A Cold Tableau

“The common purity of Nature is something wonderful – how she does so vast a number of things cleanly without waste or dirt.  I have often wondered by what means bears, wild sheep, and other large animals were so hidden at death as seldom to be visible.  One may walk these woods from year to year without even snuffing a single tainted smell… How beautiful is all Death!”

  • John Muir, an undated journal entry, “south side of Joaquin River”, late 1870’s.

“This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren.  Its very nature is stone.”

  • Cormac McCarthy, in Blood Meridian, Chapter 23.

In my work as a wildlife survey pilot, work which has for three decades been the most persistent facet of my flying life, one of the rewards is to have flown over, by sheer luck, and witnessed from a bird’s eye perspective, some unforgettable moments in wild nature. In fact nowadays it is that slim hope of coming upon yet another of these fleeting and rare perspectives – widely spaced as they are by miles and hours of uneventful (lest I say tedious) flights, over broad swaths of pristine but relatively scrawny northern taiga and tundra – that keeps me keenly interested.  The realization that another of these moments and vignettes might be out there waiting, the hope that today might be a lucky day, surges briefly every morning as the skis or floats or wheels kiss niva or aqua or terra firma farewell with one final peck, and the snarling little machine lifts itself into the sky. 

There is always a fatalistic certainty in that moment just after liftoff – because hey, one thing is for certain in this unpredictable world, and that is gravity.  What goes up will sure as hell come down, Mr. Bernoulli’s principle notwithstanding. Alongside that certainty, though, there is a thrilling uncertainty as to what, precisely, each day’s flight-path will bring, or hold, or show…

The other day, on a long transect about 50 miles west-southwest of Yellowknife, we arrived over a frozen tableau.  It stands out as another reminder for me of the realpolitik of wild nature, its web of food and energy. A still-life seen from above:  a bison, a raven, and five wolves; white snow, blue sky, and red blood.

We were droning along at four hundred feet above the taiga plain west of the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, slowed from cruise speed, with some flap down and the power pulled back.  The point of that day’s flight was to spot groups of boreal, or woodland, caribou.  Pancake-flat country, interspersed with old and recent patches of spruce and tamarack, some jack pine and alder and aspen, part of the landscape recently burned and part not.  Dappled across it are pan lakes which in summer are just shallow pools of clear water, and in winter are likely frozen right to the bottom.  It was an exceptionally cold clear day; at take-off from Yellowknife the temperature on the ground had been close to forty below zero.  Miles and miles of empty snow-scape were already behind us by 11 a.m., with no caribou spotted, a moose many miles back, and precious little else.  The usual bursts of sporadic conversation over the intercom, amongst the four of us aboard.

Off to the right, a half mile or so from the survey line we were on, I saw a lone bison in the center of a snow-covered frozen pond.  Likely a lone bull, but he was worth a closer look, to see if there were more around, so we turned off the transect line and headed toward the pond.  As we came closer I saw something that caught my attention. A raven flapped up and flew, seeming to take wing right from the bison itself.  “What’s going on here?” I said to the others, “That raven just flew up from the buffalo!  And it’s not a kill site – the buffalo is standing up!”

Yes, the buffalo, or bison (the words are used interchangeably hereabouts) was standing, but yes, too – it was a kill site.  It was a kill-site-in-progress.  As we arrived overhead the story became clearer.  The enormous bison was standing, and now lurching slowly forward, surrounded by a blood-red area of trampled snow.  East of that spot a few dozen yards, another wide swath of lake was trampled in a wide circular pattern. At the center of that trampled circle was another vivid red stain of blood on snow. 

“Wolves — there on the shore, five of them, lying down!” came a voice on the intercom.  Sure enough, there on the far edge of the little lake, five big dark wolves, furry discs to our overhead view, noses tucked under tails, lay together in a group, and so far they seemed to be oblivious to the plane.  I cranked us around in a tight turn, lowered some more flap and increased the rpm with the prop control.  The plane was now making even more noise, and we had the attention of the wolves as well as the staggering bison out on the ice.

The story was clear enough.  The bison was mortally wounded, and doomed.  Before we arrived overhead, the huge beast had likely been still, and the raven had been right alongside it, maybe even atop it, perhaps already sampling a few tidbits from dangling entrails or pecking at the fresh blood spilled on the snow. The wolves, with the demanding and dangerous part of their hunt now finished, were napping and waiting for their dinner to die. No sense, for them, in continuing the life-and-death struggle to complete the kill.  Perhaps, for all we know, a wolf or two had already been injured or even killed in the battle. 

A cold clear morning in the far north.  A glimpse of wildness and the hunt.  A vivid reminder that Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” can be at times exactly that.  

I handed my camera back to the observer behind me, and she snapped one photo of the scene, through the plexiglass window.  (It did not turn out very well, lest you wonder about seeing it.) Then I climbed higher and we circled one more time.  Two of the wolves were moving out onto the lake, and the bison was still lurching slowly toward the far shore.  The wolves looked a little unsure as to what to do about the noisy circling ski-plane, but clearly they did not intend to let their hard-earned meal just stand up and walk off.

We headed back toward our survey line.  There was work to do.  As we flew along, Jan told us about times when he had seen similar scenarios involving wolves and moose, during his years in the Yukon.  A huge, seriously wounded moose standing motionless, bleeding, with a group of tired wolves resting nearby, just waiting and watching for the chance to start eating — safely.

I have seen other kill-sites from the air, the most memorable the take-down of a caribou on the tundra, by two wolves.  That had been dramatic and unforgettable, and the kill was amazingly quick and clean: an ambush in a brushy ravine, a quick parry and thrust, a leap to the back of the neck, and – wham! – down she had gone, from life to death all in a space of a few seconds.  

For years I have held in my mind’s eye that quick clean image of the wild hunt. Now I will hold onto this other image — not so quick, not so clean.  Mr. Muir, meet Mr. McCarthy.  

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