20 May 2009
The day began early at 0600. Mike (my supervisor), Dave Mech (wolf biologist in charge of whole project), Nancy (an assistant of Dave’s), three vets, a lynx biologist named Ron and myself all met up for breakfast. The goal of the “Puppy Quest”: catch pups from two packs so that radio transmitters could be implanted in the gut of as many pups as possible. The transmitters are part of a mortality rate study. We filled our stomachs with a large, hardy meal before heading out to Rookie Lake Lookout to park. On the way there I noticed Mike’s brake lights ahead of me and saw two wolves trotting in front of his truck across the road. One was tawny in color, the other was black. This brief moment of seeing wolves in the wild for the first time pumped me up even more for our day’s agenda.
We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. There was only partial cloud coverage and the temperature was perfect, not too warm and not too cool, with a light breeze. It was still too early for the swarm of biting insects that would soon plague the forest. Everyone suited up with long sleeves and gear, and followed Mike into the woods towards where he triangulated the location of the den site. The vets were in for an adventure all their own. Hiking was not a hobby of either of them, nor had they ever performed surgery on wolf pups in the wild.
The pace was steady. Everyone following single-file up a trail that was originally a moose trail. It seemed like the whole route was uphill, navigating over lichen covered rock, through thick undergrowth and high grass which was no doubt hiding dozens of wood ticks that wouldn’t be found until later. Down slopes, across fields, stepping over fallen trees and hopping over a stream, we trekked on. Then uphill for what seemed like forever. Granite rocks slipping under foot while loose sticks unseen from below vegetation attempted to trip us up.
I lean forward, shifting the weight of my pack as I carefully keep my footing and push onward. The parched ground crunching under every step. Over a mile into our journey, we stopped on top of a ridge, looking over a valley that turns from a rock base to a wetland. A lake is visible just beyond the marsh’s tree line. Somewhere along the rock base is the den. Mike listened to the female’s signal. It led right where we were and pointed straight below us. Then it quickly moved toward the lake as she sensed our presence.
The task was to climb down the ridge (somehow) and scout around for pups. Before the vets were able to finish catching their breath, we were headed down. Mike was careful to be sure the easiest way down was chosen. It was super steep, but doable. Using branches for support and half skidding sideways down, we ventured to the lowland. Gravity pulled at my pack to force me down faster. Once at the bottom, we grounded our gear and spread out along the base of the ridge. With holes and crevasses everywhere, the possibilities for pups to hide in were endless. The idea is to think like a puppy. What would be a cool, safe spot to hide in?
After about an hour of searching, Dave began to feel skeptical about the den site. The vets more or less hung out to wait, almost giving up. Mike, Ron, Nancy and I continued. Then when it was thought the area was exhausted, Ron yelled that he had found some pups. They had been scampering across the rocks. We all grabbed the gear and hurried over. Ron and Mike had already caught a pup and placed him into a pillowcase. Unfortunately he was too small for a transmitter so Dave thought we may have to abort. However, Ron had seen a larger pup, so our hopes returned.
A guard was posted by the hiding spot of the second pup. Mike lay on the ground and reached his arm up into the hole, feeling for something fuzzy. Ah ha! The pup was wedged up in there so he was unable to get a good grip. I went around to the other side of the rocks where the hole connected to another opening. In order for me to reach in, I had to lie upside down into the hole. Mike still had hold of the pup by the back legs and with a little struggling, I managed to grip them while he reached for the scruff. Together we gently wiggled and pulled the pup free before putting him in a pillowcase. Pleased with his size, the pup search continued.
Everyone else searched further down from this pup. I climbed around in the same area, but opposite the others. Hmmmm…I found a large boulder leaning to one side over what seemed to be a dug out opening. I shined my flashlight into the darkness of the mini cave and peered in. Curiosity proved beneficial. As far back as the hole went, crammed a dark gray ball of fur. Rushed with the excitement of my find, I just grabbed the pup by the scruff and pulled him out. I called out my discovery and proudly held up the puppy, warm smiles given off by all who saw him. Then at the same moment, the third large enough pup was found. Three pups from this pack would be enough. It was a new pack so the litter was probably small anyway.
Once the pups were secure and placed somewhere cool and dry, the processing area and surgical area were set up. One at a time, each pup was ear tagged, weighed, and had measurements taken. While having the transmitters inserted into the gut, the pups were anesthetized. Blood samples were drawn at this time as well. Then once the pups woke up, they had to be monitored and kept warm. This was one of my favorite parts. At about 5 weeks of age, the pups were not able to properly control their body temperature yet, so we needed to help out to stop their shivering. I held one of the pups close to my body under my zipped up hoodie, trapping my body heat and blocking the wind while the pup stopped shivering and woke up enough to be put back into what was determined to be the den (There was regurgitated meat near it). It was also where I actually found my pup.
As I sat there holding the pup, I admired the situation to the fullest. Here I was on a project being done for the first time in the States with Dave Mech, holding and cuddling a wild wolf puppy! During the whole process the pups were surprisingly docile. They were still in that blue-eyed stage where they had no idea what was going on and if they should be afraid or not. As far as they knew, this whole “abduction” was just another part of life.
Soon it was time to leave. We had spread our scent around enough. Surely the mother would return and move her pups elsewhere. We cleaned up our gear while all the pups were blocked into their den temporarily. Then, single file, we retreated back the way we came, satisfied with our day’s accomplishment.