it, so nourishing for the caribou, is not suitable for buffalo. When men were breaking land around Big River, they uncovered buffalo bones, and I saw a buffalo skull at Ile-a-la-Crosse, and also buffalo bones that were tangled in a fishing net there. But no buffalo ever penetrated as far north as my trapping area. It is the same with jumping deer. They appear at times around Ile-a-la-Crosse but do not thrive further north.
All of these animals are the natural prey of the timber wolf. This animal is so cruel in his killing that I have never liked him. Once in the Ile-a-la-Crosse country I saw a lone wolf kill a medium-sized jumping deer. He simply leaped on the deer's back and began to eat the living creature. While the deer dragged itself desperately along by its front legs, the wolf was devouring the rear.
Wolves seem to prefer caribou when it is available, but they thin out the moose as well. I saw three wolves run a cow moose in deep snow. It did not take them long to overtake and kill her. Two wolves alone can kill a big strong bull moose. One will stop the animal by working its head; the other will grab at its hindquarters tearing out chunks of meat. Under punishment like that, a moose won't stand very long. Some moose, of course will not turn and fight. These the wolves will run to exhaustion, perhaps twenty-five or thirty miles, though usually they do not run so far. Still, if they do, the wolves will stay with them. As a rule, five or six wolves work together. In country where caribou are plentiful, I have seen where wolves killed a moose just for sport, not eating any of the carcass. One fall when I was up in the hills hunting bear, in a patch of young thick jackpine that shut off my vision in all directions, I heard the frantic panting of some animal that was plainly near exhaustion. Then I saw its head as it reared above the young trees. It was a woodland caribou. I ran up the hill to see if I could get a shot at it, arriving breathless at the top. Then I could see a wolf, nose to the ground, on its trail. I fired at him, but missed. I saw only that one wolf, but there must have been more, because the next day I came upon a spot on the shore of Russell Lake where the caribou had been killed. There was nothing left of it but a few polished bones. It would, I know, have taken four or five wolves to eat that much meat in so short a time. I figured they might have chased the caribou as far as fifty miles.
On my first trip in the fall, before the big lakes were frozen over, there would be pack after pack of timber wolves going north to meet the caribou. If there was anything in the traps, they would tear it out. Very seldom did I get a shot at a wolf, for they travelled at night, but I often saw their tracks. Pups born in the spring were killers by the time the caribou came in the fall.
Then there were the barren land wolves that stayed with the herds all the time, following them south. I have seen how they killed a caribou in the bush. They scented it out, then circled it. When it saw a wolf, it would turn to escape, but there would be another wolf there to meet it. Then one wolf would jump and grab it and the others would close in for the kill. A caribou didn't last long. If it stopped to fight, the wolves had a better chance to finish it off quickly than if it tried to run.
One animal that I never did see killed by wolves was a bear. Once I was running four dogs on the shore of a big lake. Because the wind was blowing off the lake, my dogs and a she bear were unaware of each other until they met face to face. The dogs immediately jumped the bear while her two cubs hastily climbed a nearby tree. Although the dogs brought her to bay several times, the bear escaped them finally. I could hear them barking furiously in the distance. Dogs, of course, are not efficient killers like wolves, but I have never seen any sign of a bear slaughtered by wolves.
In my experience, wolves are the hardest of any animal to catch. I have set traps in their trails, being careful to leave no sign that would tell them a man had been there -- but even after a fresh fall of snow they would leave the trail just before they came to my traps. There must have been some scent of man that they could detect in spite of all my care.
I did, of course, trap some wolves during my long stay in the North, but time and again they would escape me. With their powerful jaws they could break and twist a trap until it looked as if an axe had been taken to it. They broke a good many chains for me, too. The only sure way to kill wolves is with poison, but permission to use poison is not and should not be lightly given.
When wolves make a kill, they have a strict order of eating. The natives told me that the leader of the pack eats first, and later I saw this for myself when one time I shot a moose and left the hide and head behind while I carried the meat back to camp. Coming back for them, I saw three wolves -- one eating and the other two looking on, waiting their turn. I was able to shoot the leader, but a man seldom had a chance to shoot a timber wolf because they did all their travelling at night. I might glimpse a pack in daylight lying beside bushes at a lake's edge, but no matter how carefully I tried to creep up on them, they were always gone before I came within range. In my twenty-five years in the North, I shot only seventeen wolves -- not many. Most of them were lone ones, old wolves that had been driven out of the pack. A lone wolf on a trapline is a real nuisance. The beast is starving, being unable to hunt alone and having to depend on what he can scavenge. He will take the bait from the traps and eat anything caught in them. Such a wolf will stay on a trapline all winter unless he can be shot or poisoned.
I have often heard wolves howling in the bush and tried to get close to them, but never with any success. I knew a trapper once, though, who saw seven on a lake and let his dog go after them. They, of course, chased the dog, and when it ran back to him for protection, he was able to shoot five of them. Sometimes wolves will come close to camp and start howling back in the bush. Any dogs that are loose will go after them, and the wolves promptly kill and eat them. Knowing this, I always kept my dogs tied nearby when I camped. I never had more dogs than I needed. I have heard it said that wolves will not attack a man, and I think they won't during the daylight. But if they are hungry and a man is travelling after dark -- which very few trappers ever do -- I believe they might attack him. Of course normally in the North wolves have plenty of caribou to eat and aren't hungry enough to be a threat to people.
I will never forget, though, something that happened to me one fall before the caribou had come down from the barren lands, when no doubt timber wolves in the area were hungry enough. I was in a great hurry to get my trapline set out, and since the territory was very familiar to me -- our old canoe route from Russell Lake to Highrock Lake -- I was out early one morning before daylight. The river being still open, I was taking my toboggan over land that was rough and broken by hard mounds of earth that kept upsetting it. With all the noise I was making righting the toboggan and setting traps, I certainly thought any wild animals would be frightened away.
Then my dogs began to act strangely and I knew something was nearby. In the semi-darkness I began to see shapes moving around us. They were dogs belonging to trappers moving ahead of me, I decided, for some trappers never tied their dogs. It did not once occur to me that they could be timber wolves. They began growling and circling me. Determined to protect my dogs from what looked to be a coming fight, I chopped down a good-sized stick to carry. I had many times had to stop a dog fight and felt well prepared.
It was the growling that fooled me. I just didn't think that wolves would circle me that way, growling, and keep on doing it for over an hour. Had I known what they were, I could have shot several of them, for I never missed a shot at such close range even in the dark -- certainly not at anything as big as a wolf. But of course, I didn't want to shoot another man's dogs. Now I think I was lucky that I wasn't travelling fast. Wolves aren't used to game that doesn't run away, and probably my behaviour made them wary. Maybe wolves won't attack a man -- but they are not an animal that I would trust at night!
A far more vicious killer of the North is the wolverine. He is a tough little animal with short legs that make it very hard for him to travel in deep snow, and so he usually follows the shores of big lakes. Wolverines kill many ptarmigan, for this bird has to run a distance before taking to the air, and can be caught on the ground even by something less quick than a wolverine. A trapper that I knew had a dog that used to bring in five or six ptarmigan every day that he was turned loose. He would sneak up on a bird and have it before it could take off.
Once in a while a wolverine would stray away from a big lake into bushland. Struggling through the snow he would make a furrow in the drifts. If he hit a trapline, he would stay on it since it made his travelling much easier. Whenever he found a trap with something in it, he would tear it up, eat what he wanted and bury the rest. A wolverine that has found a trapline must be caught before he does too much harm, and actually it isn't hard to trap one.
They are persistent and clever, though, about food. Once I hung a caribou carcass in a tree away from the foxes by putting a slim pole through the neck and raising it quite high. A wolverine climbed the tree, chewed the meat from around the pole till the carcass fell to the ground, then came down and ate it. Once a wolverine has eaten his fill, he puts scent on the carcass so that no other animal will touch it. Thus he can dine at his leisure until all the meat is gone. A big wolverine would weigh about sixty pounds, whereas a good-sized timber wolf weighs a hundred and fifty. I used to think that the wolf was the toughest animal and the most vicious one in the North, but now I know that the wolverine holds the title, for no wolf will stand up to him. Once five wolves had just made a caribou kill. A wolverine happened to be nearby, and as he advanced on them in his sideways motion, the wolves left the carcass and never looked back! That says much for the character of the wolverine. He is quick with his front paws which have long, wicked claws like a bear's.
I heard a story about Eskimos and wolverines. It seems that when Eskimos get fish in the fall they freeze them, pile them up and cover them with flat rocks. Then they put snow on the rocks to cover the cracks and pour water over that to freeze. The fish are thus locked away in an icy safe until required. I am told that a wolverine will lie down on the mound until the warmth of his body melts the ice, then tosses out the rocks and helps himself to the fish. I can well believe this story, for the wolverine is a strongly built little animal and resourceful.
In country laced with caribou trails, I am told that a wolverine will climb a tree and wait for a caribou to pass underneath, then drop down on its back and hang on with its sharp claws. A wolverine has real killing teeth and strong jaws. He will ride the caribou until it drops. Men tell me that he will do the same thing with a moose. Possibly he can tear the throat with his claws and bite into the living animal as a wolf does. The ways of northern killers are cruel, but they are deadly efficient.