Back when camping was still fun and didn’t require lugging a 60lb lead acid battery around to power a CPAP, I decided to take Isaac camping and hunting for small game. At the time, we were living within the confines of Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska — a fairly small outpost of humanity in the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness. As a reference, the Fairbanks North Star Borough (a county equivalent that included Fairbanks and Eielson) is roughly the size of New Jersey, contains the second largest city in the state, and was home to less than 100,000 people and more than 300,000 bears. There is a lot of wilderness to enjoy just about everywhere you go up in that region of the globe, so we didn’t have to go far to find a place to camp.
Just outside of Eielson is a several hundred thousand acre Army training ground, accessible by dirt road from Eielson. At the end of that dirt road was a primitive campground where we could set up camp, and the remainder of the training ground was available for hunting when it didn’t conflict with ongoing training. We decided to make use of these local features and spend a couple days hunting snowshoe hare and just enjoying the great outdoors in the wild north.
As part of my day job, I was responsible for the maintenance of a series of seismometers scattered over 80,000 acres of the training lands, so I knew the area well. I’d seen all kinds of wildlife and signs of wildlife, including an active wolverine den, showshoe hare, many moose, ruffled and spruce grouse, ptarmigan, brown and black bear prints and scat… you name it. I figured we’d have no trouble finding some unfortunate small game we could harvest and cook up for dinner. Grouse and ptarmigan are pretty easy to find, easy to shoot, and taste great. Hare is generally plentiful in the area, and cook up well too. We had options, I thought.
We spent the evening and part of the night trying to flush grouse and hares. One ruffled grouse surfaced, but the two large chicken nuggets it provided weren’t going to feed the both of us. We kept at it, but found nothing but a few squirrels. They would have to do… I was getting tired and hungry, and so was Isaac. We cooked up our meager harvest and went to bed under the midnight sun, hoping for better luck in the morning.
Hunting the next morning wasn’t any better. In fact, it was much worse. We didn’t even come across squirrels. I’d never been out in this area before without coming across at least a few critters, but for some reason, literally everything was gone except for the mosquitoes. And, with no other food sources nearby, those were particularly interested in us. The camping and hunting trip was looking like a total bust.
We cleaned up the camp and made preparations to go home to get some actual food. Hoping that my luck would turn, I drove very slowly down the 8 miles of dirt road through the training range hoping to flush another grouse or hare. I looked into every clearing. I scanned the brush along the road (favorite ptarmigan and rough grouse hiding spots) looking for signs of life. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Something had changed. All the critters that normally filled this area were either gone or in hiding.
I decided to totally give up and just head home, so I pulled over to unload my 22 rifle and self defense handgun before reentering the controlled area of the base in compliance with base rules. Then I saw them. The reason that all the game in the area was gone. A pack of about 20 gray wolves stepped out into the road about 25 yards in front of me. The largest of the bunch turned and looked at me. I looked at him. It was a bit of a standoff. I could swear I could hear him wondering if I had enough meat on me to be worth the work. I’m sure he heard me cursing the fact that wolf season had closed a few days prior.
We stood there staring each other down for what felt like an eternity — both of us just standing there in the middle of the road with parts of our families behind us wondering what was going to happen next. Then, just as quietly as they had entered the roadway, the leader turned away and headed deeper into the training lands. His pack followed.
What a sight. I had been standing there staring down a Wolfpack 25 yards away. Probably the same Wolfpack that would spend the winter killing, dismembering, and eating several 2000lb bull moose and leaving only piles of scat, fur, and damaged equipment behind for my crew to clean up. It would have been easy for them to overpower me, but I get the feeling they had at least some experience with people and firearms. That, and compared with an Alaskan moose, I’m pretty scrawny.