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Chapter 1  Death is no Stranger

by Nathan Varley

It was cold.  It was stark.  The clouds lining the peaks that lined the rim of Pelican Valley were slowly descending.  As they descended I sensed a closing in, a startling moment in which I felt the need to take a sudden deep breath for fear any subsequent breath would be drawn with much greater difficulty.  I took that breath and with a labored kick of my leading ski, pressed on.

We were entering Pelican Valley from an old road that at one time prior to rehabilitation led to Turbid Lake.  I followed in the ski tracks laid down by Kerry Murphy, wolf project biologist, and Dan MacNulty, the determined leader of the expedition.  In the air overhead flew Douglas Smith, the project boss, who earlier in the day said, "it's a no-go," referring to the absence of the Crystal Creek Pack in Pelican Valley.  Yet, we were determined to go, for not only did Murphy require our assistance for the day, but we knew at some point, at some time in the not-to-distant future, the pack would return to their homeland.  We needed to get our feet wet, so-to-speak.

We swished on, trailing behind large sleds that were harnessed to our bodies as if we were draft horses.  Already the going was strenuous, we were "burning cals," as Murph put it, laying down fresh tracks along a bizarre cut through deep woods.  Murph was charged with retrieving a body, or perhaps just a dropped radio collar. We were hoping for the latter.

Death was no stranger to this valley, however, and we were reminded at the outset--not three miles into our trek  Dan discovered a carcass nestled among thick fir and spruce just off the trail.  I had been leading and passed without notice, focusing more on keeping the sweat from dripping in my eyes than absorbing the details of the landscape.

Upon drawing near we found a large, bloated carcass with its head wholly consumed.  Some hair was missing from the back but little else was disturbed.  I looked to the long, sharp hooves to see that it was a moose.   The jaw-bone was lying nearby, picked clean.  The tooth-ware indicated it was old when it died.  Signs of the moose's struggle, blood in the snow, told us a predator had taken it.  Signs of the perpetrator and subsequent consumer including a large, greasy bed in the snow beside the carcass told us who the predator was.  No, not a wolf, but a bear.  Fresh grizzly tracks led away from the stained bed.  We thought he could have been there when we showed up.  He would not be gone long, as I imagined his hunger through a long winter would not allow him to abandon this quarry.

I found it interesting how the bear, fresh out of the den, attacked the moose, killed it, and then lied practically on top of it during the course of consumption.  Oddly, it had started with the head, and was perhaps working its way from one end to the other.  All in due time.  The organs, a delicacy to a bear I am certain, had not been touched.  They rested in the bloated gut cavity, stewing in their own juices until the bear was good and ready to devour them.  His slow and methodical manner of eating the moose seemed refined in contrast to the quick, explosive manner with which a hungry wolf pack handles a carcass.



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A moose killed by a grizzly bear in the Pelican Valley.


Pelican Valley is for the bears.  Restrictions regulate the quantity and timing of human travel, forcing us to plan our expedition for winter months when at least most bears are in hibernation.  The activity of this bear warned us of an early emergence by at least one of the valley's residents.  We needed to be cautious.

Radio signals led us to the location of the radio collar.  A fresh layer of snow hid what was a carcass, and not just a collar.   Only a narrow hole in the chest cavity was opened, the handy work of voracious ravens.  Otherwise, the body of Number 043M, a yearling of the Soda Butte Pack, was intact.  Intact and frozen, the body was not easily examined, though Murph, Dan, and I went over the body looking for any indications of a fatal wound.  We found puncture holes and/or abrasions on the side and near the base of its tail, but nothing more to tell us how this otherwise healthy animal met its death.

An examination of the site revealed some interesting clues, however.  Beneath the branches of a nearby tree we found the yellow stains of urine looking unmistakably like a wolf scent-mark.  Images of wolves parading over their fallen foe, signing the warrant as it were, filled our collective discussion of these findings.  Lab analysis would reveal more than we could, so we packed the frozen carcass on a sled for removal.  Once thawed, the fur could be stripped from the body and more (if any) puncture holes from wolf teeth could then be discovered.

The long haul back was not easy.  The frozen wolf had to weigh over 100 pounds.  The three of us took our turns at pulling the sled which at times seemed to be pulling us back to its original location.  Perhaps this body was not meant to leave its resting place, I had thought at the time.  To help the sled up the hills, one person would have to push on the back while the other groaned with exertion pulling.  By nightfall we were nearing the snowmobiles and end was in sight.  I was exhausted and my gut was aching from lack of food.

It always seems to happen that once you think you are close, you have only greater challenges ahead.  Upon reaching the snowmobiles, we discovered several of them were stuck and needed to be dug out.  Another exhausting exercise ensued before we finally got underway, dizzy and spent.  Sending Murph on with the wolf carcass, Dan and I were left amid our exhaustion to contemplate our next move, a return to Pelican Valley.


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Dan MacNulty examines the body of 043M.

Pelican Valley Expedition

To Be Continued ...


Chapter 2   Denizens of Old Growth