“She just wanted to say goodbye.”
We spotted the last of the wolves at dusk. I was driving a snow machine east through the willows along the Hudson Bay, toward Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. In the komatik (wooden sled) behind me Swiss photographers Fabienne and Christoph Jansen of ArcticWild.net (Instagram: @arctic_wild) kept a lookout for wildlife.
It was mid-March and we were on Churchill Wild’s newest and most challenging program, the Den Emergence Quest — a true winter expedition to locate and photograph mother polar bears leaving their dens with newborn cubs. Despite several promising tracks (scouts Butch Saunders and Churchill Wild co-owner Mike Reimer skidooed 186 kilometers in a single day search), the bears hadn’t cooperated, and today had been our last full day.
Phantom bears and cold temperatures aside — the day’s high was minus 25°C — our spirits were upbeat. We were a small group and we had bonded in the Arctic conditions. We’d tracked moose and wolverine and fisher; we’d spotted a dozen snowy owls in an hour. We had built a full-size iglu and learned how to drive snow machines. We’d sipped Fireball whisky out of ice tumblers at a surprise ice bar and we’d enjoyed hot spiced wine out on the vast sea ice at sunset. And we’d spent many, many nights gazing up at the aurora borealis. And then there were the wolves.
Although the wolf is the most widely ranged animal on the planet — with a range stretching from North America, across Europe and Asia — there are very few places in the world where photographers can capture wild wolves. Hunted for a millennium, wolves don’t particularly like people. I’ve photographed wolves in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley, but I was shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred other photographers. I’ve driven both the Dalton Highway in Alaska, and the Dempster Highway in Yukon next door and photographed wolves, but the encounters were quick and distant.
Here at Nanuk, we’d been lucky. All week long a half a dozen wolves had been hanging out around the lodge, howling, yipping, playing, mating and sleeping. On our second last day, the other wolves had slipped away, leaving behind the alpha pair. Now here they were, on our last evening, curled up on our snowmobile track, blocking the way home. I eased off the throttle and let the snow machine glide to a stop.
With the motor off, the air was so still I could hear the wolves breathing and the gentle crunch of snow underpaw as they got up and began walking towards us. The male passed and dipped into the willows and the female started to follow.
Then she did something surprising. She turned and walked back toward the komatik. Fabienne had put down her camera. The wolf drew closer until her steamed breath was just a meter or two from Fabienne. The wolf gazed up at her and she gazed back. For a full minute the two were lost in a private communion. And then the wolf turned and trotted down into the willows and into the darkness.
I got off the snow machine and walked back to the komatik. I’d never seen a wolf approach someone with such intention like that before. It wasn’t curiosity and it wasn’t aggression. It was something else. Fabienne and Christoph were smiling hard. Fabienne’s face was shiny with tears of joy. “What just happened?” I asked Fabienne. She wiped her cheeks and smiled.
“She just wanted to say goodbye.”
Jad Davenport Wolf Gallery. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
Jad Davenport is an award-winning author, National Geographic photographer and Churchill Wild photo leader for our Arctic Safari and Den Emergence Quest. A member of the Explorers Club, he previously covered a dozen wars from Bosnia to Iraq, and has worked in over 150 countries and on all continents. A multiple winner of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award and Canada’s Northern Lights Award for travel writing and photography, Jad has photographed extensively in polar regions, with assignments that have included Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, Nunavut, Alaska, Siberia, the Russian Far East, Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia.
A number of Jad’s photos, including the shot of the wolf couple at the top of this blog post, appear in the National Geographic Image Collection (Instagram: @natgeoimagecollection). Jad’s stories, photos, video shorts and blog posts have appeared in leading publications that include Smithsonian, Popular Photography, Sierra, Audubon, Outside, Men’s Journal, Sunset, ISLANDS, Coastal Living and The New York Times among others. A number of Jad’s images also appear in our 25th anniversary book, Churchill Wild – 25 Years of Adventure on the Hudson Bay Coast. You can see more of Jad’s photos and stories (He’s a great storyteller!) on Instagram @jaddavenport, on Facebook here and on his website at JadDavenport.com.