Wolf Song of Alaska News

Skier Finds Himself Face to Face with Wolf Pack

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / April 14, 2006

As he skied up the Tanana River from Nenana to Fairbanks on Saturday morning, Alan Kendall couldn't get over how fortunate he was to have the whole river to himself as the sun came up.

It was about 8:30 a.m. and Kendall had been on the river since 6 a.m.

"The sun was a nice, red ball and I was skiing right into it," Kendall said. "I was just thinking it was a beautiful morning."

The temperature was around 15 degrees and warming up. The glide was fast. The trail was wide and firm. A skate skier couldn't ask for better conditions.

Kendall, 57, was clipping along at a good pace when he rounded a right-hand bend in the river and spotted what at first he thought were a couple of stray dogs loping down the trail toward him, which struck him as queer, considering he was in the middle of nowhere and there wasn't a house for miles.

As he continued to ski around the bend, the number of "dogs" increased from three to five to six to seven.

"I thought, 'Gosh how many of them are there?' " he said.

That's also about the time Kendall realized they weren't dogs, but wolves. There were 10 of them and they were trotting downriver toward Kendall about 150 yards away, oblivious to his presence.

They were strung out sniffing the snow and playing with each other, he said. Three were gray or silver, two were black and the remaining five were different shades of brown.

The first thing that struck Kendall was how big the wolves were. The pawprints in the snow were larger than his outstretched palm, he said.

"They were huge," said Kendall, a middle school teacher for Fairbanks North Star Borough School District's guided independent study program. "They were tall and lanky."

The wolves didn't notice Kendall for about 30 seconds after he saw them.

"During that 30 seconds I looked for an escape route," he said in an e-mail. "I couldn't go left or right to either riverbank; the snow was too crusty/deep and the banks were too far away."

The thought of turning around occurred to Kendall but "I didn't dare turn my back to them," he said.

Not that Kendall is a wimp. He flew Cobra helicopters in the U.S. Army during Vietnam and is a hard-core athlete who runs, bikes, hikes and skis more than most people half his age. He tries to ski from Nenana to Fairbanks a couple of times each spring, taking advantage of the skate-friendly conditions on the river. Last weekend's trip up the Tanana was his second in two weeks.

When the wolves finally spotted him, they stopped in their tracks and froze. By then, they were about 50 yards away, Kendall said.

"We stared at each other for a few minutes," he said. "I felt like a pork chop. They looked at me like I was a pork chop."

It was the same kind of feeling Kendall used to get when the enemy was shooting at him in Vietnam, he said. Never mind that Kendall knew he probably wasn't in danger.

"I've always read that wolves won't bother humans and that there's never been a substantiated case of North American wolves killing a human," he wrote. "However, I guarantee when you're in the middle of a vast expanse of wind-swept, ice-covered river, 35K from the nearest human, facing a pack of LARGE wild beasts, and the only weapon you have is your wits--I guarantee the substantiation of stories becomes meaningless in your mind.

"I thought, 'Wolves can take down an adult moose; I'm smaller than an adult moose. If I turn and ski back down the trail, I'm going to look like a FLEEING pork chop.'"

The wolves, on the other hand, didn't show any inclination they were going to flee. They stood there eyeing Kendall, whose only weapon was his ski poles, which he said "felt like toothpicks."

"When you're out there by yourself, all of sudden you start thinking about survival," said Kendall. "You're thinking, 'God, what does this group of animals want?"

Contemplating his choices, Kendall did the only thing he felt he could do.

"I charged toward them, skiing as fast as I could, yelling at the top of my lungs," Kendall said. "Every two or three pole strokes, I'd just yell."

Immediately, five of the wolves took off--two to his left and three to his right. They bounded across the snow in long, graceful powerful strides that made Kendall realize how fast they were. The five fleeing wolves disappeared into the woods on each side of the river while the remaining five wolves turned and loped up the trail, staying about 50 yards in front of Kendall.

"They were clearly not afraid, but wary," he said.

Over the next 20 minutes the five wolves peeled off one by one and circled around behind Kendall.

"To get my scent, I assume, since the wind was coming down the river," he said.

As he pulled away from the wolves, two remained behind him for a ways before going off into the woods. Even then, Kendall didn't relax.

"I didn't know what they were up to," he said. "I wondered, 'Is this their tactic or are they just curious?"

His adrenaline pumping, Kendall kept skiing. He passed a bloody smear on the trail a short distance upriver from where he encountered the wolves. It appeared the wolves had killed a snowshoe hare and devoured all but a couple pieces of fur, Kendall said.

"Nothing was left but blood all over the trail," he said.

Concerned the pack might regroup and follow him, Kendall continued skiing hard for the next hour, constantly looking over his shoulder. He didn't see the wolves again during the remaining four hours of his ski into Fairbanks.

"After I knew they weren't following me I thought, `'All right, that was interesting.'

As a former pilot for ERA Helicopters in the 1970s, Kendall has seen plenty of wolves before but nothing compared to what he experienced last weekend.

"It was intimidating to see a large group of those lupus creatures out there," he said.

Most people who live in Alaska have probably never seen a wolf and will probably never see a wolf, much less experience something as remarkable as what Kendall did.

It was an exhilarating way to cap off the ski season, to say the least.

"I'm glad it happened and I'm glad it's behind me," he said.

News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com .

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