For the wolverine expedition, there wasn’t a photographer tagging along, snapping shots that would be used in glossy promotional pieces. No filmmakers, no journalists. No sponsors to outfit us in top-of-the-line gear. I wasn’t sure if what we were doing could really be called an act of conservation, for there was no qualified person there to legitimize what we were doing through a lens or a trademark. Besides, we didn’t look like a crew that belonged in a coffee table book on the Yellowstone to Yukon wilderness corridor.
There were four of us total, with Bryan in charge, coordinating with the study’s lead scientist. His role was that of a hybrid go-between, in that his position as a carnivore biologist was paid by a state agency, a federal agency and a non-profit.
I first met Bryan in 2008, on the first day of my job as a public educator on grizzly bears in southeast Idaho. He was charged with monitoring the wildlife and habitat of nearly 700,000-acres of National Forest. A trapper-biologist in his late 40s, he had worked for the USFS since the late 70s and could be dropped in the middle of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest with a spoon and a roll of duct tape and would make it out alive, probably weighing more than he did previously. He could track anything from a pine marten to a wolf for miles or days on end.
Over the years, he watched all the big wildlife cases debated first-hand, wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, but he was never on center stage giving soliloquies on the Plight of the Carnivores. He taught me how to talk about bears in a way that didn’t turn them into bloodthirsty baby killers or stuffed animals. On day one, he gave me a lecture on how to frame the issue for the public.
“Don’t you ever say you love or hate bears. I don’t love them, I don’t hate them. I view them as an important piece of the ecosystem, just as important as every other part. If I ever hear you say either of those things when talking to the general public, I’ll use you as grizzly trap bait. You got that?”
I didn’t doubt it. At one point during the season he plucked a dying weasel off the side of the road, brought the bleeding and wheezing mass into the truck cab and pressed his packer boot on its chest to quickly put it out of its misery.
To help with the wolverine study, Cy served as the other volunteer. He was a forest fire crew leader in his late thirties who volunteered on past wolverine research projects. A Crow cowboy, he was raised on a ranch in the Madison Valley and could ride a snowmobile through the deepest powder and up the steepest hills as if he were on a well broke horse gliding over smooth grassy knolls. As we drove across the landscape, he pointed to peaks and talked about skiing the Madison Range, about studying falcon nests; he told stories of hay trucks tipping over, of his grandmother who collected rain in a barrel with which to wash her hair that hung past her waist.
And then there was me, the profession-less volunteer. I had taken an avalanche education course about six years before during my ski instructing days and vaguely recalled hazy details about unstable snow layers and instructions to swim like hell if the bottom slid out. I borrowed a mish mash of equipment and duct taped old skins to my metal-edged cross country skis, which would serve as mediocre conveyances uphill and knee-twisting death skates on the way down. I didn’t know what I had to offer, but Bryan insisted that in spite of my jimmy-rigging, I would be useful.
On the first day, we rose at 6 a.m. and set out toward the Gallatin National Forest on the western border of Yellowstone, stopping first at a gas station. We would begin each day like this, standing in the cold on the trailer silently fueling and oiling the sleds. The sky was always low and a shade of dim steel during this morning ritual, the wind blowing snowflakes sideways onto our cheeks. On a warm day it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit and at the coldest, 20 below.
When we were through, Bryan and Cy went inside to buy coffee and cans of chew and I sat in the cab and stuffed down an extra energy bar and a bottle of electrolyte water in hopes of improving my chances of maintaining warmth. They climbed back into the truck. I sat with my green tea between the trapper and the fireman with their black coffee and plugs of Copenhagen, all of us a pile of Gortex and too many breathable layers in the front seat. We drove through West Yellowstone, over the Madison, through the Park, headed for the Gallatin National Forest. I buried my nose into my parka to doze off, my clothes and hair smelling of grease from Bryan’s cast iron pan breakfast of bacon and antelope sausage.
“Hey, there’s a wolf,” Cy spotted it on a snow bank near the shoulder of the road. I stirred and looked out the window, seeing only the snow bank and thick lodge pole pine beyond. “You missed it; ducked back into the timber.” Most of the wolves I had seen in that part of the Ecosystem were at long range, or more commonly, airbrushed on the sides of RV’s, or in advocacy campaign ads picturing a loner howling against a mountain backdrop, sometimes with a conservationist kneeling beside it, an arm wrapped around the animal in a lover’s embrace.
I sulked back into my parka cocoon. White swells of open meadow billowed across the landscape like a sheet being pulled over the head, further lulling me to sleep. We made it to the Taylor Fork area and met Nichole in the parking lot.
She was the only field tech the study could afford, a recent biology grad from the University of Montana. She was a North Dakota potato farm girl and wore her father’s vintage ATV helmet and a one-piece blue snowsuit, secured with a bungee cord around her waist, topping the ensemble with a fur-lined bomber hat that she had owned since middle school. She listened to Reba McEntire and Ke$ha in her work truck and snacked on baked Pontiac reds, eating them like apples.
The guys started the sleds to let them warm on the trailer. Cy gave me a quick beacon review and loaded me up with a shovel and probe for my backpack. They unlocked the t-bars and offloaded the sleds, bungee cording packs, skis, and snowshoes to the seat and sides. Bryan handed me a helmet and pointed to a government-issued red Ski-Doo. He imparted the first snowmobile lesson: “Gas here, break here, reverse here. I’ll ride behind you until you get it.” Thus began my on-going battle with the Ski-Doo.
I realized during that first day that you’ve got to sucker punch people into helping you set up wolverine camera traps, because it’s not for lanky folk, or in my case, you can be on the smaller side, but it will hurt. The mountainous terrain that must be crossed to reach trap sites is not for the light of heart and barely suitable for the light of ass.
Bryan failed to mention that I would have to drive my own snowmobile through steep backcountry powder and rotten snow, between tight trees and down precipitously steep bowls that could slab off and swallow you into the white depths. He figured, with a shrug of the shoulders as I gave him a few choice words in the parking lot at the end of that first day, “that you would just pick it up.”
That first morning, we started on groomed Forest Service road, the early morning low cloud cover burning off, revealing the perfect pyramid peak of Lone Mountain in the distance against clear skies. I got the sled up to 45 mph and was feeling confident as we cruised across the open meadow. But then we turned off-trail, shooting over a snow bank into deep, untouched powder and this is where the trouble began.
Driving a modern sled in powder is like windsurfing, where you constantly shift your weight from side-to-side to maneuver over changing snow pack, stumps, varying slopes, every moment requiring a perfectly executed movement. I thought you just sat on the seat and let the machine do the work while you hit the gas with one hand and sipped a Piña Colada with the other.
I tried to keep up with men who had a good 100 pounds on me and could merely shift weight from one foot to the other to turn the sled. Nichole seemed to take nicely to the mechanical beast in spite of being a fellow initiate.
The entire season, I flew like a one-winged bat behind the pack, all my weight thrown to one running board trying to cling to steep side hills, attempting to keep a straight traverse with the H-bars perpendicular to the fall line and not roll downhill. In deep snow, I took 50 yards to make a turn that could be executed in five by any normal person, my tail hanging off the running board as I tried to muscle the turns. The 500-pound machine owned me every time. I don’t think I once during the season had that magical, buttery moment in which it just “clicked.”
It was always thus, having a moment of confidence as I gassed it up to 60 on a packed down surface, but then took a corner and caught a ski in the deep bank lining the side, getting hopelessly sucked off the trail and dragged further and further away as I desperately tried to re-set the course, dodging buried stumps and creek beds, the rest of the rest of the crew stopping to watch me sail across the great white open to Timbuktu, drawing straws to see who would have to jump in and help me dig out when I finally came to a lurching, hopelessly buried stop.
They tried their best to coach me, even taking me out to wide, open flat fields to practice on days off, yelling, “More throttle, you’re going to need speed to get your scrawny ass to turn on that thing and keep from sinking.” After a few downhill rolls and some serious lactic acid hangovers from excavating the buried metal heap from the snow, I began to love that throttle. I loved it so much in fact, that I wanted a t-shirt, a belt buckle, a bumper sticker for my low-emissions Subaru, proclaiming: “When in doubt, throttle out.” They were right. I would have to go really fast before I sank with my worthless weight flopping around the running board like a trout in the bottom of a boat.
I had always viewed sledding as an activity for Old Milwaukee-guzzling chainsaw salesmen, people who talked about burned up belts and torn up tracks and God-knows-what-else. I will now stand before every sledneck in this nation and offer my sincerest apology, a shot of Jäger to each and every one of you for this unfair assessment, because throwing a sled around in backcountry powder is tough.
While I never became a diehard bubblehead, I decided that Lucifer’s Chariot wasn’t all bad and in fact, required some know-how to maneuver and maintain. Besides, from a wolverine’s point of view, there is no such thing as a non-consumptive user. When you’re a climate-vulnerable mustelid, it doesn’t matter if the person burning fossil fuel is a wildlife non-profit executive flying from D.C. to Bozeman for a fly fishing vacation or a bus driver on the L.A. Freeway—we’re all pitching in.
There was no lying about what we were doing: we were using a research tool that potentially contributed to the loss of snowpack that characterized the habitat of the very same animal we sought to understand and protect. And there was no lying about what everyone else was doing: driving, flying internationally or domestically, mowing the lawn, living a daily fossil-fueled existence.
As for the undeniably obnoxious whine of the throttle, when you reach the middle of nowhere and turn the machine off, it was quiet, perfect silence. The kind of silence during which God fills your bubble-encrusted parietal lobes and Buddha strikes you in the heart. Sometimes we reached the top of a peak and turned off the machines and just sat, looking out over iced ranges, meadows, rivers. It was silent.
After two hours of riding, we reached our stopping point. I was drenched in sweat from stomp-packing snow around the belt of the stuck sled every half mile or so. I just wanted to sit down and eat a horse, a wolverine, anything. But it was time to set up the trap. We strapped on snowshoes, waddling for a short 40 yards like a line of penguins, looking for a suitable stand of pines.
Everyone seemed to know their role, pulling two-by-fours, lag bolts, cables, cameras, power drills from their packs. I stood back and watched as they assembled the trap.
I really didn’t know what help I was going to be in this operation. I could tell mastering the snowmobile was going to present an on-going challenge that would cost everyone extra time and calories. And I couldn’t carry the heavy roadkill pieces or planks, especially over some of the longer, steeper climbs that we would have to do on skis.
“Ok, your turn.” Bryan was looking at me and pointing up the tree. I looked at him blankly.
“This is what we brought you along for. Get up there. You’re the tree specialist. We need someone with little fingers who can climb up there and screw together the u-bolts to secure the cable around the tree.”
Of course! I was a tree specialist. I shimmied up the trunk, sawing off branches to clear a spot for the cable. I balanced on a branch as I reached my arms around the subalpine fir, pulling the cable around and securing it to the main line with a small u-bolt that was impossible to twist into place with frigid, bare hands. Bryan and Nichole stood patiently below, Cy stood on the two-by-four plank across from me, holding up the weight of the moose leg while I secured the bolt. I got it. The cable held the bait perfectly above the platform.
A tree specialist’s perspective: U-bolts and bark.
We smudged the gag-inducing Magnum Marten on a few surrounding trees, packed up our bags, turned the camera on and left the site. We trudged back to the sleds and pulled out our semi-frozen lunches, lying back on the seats as if they were beach chairs.
I was a mass of gelatin on the ride back to the truck, my fists clenched in an arthritic grip on the brake and gas, my legs toast. We stopped at the bar across from the Forest Service housing compound and ate I-don’t-know-what. I fell asleep on a heating pad by eight and awakened at six, ready to head into the cold again. This was it for the next three months: a blur of snow, equipment and soreness.
(A note to readers: The essay begins here.)
© S. Harrison Grigg and Anatomy of a Wolverine Trap, 2012.