by Peter Nelson
So the little critters weren’t much fun, but the big critters? You might not believe this part of our tale.
Were there any insects other than mosquitoes? Probably, but they must have been pretty tiny, because we never saw them. Even the mammals were very few in number. Ground squirrels, arctic foxes, gray wolves, and caribou were the only animals we ever saw. Only four species. (Except for our good friend, the grizzly. More about him later.)
What makes this part of the story so amazing? The area we were working in had been totally uninhabited by humans for at least 100 years. So the animals we met had never seen human beings before. And how did they react to their first view of these strange-looking creatures? With curiosity, nothing else. No fear. Not even shyness. They came right up to us, totally unafraid, and that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. They looked at us, came up and sniffed our legs. The young ones played right in our camp. They’d even fall asleep right beside us.
Having wild animals so trusting and unafraid that they’d sleep at our feet — it was like living in the Garden of Eden! Totally awesome! Caribou would come right up and sniff the barrel of our rifle. (We were required to carry a rifle at all times, because of the grizzlies.)
We spent the summer in that remote and utterly open country without a single human footprint on it. There were mountains on one side of us, some decent cliffs on another side, but other than that, the Sagavanirktok River dominated the landscape, and most of the land was so flat, we could see for DAYS!
The sun never set; it just rolled around the horizon like this lazy golden ball, too laid back to summon enough energy to rise up in the sky. Was this Paradise? Yeah, well, we almost had it all, but we were just one gender short!
One day, David was in a rare cleanup mood. He picked up some small scraps of litter in his tent and dumped everything down the nearest hole. (All our garbage was normally packed up and flown out in the helicopter.) A few seconds later, we heard this loud “Chir-RUPP!”, and all of David’s trash came flying back out of the hole. It was NOT a handy receptacle for trash. It was someone’s home!
Mrs. Ground Squirrel came up and gave us all a good piece of her mind! We listened to her tirade in heartfelt shame, and then mollified her with a piece of carrot. This became a regular daily event — the carrot-giving, not the trash-dumping! — and at some point, the Mrs. decided to include her little ones. So they all trooped up to stand in a perfect row right beside Mum, all four of them, from Aaron, the biggest, all the way down to little Belinda at the end, and they stood there, patient and hopeful, until each of them had got a bit of carrot. I wish we’d thought to take a photo of the whole family troop. We could have sold it to Hallmark Cards, and we’d still be living off the royalties! Her family was the DEFINITION of cute!
Wolves, on the other hand, being card-carrying carnivores, weren’t always to be trusted. Each week, we brought food back from the main camp. Just kept it in bags and tossed it down on the tundra somewhere. On our first couple of days out, we had fresh meat to brighten up our meals. We kept the meat in Mother Nature’s own refrigerator. Just dug down a few inches to the permafrost, tossed the meat bag in there, and it stayed nice and cold, no problem. But the wolves, those light-fingered, larcenous lupines discovered our treasure trove, leaving us with a sad menu of freeze-dried chicken and noodles for our evening repasts.
What to do?
First off, don’t ever hide odoriferous valuables in your tent! You’ll still lose the meat, and get your tent ruined in the bargain. Hmmm. We’re carnivores too. Or at least we were when the wolves left us something to eat that resembled a piece of meat. And how does a carnivore protect its territory? Hmmm.[WARNING: The following section is for adult readers only!]
OK, you guessed it. We marked our territory just like other wild carnivores do. (And we were pretty wild at getting all our fresh meat stolen!) Using only all-natural and environmentally-friendly products, we “painted” a nice little box around our dirt fridge. Then we repaired to a safe distance away to see what would happen. Was it ever cool! The thieving scamps came up to our “painted” line and stopped dead. Literally, dead in their tracks. It was just as if they’d hit a concrete wall instead of … well, you know. They moved along that line, looking for an opening, and when they couldn’t find any opening, they turned back and headed off for the nearest McDonald’s dumpster. Good luck with that, guys!
So we thought we had a pretty good working relationship with our wild friends. Fed some, discouraged some, and all of us tolerated each other, even played side by side. Until Mr. Grizzly entered the picture.
And he IS in the picture. Can you see him up there near the top of the center of the photo? That miniscule black dot. He’s ambling along peacefully enough, wondering if the mighty Sagavanirktok is worth a wade in search of a meal. When we saw him, we took a break from our archaeological labors and went running down to the river to say hello. [Idiots, right? And no doubt we left our trusty rifle behind.] Grizzlies are very near-sighted, but their sense of smell is highly acute. So he ambles along, minding his own business until he’s right across the river from us, which just happens to be downwind of us.
He catches our scent, and what does he do? He roars up onto his hind legs, gives a mighty bellow, and begins running at top speed. AWAY from us! The smell of humankind was so utterly terrifying to this mighty beast that he just ran and ran. And ran and ran and ran. He stayed down on the flats, so we could see him, and he ran all the rest of that day! I kid you not. He ran until he was out of sight. And that just about broke my heart. What had our kind ever done to that poor chap to make him so frightened?
Ah, wilderness were paradise … no more …[Sorry to end these tales of the great Northland on a sad note, but our next stop will be the glorious and refreshing azure waters of the South Pacific Ocean — complete with straw huts, exotic flowers, exotic foods, native dress, native customs, blissful weather, and, oh yes, we managed to hook up with that other gender.]