The Wild Heart of Ellesmere Island

Globe and Mail, 14 August 2004
© 2004 by Greg Breining

EARLY ONE MORNING comes a banging on the door of Dave Mech's shack behind the Eureka weather station on Ellesmere Island. 

"They're right out here. They're right out behind the building." 

We scramble to dress and look outside. We spot three white wolves by the shore of Slidre Fiord. We mount our ATVs and putt-putt toward them. 

"Look at the feet on that thing," Mech says. He's right; they're huge. The wolves are scarcely afraid. We park the machines, and the largest circles us at a distance of a few yards. "If it looks like it's going for my neck," Mech says as the wolf slinks behind him, "let me know."

During the morning we follow the three on our ATVs, around the station and then up the nearby creek to a deep ravine, where they lie down to sleep. We do the same, casting an occasional glance toward the wolves. 

As is so often true in the natural world, nothing seems to happen. As though the land is the face of a giant clock, the sun traverses the sky, the shadows pivot, the wolves shift position, a musk ox in the distance descends the hill, crosses the river, and ascends the other side of the valley. And everything remains as it was hours ago. Or a thousand years ago.

Ellesmere, northernmost island in the Canadian Arctic, is generous of space, stingy of sustenance. Arctic willows, the only trees, grow inches long and hug the ground like grasping fingers. The tallest plants, bright yellow Arctic poppies, wave proudly 5 inches high.

We have flown into the weather station and small Canadian military base at Eureka, on the 80th parallel, less than 700 miles from the North Pole. It is June, and the sun, which has been shining continuously since April 14 and won't set until Aug. 28, circles us in 24-hour cycles, dipping in the north at midnight, and angling higher in the south at noon. Boxed in by black hills to the east and west, Eureka is known as a thermal oasis. Don't put much stock in the term. The average high in July, the warmest month, is 43 degrees Fahrenheit. The record low in winter is minus 67. Precipitation averages two-and-a-half inches a year. This oasis is the coldest desert on earth. 

Other than polar bears, which don't stray far from the sea, only seven land mammals live on Ellesmere. They aren't much afraid of humans and have few places to hide. For those reasons, Ellesmere is a fascinating place to observe wildlife. 

Since 1986, Mech, a senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Minnesota adjunct professor, and world's foremost wolf expert, has studied Arctic wolves. Sitting in plain view, Mech has watched cubs cavort and tumble just yards away. He has recorded the interactions among the alpha pair and subordinate wolves. Following the pack on an ATV, he has watched wolves hunt and kill musk oxen. He has seen the pack evolve as wolves lived and died, as old gave way to young. He has learned things about wolves no scientist has ever seen. "The kind of stuff I got here was not just the objective behavioral stuff, but the kind of thing you get from living with a pet of some sort," he tells me as we inspect an old den site on a rocky ridge. "You get an insight into the thing. You get to know the animal."

Life here runs in cycles and fluctuations—boom and bust, plenitude and scarcity. Arctic hares dot the tundra like white flowers one year and vanish the next. Musk oxen die en masse. Wolves come and go.

In 1998 Mech arrived to find only two adult wolves and no pups. That in itself was not unusual. Occasionally wolves produced no offspring. But he discovered something else as well: carcasses of musk oxen strewn across the plain. "Something was really screwy here. Lots of dead musk oxen. No calves. And no young hares. I started thinking—What is something common to both hares and musk oxen?" 

He examined weather records and discovered that an extremely short summer preceded the die-off. Snow had begun to accumulate in August. The summer of 2000 was likewise short, and the following year he again found no young oxen or hares.

Without prey, wolves presumably dispersed or died. In 2001 Mech saw no wolves, only a single set of tracks that seemed to pass through his study area. In 2002 he saw no sign of wolves at all. Nonetheless, he decided to return each summer to monitor the recovery of oxen and hares and to wait for his wolves to reappear. He invited me to come along.

"Why?" I asked. "I'm no biologist."

"If I fall off my ATV and break a leg, I need someone to drag me back to camp."

It is nearly midnight, the sun is high, and we race along a prescribed route on ATVs, counting all the hares we see. The hares, as big as house cats, are snowy white. As they rear up to survey the countryside, we can spy them from several hundred yards away. The highest count, coming and going, will form a rough index of hare abundance this year.

As we motor along, Mech points out each hare he sees. Cruising along behind, I follow Mech's arm to the right, find the hare, and scan intently to spot more—so intently, I don't see as he points off to the left, until it is too late. I swerve and gun the ATV to put distance between me and a musk ox that has charged, snorting and prancing, from a ravine. 

Face-to-face encounters with musk oxen may be dramatic, but Mech relies on another method to monitor their abundance. 

One night, Mech and I motor up Blacktop Creek. The shallow stream meanders and braids, spilling diamonds of light from the tawny hills. We scare up a lone male. With long hair flowing from its flanks and haunches, it runs like a bull in a hula skirt. 

Soon we come upon a herd of 15 adults and three calves. They course up a hill. After a couple hundred yards, they stop and turn, ready to bunch into their defensive posture. Confident we haven't followed, they turn and trot away. As the stream peters out, we head over a saddle and into a verdant depression, where we scare up six adults and three calves. They gather into their semicircle, packed so tightly the calves disappear. 

The abundance of calves is reassuring. We park the ATVs and climb a rocky slope. The view overlooking Blacktop Creek is as beautiful as anything I have seen in the Arctic—a sweep of about 150 square kilometers taking in contoured hills, sharp gullies, and gentle swales. Pestered by mosquitoes that emerge in the warm sunlight, we scan the distance with binoculars and spotting scope, counting black dots, trying to discern adults from calves, waiting for more dots to emerge from ravines, and counting again. Finally, we agree we have spotted 59 musk oxen, including at least seven calves. In years past from this perch, Mech has counted as many as 151. 

Oxen, hares and wolves are not the only life to ebb and flow. Humans have been subject to the same fluctuation, migration and displacement. 

One evening, on a gravelly point along the fiord, Mech and I come upon a dozen tent rings. The site is littered with bones, mostly of musk oxen, many broken to expose the marrow. 

Three cultures occupied sites near Eureka during two long periods—from 2500-1000 B.C. and A.D. 700-1700. Most recent were the Thule, immediate predecessors of the historic Inuit. What brought them this far north? Why did they vanish? The onset and retreat of warmer weather, perhaps. Maybe also the appearance and disappearance of important marine mammals and familiar game. The sites contain bones of whale, harp seal, Ross's goose and brown lemming, animals now found only farther south. The reasons are difficult to know, but vanish these humans did, their camps mere shadows of the Arctic's long cycles.

The cycles of the Arctic are recapitulated in a life of a single man. Now 67, Dave Mech is ancient by the standards of active field biologists. He knows that every year the wolves go missing is one less chance to revisit one of the most exhilarating episodes in his long career. For that reason, he is especially glad to find wolves now—to watch the cycle of death and life once again. 

As we nap and wait by the ravine, the female wolf suddenly awakens and howls. The big male responds. 

All three wolves rise and begin to lope up the creek. We follow on our machines. Finally we reach the end of a sandy ridge. Unable to continue, we watch the snowy forms vanish up the coulee.

"That bodes well," Mech says. "That's just what we want, a mated pair in this territory." Excitement fills his voice. "It's so nice to be following those little white specks across the country." 

If You Go 
No surprise—the height of summer, with continual sunlight, is the most pleasant time to visit Ellesmere. 

You can hike nearly almost anywhere on Ellesmere. The problem is getting there. Most tourists explore Quttinirpaaq National Park at the northern tip of the island (a long-term backpacking permit costs $100 Canadian). Some also trek near the Eureka weather station (as we did) or the Inuit settlement of Grise Fiord on Ellesmere's southern coast. 

A Few Things to Bring
In summer, prepare for wind and occasional cold rain or even snow, with rain gear, windproof pants, fleece or down layers, mittens and good hiking boots. (And that's in midsummer!) Also, bring the following:

  • Three-season tent that withstands heavy winds

  • Sleeping bag good to below freezing

  • Sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent

  • Backpacking stove (fuel must be purchased in Resolute Bay)

  • GPS (compasses don't work well in the high Arctic)

  • Two-way radio, satellite phone, or personal locator beacon if you'll be on your own.

  • Binoculars

Watch Out
Sudden wet, cold weather can bring hypothermia.
Polar bears may patrol the shores but rarely stray far inland. 
Musk oxen have been known to charge and gore folks.
Glacial meltwater streams can rise on a warm day, leaving you stranded on the far side till cool weather causes the level to drop. 

Getting There
Canadian North flies from Edmonton to Yellowknife, Cambridge Bay and Resolute Bay. Fly Kenn Borek Air (867-252-3845 in Resolute Bay) from Resolute Bay to Ellesmere. 

Fare for the four-hour flight from Resolute Bay to Ellesmere is exceedingly expensive unless you join a tour or share the price of an air charter, usually arranged through an outfitter. 

Outfitters Canada North Outfitting (US)
7169 Forbes Rd.
Canastota, NY 13032. 
Phone: 315-697-3245. 

Arctic Odysseys
3409 East Madison Street
Seattle, WA 98112
Phone: 206-325-1977

Wilderness Adventure Company
RR 3, Parry Sound, Ontario
Toll-Free: 888-849-7668

Wintergreen Lodge
1101 Ring Rock Road
Ely, MN 55731
Phone: 218-365-6022
Wintergreen runs trips to the Arctic each year, occasionally to Ellesmere. 

For More Information
Write for a visitor's packet:
Quttinirpaaq National Park of Canada
P.O. Box 278
Iqaluit, Nunavut
X0A 0H0
Phone: (867) 975-4643