On a recent hike up a mountain on Douglas Island, I noticed a large rock rising from the alpine tundra. My dog Fen ran towards it, paused and ran two circles around it, smelling the earth as she went. It looked like the perfect marking post for wolves. Cautiously, Fen smelled the rock and then proceeded to run another circle.
Sure enough, there were a few piles of wolf scat lying about. I could imagine the animals resting and hunting here. It was a good vantage to ambush deer – clumps of western hemlocks offered cover, mixed with open green stretches deer love to feed in at dawn and dusk.
I was hiking sick — the sunny weather had lured me off the couch — and my ears and nose were stopped up. It was disconcerting to be near-deaf as I bushwhacked down the mountain. I didn’t realize how dependent I am on my hearing in the woods. In areas with good feed for bears, I call out a greeting. Fen isn’t the savviest of beasts, but her nose and ears are better than mine, so I watched for any changes in her behavior. She’s leery, even hateful, of bears.
I was more worried about wolves with her. We’ve bumped into a couple in the few years my partner and I have had Fen and she doesn’t react much differently from if they were dogs. Luckily, she doesn’t like dogs much either.
When she was 12 weeks old, we sat listening to a pack of wolves howling nearby. That night a wolf or wolves came up and sniffed our tent and even left fresh scat nearby.
Later, she went through a phase when she ate wolf crap. Once, after snacking on a canis lupus turd, she puked in my lap while were driving home from North Douglas.
I love my dog, despite her less pleasant habits — like sampling exotic scat and occasionally thieving. Earlier this year we hiked out to Berners Bay to camp. A large bear and wolf had been recently traveled the woods we were bushwhacking through, so I made her walk directly behind me. Sometimes we hike this for hours in areas with a decent chance of encountering a big critter. Someone had been trapping the head end of the bay. A wolf skeleton, minus the paws and skull, laid in a slough. Nearby, heavy cable stuck out of the mud in the intertidal zone, indicating a drowning set. I’d left a game camera on a nearby bear trail over the winter. While I was going through about 1,000 pictures — most were of branches waving in the wind — Fen got into my pack and ate my food. I couldn’t get mad when she approached me with a guilty sneer afterward, begging for mercy. Her punishment was that she had to spend six more hours smelling my butt as we hiked out that day.
I like being around wolves and bears (most of the time) but having a dog changes the dynamic. I won’t take Fen hiking on Admiralty Island or other places with dense bear populations. I keep her close or leashed whenever I think there is a chance of encountering a wolf or bear; and in Juneau that can be just about anywhere the pavement ends.
Likewise, I’m careful in any areas that might have traps set. I always appreciate when trappers leave a sign letting hikers know to leash their dogs. My leash doubles as a tool to get a 330 conibear – a very lethal trap — off Fen in case she’s ever foolish enough to stick her head in one. I recommend all dog walkers watch some YouTube videos on how to release your animals if they get caught in a trap. It’s pretty simple if you understand how and carry the right tools.
The day I was hiking sick, Fen perked up a little bit and I paused. Despite my noise not working, I thought I detected a faint trace of rotting animal. A mother grouse clucked, and Fen was just about to leap for it when I called her back. She’s a great grouse hunting dog, so I’m always surprised how well she listens in situations like this. The mother ran down the hill at us, trying to decoy us from her chicks.
Through a break in the trees I saw an eagle perched atop what I guessed was a carcass. I pulled out my bear spray and skirted down through the brush. I hollered in case a bear was around, though I doubted one was, because the carcass wasn’t buried. A dozen eagles took flight before Fen and I stood over what remained of an adult deer. It had been killed by wolves in the last day or two; the contents of its stomach had yet to be absorbed by the muskeg it was pooled atop.
I kept Fen at my heels for the next 20 minutes as we hiked down to a meadow. I let her run ahead when we came to a steep mountain slope where there was a minimal chance of encountering a big critter. Every minute or so, she would run back or wait to check in with me. I walked out of the woods thankful that even on a short-day hike off the Juneau road system I can experience something as wild as the world of wolves.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. He is the author of “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska” and “Never Cry Halibut: and Other Alaska Fishing and Hunting Tales.” You can contact or follow him at facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.